San Baudelio. A Gem of Mozarabic Architecture.

San Baudelio: An Architectural Gem.
Although there are some scholars who deny that there is such a thing as “Mozarabic architecture,” the term has been widely adopted and is a standard reference. 

Rather than to a specific, unified kind of architecture, the term refers to churches built by or under the direction of different groups of monks fleeing to the Christian north from the south (especially Córdoba) from the 8th to the 11th centuries. As a result each church is unique. 

They all do have, however, certain architectural features in common, the most easily identifiable being the horseshoe arch.  Often seen as a Moorish architectural feature, the horseshoe arch was in fact widely used in Visigothic churches built prior to the arrival of the Moors in Hispania in 711. So, in other words, the Mozarab refugees were not introducing a new architectural style borrowed from the Moors, but continuing the Visigothic tradition albeit now with Moorish modifications.

Where the Moorish influence is most evident vis-à-vis horseshoe arches is in the pronounced increase in the curve of the arch supported on slender pillars. This was probably inspired by the arches of the Great Mosque of Córdoba, the capital of al-Andalus and the origin of the largest group of Mozarabs.

Compare the following: the interiors of the Visigothic church of San Pedro de la Nave (north west of Zamora, Castile-León), the Great Mosque of Córdoba, and the Mozarabic church of San Miguel de la Escalada (just east of the city of León)

San Pedro de la Nave.
Cordoba mosque
San Miguel de Escalada.

The best known Mozarabic churches are San Miguel de Escalada, San Cebrián de Mazote (Valladolid), Santa María de Bamba (near Tordesillas), Santiago de Peñalba (near Ponferrada), Santo Tomás de las Ollas (in Ponferrada), Santa María de Lebeña (near Potes). All belong to the 10th century. In Catalonia, we find Sant Julia de Boada,  Sant Quirze de Pedret, Santa María de Marquet  and Sant Miquel de Olerdola; all 10th century also. We’ll take a closer look at these in a forthcoming page.  (Interestingly, some Mozarabic characteristics are also found in contemporary churches in the south of France.)

San Baudelio. 
What follows are some comments on a curious Mozarabic hermitage called San Baudelio in the province of Soria in Castile-León.  The comments are based on our travel page on Berlanga de Duero, San Baudelio and the imposing castle of Gormaz.

The date of construction has been something of a headache. General consensus is that the hermitage belongs to either the early or late 11th century; still it has also been argued that it was built in the 10th century, more in line with the majority of Mozarabic churches.

What favours the later date is the possibility that the Mozarabs who built San Baudelio fled from the taifa of Zaragoza (taifa: small Muslim kingdom or state) which was threatened in the late 11th century by advancing Almoravid forces from North Africa. The Almoravids brought with them a more puritanical version of Islam than that followed by the pleasure loving attitude of the taifa kingdoms (the taifa of Zaragoza fell to the Almoravids in 1110).

Built in honour of a little-known Christian martyr from France, St. Baudelius, the hermitage lies about 8 kilometres/ 5 miles west of Berlanga de Duero, an ancient town mentioned in Spain’s most famous epic poem, El Cantar de mio Cid (The Song of the Cid). You can’t see San Baudelio from the road, but shortly after the village of Casillas de Berlanga, you turn right and ascend a narrow paved trail for about 800 metres/ 875 yds.

San Baudelio’s modest exterior with small horseshoe entrance..

The hermitage appears suddenly around a corner: a small stone-built rectangle with a tiny rectangular apse, two doors and two minute windows. It stands in solitude near the top of a stony hill covered with gorse and other shrubs.

For centuries, San Baudelio lay forgotten and was rediscovered in the late 19th century and purchased by some villagers from nearby Casillas de Berlanga.  It sprang into prominence in the early 1920s when an American collector, Gabriel Dereppe, bought the contents of the hermitage, specifically a remarkable series of frescoes that covered the interior.

This sparked an outcry and triggered a law suit that dragged on for four years before permission was granted by Spain’s highest court for the sale to go ahead. Fortunately, not all the frescoes were transferred, but you can see those that went to the USA in the Boston Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Others can be seen be seen in the Prado Museum in Madrid.
San Baudelio. Apse in the foreground.

San Baudelio’s simple/modest exterior belies the complex arrangement of its interior and its richly decorated walls.  Structured over a hermit’s cave on a roughly north south axis, it has a mosque-like series of horseshoe arches lodged behind a palm-shaped cylindrical pillar at the south end and a rectangular apse with a simple altar at the north end.

The horseshoe arches support a small choir or tribune, access to which is via uneven stone steps running along eastern wall or a tiny door from the hill outside. The walls are or were covered with striking frescoes (many –as indicated above—were sadly removed in the 1920s) which reach up to the vaulted ceiling.

On entering via the double horseshoe-arch door, you are struck at how tiny and rustic the place is… about a dozen steps and you have crossed the earthen floor of the nave.

San Baudelio’s “palm” column with horseshoe arches behind.

As your eyes adjust to the light (the main source of which is the entrance), you almost walk into perhaps the building’s most remarkable feature: the large cylindrical pillar supporting eight ribs which spread out like palm fronds or ribs to support the roof. 

