ROMANESQUE CHURCHES OF NORTHERN SPAIN PART 2: Itineraries with Oña (Burgos) as a base. Itinerary 1

Oña is a charming fortified town of less than 1,500 inhabitants which grew around the Benedictine Abbey of San Salvador. Then monastery church served as a royal pantheon and it is richly decorated. It was founded in 1011 by Sancho Garcia, Count of Castile, for his daughter Tigrida as a double monastery for monks and nuns and it remained so for several centuries.

Itinerary 1

San Pantaleón de Losa, Burgos

A New Interpretation
The church is open daily during the summer and Easter holidays. During the rest of the year contact Elvira (email:
San Pantaleón de Losa is 75 kilometres northeast of Burgos ‘as the crow flies’. It is on the BU-550 which runs from Trespaderne and Quincoces de Yuso. From Oña take the N-232 north for 5 kilometres and then turn right on to the N-629 at the starts of which is the scenic Oca Gorge. After 7 kilometres you will reach Trespaderne from where you take the BU-550. After 20 kilometres you will reach the village of San Pantaleón de Losa having cross the stunning Jerea Gorge. Just before entering the village take the Calle Tejera to the left which runs into the Calle Iglesia. The GPS coordinates where you can park near the church are 42°50'6.27" North, 3°17'62" West at an altitude of 680 metres. The church, which is at an altitude of 700 metres, is a short climb from there.
San Pantaleón de Losa is situated in a stunning position on the Peña Colorada, a hill that resembles the prow of a ship rising from an enraged sea. The topography of this location promotes the legend that the Holy Grail was kept in this church thus giving this place an aura of esoteric mystery. The site was regarded as sacred as far back as the early paleo-Christian period. Before that it had been a Celtic Castro belonging to the Autrigones.
It seems that the church formed part of a castle that had been built on top of the hill. Nothing remains of the castle except that the undulating terrain of the moat is still identifiable. In 1178 King Alfonso VIII gave the church of San Pantaleón to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem who then built a monastery and a new church.
St Pantaleon was born in 275 in Nicomedia (present Izmit), the capital of Bithynia on the Marmara Sea. He was martyred in 305 in Nicomedia during the reign of Diocletian (284-305AD). His saint day is celebrated on July 27. He was a doctor – his name in Greek is Panteleímon meaning ‘all-compassionate’. He is the patron of physicians, midwives, livestock, and is invoked against headaches, accidents, and loneliness. He is a highly-revered saint both by the Eastern and Western Churches.
It seems that his conversion to Christianity was precipitated by an incident when he found the body of a dead child on the road. The child had been bitten by a viper which was still lying by its side. He successfully appealed to Jesus to bring the child back to life. This importance of this miracle is reflected in the fact that it is depicted twice in this church.

1. St Pantaleon and Christ in a vat of molten lead.

2. St Pantaleon about to be thrown into the sea

According to his vita, Pantaleon underwent several tortures before he was finally decapitated. Some of his tortures are depicted on the capitals. He was put in a vat of molten lead (photo 1) and when the apparition of Christ stepped into the cauldron with him the fire went out and the lead became cold. Pantaleon was then thrown into the sea (photo 2), weighted down by a large stone and with his feet and hands tied together. Much to the surprise of his torturers he appeared alive and well at the other side of the bay.
He was then thrown amongst wild beasts, but they fawned upon him and could not be forced away until he had blessed them. He was bound on to a wheel but the ropes snapped and the wheel fell apart. An attempt was made to behead him, but the sword bent, and his executioners were converted to Christianity. It was not until he himself desired it that it was possible to behead him. His blood turned to milk and it fell over a dried-up fig tree which immediately revived. A woman collected it, mixed it with sand and hid it. Most of it has supposedly ended up in the monastery of Ravello in Italy.
It seems that Juan de Zúñiga (1541-1608), who was Spanish viceroy to Naples from 1586 to 1595, returned to Spain with a number of relics amongst them a vial of St Pantaleon’s blood. His daughter, Aldonza de Zúñiga, was the first novice to enter the convent of the Encarnación in Madrid after it was founded in 1616 and her family gave the convent the vial as part of her dowry. According to the nuns, the vial of blood liquefies on the eve of the 27th of July, the saint’s feast day. Many people go to the convent to see the miracle and testify to it. Unfortunately, the nuns have not allowed any scientific investigation to take place.
There is another story regarding St Pantaleon’s blood. After the Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 1217, the Knights of St John had to leave the Holy Land. They did so in possession of a vial of the saint’s blood and hid it in the difficult-to-access and easily defended monastery of San Pantaleón de Losa. Reportedly, the vial remained in the monastery until Aldonza de Zúñiga entered the convent of the Encarnación in Madrid. It is believed that the vial, now in Madrid, was taken from here. What gives some credence to this story is that the territory around this area belonged to the Lord of Vizcaya to whom the Zúñiga family was related.

