The Visigothic monarchy is a very controversial period that, depending on the moment it is analysed and on certain political prejudices, it may be considered either as a period of great cultural development where the base of a native culture was created, or as a period of barbarity that gave origin to problems that today still exist.
We try to offer enough historical and cultural information so that our readers may reach their own conclusions.
In a generic way, we study in the phase of Visigothic art in Spain all the artistic manifestations developed in the Iberian peninsula since the creation of the Visigothic kingdom in Spain in the year 456 when king Teodorico disrupted the Swabians in Astorga and a great part of the Roman Hispania stayed under Visigothic domination until in the year 711 and after the battle of the Guadalete river practically all the peninsula was dominated by the Muslims. Even, given it is interesting for our study, we take into account in this phase the most important monuments of the Paleo-Christian art as of the first half of the 4th century, including the ones in the Balearic Islands which the Visigothic never occupied.
Before we start in the following pages a monographic study of the most important monuments of that period that are still preserved, and that are usually found in rural isolated areas, sincethose located in important nucleii have almost totally disappeared with the Arab domination or late, to be replaced by other Romanesque or Gothic buildings in places where the religious strata had funds enough so as to “be in fashion”, we shall make a brief review by periods and styles of the different stages that took place in the Visigothic art, based mainly on its architecture
During the whole of the 5th century, when the invasions took place, seems highly improbable that neither the barbarian settlements nor in the Hispanic-Roman nucleii, new artistic styles would have flourished. The Visigothics were until then a nomad people without any architectural tradition and were dedicated to assure their conquests. As far as the Hispanic-Romans, that settled mainly in the east and south of the peninsula, it does not seem they suffered much in passing from the Roman to the Visigothic dominion, keeping the same administrative, religious and social structures and, likewise, also in the area of artistic creation they kept the Paleo-Christian style, a direct heir of the Roman style, that existed since the 3rd century, and that meaningful samples in Spain are the sets of the classical type basilicas, built then in that area and in the Balearics, from which only the rest of their plans in excavations rest and the mausolea of Centcelles, of great interest for being the only building of that period that has been preserved, and La Alberca, , the most ancient double vault building known so far in Spain, to which would follow in later centuries other monuments with the same characteristics, like Santa Eulalia de Bóveda in Lugo, the St. Antolin’s Crypt in the Cathedral of Palencia or the Holy Chamber of the Cathedral and Santa María del Naranco in Oviedo. Anyway, very few rests remain of the Paleo-Christian art in our peninsula and its importance is bigger for its influence reflected in later monuments than for the remains that have survived.
The 6th century and the first half of the 7th century are marked by the surge of imported building styles that would have a great influence in the later development of the Spanish Pre-Romanesque style: The Byzantine styles and the one of the North African churches.
In the year 551, Justiniano, emperor of Byzance, sent an army to Spain to help Atanagildo, that had raised in arms against the king Agila. Once defeated and assasinated, Atanagildo accedes to the throne and in payment for the Byzantine support he will have to accept them to take over part of the Betica and Tarraconense provinces, staying there until the year 624 when they were definitely expeled by Suintila.
During these 73 years, the cultural influence of Byzance must have been very important in this area of the Spanish southeast, and it is unquestionable its reflection in the building of those times, from which remains almost intact only Gabia Grande’s Baptisterium, near Granada, covered by a semi-spheric dome and with rests of the decoration in marmor, glass, onix and cut out figures in flat stone plates, a style that recalls the one of the cancels appeared in the basilica of Elche, of the same period, of which only the plan with a magnificent mosaïque with Greek inscriptions is left. Both, the kind of decoration as well as the shapes of the cover based in vaults would reflect later on in the Visigothic buildings.
Of greater importance is the influence of the North African style. Due to the pursuit of the Christians by the Vandals in the north of Africa, a migrating current took them to the Visigothic kingdom, which, although Arrian, allowed the presence of Christian communities in its territory. The onset of these new groups of Christians in a period in which the Visigothic architectural style was yet without definition struggling between the inherited influences of the Paleo-Christian art, that came from Byzance through the Mediterranean, and the own characteristics of this German people, was immediately reflected in a great number of churches that were built in the 6th century.
