Romanesque Churches of Northern Spain - Part 1


Northern Spain has an extraordinary number of beautiful Romanesque churches. Whether you are following the pilgrimage route to St James of Compostela or are simply enjoying travelling through the Spanish countryside, it would be worth taking time to visit some of these architectural jewels which I will be describing in this blog in the next few weeks.
Aguilar de Campóo in the province of Palencia is an ideal place to use as a base from which to visit churches in this province, as well as those in southern Cantabria and north-western Burgos. Aguilar is famous in Spain because it is home to the largest manufacturer of the country’s biscuits – Galletas Gullon. Thanks to this, the town has avoided the dire financial problems of the last few years. It is a charming place of 10,000 inhabitants, overlooked by a rocky outcrop on the crest of which is a medieval castle with the Romanesque church of Santa Cecilia directly below it. The arcaded houses which surround the plaza are an ideal place to pause for a drink or enjoy a meal al fresco. The river Pisuerga bisects Aguilar and there are some enjoyable walks along its banks.
Aguilar de Campóo is the headquarters of the Fundación Santa María la Real, a non-profit organisation that is dedicated to the preservation and restoration of Spain’s Romanesque artistic heritage as well as to the cataloguing of its many monuments. The foundation trains craftsmen in the art of restoration and helps young people gain a profession. It has courses throughout the year for those interested in the Romanesque period. It is publishing an encyclopaedia of Romanesque art in Spain – the Enciclopedia del Románico – of which thirty-two volumes have already appeared. An impressive pocket guide of Romanesque buildings, province by province, has also been published by the Fundación covering all the churches that appear in the encyclopaedia.

My first itinerary starts in Aguilar de Campóo with Santa Cecilia and then goes on to visit some of the more remarkable churches on the southern side of the Aguilar Dam: Santa Cecilia in Vallespinoso, Nuestra Señora de la Asunción in Perazancas de Ojeda, and the Ermita de Santa Eulalia in Barrio de Santa María. In most cases the key to church will be held by someone in the village but if any help is needed contact could be made with Cesar del Valle, email:, mobile: +34 616 99 46 51.

Aguilar de Campóo, Palencia
The hermitage of Santa Cecilia has a privileged position situated below the castle on the southwest slope from where it dominates the town.

 The south and east façades of Santa Cecilia with the castle above it

 It is most likely that this was the first parish church of Aguilar de Campóo although today nothing remains of the original hamlet that was located below it. The church was built on unstable ground which led to cracks in its walls and a leaning belfry. In the 1960s underpinning and restoration work took place.
The rectangular church has a nave and two aisles and a projecting south entrance. The south wall has two buttresses and two undecorated loophole windows. The rectangular apse was rebuilt in the 16th and 17th century. The square belfry is three storeys high and diminishes in width. The lower part has two loophole windows on the south wall. The middle storey has a splayed window on each side except for the north. The top storey has twin double-arched windows on each side. The roof is supported by a corbel table with zoomorphic corbels. The oldest parts of the building, the belfry and central presbytery, date from the end of the 12th century. The nave belongs to the 13th century.
The apse window has a capital with a knight on foot holding a shield; he has speared an animal. The shield has the coat of arms of the Lara family, important benefactors of several Palencia monasteries. The capital may denote the intervention of the Lara family in the extension of this church – both Fernando Núñez de Lara and his brother Alvaro were lieutenants of Alfonso VIII in Aguilar towards the end of the 12th century.
García Guinea has pointed out the similarities of the capitals with Santa Eufemia de Cozuelos (Palencia) and the doorway of Vallespinoso de Aguilar (Palencia). Hernando Garrido has noted the similarities of the floral capitals with certain examples from the cloisters of Santa María la Real in Aguilar de Campóo and of San Andrés de Arroyo (Palencia). A Romanesque Christ and a Virgin and Child (Virgen de Grijera), both in polychrome wood, are now in the museum of the church of San Miguel in Aguilar.
The church has a nave that is wider than the two aisles which are separated by an arcade of three double-pointed arches resting on a central pier and engaged columns on either side. The north aisle ends in a rectangular apse that is narrower than the aisle. The south aisle does not have an apse since the space serves as the base of the square belfry. The present ceiling is a product of the restoration but the original was most likely a wooden one with tie-beams similar to those in Elines and Santillana in Cantabria.
The present square central apse replaced the original Romanesque round apse; however, it retains the original double chancel arch. The exterior arch rests on jambs while the interior arch rests on abaci, capitals and engaged segmented columns. The apse is covered by diagonal rib-vaulting filled in with tufa and has a central boss.
The central and north presbyteries are barrel-vaulted. On the south wall there are two tri-lobed credences.
The capitals of the arches in the nave have been expertly carved. They alternate between fleshy lanceolate or lobulated leaves with pines in the corners, interlaced beaded leaves and some figurative capitals. The bases are varied.
Triumphal Arch, North Capital: It is carved with two rows of large palm leaves.
Triumphal Arch, South Capital: This capital lacks the finesse of the others. On the front of the capital (photo 2) there is a knight on the left, fully protected by a coat of mail and holding a sword and a kite-shaped shield. He is being attacked by a large bear, springing forwards. The bear is being baited by a dog behind it. On the right side of the capital there is a group of three men wearing chain mail and holding shields; they stand over the dog. On the left side, there is a bier with the body of the knight on it and a man above it, holding a baton of command.

