General Description

“He established in Oviedo the whole order of the Gothics providing everything, both, for the Church as well as for the Palace, in accordance with what had been followed in Toledo”.  



Cruz de la Victoria. Cámara Santa, Oviedo

From our point of view, this sentence by the Albeldense report writer about Alfonso II, el Casto (Alphonse II, The Chaste) who reigned in Asturias for 51 years (791-842) at the beginning of the Reconquest, has now much more importance in the History of Spain than what was thought previously.

It is important to bear in mind that, during the Visigothic monarchy, the inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula had stopped depending from a foreign power for the first time; that the unification of the whole peninsular territory had been achieved, and that, since Recoredo’s conversion to Christianity, there was a good level of social and religious integration, although at the political level there were lots of problems. Everything we know about the new Christian kingdoms indicates that the objective consisted in the reconstruction of that Visigothic monarchy, especially in the case originated in the Picos de Europa from the battle -or better stated, skirmish- of Covadonga. That meant getting rid of the new dependance from a foreign people and the recovery of all territories. The success was clear to the point that if we compare the map of Visigothic Spain at the end of the 7th century with the one of Philip the II’s Spain, at the peak of the Spanish empire after nine centuries of reconstruction, we find they are practically identical. In both cases the territory was formed by the whole Iberian peninsula and a very similar part of the south of France.

When the Arabic invasion took place, the Roman-Hispanics who were used to live for almost a millenium under foreign domination, adapted themselves to the new situation without much difficulty, sCovadonga. Cueva de la Virgenince the Arabs treated them with great tolerance, but an important part of the Gothics could flee and find shelter in the mountains of the north forming two resistances , one in Asturias and the other one in Cantabria nucleii with the collaboration of native people that had always shown an independent spirit in front of the successive conquerors of the peninsula. Both nucleii were commanded by the Visigothic nobility mixing almost immediately by marriage to create the Asturian monarchy. This monarchy defined itself from the very beginning as a continuation of the Visigothic monarchy which, in the early stages, was an elective monarchy, placing always in the throne people with a genealogy not always proven, like descendants of the royal Visigothic families. Along with the same objective, a great effort was made to reestablish the social, religious and administrative structures, as mentioned in the Cronicón, that existed in the disappeared Visigothic kingdom; for instance, the same system of distribution of reconquered land that did not have any owners was maintained, something that had a great influence in all the social and political Spanish organisation in later years. It will be basic to keep in mind this vocation of continuity, that was the base of the Asturian monarchy, at the moment of analysing the characteristics of the art that developped during the first two centuries of the Reconquest.

Within this continuous process of Reconquest, that is, the recovery of all the territories that had been taken over by the Arabic invasion, it is considered as Pre-Romanesque Asturian Art, the whole collection of artistic manifestations that took place between San Salvador de Priesca. Detalle del ábside central722 (unconfirmed date of the Battle of Covadonga) and 910 when, after Alfonso III el Magno dies, his son Ordoño the II moves the court to León. On this date already a new artistic movement has appeared, the so called “Mozarabic Art”, generated by Christians that had lived in Arab territories, begin to migrate to the reconquered zones, bringing along with them an important body of artistic and technical knowledge learnt in Al-Andalus, together with a renewed Visigothic spirit that they had kept alive during the 200 years of domination.

Along these two centuries, the small kingdom that took up the most rugged part of the Picos de Europa started to spread out throughout all of Asturias and Cantabria first, and then throughout Galicia, which acquired great importance on account of the “invention” of the Apostle St. Jacques’ sepulchre and the beginning of the legend of “Santiago Matamoros” (Jacques, the killer of Arabs) and the pilgrimages to Compostela and finally through Portugal, León, the Basque provinces and Castille till practically the complete occupation of the territories at the north of the Duero river. At the same time its capital, and therefore the new religious and civil buildings were moved since the initial one in Cangas de Onis, first to Pravia and then to Oviedo, designed and built following the Toledo court, and finally to León when Oviedo happened to be too far away and difficult to reach for the control and defense of the new territories.




