General Description

In 410 Alarico plunders Rome, what may be considered as the starting date of the Visigothic monarchy, while other barbarian peoples invade the Iberian peninsula. Both facts would be the starting of a period in which a native culture developed in Spain, uncommon with that in the rest of Europe, during six centuries, from the 6th to the 10th; that is to say, between an European culture of conquest -the Roman – and an European culture of fusion – the Romanesque.


Our aim is to make known the Spanish History and Culture from this so little known period and provide the necessary information to visit its monuments




At the beginning of the 5th century, and in the middle of the deterioration of the Roman Empire, four barbarian people -alanos, vandals, asdingos, silingo vandals and swabians- cross part of Europe and settle themselves in the Iberian peninsula sharing out the Roman provinces that were there installed.

At the same time the Visigothics, after having traveled throughout Europe, from Scandinavia till the Black Sea and from there to Gaul, invading Italy three times on their way, even plundering Rome in the thuird one, they settle themselves in the south of France creating the Visigothic Kingdom of Tolosa.

These two circumstances bonded by the agreement signed in 418 between the first Visigothic Tolosan king Walia and the Roman emperor Constance to let the Visigothians in charge of recoveringPlano de las invasiones de pueblos bárbaros en Españathe Hispanic provinces for the Empire, proved to be absolutely fundamental in Spanish history and decisively influenced in the later social and political structures, as in culture and art that would develop as of then in our peninsula.

Since the occupation by the barbarian people took place without modifying the social structures that had deeply taken root during the imperial times, given the fact that the number of invaders was far lower to that of the Roman-hispanic population and was limited initially to create a military oligarchy, the Hispanic-Visigothic state that developed for three centuries in our peninsula had the Christian-Roman influence as a basic cultural one. Later this went through variations adjusting to the country’s own characteristics as well as to the character of the Visigothian people and to later foreign influences like the Byzantine and some Christian cultures. like the Copta one, almost independent, that developed in Syria and expanded to our peninsula throughout the whole of the north of Africa. Starting in the 8th century, the huge contribution of the Islamic culture was fundamental in the development of the Christian people that began to surge in the north and nortwest of the peninsula, after the quick´destruction of the Visigothic kingdom and, A su llegada a España los visigodos se encontraron con una sociedad que había sido capaz de construir obras tan magníficas como el teatro de Méridaas its continuation and to a lesser degree, the one of the Carolingian Empire, mainly in the Pyrenees and Catalonia.

This development process of indigenous culture, maybe the only time in history in which an own culture has developed in Spain, not common to the rest of West Europe, during the six centuries that go from the 5th to the 10th, between one conquest-European culture -the Roman one- and a fusion- European culture – the Romanesque one- that in a general way we could denominate as Spanish Pre-Romanesque, has left a whole series af artistic jewels, some magnificently preserved, through which we intend to follow the so little known process step by step, that goes from the classical Roman constructions to the contribution of Peninsular art to the European Romanesque art, clearly visible in monuments of such importance as San Pedro de Roda and all of the Romanesque sculpture that came from the Mozarabic workshops in the Catalonian Pyrenees at the beginning of the 11th century.


Throughout this long period a series of historical events took place that unquestionably conditioned the artistic and cultural development in Spain and generated on it several very differentiated phases from the historical point of view but not as much from the artistic one. Due to the lack of historical information available about an important part of the rests that have reached us, in some cases it becomes difficult to define the phase to which a monument of that period belongs. We think that this is due to the fact that we are in front of a movement of great ecclecticism in art, to which the different trends and influences thar were beginning to surge incorporated without any previous norms of any kind. This has probably been the period with the greatest freedom from the artistic standpoint in Spanish history; thus we can only explain to ourselves their complicated panorama of the Spanish Pre-Romanesque art, by analysing the social, religious and political characteristics in vigour in our country between the 3rd century -still under Roman rule- and the 12th century when the Benedictian reform had already extended throughout the peninsula, and comparing them with the art of ech phase.

Last phase of Roman rule. It is a period where a well structured society Basílica de Carranque. Paleocristiano S IVexists, uniform in the areas we are interested in from the cultural development standpoint with well defined and accepted lifestyles and consequently, buildings and cult. Thus it develops homogeneous forms of art for social and religious well established needs.