Triumphal arch, south capital – a knight being attacked by a bear.
The scene probably represents a factual episode referring to the death of the Asturian king, Fáfila (r. 737-39), who was killed by a bear while hunting. He was the son of Pelayo and his sister Ermenesinda was married to Alfonso, Duke of Cantabria. At Fáfila’s death, the Asturians chose Alfonso as their king thus uniting the two provinces. This was important for Aguilar since Alfonso then launched the Reconquest from this town. Hence, it is not surprising to find the fateful death of Fáfila depicted on a capital of this church.
Chancel Arch, North Capital: It has a very finely carved Massacre of the Innocents, probably executed by the same sculptor who worked in Santa María la Real. The soldiers wear full-body chain-mail with a single aperture for their eyes. They are savagely killing the infants whose distraught mothers stand behind them. The abacus has undulating stems and leaves with tips that curl over and are deeply undercut.

 Chancel arch, north capital – Massacre of the Innocents.
Chancel Arch, South capital: It has two rows of deeply undercut acanthus. The leaves of the first row project and in the second row there are bunches of fruits or seeds between the leaves. The abacus is intricately carved with flying harpies being chased by a dragon which has bitten the tail of one of the harpies .

Chancel arch, south capital - harpies being chased by a dragon.
South Arcade Capital: The first capital of the south arcade was obviously carved by the same mason who carved the capital of King Fáfila on the triumphal arch south capital. The chain-mail on both of these capitals is shown with rows of zigzag whereas the mason who carved the Massacre of the Innocents on the chancel arch north capital depicted the chain-mail with parallel rows of dots. Occupying the right corner is, most probably, Abraham holding a knife in his right hand and Isaac with his left. An angel hovers over Isaac.

South arcade capital – the sacrifice of Isaac.
On the front of the capital two knights are engaged in a hand-to-hand combat. One has injured the head of the other with his sword. On the left side of the capital there are five men with a donkey below them. It has been suggested that this represents Joseph being sold. The abacus has concave and roll moulding.
North apse capitals: The left capital has two green men forming the volutes. Shallow beaded tendrils and leaves, symbols of regeneration and eternity, issue from their mouths. The same representation is also to be found in the north apse of San Martín de Frómista (Palencia). The right capital has elongated leaves.
Virgen de Grijera
This Virgin of Santa Cecilia is now in the Museum of the church of San Miguel in the town centre. It was discovered in 1907 by the priest, Don Juan Sanz, in his parish of Grijera. It had been converted into an image to allow for a dress and cape to be placed over the Virgin. To accomplish this she had new arms attached over her original ones so that they could be placed over the dress. In addition, the Child Jesus’ head had been cut off so that it did not project from under her cape. The Count of Grijera collected money for a restoration which was executed by Santiago Toledo who, at this time, was in charge of restoring the church of San Miguel and had already worked in San Martín de Frómista and in San Juan de Baños.
The Virgin sits on a bench with a narrow back. She holds Jesus in her lap following the type of Sedes Sapientiae used widely during the Romanesque period. In her right hand she holds a fruit, allusion to her role as the New Eve, while protecting the Child with her left. She has a white veil held in place by a narrow diadem. She wears a yellow-ochre tunic, a light-blue cape fastened around her neck, and pointed shoes. Jesus blesses with his right hand and holds a small panel with writing added by the restorer. The figures are hieratic – there is no communication between them. The edge of the pleats form meanders and the elongated face of the Virgin, which was copied by the restorer when he had to carve the face of the Child, show this is a work of the first part of 12th century.
Enciclopedia del Románico en Palencia, Fundación Santa María La Real, 2002, Volumen 1, pp. 174-181.
Hernando Garrido J L, and Nuño Gonzalez J, La iglesia tardorománica de Santa Cecila en Aguilar de Campóo. Codex Aquilarensis 7, Santa Maria la Real, Aguilar de Campoo, 1992, pp. 7-95.
Románico Guías: Todo el Románico de Palencia, Fundación Santa María La Real, 2006, pp. 29-30.
Vallespinoso de Aguilar, Palencia
The village of Vallespinoso de Aguilar (‘Valley of Thorns’ because of the multitude of spiky thistles in this area) lies due west of Aguilar de Campóo. Take the PP2131 west out of Aguilar de Campóo and the village is reached after 9.3 kilometres. The church of Santa Cecilia is at the northwest edge of the village. It is strategically located on top of a rock outcrop which falls vertically on the south side and on the north side it joins the agricultural land. Santa Cecilia has the only stone relief in Spain that depicts the consecration of a church.