Among the difficulties present for the study and cataloguing of almost all Spanish Pre-Romanesque monuments, in the case of Asturian Art, three premises have been generally accepted that let define, maybeSan Julián de los Prados (Oviedo). Perido de Alfonso IItoo simplistically, a building that belongs to this phase:


  • From the historical standpoint.

– Only buildings built between 722 (date of the Battle of Covadonga) and 910 (when the court moved to León).

  • <br
  • From the geographical standpoint. </br


  • – Only buildings existing within the boundaries of the resettled territories prior to 910.</br


  • From the structural standpoint.

– Only buildings without horse-shoe arches as structural elements are considered to belong to Asturian architecture. The buildings of that period that use that type of arches are considered Mozarabic.



In order to analyse the general characteristics of the Asturian Art, we must establish a very clear division between two completely different styles: the Ramirense period reflected in San Salvador de Valdediós, that we will study separately, and the rest of this phase’s artistic manifestations.


Among the latter ones, both, due to the little boldness of its structures as well as for the quality of its buildings and sculptured decoration, we may consider that the Asturian Art is a leap backwards with respect to the last Visigothic Art. Only in the exterior aesthetics of the buildings we can see a very interesting step forward with respect to the buildings prior to 711.

– The horseshoe arch disappears completely and is replaced by the round series of arches.

– The walls are of masonry or Santa María de Bendones. Cabeceraashlar whilst among Visigothics they were generally made of built in bone ashlars. Exterior buttresses are common, sometimes for decorative reasons when not corresponding to the vaults support.

– Churches are of basilical plant with three naves, three rectangular apses and elevated tribune at the feet. There is frequently a hidden chamber above the central apse as well as a portico at th feet and a small compartment on each side.

– The columns in the separation of the naves disappear, and are replaced by much heavier cuadrangular pillars. That is the reason to replace capitals by impostas, except in the cabeceras.

– The covering of buildings is plane, wooden, except in the B>cabeceras where they are always rectangular and are covered by barrel vaults.

– The sculptured decoration is reduced to lattice windows and, above all, to the chevets that sometimes are also decorated with blind series of arches on columns against the walls, but a much richer pictorial decoration is used in all the building..

– Special care is given to the exterior design of the churches, with a clear difference in the height between the lateral and the central naves, with latticework above the lateral ones, three windows in the apses and another window in the upper chamber of the central one, normally with two to three arches on small columns and capitals. The portico at the feet and sometimes also at the sides is usually of great beauty and is a very clear precedent of the Romanesque Art.

– According to the analysis made by Schlunk, all the walls, both, exterior and interior, were covered with smooth plaster. In the exterior, on a mix of small ashlars with other building elements, with decorations imitating the areas built with ashlars, wheras the interior was rendered and decorated with paintings.

It can be considered that some of the mentioned characteristics are manifested in Santanes de Pravia, the most ancient building that has been Ejemplo de arquería de medio punto en las Termas Romanas de Campo Valdés10preserved to these days. Due to the isolation of the Asturian kingdom at its beginning -between 774 and 783- the most reasonable is to think that the Hispanic tradition was much more meaningful than the external influences in the gestation of the Asturian style.

In fact, as we have seen, we can find precedents of the preceeding phase of almost all noted characteristics: basilic plants with three naves, three apses -Son Bou, San Juan de Baños, Santa Lucía del Trampal -, porticos at the feet and in the laterals – San Pedro de Alcántara, San Pedro de la Nave, Quintanilla de las Viñas, etc. -, chambers above the central apse – Santa Comba de Bande, San Pedro de la Mata, San Pedro de la Nave, etc. -, elevated tribune at the feet of the church – San Giao de Nazaré, Quintanilla -, utlisation of pillars instead of columns – Aljezares, Son Bou, San Pedro de Alcántara, San Pedro de la Nave, etc. – and even the utilisation of masonry and ashlars was also very frequent before the cruciform churches.

