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San Juan de La Pena, Service and Miracles

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

Up in the remote hills in northern Spain, the monastery of San Juan de la Pena contains the ruins of a tiny cloister, with magnificent capitals telling religious stories to the monks who walked there.

Narrative Tableaux

Romanesque capitals and tympana, among other carvings, tell stories, but, really, they evoke stories that the viewer should already know. The mason who carves the capital, often under direction of the ranking clerical official ordering the work, communicates key visuals from a story. As with the resurrection of Lazarus, above, the body, Christ doing the raising, and the awe of the sisters at the miracle are the main points. The narrative is encapsulated in one scene, or tableau, and reminds the viewer of a particular message important to their faith. In this case, it could be that perfect faith brings life after death. These capitals were often placed in a sequence, such as scenes from the life of Mary or Christ (this was also true in medieval church frescoes), but over time and renovation, sometimes the order of the sequence might have been disturbed. Other times, the story in the capital is one well known to locals, but lost to modern viewers' knowledge.

This capital depicts the Entry into Jerusalem (celebrated by Christians as Palm Sunday), where Christ rides a donkey into the city, and is treated as a returning king by his followers. In the center of the capital, a follower lays down his cloak before the path of the donkey. It's a gesture of humility, service, of "preparing the way," which would have resonated with the monks.

Entry into Jerusalem

I'm intrigued by the fleur de lis (topping a staff? presented as an orb? I didn't get a good photo from the left), brandished by another follower. This would have been recognized as a symbol of (earthly) kingship, which fits the message here, although I've read contradictory things about whether, south of the Pyrenees in the 12th century, it would have been more strongly associated with the French, or with Aragon.

The capitals at San Juan represent both the debut and the essence of Romanesque carving--emphasis is more on ornament than realism. Faces are wide-eyed and generic. Gestures are broad. The influence from manuscript pages is evident.

Raising of Lazarus

Here is a depiction of the raising of Lazarus by Christ. You can tell the figure on the corner at the right is Christ by his cruciform halo. He carries a staff with a cross on it in his left hand, and gestures in blessing with his right hand. The two figures behind the body are Mary and Martha. Their hands gesture in prayer. The body of Lazarus rests on a sarcophagus, and it is bound in a shroud.

The Annunciation

What's left of this damaged capital shows that simplified strokes can still create a dynamic composition. Here we see Mary and Gabriel at the moment of the Annunciation. The wing of the archangel provides a backing for the cross he gestures to. The cross is an unusual choice here--he typically presents a lily (symbolic of purity, and of Easter). Mary recoils and makes a warding gesture (which *is* standard, signifying she understands the great responsibiliy she's being asked to undertake, which makes her awed, modest, and afraid). The way that she and Gabriel lean away from each other, with their knees nearly touching, and the cross in the center has a chalice-like effect (which the damage on the right exacerbates). Mary's choice represents the ultimate in humble service.

The Wedding at Cana

Here, too, is a gesture of service, and with Christ blessing service. Jesus blesses the water, turning it into wine, as the servant pours it into new, larger vessels. (The wedding table, where Jesus is a guest, wraps around the capital to the right.). There is a resonance here with both the passage in Mark (2:22), where he says that new wine isn't put into old wineskins, but also with later Church writings about how Christianity transforms "old" (Jewish, Classical) truths into life-giving, revised revelations.

Here, to give you a sense of the small, precious scale of the monastery, and the massive living rock it's carved from, is a pull-back shot of the ruins of the cloister, where these capitals are found.

Washing the Leper's Feet

Perhaps the ultimate example of service as a theme for the cloister's program is this scene of Christ washing the feet of a leper. This event is celebrated on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week in the Catholic calendar. The leper has his hands raised in prayer, and behind the kneeling Jesus is a disciple holding a cloth to dry either Jesus' hands, the leper's feet, or both. I suspect, because the disciple is behind his Master, it's to attend Jesus, since this would resonate as an act of service to Christ's service; a nice encapsulation of the monastic role.

There are several scenes from the Old Testament as well in the cloister. One column shows Adam and Eve, laboring after the Fall. The side showing Adam's upper body is damaged, but you can see his horses in his plow on this side of the capital.

Adam Plows, Eve Spins

Expulsion from Paradise consigned Adam and Eve to lives of labor, service became necessary for their survival, and the human condition is symbolized in this part of Genesis as the beginning of humans doing their parts for each other. Eve is making thread from a large spindle in this carving. She is dressed as a medieval Iberian woman would have been, but it seems as though putting her in the "frame" here with the workhorses (instead of alongside Adam) hints at her subordinate, "in harness" status.

Fallen Adam

Just in case you were missing Adam, you can find him here, in this scene from The Fall. He has survived with his surroundings in a badly damaged state. On the left would be God asking him why he has covered his nakedness, and on his right is the Tree of Knowledge. The gesture with his right hand denotes that he is speaking (probably to say, "The woman told me to eat the fruit."). His left (sinister) hand covers his genitals with the fig leaf.

Here is a very short video, which will give you a sense of the whole place, as well as some context for the monastery.

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