The Romanesque church has a single short nave followed by a straight presbytery and apse. The bellcote is situated between the nave and the presbytery. Originally it had two storeys but it was necessary to dismantle it due to its precarious state and four of its bells were sold to pay for repairs to the church. The only remaining bell was stolen in 2014.

3. East elevation of the church showing the belfry, apse, and Gothic aisle extension.

At a later date a large Gothic extension was built on to the northern side of the church, in effect creating a north aisle. It is on two levels with steps from one level to the other, matching the two levels of the nave and presbytery and apse of the Romanesque church.

The entrance, flanked by wide buttresses, is level with the wall and splayed inwards. It is surrounded by a dripstone decorated with hooded balls and by three archivolts. The exterior archivolt has billet and the interior one has roll and cavetto moulding. The middle one is interesting and somewhat unique – it has a moulding with several small rectangular openings in each of which appear either a human head or legs. These human parts most probably represent a so-called emparedado, a hermit who chose to be walled-up with a small aperture left at the level of his mouth through which food might be given to him. Emparedados were not uncommon in Spain where many walled-up skeletons have been found. Why they appear here in San Pantaleón de Losa is not known – yet another mystery of this church.

4. The west entrance with the west window above it.

Left Side Capitals
The outer capital is very badly damaged. It has a man fighting a lion – it could be Samson prizing open the lion’s mouth. It rests on a statue-column with a bearded long-haired man holding a cloth over his shoulder and wearing a short skirt tied with a belt. It has been suggested that he is Samson because of his meticulously carved long hair which falls to his shoulders and ends in curls, and because of the scene in the capital above. However, some people identify this figure with St Pantaleon carrying a bag with the medicines he dispensed freely to those in need and the lions in the capital above as being symbols of the saint’s force and power. Above the capital is a much damaged free standing statue identified in the 2005 restoration as a lioness suckling her cubs.
The central capital has a background of leaves ending in hooded balls. Extending the width of the capital there is a hybrid animal with a long snake-like tail and a feline head which is biting a human figure lying below it. It refers to the first miracle of Pantaleon when he brought the child killed by a viper back to life.
The inner capital has a long-haired man immersed up to his neck in a vat (photo 1). He is flanked by an angel on the left with his right wing depicted and, on the right, by a haloed man who is also immersed in the vat. This scene represents the martyrdom of St Pantaleon when he was thrown into a vat of molten lead and Christ stepped into it with him.
Right Side Capitals
The inner capital has three seated men wearing long tunics. The one in the middle holds a book; the one on the right raises a book; and the one on the left raises a cross. The scene represents St Pantaleon in the centre flanked by the two judges who tried to make him renounce his Christian faith before they condemned him.
The central capital has a boat with two men in it and one outside it (photo 2). The scene depicts the martyrdom of St Pantaleon when he was thrown into the sea with his hands and feet tied together and with a stone around his neck. He survived and appeared walking on the other side of the bay. The column supporting this capital has a broad band of zigzag in front of it. The outer capital has a deer’s head; the column is missing.
There is a window above the entrance with splayed archivolts resting on three pairs of columns, and a billet dripstone. The capitals on the left are carved with floral decoration. On the right (photo 5), the inner capital has a large human head with its tongue sticking out; the middle capital has stylised leaves; and the exterior one depicts Adam and Eve. Behind Adam, on the left side of the capital, there is a monstrous head which possibly represents the devil.