The main characteristic of these churches, that generally had a basilical plan, is the presence of two counterimposed apses, what forces the entrance doors to the basilica to be located at the sides, where there usually were attached porticos, that sometimes were used for burials and that had the baptistery in a compartment outside the basilica. These structures can be seen in many of the plans that have been excavated in the south and west of the peninusla, among which we could point out those of La Cocosa and Casa Herrera in Badajoz, San Pedro de Alcántara in Málaga and Torre de Palma in Portugal.
FStarting with these buildings, the Visigothic style began to evolve seeking a conception of volumes completeley different to the existing one, based on the Roman basilical type, and that would end in the magnificent cruciform churches of the seconf half of the 7th century.
Some churches still from the 6th century and part of the 7th centuries, located in the central stripe of the peninsula, where we can see an attempt of modification of the basilical plans, specially in cabeceras to which a sort of pseudo-crossing is added, the structure indicating a pursuit of an inner space for the cult, very different to the one of the clasical basilicas and that would end carrying it to the cruciform churches. To this group belong churches of the 6th century, that is, corresponding to the Arrian rite, Cabeza de Griego and Recópolis and, from the 7th century, and therefore of a clear Christian adscription, San Juan de Baños, basilical type with three naves and three apses located in a very original way and Santa Lucía del Trampal in Cáceres, very similar to the former one with regard to its cabecera. Unfortunately, the building in the 6th century was very poor, based on masonry and brick, and maybe that is the reason only traces of the plans have survived, but without any rest of a complete building that would have allowed us to study their structure. Out of the remains found we can see the decoration made of capitals imitating the Corynthian style and cancels and plates generally decorated with geometric designs and chiseld always in two levels, that were rich but of a vey simple technique. However, some of the 7th century, as we shall see, of a very superior building and decoration techniques have reached us in a much better state.
In the middle of the 7th century the Visigothic art reached its major splendour, thwarted by the Arabic invasion. We only can figure out an idea of the splendour reached by architecture due to some churches of this period, found far away of the big population conglomerates. Frome these churches only a few samples of the decoration remain that have been found in excavation or utilised in later buildings, like in Toledo, Mérida and Cordova, three of the most meaningul cities of Visigothic Spain.
In this period all the previous attempts become fruitful to find a definite style, totally different to the already described ones as far as the type of church and style, a style that would later on be developed starting in the 11th century in the Romanesque architecture.
In the building technique we can witness a great advance with regard to the two previous centuries, generally replacing the masonry with the use of small ashlars, very well engraved, placed in horizontal courses, avoiding the vertical consecutive joints and, as it has been able to demonstrate with the moving of San Pedro de la Nave, by using sometimes wooden staples between the ashlars to make the ensemble firmer. The windows are generally narrow with a big embrasure.
The characteristic we may consider as the most important one in 7th century Visigothic art deserves a special mention.: the use of the horse-shoe arch. It is necessary to point out that this type of arch does not seem to be a consequence of any external influence, but of a completeley indigenous contribution, since already in the Roman period it appears as a decoration with stelas like Flavo, in the Archeologial Museum of León; even the door of Santa Eulalia de Bóveda, of a couple of centuries earlier than the cruciforms churches, has a horse-shoe arch of perfect proportions, what makes us turn down the possibility of a later importation.
There are big differences between these two archs and those in later Arab buildings, among which we can point out the fact that the intrados are prolongued approximately a fourth of its radium whereas the extrados falls vertically from the centre, what indicates that the prolongation in horse-shoe form only exists for purely decorative purposes, because all the weight is supported by the extrados, that the voussoirs converge always towards the centre and that it is not general the existence of an arch’s central key. Another interesting charcteristic is that the impostas were in-laid in the wall with their extreme supported by one or two columns attached to it, but never with entregas.