South façade with the entrance and belfry staircase tower.
Santa Cecilia was declared an historic artistic monument in May 1951 and it was restored in 1958. Art historians consider it to be one of the jewels of Castilian Romanesque. Stylistically it can be dated to between 1170 and the end of the 1180s. It is built of ashlars of diminishing size as they reach the roof. It is a single nave church with a south projecting entrance and a round apse. Both church and apse have the same height. It is a small building – 19 metres long by 9 metres wide. The belfry is situated in the middle of the church where the nave and presbytery join; it is accessed by a spiral staircase which is on the south wall. The staircase is within a semi-detached tower between the entrance and the apse. It appears to have also acted as a lookout tower since the entrance to it is from the nave. The lower part of the tower rests on the rocks. It has a vaulted passage so that one can circulate around the church.
The projecting entrance rests on a small platform reached by steps. It has a slightly pointed arched doorway with a narrow band of leaves behind the voussoirs. It surrounded by six archivolts and a dripstone and has a narrow roof resting on undecorated corbels. The archivolts have roll moulding except the third which is carved with acanthus leaves, the ends of which are turned over. The dripstone has a band of meticulously carved undulating stems with palm leaves. The capitals on both sides of the entrance form a continuous frieze which ends with a relief on the entrance wall that extends all the way to its edge.
Left capitals and reliefs, from outer to inner
1. The relief has a standing knight wearing a long coat of mail. He confronts an elongated winged dragon with a curled tail which is biting his shield. The knight strikes the head of the dragon with his sword. At the end of the relief there is a row of straight acanthus leaves with their tips ending in a whirl.

Left-hand side relief of a knight confronting a winged dragon.
2-3. A pair of confronted centaurs, symbols of rampant lust, against a floral background. Similar capitals are to be found in San Julián y Santa Basilisa in Rebolledo de la Torre (Burgos) and in Santa María in Becerril del Carpio (Palencia).
4. A floriated capital, exquisitely carved but much damaged.
5. Two confronted basilisks; much damaged.
6. A miser with a money bag hanging from a cord around his neck while a devil with flaming hair holds on to a rope which is also around the miser’s neck.
7. A corpse lying on a bed; standing beside it are two angels. One of them holds a book in his right hand and points to the body with the other. Another angel holds a horse – St Michael arrived on a horse in Ethiopia.
8: Doorjamb relief – the judgement of the soul. Acting as witnesses are St Michael on the left and a monstrous figure on the right. A devil holds on to the scales.
Right capitals and reliefs, from inner to outer 
1. Doorjamb relief. The three Marys stand under an arcade, now lost, by the empty tomb, their hands covered by their veils. A headless angel announces the Resurrection. There is a similar relief in San Martín in Villanueva de la Peña (Palencia). On the side there is a couple; the man points to the angel by the tomb and the woman has her hands crossed over her chest. They could represent St Cecilia and her husband Valerian. She announced on her wedding night that she had offered her virginity to God. Valerian and his brother Tiburcius converted to Christianity and, like her, were later martyred. She is the patron saint of musicians because her heart sang to God.
2. Two figures placed on either side of a central stylised leaf. Both hold a book, symbol of the written word of God.
3. Standing leaves.
4. A pair of confronted harpies against a floral background with their tails curled.
5. Palm leaves.
6. Two bearded men with their hands held high and with palms turned outwards in a gesture of respect. The one on the right is holding two keys.
7. Palm leaves.
8. A much damaged relief with nine figures. Seven of them wear tunics and elaborately pleated gowns. They are participating in a procession to consecrate this church. The first five men are holding, respectively: (1) a torch, (2) a hyssop with chrism to consecrate the church, (3) an urn with the relics brought to the church, (4) a seal to stamp the document acknowledging the hand-over of the church to the proper authority, and (5) a foundation parchment. The remaining four are: (6) the small figure of an acolyte pouring the contents of a jug, (7) a priest blessing the bread of the Eucharist laid out on the altar, (8) a figure wearing a hooded cape indicating she is a woman, and (9) a seated and richly attired figure indicating he is the benefactor.