The main features of the rests that have been preserved correspond to villas and basilicas of similar structure, with wooden covers, and other kinds of building like mausoleums or vaulted baths; all of them with decorative elements that follow, to a greater or lesser degree, the classical norms. It is a period which we could consider of imposed culture and very standardised and therefore its artistic expression and the structures that support it comply with predefined rules and are totally identifiable.

Visigothic period. Upon the previous social structure a migrating people superimposes with a much inferior culture and without any building experience but in a very open expansion and with an artistic expression form basically concentrated in personal belongings, very defined and completely different to the Roman one, a different religion and, above all, an oriental type cult form clearly differentiated from the Hispanic-Roman, that will force them to gradually modify the shape of its churches, from the traditional Roman basilica to different plans with much more complex cabeceras.

San Pedro de la Nave. Visigodo S VIIAnother series of trends appear in Spain during this period; among them the North African and the Byzantine, with specific forms of expression and, although christians, both also of oriental type, as well as the influence of Rávena of Teodorico and Placidia Gaul, that together with the existent Paleochristian tradition, they would exert their influence in the dominant people but of lesser culture, which will evolve in a new culture as a result of the fusion of various influences, but before it reached its reaping point was suffocated by the Arab invasion.

For all of that it is almost impossible to find design nor artistic creation norms in this phase. Without any previous rule the different contributions start to superimpose creating a type of culture and consequently a type of art where a sediment of the different contributions is created in parallel with the society’s idiosyncracy. The outcome is a deeply eclectic culture that looks for its own identuty by freely mixing the different contributions of each one of the elements that conform it. The problem consists in that, due to the Arab invasion, they lacked time to finally define its guidelines; however we have been able to analyse the course it went through:

In Architecture, its differentiating element is the horse-shoe arch, but there is no a defined type of church. Different buildings have been preserved according to their building date, the environment in which they were built and the dominating influences at those times and in those areas, but in all of them we find a determining factor that will continue to exist in the Asturian and in the Mozarabic: whatever the shape of the church, the separation of the space for the officiants, the clergy and the faithful is mandatory. This determining factor will disapear in the 11th century when the misnamed “Mozarabic” rite is banned with the Benedictine reform in Spain.

Sculpture is clearly defined by the type of decorations used by the Gothics though with other influences, generally oriental ones.

With regard to literature and miniature, the Roman-Hispanic-Christian tradition is continued.

With the Arabic conquest this development process of an indigenous Spanish art was hold back although it kept a great deal of its features among the Mozarabics.

Asturian Pre-Romanesque Art.
About this period, when the horse-shoe arch disappears -the reasons for that we do not know-, it is interesting to point out that, except in the initial period and in the San Salvador de Valdedios S. Xspecial case of the three Ramirenses constructions, a return to the normalised art takes place, with a basic design to follow, more or less faithfully depending on the different cases. In churches a common structure is shown that consists of a three nave basilical plan with flat wooden cover, three square apses covered by a barrel vault and, in some cases, a well differentiated crossing nave. Obviously, this nomalisation, that was maybe inspired in some Roman or Paleochristian basilica preserved in the zone after the Arabic conquest, was designed by Asturian monarchs, who were the great building promotors of those times and that means a harsh change with respect to the freedom of forms that prevailed in the former period.

But probably, due to the strictness of the model and the poverty of its sculptured decoration, except in the special case of the Ramirense period that did not have neither precedents nor continuation, the Asturian art soon began to be penetrated by the Visigothic Renaissance brought in by the Mozarabics and, almost immediately, this trend towards normalisation was replaced by a new liberalising and eclectic phase where all the architectural and decorative elements known in building of very different stuctures, start to be utilised again. At this point it is interesting to point out that although the Asturian art was practically ignored by the Mozarabic builders, we again find back its most important features in the Romanesque art of all of Europe It is not in vane that among the types of art that we find in Spain between the 4th and 11th centuries, it is the only one that is always defined as “Pre-Romanesque”.

