Church Architecture and the Reconquista.

Church Architecture in Spain during the Reconquista.

Spain’s history has been shaped in many ways by its long and complicated history with Islam.  Al-Andalus, the name the Muslims –or Moors as they were called in Spain– gave to the land they occupied for almost 800 years (711-1492), contracted gradually as Christians pressed south from the mountains of Asturias.

Generally referred to as the Reconquista, Christian progress southwards proceeded at unequal pace across the Peninsula, with the east advancing more slowly owing to a more entrenched Muslim presence.

Christians marked their victories by constructing castles and churches in the same way that the Moors had earlier marked their presence by erecting castles and mosques. Castles served primarily to protect people and territory. Churches both identified and confirmed Christian presence in the reconquered territory.

Until under complete control, reconquered lands were frontiers, constantly fluctuating, unstable and subject to raids. In these frontier zones, churches –as spiritual centres of Christian identity and permanence– needed to be robustly built to withstand Moorish raids.

The earliest churches were those built in Asturias, an area made up of mountains and narrow valleys, frequently wet in summer and snowbound in winter. Christians, fleeing north from Córdoba and neighbouring areas in the 8th and 9th centuries, took with them into these mountains their culture and a collective memory of their past.

One of the ways of preserving that collective memory was to build churches that recalled their pre-Moorish Christian-Visigothic heritage. These new churches in the north serve now as visual reminders of the survival and continuity of Christianity in that area long identified as the cradle of the Reconquista. 

Several of these Asturian churches remain, all within a 50 to 70 kilometre radius of Oviedo, and almost all were built from about 800 to 900, that is the same time that Islam had entrenched itself in most of the Peninsula.

They are small buildings, with several features reminiscent of Visigothic architecture. Outside are striking double or triple windows with small horseshoe arches (San Pedro de Nora), sometimes within a rectangular frame (San Tirso in Oviedo, San Salvador de Valdediós). Inside on pillars and capitals there are carved motifs –rosettes, leaves, birds, geometric designs.

San Salvador de Valdedios.
San Pedro de Nora

From the late 800s, refugees from Muslim Córdoba began to arrive, not only disenchanted with life under the Moors, but also encouraged by the kings of Asturias and León as part of their expansion plan to repopulate unoccupied territories bordering the frontier with al-Andalus.

Known as Mozarabs, many were monks from Córdoba who, at the same time they were carrying with them their Christian-Visigothic heritage, ironically carried influences from Arabic culture by which they had been surrounded and from which they were escaping.

They were granted land, and monastic documents confirm that several important monasteries and churches were constructed or rebuilt by them during the 10th and 11th centuries (e. g. San Miguel de Escalada, León 913,  Santiago de Peñalba, León ca 937, San Baudelio, Soria 11th century).

San Miguel de Escalada. Interior.

Generally called Mozarabic churches, they have architectural and decorative elements that betray the influence of Andalusi mosques, especially the Great Mosque  of Córdoba, e. g. tightly closed horseshoe arches.

San Miguel de Escalada.

Asturian and Mozarabic architectural styles were vibrant but short lived, their demise probably sealed by the emerging importance of the cult of St James, whose bones were believed to be buried in Santiago de Compostela, in the far North West of the Peninsula. From the late 10th-early 11th centuries, pilgrims began to arrive in numbers along the north, among them the French, and with them a new architectural style: Romanesque.

The basic features of Romanesque architecture are solidity and strength. Romanesque churches are firmly anchored to the ground; their thick, buttressed walls evoke power, the sturdy pillars supporting the barreled vaults impress with their strength.

Frómista. San Martín.

They are very much part of the Medieval “church militant,” and their solid, fortress-like quality perfectly complemented the expansionist spirit of the Christian kingdoms of Castile, León and Aragón during the 11th and 12th centuries. E.g San Martín in Frómista, Monastery of Leyre, Jaca cathedral interior (all 11th century, nb vaulting is 16th century).

Jaca cathedral. Note the vaulting/ceiling is 16th century.
Monastery of Leyre.
The capture of Toledo in 1085 under Alfonso VI of Castile-León (r. 1065-1109) was a major turning point in the prolonged struggle between Christians and Moors.