The subject that appears most conflictive is the utilisation of the round classical arch, although being one of the main features of this phase, replacing the horseshoe arch so typical to the Visigothic Art. No satisfactory explanation for the reasons ofVentana con arco de herradura en Santianes de Praviathis change have been found so far, being the most probable one that it has been motivated by the Carloingian Art. But this theory does not sound believable for several reasons: one the one side, the evidence of the spirit of continuity of the Visigothic monarchy in the Asturian kingdom, that undoubtly reflected very clearly in all its cultural manifestations, in architecture as well as in sculpture, goldsmithing and miniatures. On the other hand, it is difficult to think that this change had been motivated by building traditions or artistic influences that came from the exterior to one area that remained practically isolated during the first times of the Reconquest. Only since the last years, when remains of important Roman constructions start to appear in the principality, like Veranes, the Balneario de Las Regueras or the hot thermal baths of Campo Valdés, among others, it is becoming more probable that it had only been motivated by the utilisation of previous classical models existing in the area.

This phase is diveded in four perfectly differentiated periods. The last three correspond to the personal impulse of three of the most important kings -at least from a cultural standpoint- of the Asturian monarchy:

Initial period: from the battle of Covadonga till the moving of the capital to Oviedo, during Alphonse II’s reign. It is a time of survival, of resistance and extension of the territory- Galicia is conquered and the court moves from Cangas de Onís to Santianes de Pravia. Evidently it was not a period of great artistic creativity; in fact only the remains of two churches of those times have been preserved, one in Cangas de Onís, today disappeared but built in 737 upon a dolmen that still exists, and the other one in Santianes de Pravia, from the times of king Silo, around 780. We know through the chronicles of Sebastian that between these two dates, in times of Alphonse I, many churches were built and restored, among them the monastery of San Vicente that gave origin to Oviedo, but no remains of those buildings have reached us. What really may be considered as trascendental in this period is the continuity of the traditions of the Visigothic culture in the monastery of Liébana, where Beato, its abbot during the reign of king Silo, wrote “Comments on the Apocalypse”, confronting Elipando, the metropolitan of Toledo, opposing to his adoptionist theory. The “Comments on the Apocalypse” are direct descendants of the Visigothic culture and miniature and it is the starting point of all the later Mozarabic miniature and, therefore, of the Romanesque painting and sculpture.

Reign o King Alphonse II, the Chaste (791-842): great politician and military and supporter of the renaissance of art and culture of the Visigothic kingdom in Asturias By moving the court to Oviedo he wanted to convert this city in a new Toledo, providing to it all the structures he thoughtSan Julián de los Prados. Oviedonecessary to become the capital of an important monarchy. According to what we can read in the chronicles, under the responsibility of its architect, Tioda -name that come from the Gothic Teudis-, a walled city was built and a monumental nucleus in its interior that included the palaces of the king, the church of San Tirso and the chapel of Sta. Leocadia, and a whole series of buildings of public service, like aqueducts, thermal baths, etc. He built the basilica of San Julián and Santa Basilisa, forming part of a royal villa at 1 Km from Oviedo. The basilica has been very well preserved to these days and it is known as San Julián de los Prados or Santullano. Besides, other two rural churches are considered belonging to this period due to their similarity with Santullano: Santa María de Bendones and San Pedro de Nora. The Holy Chamber and Santullano have been declared world heritage sites. During the reign of Alphonse the II started the devotion to Santiago for which he also ordered the building of the first church devoted to the saint in Compostela.

Reign of Ramiro I (842-850): In just eight years and without any intention to leave a monumental work to posterity, this king, who only intended to build a small recreational palace and a church in his hunting domaines, has bequeathed three extraordinary constructions of absolute perfection both, structural and aesthetically. These buildings, declared world heritage sites, although very different between them, hold some basic common characteristics very different to those defined for the rest of the Asturian architecture:

Each building corresponds to an integral plan, very complete for which also all the sculptural decoration is designed that fits in its structure.

