Category Archives: medieval architecture

21 – Salamanca, past, present and future – April 11, 2013

I have finally made it to Salamanca, an ancient university city, founded in the 12th century, of similar vintage as Oxford, Coimbra in Portugal and Bologna in Italy, located in the northern mesata, tablelands, with prairie-like fields of grain extending to beyond the horizons in all directions.  It is built primarily of a golden sandstone, very reminiscent of Oxford and of Cotswold villages.  And, of course, it has its own Plaza Mayor, the impressive section on the left with balconies for the royal family when in attendance at events in the square.


I had the opportunity to enjoy a beer in the outdoor café across the way as the sun was setting and was able capture some of the sandstone’s marvellous glow at this time of the day.


If you go back to the first photo, you will notice of course that there are many people in the square;  it is a university town and the streets and squares are absolutely filled with 20 somethings.  I think that the city has to hire old folks to stroll about to maintain some sense of balance.  On top of it all, on this day , just beyond the old walls in the open air, a rock concert was taking place with an estimated 6 thousand youngsters enjoying the live band and inevitably littering the parkland.  And the whole scene dramatized in a curious way the conjunction of past, present and future in this city.


I am actually standing on a Roman bridge which crosses the river to the right, 26 some arches, at least 16 were part of the original span built in the first century of this era.  The church of Santiago in the middle distance is 12th century Romanesque. The curious stone animal is a Varraco that dates from the megalithic period (Stonehenge and other such circles as well as dolmens, burial sites that are found across Europe from around 5000 years ago).  They are found in Spain and their function might have been to assert territorial control or for religious, ceremonial reasons.   And wonderfully loud raucous rock music to bring all these ages together, of course, in the presence of kids between the ages of 16 and 24 and this one old fart. And the cathedrals (Salamanca has two) presiding over the afternoon.


I chose this photo from the bridge to show how it is still used in this pedestrian-intensive city;  the concert is behind those trees at its far end.  Excuse the cloudy skies.

The cathedrals and university buildings are primarily from the 15th and 16th centuries, the Renascentista Style – popularized in Italy and elsewhere.


I do not like this style of architecture.  I prefer Romanesque, 11th and 12th century, rounded arches, with relatively simple sculptural additions.  The cathedral is overdone and quite simply makes me uncomfortable to be around and in.  It is simply my preference, my taste, developed to a degree from the time I have spent in the back valleys of Spain searching out small rural parish churches.  I have done this often enough that the simple stone work now gives me a buzz.  Now if I had been alive when this cathedral was being built, would I have been bothered, even been angry at this new fang dangled style.  Romanesque buildings were possibly and probably torn down to build it.  Would anybody else in the town have been upset by this careless neglect of the old and preference for the new?  Did anyone care about what was happening to their neighbourhood? I have found the keys at times to Romanesque village churches in order to see the interiors only to be disappointed, even angry because of the renovations, modifications, “updatings” – “oh, let’s change this old way for the new way” – so many have Baroque altars, everything painted in gold. I first impulse is to lock up and return the key as quickly as possible, muttering “ba-roken, ba-roken” under my breath.  I have spent time in Oxford, with its many colleges, each built in a different part of a different century, in somewhat different and evolving styles.  We do not notice unless we are art historians.  A noted Victorian scholar was so incensed by the “new” look of a recently built college that he purposely changed the route of his daily walk so as not to have to see what he thought was an abomination.  Would anybody in 16th century Salamanca have thought of this cathedral as an abomination?  Were the residents of this ancient city through the centuries concerned about the urban landscape or is this just a 20th and now 21st century concern?

A wealthy factory owner in Salamanca at the turn of the 20th century would clearly have challenged many a resident with the design of his mansion, built on the walls of the old city, looking down over the park (and the Roman bridge, 12th century church and 5000 year old Varraco).

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This is what this jewel looks like today, virtually identical.


Would you have manned the barricades to prevent  this from being built?  Would you have found yourself saying derisively, “Art Nouveau, what garbage, it definitely doesn’t belong in my city!”

Today within the parameters of this ancient city, with its ancient university buildings and innumerable, it seems, churches, this building contains an amazing museum of Art Deco and Art Nouveau.  What a surprise?


The original door, gate and carvings in the stonework around the door.  The jewel is the central atrium.  I was not allowed to take photos;  what you see now is therefore illegal.


A true devotee of these styles could spend all day here;  I learned a lot, the collection is very comprehensive, worth the trip to Salamanca.

I have to add one more sight and insight into Salamanca, past, present and future.


The Spanish eat a lot of jamón, have for centuries, and will continue to eat this national dish, many of them, I am sure, at every meal.  These sandwiches literally dripping with slices of jamón ibérico possibly say it all.