The archs of San Juan de Baños, both, the separation ones of the three naves as well as the one of the central apse and the portico one, are worth mentioning for their perfect proportions. Also the magnificent barrel vaults in horse-shoe shape of San Pedro de la Nave that end in four toral archs that suport the dome, but the most interesting one of this type is the magnificent triumphal arch of the chapel of Santa María de Quintanilla de las Viñassupported upon a double imposta with no capitals and with an extraordinary decoration.
The use of the horse-shoe arch was not limited to the religious buildings, since it also appears in some civil constructions of that period that have been preserved, like The Door of Seville in Cordova or the Bridge of Pines in the province of Granada.
As far as the shape of the plans of the churches of that period, we can distinguish two verydifferentiated groups:
Transition churches. In this group we include 7th century buildings already referred to that, keeping all the building and decorative characteristics of those times, can de framed among those that belong to a stage of pursuit of new types of cabecera for the basilical plans like those mentioned of San Juan de Baños y Santa Lucía del Trampal:
The plans have generally the shape of a Latin cross with the crossing nave with the same height than the main one and a crossing tower upon the intersection of both. The covers are by then normally bases on barrel vaults upon horse-shoe archs and the existence of an external apse in the testero seems to be quite frequent, always oriented to the east, and a portico on the west side protecting the main door.
Within the group of cruciform churches two periods can be noticed: in the first one, formed by Santa Comba de Bande, San Pedro de la Mata, in which we also include Santa María de Melque, although it had been considered for a long time as a Mozarabic one, there are nowadays very few doubts with regard to its Visigothic origin since it is very similar to the other two. The plan in them is a cross with only one nave and has small compartments attached to the sides, added probably later because, although all of them had initially a funerary origin, they were after used as monastic churches, wheras those of later construction were built directly with this purpose. In this second fase we include San Pedro de la Nave, Santa María de Quintanilla de las Viñas and San Giao de Nazaré that, keeping its basic structure with a cross shape, they are by then three naves originally, being the lateral ones distributed in small independent compartments, some of them probably used for specific cult functions, and others as cells for cloistered monks.
Evidently from this last period of Visigothic art, besides churches of these two types, others with less defined characteristics have also reached us, what makes it difficult to frame them in any of them, like the crypt of St. Antolín in the Palencia cathedral or St. Pedro de Balsemao. We have also historical information of many other buildings in big cities, from which there are only remains of decorations re-used in other later buildings, but we must suppose they had a different objective, a much larger size and therefore a structure very different to that of the rural churches that have survived till now. Suffice to note that the Cabeza de Griego, with a plan 48m long by 26m wide is, with great difference, the largest one we know of that period and it is also the only one that was located in an episcopal see, although not very important.
PERIODS AND STYLES
It is obvious we are in front of a period very difficult to analyse due to multiple reasons, among which we must highlight the following:
The lack of historic references of almost all of the studied monuments and the disappearance of almost all buildings of that period of which we have collected any information.
The impossibility to define some concrete set of characteristics, except maybe the almost common utilisation of the horse-shoe arch, that could be assimilated to the whole period or to some of the possible styles therein contained. The shape of the plans as well as the building technique, the kinds of vaulting or the types of decoration, vary and intercross in a non homogeneous nor ordered way, what has prevented, at least so far, the definition of reliable archetypes that might help defining the monuments. This problem is of such complexity that there are even doubts on whether certain buildings are 7th century Visigothic or 9th or 10th century Mozarabic, since in both cases the builders acted without any previous norm, using the technical and artistic elements known at that moment without any need to attain to concrete models.
The disappereance of what we suppose were the most important buildings of the Visigothic architecture, that could have helped us to understand the non uniform set of remains that have reached us: those located in big cities, of which we count with scarce information and some rest of decorations. A very meaningful case is the existence of a great number of pilasters with a magnificent vegetal and geometric decoration which is believed belongs to the 7th century, but there is not any Visigothic building with pilasters nor any pilaster decorated with human figures, although they begin to re appear in the Asturian Pre-Romanesque art.
However it is important to group by periods, styles or by both, at least the most meaningful monuments that have reached us, even without a complete guaranty of proceeding in the right way. Therefore we attach to this study a possible gouping of them based on the main characteristics of each of the trends or styles described in the last section contrasting it and completing it with the dating of the few that are known and with the most meaningful historical and geographical parameters.