Right-hand side relief of nine figures, perhaps a procession to consecrate the church.

It has been suggested in the blog Salud y Románico that this scene represents the ritual of consecration known as procodendis reliquiis. It was described for the first time in the papal Liber diurnus, in the sixth century. Later, in the eighth century, the Ordo Romano mentions that the ritual followed the example of St Ambrose when he placed the relics of the saints Gervasio and Protasio on the altar of the basilica of Milan in 386 because, as martyrs of religious persecution, he maintained that they were worthy of being interred under the altar.
The consecration of the church was one of the most important liturgical ceremonies codified in papal text. It started with a procession which came to a halt at the church door to allow the benefactor to hand over the keys to the newly appointed priest of the church. The priest is depicted on the fifth capital of the right-hand side. Meanwhile the participants sang Psalm 23. A barefoot clergyman opens the door, lights up the church, and urges the congregation to remain clean, i.e. without sin, because God desires that they should avoid darkness and be bathed in divine Light. The congregation then chants Tobias 13:10-17. There follows the blessing of the water with which the church will be sanctified using a hyssop. Finally, an acolyte carries the paten and relics to give them to the celebrating priest at the altar.
The apse is divided into three vertical sections by two engaged columns and capitals that reach up to the corbel table; they rest on plinths. Each section has a loophole window, deeply splayed outwards, and framed by an archivolt and dripstone. The windows rest on a string course which divides the apse horizontally in two. The lateral windows have no columns, they have an archivolt decorated with floral interlace which in the south window emerges from the mouth of a winged serpent (symbol of eternity) and a basilisk.
The central window has an archivolt carved with deeply cut leaves ending in intricate whirls, surrounded by a roll and cavetto dripstone. The abaci have fleshy floral decoration. The left capital has griffons caught in a web of floral decoration. A similar one appears inside the church. The right capital has a pair of bearded harpies wearing Phrygian caps, an indication of their magical powers and their eastern provenance.
The apse and presbytery roof rest on a cornice carved with superimposed rhomboid shapes and supported by a corbel table. The corbels depict an eagle clutching a snake in its talons, a musician seated cross-legged, a priapic male, and floral designs.
The nave has barrel-vaulting and three projecting transverse arches. The first two rest on the imposts while the third, nearest the apse, rests on capitals and columns. The presbytery and apse are much higher than the nave due to the contour of the rocky terrain on which the church is built. The presbytery is reached by a set of six steps and the apse by a further three steps.
The pointed triumphal double-arch rests on plinths. The outer arch is carved with chevrons and a solar symbol. It rests on impost and jambs. The inner arch has plane voussoirs and rests on imposts, capitals and engaged columns with attic bases and a shallow plinth with claws and tongues in the corners.
The north capital has a scene of Samson prizing open the jaws of the lion of Timnah. Samson is on the front of the capital, his long hair gathered by ribbons and his cape willowing out behind him. He is mounted on the lion and both his hands are in the lion’s mouth. His left leg is extended between the forelegs of the lion and with his right leg he is pushing backwards denoting the effort he is making to prize open the lion’s mouth. The lion has a thick curly mane and its paws rest on the rim of the capital.

