Churches of the Kingdom of Asturias: Pre-Romanesque Harmony

In the year 711, a Muslim army crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to mediate in the succession disputes of the Visigothic kingdom settled in the Iberian Peninsula. The intervention soon turned into conquest, and in a few years, the Arab chiefs took control of practically the whole of the peninsula, integrating it into the already very extensive dominions of the caliph of Damascus. 

San Miguel de Lillo Church - Pre-Romanesque architecture

Only the mountainous areas of the north remained on the margin of the invasion, and there were formed nuclei of resistance that were the embryo of the different Christian peninsular kingdoms of the Middle Ages. The westernmost of these kingdoms was located in the most abrupt part of the Cantabrian mountain range, at the foot of the Picos de Europa massif. Its kings came from the Visigoth nobility, who had taken refuge in the north after the Arab invasion, while the population was mainly made up of the primitive Asturians, whom neither the Romans nor the Goths had subdued but very superficially. 

Against all odds, the kingdom of Asturias nevertheless managed to endure and to establish itself, governed by kings who knew how to skillfully play their meager trump cards, even laying the foundations of a cultural renaissance that produced remarkable monuments.

Map of Spain (790 a.C.) The yellow region was the Kingdom of Asturias

From Cangas To Oviedo.

The beginnings were difficult. Pelayo, founder of the Asturian monarchy, installed his capital in Cangas de Onís, well surrounded by mountains, and in its vicinity, he achieved his first triumph against the Muslims in the battle of Covadonga (718), an episode later much mythologized. His successors, in any case, were able to venture to flatter lands: first to Pravia, where the king had the church of Santianes built, which already shows the earliest traits of what would become the Asturian pre-Romanesque style, and finally to Oviedo, capital of the kingdom until the transfer of the court to León in the early years of the 10th century.

Don Pelayo - Founder of the Kingdom of Asturias

The city of Oviedo had originally been a Roman castrum on whose ruins the monk Fromestano founded a monastery in the year 761. Around it soon arose an incipient population center that soon became the object of attention by the Asturian monarchs. Fruela I built a palace to which his son, Alfonso II the Chaste, moved the court in 794. The city prospered in spite of the Muslims, who sacked it on two occasions (789 and 794), and was the object of a conscientious construction program by Alfonso II (792-842), of which only a part has come down to us, enough in any case to configure the first stage of Asturian art characterized by the predominance of Visigothic and Roman features. The style reached its maturity under Ramiro I and Ordoño I, in a second stage called Ramiran art. His last works deal with the reign of Alfonso III, a period in which Asturias lost prominence with the expansion of the kingdom towards the Duero valley and the transfer of the capital to León. The disappearance of the political circumstances that had given rise to it meant the end of the Asturian pre-Romanesque style: open to new influences, the architecture of the 10th century followed the Mozarabic style, introduced by the Christians exiled from the Caliphate of Cordoba, to gradually move towards the Romanesque, whose route of penetration would be the increasingly busy Jacobean route.

The Garden of King Ramiro.

Although the city of Oviedo has grown a lot since the time of the Asturian kings, Mount Naranco is still one of the most peaceful places in its periphery, covered with thick vegetation and with a magnificent view over the old capital. King Ramiro had his hunting ground there and built a residential complex of which a small palace, later converted into the church of Santa María, and the first two sections of the church of San Miguel de Lillo have been preserved. Both were completed around 848 by the same unknown builder, and share the same construction scheme, with barrel vaults supported on the exterior by high buttresses and round arches, features that seem to be linked to remote Roman models. 

The church of San Miguel de Lillo, originally a beautiful basilica with three naves, of which only the beginning is preserved, also has the typical pre-Romanesque stone latticework and remains of an interesting pictorial and sculptural decoration. The most notable are the jambs of the portico, carved with circus scenes whose affiliation has long been a mystery. Today we know that the model must have been an ancient Byzantine consular diptych. Carved in ivory, these diptychs were used to commemorate the appointment of the new consul, who was represented in them presiding over the games he had offered to the people for the occasion, and some may have been in the art collections of the Asturian kings. Even more singular is the old palace, today the church of Santa María del Naranco. 

Santa María del Naranco Church

It consists of two floors, of which the upper floor, a large rectangular diaphanous room, must have served as a reception hall or aula regia. Attached to the northern wall is the outer staircase that serves as access; on the southern wall there is a portico with a belvedere, and at the eastern and western ends there are two large balconies, open on three sides with arches that must have supported some kind of railing. In general terms, the architectural conceptions are closer to those of classical temples than other forms closer in time, which is surprising, while the decorative motifs seem to be copied from oriental fabrics. The integration of such disparate elements into a harmonious whole of unquestionable beauty is the great achievement of Ramiro's art, which has in Santa María del Naranco its masterpiece.

Santa Cristina de Lena. 

The same basic elements appear in the small church of Santa Cristina de Lena, further away from Oviedo, in the middle of the mining basin. There is no documental reference that allows us to venture a date for its construction, but the style is so similar to that of the Naranco complex that it is also supposed to be due to the initiative of Ramiro I or his immediate successor, Ordoño I, and perhaps even the work of the same team of artisans.

Santa Cristina de Lena - Pre-Romanesque Jewel Hidden in the beautiful Picos de Europa

Many things, however, distinguish this apparently secondary building. It has an original rectangular floor plan, with a single nave but with smaller chambers on all four sides, so that the one at the head functions as an apse, the one at the foot plays the role of the narthex, and the lateral ones probably served as sacristies. At both ends of the nave, there are floor elevations that form a tribune at the foot, perhaps the space reserved for the king, and at the chancel, there is a presbytery separated from the rest of the nave by an iconostasis. This element, unique in the Asturian pre-Romanesque but very typical of Byzantine churches, consists of a triple arcade closed in its center by a carved stone gate, so that access to the presbytery is made by two flights of steps attached to the side walls. Both the columns and the door are of Visigothic origin, perhaps coming from the church of San Pedro and San Pablo that the abbot Flaino founded in this same place. 

It is more difficult to elucidate the ways in which the eastern influence that reveals the very existence of the iconostasis reached the isolated Asturias of the 9th century, and for which Mozarabic immigrants from the south may have been responsible.

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