They are constructions built on the base of little ashlars, very well squared and totally vaulted. The vaults rested on fajones arches and rested in the exterior by buttresses and in the interior by pilasters against the wall as we will see later reproduced in the Romanesque architecture.

They have a very rich decoration sculptured in columns, capitals, bases, stone courses, discs, pilasters, etc. where it again appears the human figure that had not been reutilised since the latest Visigothic period, as well as geometric, vegetal and animal subjects where some Visigothic, oriental and even Viking influences seem to be present.

In view of the integration of all elements in each building, for which only material expressly prepared for each one of themis used, it seems unquestionable that they were built not only by a single architect, but also by a team of masons, builders and sculptors with a wide joint previous experience.

In fact we might think that an encyclopaedia in stone was written, perfectly planned and executed, with the best building techniques known till then. As we will see in the study of Santa María del Naranco. Detalle de la decoracióneach building, we find the three most meaningful types of structure of previous periods: double vault, basilical and pseudo cruciform. The covers are always vaulted, resting on blind series of arches and buttcresses, but with the vaults arrayed in a very different manner according to their type of structure. The definition of space, both exterior as well as interior, is also very different in each of them and their sculptured decoration, integrated in general to the structure of the buildings and developed within a single design and by the same workshop, is a compendium of geometric, vegetal, animal and human figure motives, mixing Hispanic, Sassanid, Syrian, Byzantine…and even Viking influences.

In spite of the many studies developed by the best experts in high-medieval European art, no conclusion has been reached so far, not even an approximate one, of who could have been the architect that created Santa María del Naranco, San Miguel de Lillo and Santa Cristina de Lena; nor how could he have formed in such a short stretch of time, a team that would work with very different techniques to those of the previous period, with the level of perfection and safety shown in these three buildings, without leaving a single reflection of his knwledge in later buildings. What we know is that almost two centuries in advance this architect and his workshop left the structural and aesthetic bases of what the Romanesque art would be. In fact, the easiest would be to believe that, as what tradition says with regard to the Angels’ Cross, also a team of angels appeared to build the Ramirense buildings, and disappeared without leaving a trace after having them built in a very short period of time.

San Salvador de ValdediosReign of Alphonse III, el Magno (866-910)): In his forty-three years of reign he gave a definite impulse to the Asturian kingdom. He extended the line of conquest till the Duero river, repopulating with people that came from his domaines as well as with Mozarabics, founding villas and monasteries, and protecting them with fortified villages, like Oporto, Toro, Zamora, Simancas or Dueñas, and creating the bases of the future Castille by building the fortress of Burgos. In the political area, he joined through matrimony with the royal family of Navarra and gave a great impulse to the idea of recovering all of Spain, joining the different Christian kingdoms under a “Magnus Imperator”, as his sons called him. Along this same line, he was a great supporter of culture and promoted the building of civil works, especially in Oviedo and León, like churches and monasteries. In this period, within the Asturian architecture of religious character, besides San Salvador de Valdediós, a jewel of the Asturian art, other buildings were raised, like San Adriano de Tuñón, Santiago de Gobiendes, San Salvador de Priesca yand the new cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, replaced later by the present one. In the civil area, besides the fortification of Oviedo and the already mentioned cities, he built a new palace and the Fountain of the Foncalada in Oviedo, also included in the list of Oviedo monuments declared world heritage sites.

The Asturian constructions of this period, excepting San Salvador de Valdediós, totallyComparativa de la planta de iglesias asturianas de las épocas de Alfonso II y Alfonso III según Manzanares y Hansonvaulted and with a portico that recalls the Ramirense buildings for their structure and decoration, have the same basic characteristics than those of the reign of Alphonse II, although they beguin to show certain influences of the Mozarabic art in the paintings, in the horeshoe arches and in the window lattice work.

