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Pre-Romanesque Churches in Asturias

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

Few 9th century churches survive anywhere in Europe, but in Northern Spain are a few precious remaining examples.

Santa Cristina de Lena

This 9th century church is in the mountains of Asturias. It is quite small, and could only had space for about 20 or so people (at most), to attend services.

The Road to Santa Cristina

The region where it resides now is mostly small farms. When it was new, it was built to be on a Roman road.

One parks at the bottom of the hill and walks up to visit the church. It's up on a hill, where it is visible from the road. As you can see, the structure is cross-shaped, but very simple, but seems to be a truncated Greek Cross plan.

Nowadays, one approaches from the rear of the church. It wasn't clear to me how the path might have worked to approach the front, given the lack of road or path today that connects to the front.

Here is the front, with its portico and a small amount of ornamentation. The three arches echo the style of the Roman triumphal arch, appropriated by early Christian architecture for spiritual victory. The upper floor has another triple arch as a window. You can also see the engaged pillars, which buttress the structure.

Interior of Santa Cristina

This is the view from the tribune, which was reserved for "royalty," although I can't find a direct reference (my sourcebooks are locked in my office for the duration of the pandemic). You are looking into the sanctuary. Below is the general entry area, which would serve as a nave. Those below would look up to this sanctuary (also called a "presbytery," to listen to the mass. Once again, there is a series of triple columns, a triumphal arch, which matches those on the front facade of the building. They have stone screens in them, so this is a very early form of "rood screen." It marks off the holy area. In the back you can see an altar by the window. The priest would have celebrated the mass facing the window. The chancel screen which blocks the middle arch (and keeps one from falling to the ground floor), has the look of altars from the period, which, in turn, resembled (or were) sarcophagi. All the frescoes original to this church are long gone, leaving it looking grey and bare inside. When I can get my reference books back, I'll try to find out what royalty, or important family commissioned or used this small church. Here is a 3D reconstruction of the interior, for what my photos lack:

Close-up of Sanctuary Screen

One thing worth noting about the lattice-work in the sanctuary screen is the set of keyhole arches in the middle arch. This pattern is reminiscent of Visigothic doorways for churches, and were also seen in mosques and palaces of the Caliphate in southern Iberia. The video above mentions that the carved panel acting as a boundary at the foot of this arch is Visigothic. (It sports Christian symbols, including crosses, stars, and grapevines.). Perhaps the clerics or the masons (or the patrons) of Santa Cristina wanted to evoke the earlier centuries, when Iberia was completely in the hands of the Visigoths, and hadn't lost territory to Muslim conquest in 711.

On the northern side of the mountains, more of these pre-Romanesque churches exist on the outskirts of Oviedo.

Santa Maria del Naranco

Santa Cristina's contemporary, in Oviedo, began its life as an administrative building in the recreational palace of King Ramiro I of Asturias. It was built similar to the Roman basilica style. Three hundred years later, it was vastly remodeled to be a church for Saint Mary. You can see the triple arches in the gable and in the portico.

A closer look

You can see the new stonework built into the arches here. I've never seen that kind of "T"-shaped keystone before. The capitals are in an acanthus-leaf pattern which harkens back to Corinthian column style, used in Rome and Byzantium for centuries. The cord-pattern on all the pillars, though, is a local style. The creatures in the medallions appear to be birds. I would guess, given the secular authority of the building, that they are eagles.

On the other side of the building, we find another set of columns, with an altar. This is called a "mirador," and gave a position for people outside to witness the ceremony on the portico. The two medallions above the arches have crowns over animals, probably lions, and act as a signal that this is a royal building. The unassuming altar (which came from San Miguel de Lillo, nearby), is placed in the portico in such a way that congregants outside might witness the mass and other ceremonies. Perhaps royal proclamations were issued from here before the building was made into a church.

Here is a side-view into the portico, giving you a glimpse of the altar.

Capital in Santa Maria

Inside Santa Maria, there are a few remnants of carved ornamentation left. This squared-off capital has repeated images of lions. Asturias was part of Leon during most of the Middle Ages, and these lions would have been fitting as a royal/governmental emblem throughout the building.

I am not sure what to make of the human figures in the capitals. The don't have a lot of distinguishing characteristics--they are hairless, hatless, without symbols or distinctive clothing. Only the figure on the left seems to have some sort of shelter or covering above his head. The crossed arms are intriguing, but I haven't found any source for what the gesture may mean.

Medallions and Mythical Creatures

There are carved medallions throughout the inside of the building. This one, it appears is a lion, but its tail is quite outsize for its body. I'm not sure if this is merely decorative, or if it makes it into a kind of mythical creature.

This medallion and plaque are the most interesting to me. In the top register, you have two kings placing crowns on their heads. Below them, two knights face off against each other. In the medallion, the creature doesn't look quite like a lion. the tail has a life of its own, and the head looks more like an eagle, or perhaps a wolf/dog. I'm left wondering what is the significance when.a creature looks behind itself, over/at its tail, versus looking forward. I went down a rabbit hole searching for the meaning of the direction of gaze for an animal on something like heraldry (which this suggests, although I think heraldry doesn't really get symbolically entrenched until the 1200s). I found out that to look over one's back is to be "reguardant," and to look forward is "guardant," but found nothing on what those aspects mean, if anything.

San Miguel de Lillo

San Miguel de Lillo is only a very short walk away from Santa Maria. It was closed for repairs when I visited, alas. It appears to be built like a basilica, too. It's stonework concerns itself more with ones and twos than the triple-arches of Santa Cristina and Santa Maria. It was built at the same time as the other two, but retains its original stone-lattice-work window screens.


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