The city had both a symbolic and practical significance. It had been the ancient capital of the Visigoths whose spirit and untainted Hispanic virtues were frequently evoked with pride following the Muslim invasion of 711. Its capture importantly opened up chunks of the centre of the peninsula to repopulation by Christians from the north. After victory in Toledo, Christians refortified captured towns and built Romanesque churches to celebrate their triumph and consolidate their presence.

Good examples are the 12th-century churches of San Pedro, San Andrés, San Nicolás, Santa María de la Cabeza and San Segundo in Avila (c. 1088), or San Martín, San Millán (both 12th century), and San Juan de los Caballeros (11th century) in Segovia (c. 1085).

Avila: San Segundo.
Segovia: San Martín. The arcade to the side is typical of Segovian Romanesque churches.
Segovia: San Millán.

In the late 12th century, Romanesque church architecture was literally “joined” by a new architectural style: Gothic. Gothic emerged in France around 1140 with the construction of the Abbey of St. Denis in Paris. Promoted by close religious and royal contacts (through marriage) between France and the Christian kingdoms of Castile-León, Navarre and Aragón, Gothic proved as unstoppable as Romanesque a century and a half earlier.

Gothic first appeared joined to Romanesque churches in a rough line running west to east from Ciudad Rodrigo (captured in the early 12th century), via Avila (captured in 1088), Toledo (1085), Cuenca (1177), Teruel (1171), Lleida/Lérida (1149), to Tarragona (1089), about 100 kilometres south of Barcelona.

What happened was that with time many churches that started out as Romanesque buildings transitioned to Gothic. This is especially so for the cathedrals, larger buildings that were modified over the years and were the most visible and emphatic indicators of Christian identity in the face of Muslim proximity.

Let’s take as an example of transitioning the Cathedral of Avila (de los Caballeros –of the Knights), a town located high on the wind-swept Castilian meseta, about 110 kilometres (68 miles) North West of Madrid. It might be viewed as an archetypal example of Christian determination to retain hold of their newly conquered land. It’s also an appropriate example because it’s been claimed that the Cathedral of Avila is the first Gothic cathedral in Spain.

Not much more than a settlement when taken in 1088, Avila’s Christian conquerors moved quickly to consolidate their position. Between 1090 and 1099, Avila’s spectacular defensive Romanesque walls were built around the settlement and work soon began on its cathedral. Exactly when is unclear, but beginning dates range from 1091 to 1135, which means that in either case it was too early to be Gothic.

What is clear is that the oldest part of the cathedral, its granite apse at the eastern end, actually forms part of the defensive wall and is Romanesque.

Avila: Apse of the cathedral.

Construction continued until the 14th century, during which time the transition from Romanesque to Gothic was completed.

But viewing the cathedral from the side or looking at the main entrance (i. e. the west door), what we see is very much a Gothic structure. What happened was that the plans for the cathedral changed, but these alterations to Gothic did not begin until around 1172 when Alfonso VIII of Castile (1158-1214) commissioned a French master builder, Fruchel, to modify the apse inside and extend the building.

Avila’ West facade with main entrance

Despite its Gothic appearance –pointed arches, ribbed vaulting, large pointed windows, arresting rose window (above the Gothic arch in the main portico), prominent tower, and flying buttresses (added in the 14th century) — Avila’s cathedral with its Romanesque apse is in fact a transitional Romanesque-Gothic cathedral.  Its claim, then, to be the first Gothic cathedral in Spain is something of an overstatement.  (The Cathedral of Burgos (1221) also claims to be the first Gothic cathedral in Spain; its assertion rests on more solid grounds.)

Another church in Avila, the Basilica of San Vicente, was built at roughly the same time as the cathedral, but being outside the walls, it retains the defensive solidity and barrel arches of Romanesque but with Gothic pointed windows and Gothic ribbed roof vaulting (probably the work of Fruchel).

A similar transitional development occurred in Ciudad Rodrigo (construction began in 1165), Cuenca (1182), Teruel (1171), Lleida/ Lérida (1203) and Tarragona (1171). Nevertheless, despite their Gothic appearance these look quite solid, and retain the Romanesque frontier spirit. They have relatively flat roofs that emphasise heaviness and “horizontality” rather than verticality, luminosity and weightlessness so much associated with Gothic cathedrals.