19 – A Clue to the Roots of Carnival March 17, 2013

In the foothills of the mountains that stretch across the long northern coast of Spain, the tiny village of Cervatos with its twelfth century parish church of San Pedro conceals a possible clue to the pagan origins of the tradition of carnivals, like the one at Laza that I wrote about in the previous post.


I visited here in the fall of 2009,  I had done a lot of research on the boundless number of small village churches as part of my delight in early Romanesque architecture and sculpture, the carvings found around the doorways and windows, on top of columns and under the eaves.  The iconography is primarily and inevitably religious and Christian.


Embedded in the facade around the arches over the door are various Christian motifs;  on the left from the bottom, Adam and Eve and the Tree, Madonna and Child, and an angel;  on the right, from the bottom, a badly eroded something-or-other, another angel and a bishop carrying his shepherd’s crook (I am saving the close-ups for the more interesting stuff).  Immediately over the door is some marvellous lace-like tracery in stone and pairs of lions.


I could do a separate post on the ambiguous symbolism of lions in medieval sculpture.  Other animals (always of symbolic import) displayed asymmetrically are almost ubiquitous on Romanesque capitals but I now want to get to the interesting stuff.

We are in the hills, in the 12th century.  Below on the high plains of central Spain, the Islamic kingdom rules.  From north of the mountains, the regrouped Christian kingdom is gradually moving south in the centuries-long Reconquista.  These mountains and the northern coastal areas had always been  an enormous challenge to subdue, both to the Romans during their 5 or so centuries in Iberia and later to the Christian message.  Today in the eastern parts of these hills live the Basque people with their unique language, culture and desire for independence.  Life would never have been easy, the main stay would have been animal husbandry, primarily sheep, hunting and some cropping.

In The Myth of the Eternal Return, the Romanian religious historian, Mircea Eliade, talks about the many different peoples whose shared story of creation began with chaos, with form and order being given by their deity. These people would recreate this chaos during a period of a few days in the early spring, a few days of chaos, characterized by music, wine, a breakdown in the barriers between the social classes, the wearing of masks and promiscuity (echoed in today’s grand carnivals in places like Rio.)  This recreation of chaos and the subsequent return to an ordered world somehow guaranteed the community’s survival;  the women would safely give birth, that ewes would lamb, the deer and other prey would be abundant,  the crops would ripen, and the weather would be favourable. Regardless of their conversion to Christianity and its different story of creation, these hill people would have held on to their old practices.  And, evidence of this is very clear in the other sculptures on this church in Cervatos, the corbels under the eaves and the capitals in the upper windows.


We see musicians, acrobats, masked creatures, animals, acrobats and wine barrels galore.  My camera at the time did not have the zoom power of my present one.  Sorry!



An acrobat, a tumbler, what a wonderful symbol of these few days of the world-upside-down!


I will first draw your attention (if I can tear you away from the first two up top here) to the one of the right – a person is throwing aball; these were days without work, devoted to all kinds of play. These were normally people who would have worked most of the time in order to survive.  The first one is right out of an Indian temple, a page from the Kama Sutra;  with that clue, you should be able to figure it out, a rather athletic position.  The second is a woman giving birth (she is upside down, the newborn appearing at the top) and the third possibly a masked creature (think of the carnival at Laza from the last post). Fertility was the key to survival.  Other sculptures make this very clear.


There is obviously much debate among scholars about the meaning of this woman and the male figure opposite her;  there are a number of these pairs at this church.  Eliade and a Spanish scholar whose dissertation I found on the web suggest strongly that it is not a message about lust and the attendant hellfire.  She is wearing the hat of a married woman;  her face is almost serene rather than showing the wages of sin.  There is also no little devil or snake in the corner of this capital.  Later sculpture, within not so many years, would make it abundantly clear about the mortal dangers to the soul given over to lust.  The carnival period was not about this, it was a reaffirmation of the “eternal return” to order after chaos.  IMG_4535

Here we have the feminine principle side by side with the masculine principle.  The Spanish scholar has documented similar pairings in small village churches throughout these hills.  She also has photos of the quite different pairings sculpted a generation or so later when the central authority in the church, the Benedictines from Cluny, would have exerted greater control over the iconography in this area and across the whole of Europe.  The isolation of this village as well as the enduring strength of the old religious practices (paganism) would have allowed these non-Christian motifs to play an important role in the iconography of this church. It is interesting that what we would call the more overt sexual imagery was not erased, that it did survive. Another insight into its significance to the community.

Very interesting, this fascinating mixture of beliefs, but we need only think about the Mexican Day of the Dead, now part of the Christian calendar but clearly from a much older religious culture.

Our carnivals today, New Orleans, Rio and elsewhere, preserve the fun and excesses, a chance to get away from our normal routines, without any understanding of how a few days of this topsy-turvey world were absolutely necessary if the numerous small, isolated communities were to survive another year.