The fronds then continue curving downwards creating a horseshoe shape. The palm, of course, is associated with North Africa and the Middle East, and its inspiration came probably from the ribbed ceilings that were already a feature of Moorish architecture (e.g. immediately above the entrance to the mihrab in Cordoba’s Great Mosque). Ribbed ceilings later became one of the outstanding characteristics of Gothic architecture.

The remarkable horseshoe arches behind the palm-like are illuminated by a shaft of light from the entrance and, looking at them, it is easy to imagine yourself in a tiny mosque, so reminiscent are they of Moorish arches.

San Baudelio. Horseshoe arches. Steps to choir on the left. Note outline of camel and hunting dog on hind legs just to left of column.

However, as indicated above, horseshoe arches were already common in Visigothic churches of the 6th-7th centuries, but their repetitive use on slender pillars –so noticeable in Cordoba’s mosque, for example—  has led many people to associate horseshoe arches exclusively with Moorish architecture.

Opposite the cylindrical column, five steps lead through an impressive double horseshoe arch (note the frescoes on the curve of the arches) into the small, rectangular apse with its stone altar.

San Baudelio. Entrance to apse

Above the altar, a tiny window framed by a horseshoe arch lets in a sliver of light that faintly illuminates the apse’s interior, the walls of which are covered with faded frescoes.  Flanking the window are fresco paintings of St. Baudelio (right) and St. Nicholas (left), identified by accompanying inscriptions.

Overall, the architectural features of San Baudelio, especially the radiating central column and the accompanying mosque-like horseshoe arches, are unique. The hermitage is an excellent architectural example of the hybridisation or eclecticism resulting from the close contact of Christian-Visigothic and Moorish cultures.

As for the frescoes, what is left is still very impressive, even the outlines/ traces left behind by those removed in the 1920s. Had the frescoes been left in their entirety, they would have commanded much more interest in the art world.

There has been a lot of debate about what they mean, and whether they are the work of one or more artists or come from one studio, or whether they were painted at different times. Some classify those on the upper level as Romanesque (i.e. Christian) while those on the lower level reflect a more oriental influence.

What is clear is that there are two general themes to the paintings: the upper register frescoes draw on the life and death of Christ and the lower depict secular scenes such as stag hunting or falconry. On the choir wall above the series of horseshoe arches, there are unusual pictures of a camel, an elephant (both appropriately alongside the palm pillar), a bear and hunting dogs on hind legs.
Oxen facing each other. On wall opposite entrance.

The variety of animals makes the frescoes of San Baudelio resemble a bestiary (bestiaries were popular medieval collections depicting animals with allegorical or moral messages).

These secular scenes encompass activities that were common and highly esteemed in both Christian and Islamic cultures, especially hunting and the art of falconry.

The overall impression is of an architectural and artistic synthesis where the interplay of two cultures has produced a cultural gem. It reflects San Baudelio’s location on the fluid frontier of the Duero valley where Christians and Moors fought for supremacy in the 10th and 11th centuries.

If you are adventurous, you can crawl into the hermit’s cave over which the hermitage is built. The cave burrows a long way into the hillside. It’s a claustrophobic experience, and you’ll be glad to be outside again. Before you leave, climb a little behind the hermitage for some terrific views of the surrounding countryside.

View from San Baudelio

Stony hills and a green quilted valley, the distant bleating of sheep and for the rest … silence.  It is stunning, moving and magical, and it isn’t difficult to imagine how anyone in search of solitude would find this spot ideal.

If your visit happens to coincide with a tour bus group, wait until the visitors have gone. This is not a place for crowds; it should be savoured in solitude.

For visiting hours and directions to the hermitage (including GPS co-ordinates), see 

Location of frescoes removed in the 1920s:
In the Prado Museum: Stag Hunting, The Hunting of Hares, The Warrior, The Elephant, The Bear, Decorative patterns.
In the Cincinnati Museum of Art, Cincinnati: The Falconer.
In the Cloisters Museum, New York: The Camel, Dogs Rampant or Dogs on Hind Legs, The Healing of the Blind Man, The Resurrection of Christ, The Temptations of Christ.
In the Museum of Fine arts, Boston: The Three Marys before the Sepulchre, The Last Supper.
In the Indianaplois Museum of Art, Indianapolis:  The Wedding Miracle at Cana, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem.

Escolano Benito, Agustin San Baudelio de Berlanga: Gua y Complementarios Publisher?: Necodisne Ediciones 2003
Recommended Citation
Watt, Kelly L., “Medieval churches on the Spanish frontier : how elite emulation in architecture contributed
to the transformation of a territorial expansion into Reconquista.” (2011). Electronic Theses and
Dissertations. Paper 1538. See especially Chapters 4 and 5 for a detailed study of the architecture and frescoes.

White, Robert   A River in Spain: Discovering the Duero Valley in Old Castile  London 1998.  Gives a good summary of various theories regarding the frescoes, and offers a new interpretation. Unfortunately there are no pictures.
Image of San Pedro de la Nave by PMRMaeyaert