Avila: San Vicente.
Cuenca. Cathedral.
Ciudad Rodrigo. Cathedral.

A surge by the Christians in the early 13th century, following the Battle of the Navas de Tolosa (1212), resulted in the collapse of al-Andalus and the capture of numerous towns across the south, from Valencia (1238), to Córdoba (1236) to Seville (1248).

And as had happened following the conquest of Toledo in 1085, Christians moved in to repopulate the land and consolidate their victory. What was left of al-Andalus was the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada, a mountainous, narrow strip that survived from approximately 1236 until 1492, when the city of Granada capitulated to the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragón.

By now the more recognisable, international-styled Gothic Cathedrals of Burgos (building began in 1221), Toledo (1227) and León (1258) were under construction in the secure north and centre, but south of the Sierra Morena the frontier mentality prevailed and the practice of building solid-looking churches continued.

Indeed, in the case of Mérida (conquered 1230), the late 13th-century cathedral looks decidedly more Romanesque, as does the more famous Basilica of Santa Eulalia. About 50 kilometres to the east, the Church of Santiago in Medellín (retaken 1234), and the Church of Santa Cruz in Baeza (1227) –both late 13th century– strike a similar chord: they are solid, low-slung buildings with small circular windows, semicircular entrances and thick walls, made to withstand possible surprise attacks. But inside, the pointed arches along the nave and over the chancel are indicative of the new Gothic vogue. They are in effect small Gothic churches clothed in a Romanesque exterior.
Mérida, Sta. Eulalia exterior.
Mérida. Sta Eulalia’s Gothic interior.

As was the case with Toledo, the conquest of Córdoba (1236) was significant even if the city no longer had the political clout it had enjoyed from the 8th to the early 11th century. It could still boast of having long been the capital of al-Andalus and was still home to one of Islam’s most magnificent mosques.

The Christians did not destroy the mosque, but signalled their victory by building fourteen parish churches, often called iglesias fernandinas, after Fernando III of Castile-León who commissioned them. Built in the late 13th-early 14th centuries to accommodate the growing number of Christians migrating south, they are often referred to as  “transitional” Romanesque-Gothic churches, but are actually Gothic churches that have retained some Romanesque features (i. e. they did not begin Romanesque and then transitioned to Gothic as happened following the conquest of Toledo).

Solid, buttressed buildings, they epitomise the determined spirit of those living on the volatile frontier where in fact disaffected Muslims (Mudejars) who remained under Christian rule rebelled several times in the 13th century, even winning back temporary control of some towns (Murcia, Jerez, Lebrija, Arcos, Medina Sidonia). Some striking examples of the iglesias fernandinas are the Church of Santa Marina de las Aguas, San Pedro and San Miguel.

Córdoba. Sta. Marina exterior.
Córdoba. Sta. Marina interior.

From the 13th to the 15th century, the Christians nibbled away at the frontier with Nasrid Kingdom of Granada until the final push instigated by the famous Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, in the 1480s led to total victory in 1492. What happened to church building in this last remnant of al-Andalus is interesting. By now the Reconquista was over, and we are entering the 16th century when the taste for Gothic was beginning to wane to be replaced by Renaissance architecture, already well established in Italy.

Much depended on the size and importance of the towns conquered in the former Nasrid kingdom. The conversion of mosques to churches was normal and quite widespread but in the larger towns the need for stamping Christian presence dictated that churches should also be built.  And in the larger towns, architectural tastes were quickly changing.

True, there is the late Gothic royal chapel (built 1506-21) in Granada, where the Catholic Monarchs are buried, but this is a very modestly sized building, and not what one might expect following the momentous conquest of the last Muslim holdout.

Indicative of the times is how initial plans for a Gothic cathedral in Granada gave way to the realities of changing taste; towering over and adjoining Royal chapel is not a Gothic but Renaissance (i.e. classically inspired) cathedral.

Granada. Cathedral.