Mozarabic as “Neo-Visigothic”. Starting at the second half of the 9th century the proper conditions were generated -problems for the Christians in the areas dominated by the Arabs and beginning of an important expansionSanta María de Melque. ¿Visigoda o neovisigoda?towards those large groups of Mozarabics that integrated without any problems in any of them, since, due to the interest with which they had kept their culture previous to the Arabic domination and that in the Christians kingdoms, busy trying to survive and reconquer, the cultural Visigothic substratum had been kept; they shared their religion, culture, many of the customs and even a very concrete lithurgy clearly differentiated from the rest of the European environment.

Likewise in the first Visigothic period they gradually became to assimilate themselves upon a basically Roman substratum, the Visigothic culture and the different influences that were beginning to surge, like the North-African and the Byzantine ones, they incoporate in this phase from what was learnt in Al-Andalus, some new elements like their covering technique, the alfiz, or the modillions. All of that within the same eclectic spirit which sole really distinctive element is again the horse-shoe arch, though now with a greater freedom in foms.

It is interesting to note that while there had not been any difficulty in recognizing the Asturian-type monuments, even the ones that are not found in Asturias, in those of the other phases there are still a lot of controversies to assign some to the Mozarabic or to the Visigothic periods, since, due to its characteristics, the building may belong to any of these two periods. In several cases, the element that seems to us more certain to determine it is its situation with respect to the BORDER=”0″line at the beginning of the 11th century, as it is highly improbable that they could have built new Christian churches in Arab terrirory.

However, in spite of the arrival in the 11th century in all of Spain of the Gregorian reform that imposed the rule and the architectural and artistic Benedict concept as well as the official lithurgy, and, therefore, a different structure of the places of worship and adjusted to new forms, the Spanish heritage, both, in the Asturian art as well as in the Mozarabic one, was of enormous significance in the development of a new European art: the Pre-Romanesque art.

A special case: the High Aragonese art. A verry different case is the one formed by an important number of churches built in High Aragon between the 8th and 11th centuries, a great part of them with the same structure formed by a semi-circular apse and a rectangular nave of similar width. Although generally they have been considered as integrated to the Mozarabic art, from our point of view they form a group of very different characteristics within the Spanish Pre-Romanesque art, to which we dedicate a specific space in our website.

Proto-Romanesque as a previous phase of the Gregorian reform. There is not any clear definition of Proto-Romanesque art, although this denomination is used to put into frame certain Monasterio de Leire (Cripta). Primera mitad del S. XI buildings of the 10th and beginnings of the 11th centuries that announce the new European style before its “official” recognition, like the antecrypt of St. Antolín in Palencia. Under the focus we propose, we should include also other buildings previous to 1071 -date of the definite abolition of the misnomer “Mozarabic” rite- in which, though without any normalised structures of the new lithurgy, show aesthetc trends differentiated from the Mozarabic ones but, because of their building dates or their characteristics, they cannot be considered as Romanesque. We could include in this group examples like St. Peter de Teverga, the lower part of St. John de la Peña, some of the Pre-Romanesque churches of High Aragon, the cabecera and the crypt of the Monasterio de Leire, St. Michael de Cuxá, St. Mary Ripoll and St. Peter de Roda among others.

In these buildings, still inspired in the eclecticism of the Visigothic culture, besides carrying on assimilating without any previous norms the influences thart are starting to appear, a huge creativity is shown with regard to the developments of techniqydues, both building as well as artistic, that will reflect almost immediately in Romanesque art.

For instance, from the architectural standpoint, the use of vaults is optimised, the round arch is furtherly used in plenty of cases and in some, the fajón arch and large buildings start to be built again, like the already three Catalonian monasteries mentioned. At this point it is important to mention the only Spanish building known previous to the 12th century, larger than the Cabeza de Griego (Greek Head) basilica (48x26m), built in the 6th century: St. Mary de Ripoll Dintel de Sant Genis-les-Fonts. Año 1019  (60x28m), dated in 1032, the other two being smaller. Another pinpointing fact is that on analysing the plans of these three monsateries we can see that still a definite form of the cabeceras has not been found. These are different and complex, although in San Pedro de Roda appears as a clear precedent of the central apse with an ambulatory that is typical of the large Romanesque constructions..

Even more important in this phase is the evolution of the Mozarabic sculpture in the Catalonian Pyrenees, that will generate the first Romanesque sculpture spreading its characteristics from the lintel of Sant-Génis-les-Fonts, dated in 1019, first to the Catalonian countries and then quickly throughout Europe.

