We can determine 5 periods in Asturian pre-romanesque architecture, all between the years 711 and 910. Which are the years of the rise and eventually the disappearance of the Kingdom of Asturias. The 5 periods follows the political evolution of the Kingdom.
It all started after the fall of the Roman empire in the 5th century. After the fall, the Visigoths arrived in the Iberian peninsula. When the Visigothic King Wittiza died, the Duke Roderic took over the throne. Not according to the wishes of Wittiza’s oldest son Agila, and heir to the throne. He sought support with the Caliph of Tangier. He agreed, and an army of the Muslim Kingdom defeated and destroyed the Visigoth army of Roderic on July 19 in 711, at the battle of Guadalete near Gibraltar. Tarik the caliph made advantage of his military superiority and took over the capital Toledo. This was the start of the occupation by the Moors for almost 800 years.
None the less, some Asturian wariors, who fought along King Roderic found refuge in the mountains of Asturias. Along with what remained of the Visigoth army. They took with them as well some of the sacred relics from Toledo cathedral, the most important of which was the Holy Ark, containing a large number of relics from Jerusalem.
In 718, Pelayo was elected by the Asturian tribes as their leader. He gradually wanted to restore Gothic Order, based on the Visigoths kingdom political model. In which he succeeded especially after the battle at Covadonga in 722. In this battle Pelayo defeated the Moors which became the start of the Reconquista or the reconquest of the entire Iberian Peninsula. First the capital of the kingdom was in Cangas de Onis. Then for a while in Pravia, finaly the court was established in Oviedo.
Cut of from the rest of the world. The expansion of the kingdom to the South led to the fact that Asturian Pre-Romanesque architecture developed its unique style. A style influenced by Visigoth, Mozarabic and local traditions. As such all buildings of this period are on the UNESCO list of world heritage.
Periods in Asturian Pre-Romanesque architecture
First period (737-791)
The first period is the rise of the Kingdom and the reigns of Fáfila (son of Pelayo), Alfonso I, Fruela I, Aurelio, Silo, Mauregato and Vermudo I.
The church of Santa Cruz
The oldest monument is the church of Santa Cruz. Build in 737 by Fáfila at Cangas de Onís on a little hill which covers a dolmen. The name derives from the wooden holy cross (Santa Cruz) carried by Pelayo in the battle of Covadonga. The church was build for this relic. Unfortunately during the civil war in 1936, the church was destroyed and later rebuild in 1950. Today small groups can visit the monument and view the dolmen.
The Church of San Juan Apóstol y Evangelista
This church is the second oldest monument and located at Santianes de Pravia. The court moved to Pravia, a former Roman settlement (Flavium Navia), in 774 by the king Rey Silo, where it remained until 792. The church of San Juan was build between the years 774 and 783 and show the very first Asturian Pre-Romanesque elements such as a basilica ground plan facing eastwards (Jerusalem). The basilica ground plan consists of a central nave and two side aisles, seperated by three semicircular arches, a semicircular apse, and an external entrance vestibule, with a wooden ceiling over the nave. Many modifications have been made through the years.
Nearby there is a nice little museum about the site and Asturian Pre-Romanesque architecture.
Second period (791-842)
This period goes along with the reign of Alfonso II “the chaste” (791–842). He moved the court to Oviedo and realised the most of the Asturian Pre-Romanesque buildings. As such defining the characteristics of Asturian Pre-Romanesque style.
The church of San Julián de los Prados
Also called Santullano was part of a series of buildings and the largest of all pre-romanesque churches. Build between 812 and 842 according to a basilica ground plan. Now with an additional transept or transversal aisle between the sanctuary and the corpse (central nave and two aisles) of the building. The sanctuary is rectangular and divided into three chapels. One of them only accessible from outside. Above the main part of the sanctuary there is a room called … of which till today nobody knows what was the function. The room has a typical semicircular three-arched window, an element which can be find in other buildings. And was only accessible through that window. Further we find a vestibule and two sacristies adjoining the building. Inside the walls and ceiling are covered with well preserved upper medieval alfresco paintings.
The church of Tirso
A second church, the church of Tirso is located near the Cathedral of Oviedo. Destroyed by fire in the 16th century, only the back wall with the typical semicircular three-arched window remains.
The Cámara Santa
The Holy Chamber at the cathedral is only what remains of a complex of buildings build by Alfonso II, consisting of a palace with a chapel, the San María and the San Salvador churches. Today only the chapel remains. This chapel had to house the relics brought from Toledo. A function it still serves today, as it houses some of Asturias most treasured symbols such as the Cross of the Angels from 808 and the Victory Cross.
The palace made place in the 14th century for the present Gothic cathedral. The Holy Chamber consists of two floors with barrel vaults. The lower floor dedicated to Saint Leocadia is a crypt with tombs of a few martyrs. The upper floor is dedicated to Saint Michael. Extended to six meters in the 12th century.
The Holy Chamber was a stepping stone, due to the vaulting of two overlapping spaces. A construction later used in the buildings of Ramiro I.
The church of Santa Maria de Bendones
Located about 5 kilometers from Oviedo. This building is a donation from King Alfonso III and his wife Jimena to the San Salvador cathedral on January the 20th in 905.
It does not have the typical basilica ground plan. The main entrance does now have two side areas probably used to house parishioners or members of the church. The entrance leads to a single nave, with the same length as the entrance side areas. At both sides the nave has two side areas. Three semicircular arches gives access to the sanctuary. The main one in the centre is covered with a barrel vault. The two others are chapels and has a wooden ceiling.
As well here there is above the main chapel a room with a semicircular three-arched window only accessible from outside through that window. Beside the church there is a rectangular bell tower.
The church of San Pedro de Nora
This church is about 12 kilometres from Oviedo near the river Nora. Also this church is based on an eastward oriented basilica ground plan. A higher central nave with two side naves and with a separated vestibule as entrance. The sanctuary is straight and divided into three apses. As well this church has the secret room only accessible from the outside through its typical window. The separate bell tower is not original, but build in the seventies.
… To be continued
All churches are open for public, contact local Tourist Offices for opening hours.
Museo Prerrománico Santianes de Pravia … http://www.ayto-pravia.es/museo-prerromanico
Header photograph © by Mariluz Rodriguez