Similarly, the cathedrals of Almería (1524), Guadix (1549), Málaga (1528), Antequera  (Santa María la Mayor 1514), Jaén (1525), all within the former Nasrid kingdom of Granada, clearly reflect the new trend to Renaissance and later Baroque taste with just some lingering Gothic touches. And the neighbouring towns of Ubeda and Baeza (about 130 kilometres north of Granada, 137 kilometres east of Córdoba) are full of Renaissance palaces and churches, more reflective of the expansive spirit of 16th-century imperial Spain, which saw itself as heir to imperial Rome.

However, in the smaller towns and scattered villages of this mountainous region, the potential threat posed by numerous Moriscos** was a daily reminder of the still precarious situation in the very south.

**i. e. Muslim converts to Christianity, most
of whom simply pretended to have converted
and remained Muslims in secret.

For example, there was a rebellion in the mountainous Alpujarras region south of Granada in 1501, and continuing tension which ended in a bloody two-year rebellion, 1568-70.  After it was over, thousands of Moriscos were transferred to distant areas in Castile and replaced by Christians from Galicia, Asturias and León.

In addition, the proximity of the Islamic Maghreb across the Straits of Gibraltar was also a constant source of concern. Adaptation of mosques to churches was easier in numerous cases rather than undertaking a new building project.

Where churches were built, they followed the pattern established in Córdoba: predictably small, they maintain those defensive features of churches bordering unstable frontiers: e. g. thick, buttressed walls and small windows. Depending on when they were built, they might have round or small Gothic windows and often located quite high on the wall for protective reasons.

The Church of the Holy Spirit (Espíritu Santo) in Ronda was started almost as soon as the town was taken by the Catholic Monarchs in 1485. Seven years before the fall of Granada, this was dangerous territory and the church was built to defend and impress with its towering presence (a marked contrast to mosques which were very low-slung buildings). The Collegiate of Baza (1531) has small Gothic windows but their height and the buttressed walls underline the defensive posture of the building (For a view of its beautiful Gothic interior, click:

Ronda. Espíritu Santo church.
Baza. The Collegiate.

The Reconquista ended in 1492, after an intense campaign in the 1480s initiated by the Catholic Monarchs.  Although a couple of new Gothic cathedrals were built in the first quarter of the 16th century (Salamanca’s New Cathedral in 1513 and Segovia’s in 1525), the taste for Italian-inspired Renaissance architecture reflected better the imperial path that Spain was following.

With the Reconquest over, the country was soon to conquer and create an empire in the newly discovered Americas (or Las Indias). This was quickly followed by the acquisition of huge swaths of Europe when the Hapsburg grandson of the Catholic Monarchs, Charles I/V, ascended to the Spanish throne in 1516.

In 1519, Charles acquired the title of Holy Roman Empire (as Charles V). An imperial title called for buildings that conveyed power, dignity, solemnity, majesty. Spain was the new Rome, and in 1526 Charles commissioned an Italian-trained architect, Pedro Machuca, to build a Renaissance Palace within the Alhambra. But that is another story.

San Pedro de Nora by Español:  
San Salvador Valdedios CC BY-SA 3.0,

Jaca By Willtron, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Fromista: San Martin by Miquel Colomer Planagumà 
San Segundo:
San Andres:  
Segovia San Millan: 
Avila apse: Roberto Abizanda from Zaragoza, Aragón, Spain – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, 
Avila. Cathedral Main Entrance: Hector Blanco de Frutos
Avila San Vicente: David Perez – Own work, CC BY 3.0,
Ciudad Rodrigo: De Mr. Tickle – Trabajo propio, CC BY-SA 3.0, 
Cuenca Cathedral: losmininos  CC BY-SA 2.0,
Merida Cathedral: Elemaki – Own work, CC BY 3.0,
Santa Eulalia:
Baeza. Santa Cruz: Anual: 
Santa Marina: De cruccone –, CC BY 2.0,
Santa Marina Interior: De Zarateman – Trabajo propio, Dominio público,
Granada Cathedral: Antonio Peramo on Wikipedia,%20Thumbnails/Photo%20by%20Antonio%20Peramo%20on%20Wikipedia.html 
Baza Collegiate: Rimantas Lazdynas – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Ronda Espiritu Santo: Santo 

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