37 On the lam, back in the 12th century….April 16, 2015

I am in an ancient hilltop fortified town about an hour and a half northeast of Madrid – Siguenza relaxing in a very charming and comfortable bed and breakfast just below the castle (searching, googling ‘Siguenza fotos’ will bring you up a wealth of pictures).  It’s an ancient strategic site, pre-Roman, Roman, Visigothic, Moorish, Christian, Moorish again, etc. I slept like a dream last night after three almost frightening nights of insomnia in Madrid.  I am very happy that the problem is resolving itself in this quiet corner of Spain.  I came through this area a few years ago because, and it will be of no surprise, it is full of small 12th century village churches and I have developed a passion for the sculpture built into these little buildings – the capitals and cornices (under the eaves) that evoke so much and in so many ways the life of these isolated communities so many centuries ago.

Just look at the back wall of this tiny church in the farming village of Albendiego, forty kilometres north of here.


I have seen a couple of hundred or so small village churches across the north of Spain from Galicia to Catalonia, but this one is absolutely unique.  It is set off from the village, 500 metres, down a tree-lined avenue, among spring wheat fields and those windows – absolute treasures!  The artisans would have been mudejars – Arab, Islamic artisans who were living in this area of Spain during the centuries when the Christians from the north were gradually ‘reconquering’ these lands.  They employed the available artisans, the Arabs who had been living here for centuries and who were not forced out by the Christians.  Here is a close-up of the bottom window in the central panel.


It is a celosia (slightly damaged) a window modelled on those used in harems which allowed in light but allowed for maximum privacy, a window that had a long tradition of use in Christian churches during even earlier centuries in the northern province of Asturias.  The geometric designs are very much part of Islamic art.  What strikes me also is that each circle is unique, a different way of treating, of visualizing the basic space.  What struck me about the Alhambra in Granada is that each room, even each wall had been decorated differently, it was not an endless recreation of similar patterns, the artist, the artisan had license to create, to invent.  It was happening in this church too.  And, tucked up into the arch of the windows off to both sides is a symbol which I had never seen before, the seal of Solomon.  Muslims would have been familiar with the books of the Hebrew Bible.  They acknowledged that the three religions (including Judaism) flowed from Abraham, that they were all ‘people of the book’.



By the way, these marvels are hidden away on the back wall;  the rest of the church is absolutely plain;  the artisans were really having fun.  And the church backs onto a forest.

I headed then to Campisobálos, another farming village and there I was most fortunate.  As I arrived, Severino was just locking up, a lifelong resident of this pueblo who had the time and willingness to chat with me.


We  spent the next half hour in and about the church and the chapel attached to it, discussing its history and arquitectural details. It was built in the 12th century with some later additions.  It was connected with the Knights Templar, the quasi religious military order. I can only share a few highlights.  Here is the main front door of the church (he is standing in front of the adjoining chapel door).  It is a very typical Romanesque main door with 5 layers of decorative arches and columns framing the wooden door.


Note the first arch, immediately above the door:  sun images with ancient pagan roots which I have seen in other churches in Spain and the lobulated edge, popular in Moorish buildings. (I could do a separate post just on wooden doors in Spain.)


This church’s drawing card is a sculptural relief along the wall (and I forgot to take a photo of the whole thing.) of a calendario agricole, scenes from across the seasons of the activities necessary to sustain such a farming community.  Severino knew them well, he was really enjoying being my guide, I am sure that he has helped other fanatics of tiny rural 12th century churches. Bear in mind that these were carved 8-900 years ago and in a softer stone so that there has been a lot of erosion, of lot of wearing down.


On the left,  a team of oxen are pulling a simple plow;  on the right, very worn and relying here on my guide, the farmer is sowing seed.

IMG_4764 Decanting the new wine in large jars, and on the right, slaughtering a deer.


The harvest –  threshing and gathering in the sheaves (in reverse order).   The calendar goes from left to right.  And finally the season of the hunt, still important in Spain, and in this case, of the jábali, the wild boar, an important activity in mid-winter, with the help of dogs.


A couple of final photos, the first being of a sculpture high up on the back corner, the demonio, which has faces in three directions;  another weathered one (like me own!)  Severino was keen to show me this one.


The face in the centre is clear, two eyes, nose, large (devilishly) grinning mouth.  To the left of the nose is a second nose on the face turning towards the left which makes use of its own eye and the left eye of the face looking at us.  The mouth encircles the whole head so that it works for each of the faces.  Moving a little bit to the right and you would see a third nose and the sense of a third face looking down at us from the right.


The fear of the devil was very strong in these days, and that this creature is very difficult to escape, his eyes are on you from all directions.  And finally I cannot resist the rude face high up on another corner, somewhat hidden, possibly the artisan was trying to get away with it, representing the imp in all of us.


Years ago, I brought a copy home of a similar rude face from the Bodleian Library in Oxford as a gift for a friend.  And little kids of all ages are still making rude faces, so often the same as this one, enough out of site so that hopefully they can get away with it.  Can you not hear the noise it’s making, blubbering down through the centuries.

A most wonderful day, helping me celebrate Barca’s victory last night in the Champion’s League quarter-final over Paris.  This sort of brings together most of what draws me to this country; let’s see, the geography, the people, the medieval architecture, futbol, the food ( a plate of grilled-to-a-crispy perfection fresh sardines for lunch).  Alright!  One more photo!  For you, Pat!






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