The Ermita de San Pelayo is of importance because it is an example of how even a small and remote hermitage church was bestowed with an interior that was richly decorated with frescos.


Perazancas de Ojeda


The Ermita de San Pelayo is 13 km due west of Aguilar del Campoó ‘as the crow flies’. The Ermita is one kilometre south of the village of Perazancas and is beside the P-227 road. Its GPS readings are 42°46'32.6" North, 4°25'10.1" West, and it is at an altitude of 985 metres.

1. South-west elevation

The lintel over the north door consists of an inscription stating that the hermitage was built in 1076 under the auspices of Abbot Pelayo and named in honour of San Pelayo Mártir (St Pelayo the Martyr) who is also known as Pelagius of Córdoba (c.912–926), a Christian boy who died as a martyr in Córdoba. It seems likely that this church was built over an existing one and that the previous Mozarab capitals have been re-used at the west entrance. The apse is the oldest part of the church. At a later date the nave was rebuilt because the quoins of the west arch have been chiselled with an iron tool which dates it to the post-medieval period.


In 1923 Luciano Huidobro let it be known that there were frescos in the church, but it was only in 1958 that they were finally uncovered. They were subsequently restored in 1980 and again from November 1996 to February 1997 after the underpinning of the apse with concrete because it was collapsing. In 2006 the frescos were restored yet again because the apse suffered another collapse and cracks appeared in the interior. More concrete had to be used to underpin it. In 1718 the frescos had been whitewashed and painted over imitating false stonework. When the church was finished in 1097 the apse was also whitewashed, and the stonework was outlined in colour. Unfortunately, this first whitewash was destroyed in the last restoration and no trace of it remains except the written documentation. On stylistic grounds the frescos have been dated to the end of 12th century. The technique used was al fresco but the eyes and the names were added after the plaster had dried in al seco technique and that is why they have faded.




The church has a single nave which is much higher than the short, straight presbytery, and the apse. The nave was built with unhewn stones and ashlar quoins in contrast to the apse which was built with ashlars. Originally the church had two entrances, one on the west and the other on the north, now blocked.


The west entrance is slightly indented from the wall surface. It has a lintel with a tympanum above supported by jambs made with large ashlars. The archivolt is level with the wall surface. It has dressed voussoirs resting on what appears to be the upside-down bases of Roman capitals and pre-Romanesque capitals with two rows of stylised leaves having thick central stems and grooved veins which the historian Gomez-Moreno has identified as Mozarab, most likely from a previous building on the site. The following text is written on the left abacus: “era…m..aps…/ob onore…pelaii”, a reference to the foundation of the church by Abbot Pelayo. The columns rest on torus bases on top of a small platform. 

2. Apse blind arcade.


The apse is divided into five sections by four segmented, engaged columns without capitals which rest on roughly carved bases. The upper part of the apse is decorated with a blind arcade (photo 2) surmounted by a band of vertical triangular shaped stones (sardineles in Spanish, a Mudéjar decoration) and a wide frieze of billet decoration. This Lombard-type arcade was first seen in Spain in Aragon and Catalonia. It made its appearance in Palencia in around 1076; it most probably came with the bishops, Bernardo and Poncio, who were from Aragon and Catalonia. The apse roof rests on a cornice of two superimposed undecorated layers of stones. The apse has two windows, an undecorated loophole window in the north-east section and a deeply-splayed loophole window with a billet dripstone, level with the wall, in the southern section.




The interior has a wooden ceiling over the nave and is vaulted over the apse and presbytery. A round triumphal arch gives way to the short straight presbytery followed by a chancel arch. A billet impost surrounds the apse at the springing of the vault.

3. Interior looking east.

The apse and triumphal arch have what remains of the frescos that once decorated the church (photo 3). The colours used were white, green, and yellow which could be easily mixed and, in addition to these colours, blues and greys were used as accessories. Black was used very successfully to outline features and folds, as we can see in the delicate hatching in the basket below the harvest pickers (photo 8) representing the month of September – and for the equally fine lines of the bluish tunic of the man representing October, which beautifully convey his movements.