I- Prior to the 7th Century
As we have indicated, we can distinguish two styles with regard to structure as well as with geographic and historical knowledge -click on the map to enlarge- generally accepted.
Paleo-Christian. To this group belong the two mausoleums in Centcelles and La Alberca and a set of basilicas of classicalstyle, all of them of one to three naves and with one or three apses, located at the east and south of the peninsula: Balearics, Catalonia, Levante and Extremadura. It is interesting to point out that all of them are located in the most romanised zone of Spain, where the administrative, religious and social structure, was kept almost with no variations. A special mention deserves the interesting building of Santa Eulalia de Bóveda, of that period though not allocated to any group.
Byzantine. Although there are doubts as regard to its origin, we can frame within this group, in principle, due to the rests of the decoration as well as to its location in the area of Byzantine domination at the time of its supposed building date, several basilicas of classical plan, like the ones of Elche, Játiva and maybe Aljezares and, above all, the Baptistery of Gabia Grande. In this case due to its structure we tend to believe it is Byzantine.
North-African. If the existence of two counter imposed apses is accepted as a differentiating element of the churches built by the Christians that arrived from the north of Africa, it seems certain that they settled in Extremadura and the south-west of Andalusia, where an important complex of remains of this type has been found. Another very usual characteristic of these churches is the existence of an outside baptistery.
Transition-period churches. Whilst all previous groups correspond to buildings from which we do not have any historical information but we know they were located in the Hispanic-Roman area and, therefore, were of Christian assignment, we do have enough information from both of this group, Cabeza de Griego and Recópolis, located in the central stripe of the peninsula so as to date them and know they were built by the Visigothics and that they belonged to the Arrian rite. In both cases the classical basilica is modified by adding a sort of pseudo-crossing, probably due to special requirements of this rite.
II- 7th Century constructions
Located in the central stripe of the peninsula, that is in the one with the highest influence of the Visigothic administration, they form a more conflictive complex since, forits type of building, of a much higher quality than the previous ones and because some of them have reached us in good shape, they were considered by the European scholars, during a long period of time, as being later than the 9th century. Gómez Moreno was te first Spanish specialist in medieval art, who in the first half of the 20th century classified them as 7th century’s Visigothic. Although the dating of some of them or even the whole group’s is still being questioned, we accept their assignment to the Visigothic art of the 7th century, since we know for certain the dating of three of them and, as we have already explained, there are many coincidences among them, like the type of construction, , the use of the horse-shoe arch or the type of decoration. Besides, we think it impossible that the four located in what was Arab territory till the last third of the 11th century -click attached map to enlarge- were built or re-built in the Mozarabic period. Due to the shape of its plan we distinguish two types of churches in this group, all of them later than the conversion of Recaredo and therefore belonging to the Christian rite.
Transition-period churches. Here we include four buildings, two hard to classify and two 7th century churches which plan, of basilical shape with cabecera with three separated apses and pseudo-crossing, seem to continue the pursuit of spaces for the cult very different to those generated in classical basilicas. With regard to this subject, we think that a study in depth of the differences between the cult in the Paleo-Christian period, the one of the North African Monastic communities, the Arrian one and the Christian Visigothic, would be needful to be able to interpret the architecture of this phase.
Cruciform churches. A set of churches, all of them located in rural environments, that show us the evolution from the pure cruciform plan of a funerary monument like San Fructuoso de Montelios Montelios till the more complex plans around a cruciform structure, used in the last monastic churches. About this group, it is interesting to notice the great importance that the monastic life had in the last years of the Visigothic monarchy, from which several news have reached us of many hermit saints that retired from a relatively important situation in the Visigothic society, to create monastic communities from which interesting high medieval buildings have been preserved and very meaningful cult traditions, like the ones from St. Frutos (Duratón, Cueva de Siete Altares), St. Millán (St. Millán de Suso) or St. Fructuoso (St. Pedro de Montes, Valle del Silencio).