We think it to be very important to point out that in those times churches and monasteries were being built in the reconquered territories, by Christians that came from Al-Andalus and also with the support of Alphonse III, like San Miguel de la Escalada, San Cebrián de Mazote or Santa María de Lebeña, in a style that, besides recovering part of the characteristics of the Visigothic architecture that had been abandoned in Asturias, like the horseshoe arch and the utilisation of columns instead of pillasters in the series or arches for the separation of tha naves, it brought new construction techniques learnt in Al-Andalus.



At this point we think it necessary to analyse with more depth a very peculiar circumstance of the Asturian Pre Romanesque Art that we have already pointed out earlier: the main characteristic of the artistic development in the whole peninsula Comparativa entre la planta del templo tosacano de Vitruvio y la de Santullano según Sánchez-Montaña throughout a period of over six centuries that went by since the last constructions of the Roman Empire and the appearance of of the first Romanesque buildings, was the liberty that the Hispanic builders had during the Visigothic and Mozarabic phases to put into practice all the techniques they knew about the different building types and qualities, to build churches with several types of plans and forms of coverings; what gave shape to an art with a very eclectic spirit. However, in the Asturian art, with the exception of the Ramirense period, exactly the opposite takes place. In fact, if we make a comparative analysis of the three churches of Alphonse II’s reign – San Julián de los Prados, Santa María de Bendones and San Pedro de Nora – and the four of Alphonse III’s reign – Santiago de Gobiendes, San Adriano de Tuñón, San Salvador de Valdediós and San Salvador de Priesca -, that have reached us to these days, we find a very important ensemble of similarities that show the existence of a normalisation in the shape of the churches as well as in the building methods, which we will try to summarise hereunder.

From the point of view of their structure, all of them are of basilical plan, three naves separated by series of arches upon square pillars, all with plain covering, except Valdediós that is vaulted, clearly due to the Ramirense influence; all of them have windows in the central nave upon the lateral naves’roofs ; they have three vaulted apses, of rectangular plan, small compartments at the sides, usually in the closest stretch to the cabecera, and nearly all of them have a triple portico with a tribune in the higher plan. Comparativa entre la planta del templo tosacano de Vitruvio y las de San Salvador y San Tirso de Oviedo según Sánchez-Montaña 10The approach is also very homogeneous from the decoration point of view, different to the Ramirense period, so rich in sculptured decoration that was integrated in the whole building. In these churches the decoration is very limited -little or very little, depending on each case- and placed exclusively around the cabecera. However, most of them have rests of original paintings, generally of clear Roman origin.

It is obvious to formulate the possibility that the influence of Roman art in these two phases of the Asturian art has been much more important than what had been thought of until the last discoveries of Roman constructions in the region. There is no doubt nowadays that their architects counted with several examples in buildings of those times, possibly much more than in the Visigothic times. It also seems unquestionable that a model of church was designed that was followed during the reign of both Alphonses, and that that the inflexibility of the model led to the extintion of an art conditioned by an excessively normalised development. All of that leaves no doubt that it is in the Roman art where we can find the origins af all their main characteristics: the basilical plans, the round arches upon pillars and the pictoric decoration, which seems to us much more feasible than the existence of external meaningful influences.

Along this line, C. Sánchez-Montaña has analysed the similarity between the plan of the Asturian monuments and the Tuscan temple defined by Vitruvio on his “De Architectura”. It is known that there were plenty of examples in the Spanish north-west of common knowledge at those times and formulates the possibility that some Galician and Asturian churches, (among which San Julián de los Prados points out), were built on foundations of a Roman temple of that kind, as it was proved in San Xiao de Lugo, before the destruction of its foundations. From our point of view, it is difficult to believe that the Asturian buildings had been usually erected upon previous Roman temples, although it seems reasonable to think that a model of church inspired on the Tuscan temple described by Vitruvio had been designed in times of Alphonse II. The seven buildings mentioned fit in this view, as well as, at least, two other churches of Oviedo of which we may know their plans, although they have not survived, – the Cathedral of San Salvador and San Tirso- as it can be noted in the attached diagrams by Sánchez-Montaña. (More information on

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *