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The Pre-Romanesque art of Asturias: art and architecture ahead of its time




The Kingdom of Asturias, from the 8th to the 10th centuries caught between the Cantabrian Sea to the North and Arab domination to the South, was able to assert itself by building a series of churches that brought together Romanesque, Carolingian, Byzantine and Mozarab influences--an architecture well ahead of its time.
A look at the principle buildings of the time allows us to become familiar with a few of Asturias’s most beautiful areas, from its capital Oviedo to its most hidden valleys. In 1985, UNESCO recognized the value of Asturias’s Pre-Romanesque art when they declared it a World Heritage Site.

Among Oviedo’s cathedral buildings is the so-called Cámara Santa or Holy Chamber, a 9th c. construction that was originally part of the Palace of Alfonso II “the Chaste” (792-842). The Cámara Santa is made up of a crypt and upper chapel, and was refurbished in the 11th century.

Of the Church of San Tirso el Real, also located in Oviedo and built under the reign of Alfonso II, only the upper part of the central apse remains, with a three-arch bay between columns finished in semicircular arches, capitals and late Romanesque style bases framed by an alfiz. A little further on we find the Fountain of La Foncalada, which dates from the reign of Alfonso III “the Great” (866-910), and the Church of San Julián de los Prados, also built during the reign of Alfonso II and the largest Pre-Romanesque church in Spain, with clear Romanesque influences in its design as well as its interior decoration of frescos.

On the outskirts of Oviedo, set upon one side of the Naranca mountain and overlooking the capital city are the churches of Santa María del Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo, the first to use a barrel vaulted roof in the nave. Santa María del Naranco was originally built as a summer palace for Ramiro I, and was later converted into a church. It has a rectangular floor plan with two heights, and its most noteworthy features include its perfectly aligned vaults and cable molded columns with capitals, as well as the great buttresses supporting the walls.

As for San Miguel de Lillo, only a third of the church’s original structure remains, with its capitals and lattices of note, as well as its jambs with Romanesque-inspired circus scenes—a truly unusual feature for religious architecture of the period.

On the road to Galicia we find the late 9th century Church of Santo Adriano de Tuñón. It has three naves with apses and a double-sloped wooden roof. The interior mural paintings are also worth mentioning. In Pravia we find the basilica of San Juan de Santianes, which dates from the period of King Silo (774-783), making it the oldest Pre-Romanesque construction in Asturias. It has three naves separated by pillars, a square front with two lateral sacristies and a narthex at its base.

The Church of San Salvador de Valdediós, affectionately called “el Conventín” or “little convent” by Asturians, is quite possibly the most highly finished work of the period of Alfonso III “the Great”. It was opened to the public in 891. Its originality lies in the addtion of Mozarab influences to earlier archtiectural styles, which are most notable in its horseshoe arches. The interior mural paintings are also very interesting.

In the town of Lena, in the midst of a breathtaking landscape of valleys and mountains, we find the Church of Santa Cristina, one of the greatest creations to come out of the period of Ramiro I. The temple’s most notable feature is the iconostasis, a stone wall painstakingly carved with arches and lattice that, in line with Byzantine tradition, separates the worshippers from the sanctuary. To gaze on this church, humble yet glorious, lost in the verdure of the landscape, we cannot help but feel at peace and reflect. We cannot help but think of the particular rise of the Asturian dynasty in the 8th century, which coincided with the powerful advance of Islam on the Iberian Peninsula, and of the dream of King Alfonso II, who believed in the possibility of one day recovering Toledo, capital of the Visigoth Kingdom.