5. West window right side capitals – human head, stylised leaves, and Adam and Eve.

The apse is divided vertically into three sections, each with a window, by two engaged columns and horizontally into two sections by two imposts. The two engaged columns have capitals of large leaves with their tips turned over. The lower impost, on which the windows rest, has two cavettos and a fillet. The second impost is level with the abaci of the windows. The Gothic aisle partially obscures the north section. The central section has four corbels, two with a ship’s prow, one with a barrel, and one that is plain. The corbels in the other sections are ship’s prows.
Apse Windows
The central window (photo 6) is larger than the side ones and it is deeply splayed. Three archivolts surround the loophole window. The interior one has a multilobed arch followed by leaves and half-balls. The other two have a moulding which, like the middle archivolt of the west entrance, has small rectangular openings (photo 7) each of which display either a human head or legs – again probably representing an emparedado (a walled-up hermit). The outer capital on the left side is missing. The middle one has a man’s face, his mouth covered by a cloth and with two large hands flanking it. The inner one has plain leaves ending in spirals. The inner capital on the right side is missing; the middle one has two confronted rearing lions; and the exterior one has interlacing.

6. Apse central window with its archivolts and capitals.  

7. Archivolt – a walled-up hermit (emparedado).

The south blind window has an elaborate and wide archivolt resting on capitals. It is decorated with leaves with their tips turned over followed by a band of guilloche and another row of leaves ending with a band interlacing stems. The left capital has a seated man wearing a long tunic. The right capital has an eagle displaying its wings; its column is decorated with four-petal interlaced flowers forming an overall net.
The south presbytery window has three archivolts – the inner one is wide and has five human faces; the central one is decorated with interlacing and flowers; and the outer has a plain roll moulding. The left capital 

has a glouton swallowing the shaft of the column; the central one has a human face with an open mouth; and the two inner capitals have leaves with pines in the angles and caulicles forming the volutes. The right central and exterior capitals have stylised leaves.
On the south wall, there is a loophole window surrounded by two archivolts. The outer archivolt has plain voussoirs. The inner archivolt is wide and divided in two, the outer part has guilloche and the interior one has a feline head at its centre. On the left, the outer capital has large leaves with hooded balls and the inner capital has a devil-like glouton. On the right, the inner capital has leaves resembling a fleur-de-lis and the outer has two human heads. The capitals rest on monolithic columns.
The west wall is 10 metres high. The roof projects slightly and rests on a cornice and a corbel table. The corbels have superimposed rolls or are in the shape of ship’s prow.

The church has a single nave, a double triumphal arch, and a chancel arch leading into the apse. It has a straight presbytery with a window on the south side and, on its north side, an arch opening on to the Gothic north aisle. The arch is Romanesque but the aisle behind it is Gothic. The explanation could be that originally there was a chapel here housing the sarcophagus which is now in this aisle. The opening was already in situ so when the chapel was pulled down to build the nave the arch was retained. The steep fall in the level of the ground between the nave and the presbytery and apse is overcome by steps, as it also is in the split level north aisle.
The nave has a single bay with a distorted spherical cupula adapted to the length of the nave. It rests on pendentives and is surrounded by a thick moulding. This is a unique feature of this church. The west loophole window is splayed and is surrounded by two archivolts resting on bevelled abaci and on capitals.
The double triumphal arch rests on capitals and columns supported by a high plinth to make up for the drop in the level of the nave. The left capital has two griffons, one biting the beak of the other, their feet resting on a fruit, their long tails curled behind them. The right capital is carved with a basket with pinecones at the sides below the volutes.
The chancel arch’s left capital repeats the scene of the two griffons. On the spandrel of the arch leading to the north aisle there is a cat with a chain around its neck. The cat is a malevolent animal which here, perhaps, symbolises our sinful urges being held under control by the teachings of the Church.
The right capital (photo 8) has a dragon biting a prostrate human body with outstretched arms and wearing a pointed Phrygian cap. On the left there is a bearded man and, on the right, two hooded balls. This scene represents the miraculous revival of the dead child after it had been bitten by a snake which, here, looks more like a dragon. The man on the left is St Pantaleon holding what may have been a cross.