Romanesque art as a return to the European model.
The 10th century had been a very active period in Spain whereas in Europe it was a very dark time. But as of the year 1000 a great renaissance begins in Europe in all areas, basically in two that would immediately reflect in the artistic and religious Spanish structures. On the one side, the Romanesque art, generated as a fusion of the different trendsrtico de la Gloria. Santiago de Compostela. S. XII  developped in the Western European countries and, on the other side, the Cluniac reform, that, in a certain way unified the best part of all of them, designing an optimal model for the knowledge and mentality of that period, establishing common norms and imposing this common design in all Western Europe with the Papacy’s support.

In these countries, after six centuries of independent artistic movements since the Roman imperial model vanished, with very different outcome in each of them, we can declare that the only really creative one was the one developed in Spain- once more there is a European, common cultural model that benefits what was inherited from Rome and almost everything good that had been created in those six centuries of the High Middle Ages.

Obviously, this new situation generated a positive trend throughout Europe. The Romanesque art meant a first renaissance, a common impulse upon a cultural base solid enough after years of isolation and unculture since the fall of the Roman Empire, and boosted a cultural and social development of great importance in the last medieval centuries. But with the comeback to normalisation according to external models, not only in art but also religion and lithurgy meant the end of what we have called Spanish Pre-Romanesque Art, therefore the most important period of artistic creativity with extreme freedom and the most fruitful in all of Spanish history.


Before we start analysing in detail the monuments that have been preserved so far, and, consequently, assign to each one of them its possible building date, phase and style, and bearing in mind the big controversies that have always existed about Spanish Pre-Romanesque art and history, we consider we are obliged to first explain which have been the basic premises that have been utilised and the parameters considered as the most meaningful ones in our study. As always and without any polemic intention, simply trying to put our ideas on this subject on the table.


I- Basic premises


At the moment of analysing any monument, we think that the most importantSan Juan de Baños de Cerrato. Palenciaconsiderations to take into account for its possible assignation of date and style, in order from highest to lowest significancy,are the following:


  1. The monument’s structural characteristics: plan design, possible structure of its original covers, type of archs used and their support system, like columns, bases, impostas and capitals. Any other consideration about its structure that may be meaningful in that monument.
  2. Analysis of the monument according to the different authors that are attached in a general bibliography for each period and the specific one for that monument.
  3. Analysis of the general accepted geographical and historical circumstances that may affect its dating.
  4. The sensation of the environment of the monument, both, external with regard to location, enclave, landscape and architectural environment of the same period, whenever possible, as well as interior: interior proportions, distribution of spaces for the cult, general image including locations and decoration characteristics, etc. To achieve that, the visit to the monument is needful; this sensation, though not always reached, is sometimes very meaningful, like the impression of being in an Asturian church that we feel on entering San Giao de Nazaré.
  5. The existent decoration, giving lesser importance to that that does not belong the building’s structure, as it may come from another monument or being a later addition, or even considering the existent one upon structural elements as not meaningful for in some cases might proceed from previous buildings and in others, like so happens in the external of St. Fructuoso de Montelios or de Santa María de Quintanilla de las Viñas , it is known that part of the decorations was engraved on the already finished walls and, therefore, it could be subsequent.
  6. The analysis of the archeological findings in the building or in its surroundings.
  7. The coincidence, whenever possible, between the geographical area to which it belongs and that of other monuments that are also considered belonging to the same style.

II- Historical conditionings

Santa María del Naranco. OviedoSince that, so far, it has been almost impossible to define a clear way the characteristics of each of the existing phases in this period, there are great discrepancies in many of the analysed monuments about their origin to the extent that to-day some of the experts in High Medieval art, like Pedro de Palol, Luis Caballero Zoreda or the Northamerican investigator Sally Garen, propose a reconsideration of all studies in order to restructure the knowledge about Spanish Pre-Romanesque art. It has been even suggested that all vaulted monuments among those considered as Visigothic from the 7th century, could belong to the Mozarabic period.

From our standpoint, although in some cases is very difficult to determine the style and dating of a monument by its architectural characteristics, as long as there is no definite and convincing conclusion on the new focusing, we choose to abide by the traditional theories, which results use to be backed up, not only by experts with the highest prestige in Medieval art, but also by historic events sufficiently documented. There are some historical conditionings that we feel mandatory to take into account in a study of Spanish Medieval art:

* The Koranic prohibition of coexistence with any other religion, excepting the three biblical ones, and even in their case, although they were permitted, there was a categorical prohibition of building or even restoring churches. In fact, we know many cases of Christian churches destroyed or turned into mosques and only one case of a Christin church built in Arab zone: Bobastro, in an independent kingdom that, after the rebellion against the caliphate of Córdoba, Omar Ben Hafsum achieved to keep in the highlands of Ronda, a Mozarab, probably a descendant of a Visigothic count, between the years 869 and 917. Obviously the church was destroyed when the area was recovered by the Arabs.

* The other koranic prohibition of using any tipe of decoration that would include theSanta María de Lebeña. Cillorigo (Cantabria)human figure has prevented an important part of the Visigothic decoration to be preserved, specially the one that would have existed in the big cities, where only elements of vegetal or geometric decoration reutilised in Arabic buildings have survived, like the capitals of the Mosque of Córdoba or the plilasters in Mérida and Toledo. However, we have examples of Visigothic decoration with human figures found in churches that probably were not discovered by the Arabs, like San Pedro de la Nave and Santa María de Quintanilla de las Viñas

* Our complete ignorance about he levels that theVisigothic art reached in the big cities and specially the Toledan court art, unable us to adequately value its possible influence on the immediate subsequent most important styles:


  1. The Asturian art, the influence in which must have been much higher than the one considered so far, since it is unquestionable the Asturian monarchy’s intention, since its beginnings, of refounding the Visigothic kingdom in all the peninsula and emulate it in everything. Alphonse the Chaste, according to texts of those times, “established in Oviedo all the organisation of the Gothics, both in the church as well as in the palace”.
  2. The Mozarabic art, that represents the continuity of the Visigothic spirit among the Christians that lived together the Arabs and their resistance to assimilate themselves to the culture and religion of the new invaders. In architecture and sculpture and, above all, Mozarabic painting and miniature, are a direct continuation of the Visigothic art, though enriched with the Islamic aesthetic techniques and influences.
  3. San Miguel de Tarrasa. BarcelonaThe Cordovan art: The influence that the Islamic culture has exerted over Spain as of the 8th century till now, has been profusely studied and accepted by everyone, but very little has been analysed on the influence that the Visigothic art that the Arabs found could have had in cities like Toledo, Cordova or Merida on their later buildings. For instance, we do not know the Visigothic church of San Vicente de Córdoba, but we know it was shared by Christians and Muslims until it was destroyed in the year 785 to build the first phase of the great mosque. We also know that many elements of San Vicente were reutilised and that in its structure we find architectural solutions that existed already in Spain, like the horse-shoe arch and the use of superimposed arcades in a way similar to, for example, the Roman aqueduct in Mérida. What architecture did the Arabs really find in Spain? To what degree besides the techniques imported from the East, solutions found in their new land were used?
  4. The Carolingian art: Although in the beginning the buildings of Charlemagne’s times imitate the Roman architecture and specially Rávena, the influence that the Visigothic art had in its later manifestations, was a decisive one, like in the church of Germiny-des-Près, the last Carolingian miniature and the buildings on the Hispanic Mark, like Cuxá, the three churches in Tarrasa or San Pedro de Roda, among others. Among the Mozarabs that reached an important position in its court, we can mention Witiza, reconverted in Benoit d’Aniane, Agobard de Lyon and specially Teodulfo, called Píndaro in Aachen, who became bishop of Orléans and was the driving force of Germiny-des-Prés, the origin of a new style in Carolingian architecture.

* The date of the reconquest of the zone where the monument is. Due to the mentionedLínea de reconquista a mediados del S. XIprohibition, we believe it is highly improbable that Mozarabic churces might have existed under the existing conquest line in the middle of the 11th century that, in a general way, went from Coimbra to Osma, passing by at the north of Salamanca, Segovia and Guadalajara, in the west and central zones, and from Calahorra till the south of Barcelona, passing by Lérida in the east zone. It is alsdo unlikely that they would have been built in the second half of the 11th century in the reconquested zones, as in those dates churches of a clear Romanesque style were already being built, like San Frutos del Duratón, dated in 1076.


Although the study of the information of the different authors on art in this period drives us to think on a clear separation between the different styles and periods of Spanish Pre-Romanesque art, our feeling is that we are facing a creative and very homogeneous development along these six centuries, which fundamental phase is the last century and a half of the period we call Visigothic that, although thwarted by the Arabic invasion, kept on constantly influencing in all the later peninsular art and that, although conditioned by the historical circumstances in each area and period, it kept in its eclectic spirit and in a great part of its shapes, the line that already was clearly marked in the year 711.

Decoración escuplpida en la cabecera de Quintanilla de las Viñas. Visigodo del S. VIIWe underatand that in this period levels were reached, both in monumentality and quality, of which just small samples have survived but that they were kept within the tradition or in the retina in some cases of later builders and that they had an influence, although not exclusively, in their creations. We think that more attention should be paid to some questions that have reached us almost unnoticed till now, as, among many:

Monumentality: Whilst from the rest of the periods an important part of their monuments have been preserved, the historical circusmtances have made disappear the Visigothic period’s most meaningful buildings, like Santa Leocadia in Toledo and Santa Eulalia in Mérida, that Prudencio compared with the Roman basilicas. It is important to point out that the greatest basilica of the Visigothic period that is known, Cabeza de Griego, located in a bishopry of little imoportaance had 48×26 metres. The largest ones we know of the later centuries are the cathedral consecrated in the year 299 by Alphonse III el Magno in Santiago de Compostela which was just 32,25×16 metres and San Julián de los Prados which is 39×29 metres. Therefore, it is reasonable to think that in the 7th century there would have existed in the large cities, buildings of a much larger size than those built in Christian Spain during the three later centuries.

Building Styles: Except in part of the Asturian period and in the churches of High Aragón, Miniatura de un Beato mozárabe S. IX-Xit has not been possible to determine a defined type of plan, structure nor bond used id any of the phases of this period. We find in all of the buildings of two superimposed naves with or without a crossing of one to three apses and other unframable forms. The same happens with the bond, that in some cases is sillería and in others, masonry with rough stone, sillarejo, etc.

Iconographic Tradition:Another very meaningful subject that forces us to think on the significance of Visigothic art in later styles, is the importance attained by the miniature and the painting we call Mozarabic. It is evident that its iconography could not have had an Arabic origin, since the reproduction of the human image was forbidden in religious subjects. However, in some Visigothic and Asturian churches we find sculptered decoration which is its clear precedent. Everyday it becomes more evident that what we call Mozarabic art should be considered as “Repopulation Art” or even “Neo-Visigothic Art”, with Arabic influences but, as we will carry on seeing, a direct continuity of the Visigothic art.


If we think on what we have scoured in Spanish history and culture from the 5th through the 10th centuries, it San Cebrián de Mazotebecomes every time more evident the continuity of a development and integrational effort of the different cultural trends that existed in the peninsula upon the arrival of the Visigothics, with which this people contributed and that begin to appear later from outside. This specific cultural development, which fundamental characteristic is the eclecticism, due to the freedom the artists had to design their work, except in a short period in the 9th century in Asturias, forms a part of the basic objective: the creation and further reconstruction of an independent state with differentiated characteristics from the rest of Europe. In this environment of time we can study, within the so called “Visigothic Aert”, a period of settlement and development until the religious unification in the middle of the 6th century, and a period of maturity, from then till the Arabic conquest, from which we have samples probably of very little significance. There is after a period of almost a hundred years in blank, of recretaion of the Visigothic kingdom in Asturias and of preservation of that idea of country and culture differentiated bya a part of the Christians that stayed in Arabic territory, and a last period of recuperation. In it we find two trends that emerged practically out of the same base and had the same objectives although with some differences in some cultural and technical elements, defined as “Asturian Art”, thast lasted approximately another a hundred years, and the “Mozarabic Art”, that coincided in its last years with it and continued till the 11th century. From our standpoint, the fusion of these two forms of development of Visigothic art in the 7th century, together with the Mozarabic sculpture of the Pyrenees, would generate the most important contribution of Spanish art to the European Romanesque art.

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