Triumphal arch, north capital. Left side – a knight spearing a winged dragon. Front – Samson spearing a winged dragon.
Right side – seated man holding the lion’s tail.
On the left side is a knight who is spearing a winged dragon which has bitten his shield. The symbolism is clear – with God’s help, it is possible to overcome the forces of evil. On the right side there is a seated man holding the lion’s tail; he could be a divine messenger facilitating Samson’s task. At the top of the capital there are crenellations representing the Heavenly Jerusalem. The corners of the capital do not have volutes; instead there are two flattened palmettes hanging from an architectural frieze. The same scenes are to be found in San Julián y Santa Basilisa in Rebolledo de la Torre (Burgos), Santa María La Real in Henestrosa de las Quintanillas (Cantabria), and several other churches. The abacus has acanthus leaves.
The south capital has two confronted griffons (the body and hindquarters of a horse and the wings and head of an eagle) on the front and one on each side of the capital. All four griffons are caught in a web of beaded ribbons. They symbolise constant vigil over the sacred space. Similar scenes can be seen in Santa Eugenia in Dehesa de los Romanos (Palencia) and Santa Marina in Villanueva de la Torre (Palencia). The abacus has acanthus leaves.
The presbytery has pointed barrel-vaulting. On each side, there are two blind tri-lobed arches resting on a central double-capital supported by two columns and on capitals on single columns at each side.
North Arcade: On the double central capital there are three figures standing under a tri-lobed niche. The central figure is a man with a bag hanging from his neck. There is also a chain around his neck held by two devils on either side, both of whom are much deteriorated. They may represent devils enslaving the soul of this condemned person. On each side of the capital is a bird of prey.
The left capital has a seated man on either side with three lions, one at the corner of the capital (now disappeared) and one at each side. The men are putting their hands into the lions’ mouths, a gesture signifying that they are taking an oath. The same scene is found on the left side, central capital of the entrance of El Salvador in Pozancos (Palencia) and in San Zoilo in Carrión de los Condes (Palencia).
The right capital has a rider wearing a long tunic and holding the bridle of his horse – both rider and horse are headless.
South Arcade: The double central capital is meticulously carved with a pair of acanthus leaves emerging from a single stem and forming a spiral with an eight-pointed rosette at its centre. The leaves are fleshy and deeply undercut. Similar capitals are to be found in Aguilar (now in the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid), in the internal arcade in Santa María in Piasca (Cantabria), San Juan Bautista in Villanueva del Río Pisuerga (Palencia), and in San Lorenzo in Zorita del Paramo (Palencia).

South arcade, double central capital – pair of acanthus leaves.

The left capital has two rows of pointed palmettes. The right capital has a pair of rampant confronted griffons, similar to those of El Salvador in Pozancos (Palencia).
It has three splayed loophole windows. The central window is framed by a roll and cavetto archivolt and a dripstone decorated with two rows of semibezantes (three-quarter height beads). The left capital has two rows of lobulated leaves arranged in opposite directions; the upper row is upside down. The abacus has vine leaves with peacocks pecking at its grapes. Peacocks symbolise eternity and resurrection while grapes symbolise the Eucharist.
The right capital has a basilisk with its head turned defensively because it is being attacked by a lion from behind. The basilisk’s tail ends in a serpent’s head which is devouring the leafy stem that surrounds both animals. A basilisk brought instant death to all whom it fixed its gaze. In medieval art it is the symbol of Satan and is not often portrayed in Palencia. The same capital can be seen in the hermitage of Santa Eulalia in Barrio de Santa Maria (Palencia) and a single basilisk is depicted amongst foliage in the dripstone at the entrance of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción in Perazancas de Ojeda (Palencia).
A plain round moulding impost runs below the windows. Above them, at a height where the wall and vaulting starts, there is another impost carved with leaves.
The entrance to the belfry is from the south wall. A small bell-cote is at the height of the chancel arch.
Enciclopedia del Románico en Palencia, Fundación Santa María La Real, 2002, Volumen , pp.
Románico Guías: Todo el Románico de Palencia, Fundación Santa María La Real, 2006, pp.


  1. Very interesting work. While I show British images for Spanish readers, you shows Hispanic images for British readers. ! We have overcome Brexit ¡

  2. Great blog. Thank you very much for your work and for your consideration.

  3. Love your blog! I am a great fan of Romanesque sculpture.


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