The paintings are distributed in two register on the walls and the apse’s vault. The vault symbolises the heavens, the abode of the Divinity. The upper register is the transitional sphere dedicated to the saints and the apostles and the lower register is the human or temporal sphere represented by the agricultural tasks.


The vault is dedicated to Christ in Majesty within a mandorla surrounded by stylized clouds. Unfortunately, all that remains are one of Christ’s knees and the letter Omega level with his left shoulder. There would have been an Alfa beside his right shoulder. Surrounding the mandorla are angels and a cherubin standing on wheels of fire as per the vision of Ezequiel (photo 4).

4. Apse vault – angel’s feet and cherubin standing on wheels of fire.


The upper register has pairs of the apostles talking to each other (photo 5); some having their name next to them. To the right of the apse window one can still read, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, and Barnabas. They wear red cloaks over white tunics.


5. Apse upper register – apostles.

6. Triumphal arch south intrados – Cain.

Over the south apse window there is a basilisk whose function was apotropaic. Windows and church entrances were considered to be exposed places that were particularly appealing to demons. To protect them, a variety of hybrid creatures were placed near these apertures. Usually they would be carved in the capitals but in this case, since there are no capitals either on the exterior or the interior, it was deemed necessary to paint a basilisk over the window to ward off the devil. The apotropaic function of a hybrid creature was to fight like with like.


The lower register is dedicated to the calendar and the labours of each month. To the left are the months from May to October and, to the right, November to April. The only recognisable months are the following: September and October depict the wheat and grape harvest (photo 7); December shows a man holding a club used to stun pigs before they were killed (the scene follows the French and Italian Calendar rather than the Spanish); January is depicted by Janus with two faces, the older face looks back to the year that has just passed while the younger looks forward to the coming year.

7. Apse lower register – months of September and October.

8. Apse lower register – October grape basket.

The Calendar is not placed in chronological order but starts below the window with the month of November following the Mozarab church liturgy which started in this month. The Mozarab rite was abolished by Alfonso VI of Castile in 1086 and the Roman rite was adopted in its place. It is most probable that this church was painted not long after the Roman rite was adopted but, as shown here, not all churches in Spain adopted it right away.


The programme continues on the triumphal arch with scenes from the lives of Cain and Abel, scenes that relate to the agricultural calendar, Cain having been considered to be the first agricultural worker. Over the arch are two flying angels and two men; the one on the right has been identified as St Pelayo.


On the right jamb of the triumphal arch there is a bishop holding a book in his left hand and a crosier in his right. On his right the letters ORVS can still be seen; he may be St Isidorus. To his right is possibly St Pelayo to whom the church is dedicated. High up on the right intrados is a man wearing a pointed headgear and offering a tablet to the hand of God emerging from a cloud above (photo 6). The letters to his right – (CA)IN IMPIUS – identify him as the ‘impious Cain’. It is likely that Abel would have been on the left intrados. Over the south window there is a winged dragon.



Enciclopedia del Románico en Palencia, Fundación Santa María La Real, 2002, Volumen 2, pp. 819-28.

Románico Guías: Todo el Románico de Palencia, Fundación Santa María La Real, 2006, pp. 155-7.

Huerta Huerta, P.L.  ‘Notas sobre el proceso técnico del fresco románico: el caso de San Pelayo de Perazancas de Ojeda (Palencia)’, Sautuola, VI (1999), Estudios en Homenaje al profesor Dr. García Guinea, pp. 615-620.

Bango Torviso, I.G. ‘San Pelayo de Perazancas. Las imágenes de un calendario románico organizadas según la vieja liturgia hispana, y su contexto en el conjunto del programa iconográfico’ Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. 1993.



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