8. Chancel arch right capital depicting the miracle of the revival of the child bitten by a snake.

The south presbytery window has an archivolt of roll moulding. The left abacus has palmettos inscribed within their stems and the capital has a moustachioed face. The right abacus has double cavettos and the capital has plain leaves with their tips turned over.
The apse window has an archivolt of concave moulding decorated with hooded balls and a dripstone with raised circles and triangles. The right abacus has an undulating vine with bunches of grapes and the capital  has a bearded man sticking his tongue out. The shaft is decorated all over with basket weave. The left abacus has raised triangles; the capital has a bearded head with raised diadem, showing his teeth; and the column has a spiral decoration.
Dating of the Church
Regarding the date of the church, there is an inscription on the south wall of the nave which says that: ‘Garcia, bishop of Burgos, consecrated the church in the first year of his pontificate, the 3rd day of March 1245 [27 February 1207]’. We know that García Martínez Contreras became bishop of Burgos on the 7th of June 1206. The consecration date does not mean that the church was finished at that time.
Our understanding of the construction and iconography of the church was changed dramatically after the excavations of 2005 undertaken by the Centro Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC).  They carried out a study of the strata, epigraphy, decorative sculpture as well as an exhaustive archaeological analysis with 19 soundings covering 100 square metres. They found late Roman ceramics (terra sigillata) and Roman tiles which came from two walls of a building with a lobulated apse.
They established that for the building of the present church, stones, carvings and the inscription from a previous Romanesque church were utilized. The oldest part of the church is the entrance. The inscription has been reused since it is much more weathered than the stones surrounding it. They believe the present church should be dated to after the first third of the 13th century. Further testimony to it being of a late Romanesque period is evident from certain sculptural and architectural characteristics – like the glouton which was used in late Romanesque churches, the splayed windows with three pairs of columns, the decorated shafts, the expressive human heads occupying the entire capital. All are themes that appear in late Romanesque buildings and which can be seen in Basque churches. Burgundian influence can be detected in the decorated shafts and some floral motifs that could have come via Oña and or Estíbaliz in Navarra. The glouton for instance, originates in Anjou, Poitou, and Saintonge and it is found in the vicinity of Aguilar de Campóo, including Rebolledo de la Torre (Burgos) and Piasca (Cantabria).
Enciclopedia del Románico en Burgos, Fundación Santa María La Real, 2002, Volumen III, pp.1961-1944.
Románico Guías, Burgos 2009, Fundación Santa María La Real, p.351-354.
La iglesia románica de San Pantaleón de Losa: Un ejemplo de arqueología de la arquitectura. Report of the 2005 excavations undertaken by the Centro Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), Luis Caballero Zoreda, José Ignacio Murillo Fragero, Mario Nüñez Herrero, Patrimonio histórico de Castilla y León, No: 21, 2005 pp. 23-34, ISSN 1578 5513.
Ermita de San Pantaleón de Losa: La realidad supera a la leyenda, Martín Santos, Félix. Diario Tribuna, 5 Enero 2017.



  1. You can see a new proposal about "emparedados" and the use of dead to protect and save the building in a work of Fulvio Cervini "Mura cementate col sangue.Un percorso medievale tra riti di fondazione e reimpieghi anomali", in which it appears mentioned San Pantaleón de Losa.


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