Father Risco included the transcription of the foundational inscription -now disappeared- in volume XXXV of “Holy Spain” directed by Father Flores in the 18th century, that records that this monastery
was founded at the end of the 9th century upon an ancient Visigothic church that was abandoned after the Arabic invasion.
It explained that by the end of the 9th century, monks from Córdoba, directed by abbot Alfonso with the support of the Asturian monarchy, repopulated the old monastery, rebuilding the existing church, but only a year later they raised a new one, due to the growth of the community that supposedly was formed also by families of laymen that accompanied the monks in the repopulation. The short time they took to rebuild the church is quite surprising given the size of the building and the quality of its sculpted decoration. It was inaugurated by the bishop Genadio de Astorga on December 12th, 913 and has survived so far in very good shape.
It is a basilical church of 22 by 13.50m, with three naves and three apses that have an interior plan in horse shoe shape but
with a flat sanctuary to the exterior, with buttresses in Asturian style in the separation line of the apses, as the ones in San Salvador de Priesca. There is a portico along the southern side, built in two phases, both somewhat later to the building of the church, supported by twelve horse shoe arches upon columns and capitals framed within a drip cap. Its external appearance is the classical one of a basilic with portico but, different to the Asturian churches of the same kind, its main facade is not on the western side but, according to what was usual in Mozarabic architecture, the main door finishes in a horse shoe arch extended 1/2 of its radius, within the portico, in the southern side. There were two other doors, also lateral ones, at the ends of the crossing, of which only the one of the southern side has been preserved.
Also the structure of its original covering was -as seen from the exterior- the usual one of the basilics built during the reign of Alphonse the Third, like Santiago de Gobiendes, San Salvador de Priesca and San Salvador de Valdediós: gable roof in the central nave and one pitch in the lateral ones and in the portico, so the view from the southern side is a set of parallel plans that correspond to the coverings of the portico, of the lateral nave and the one of that side of the central nave. Now its looks have lost part of the aesthetics, possibly due to a replacement of the roof in the 14th century, as the roofs of the central nave show today a higher inclination than what seems must have been when it was built, that would probably have corrsponded to the saw tooth decoration shown in the eastern and western walls, a bit lower than the present roof and perfectly parallel to those of the lateral naves. Besides, in some of the last restoration works, the portico’s and the southern nave’s independent roofs have been replaced by a flat one that covers both spaces, spoiling the aesthetics of the building. With regard to the chevet, it has a three pitched roof in the central chapel and one flat one in the lateral ones: the three of a lower height than the one of the corresponding nave, with the peculiarity that, as with the Asturian and some Visigothic churches, there is also an isolated chamber between the dome and the roof of the central apse. The roof of the central nave and apses end in eaves supported by big scroll modillions, frequent in Mozarabic churches.
Seventeen windows lit the interior of the church; six at each side of the central nave, upon the lateral ones, of the same size to the exterior, although in the interior they alternate with two kinds of embrasure, as in San Cebrián de Mazote; another three in the chevet, in the middle of each apse, and one at each end of the
central nave, placed very high, the one at the west side has a beautiful openwork lattice in calcareous stone. There is also another very interesting window that opens in the west wall of the portico, formed by two horse shoe arches extended in 2/3 of their radius and framed by a drip cap, all hewn in just one stone that leans on the sides and a central column with capital and base.
The building technique is very poor, in small toughstone, except in the corners, made of ashlars in courses and the walls are very thin in between the 46cm in the high walls and 75cm in the zones that require greater effort, what indicates that since the building began, vaulting the naves was rejected.
Semi attached to the southern part of the chevet and to the east lateral of the arcade, there is a Romanesque construction of the 11th and 12th centuries, formed by a big tower and a one nave church that, fortunately, was added instead of replacing the previous church, as so often was the case.
But if its interior in
interesting, when getting into the church we find a really special surrounding. The first thing that calls our attention is the magnificent lighting from the twelve lateral windows of the central nave, that let us assess from the very first moment the original set of solutions provided by the monks of Córdoba in one of the first Mozarabic constructions in Christian kingdoms, in spite that the basic structure of the church follows the same norms of all Asturian constructions during the reign of Alphonse the Third, the Great, although replacing the pillars by columns in the separation of the naves.
Its interior is divided in three perfectly differentiated areas. The first one is the basilical zone, formed by a central nave of 4.75m wide, and two lateral ones of 3m separated by sets of six horse shoe arches leaning upon bases and reutilized marble columns and capitals, most of them of the same time the church was built. The second one is a crossing nave of the same width than the central nave and as long as the total width of the three naves, so, as it is included within the same covering, it cannot be seen from outside, but it is perfectly differentiated in the interior, as each lateral compartment is separated from the central one and from the naves and lateral apses by horse shoe arches with inner doors to isolate the clergy from the faithful. This division becomes more evident in the central nave, separated from the crossing by an original iconostasis formed by three horse shoe arches of the same kind of those from the rest of the naves, mixing parallel and perpendicular arch lines, it
modifies substantially the visual looks of the basilic, no matter where the watching person is, and brings to our memory the magnificent series of arches of the Mosque of Córdoba. The last one is the chevet, formed by three apses of the same width as the naves, with a horse shoe shaped interior plan, the two laterals are more enclosed than the central one; they communicate with the transept through horse shoe arches, being the one in the middle a triumphal arch. The differentiation of spaces is underlined by the different sizes of the arches according to their location; the bigger one being the one of the central apse and the smaller ones those of the naves and of the iconostasis, whereas the rest of the arches between the three areas of the crossing and between those and the lateral apses are of an intermediate size. The final result is a much more compartmented space than its external appearance would seem to indicate, something quite frequent in Mozarabic religious architecture.
With regard to its covering, whereas the naves and the transept square have a flat wooden roof, being the central one
decorated with paintings of the 15th century, the rest of the building is vaulted, having used techniques from Al Andalus, unknown in Asturian architecture, as the transept’s lateral compartments have groin vaults, where those of the three apses are segmented with three segments plus a bigger one located on the side that faces the transept with the shape of a quarter groin vault.
But what makes San Miguel de Escalada the fundamental exponent of Mozarabic art from León is the quality and quantity of its sculpted decoration that lets us go along the way drawn by the Mozarabic sculpture, from its origins, based in the Visigothic art with influences in the types of capitals found in the last Asturian period, to the fulfillment of the Mozarabic workshops in the kingdom of León. Already in the building technique of its arches, both, the interior ones as the portico’s, we find a big difference with the one utilized in the rest of the building. In fact, despite its complicated shape, in general with the off centered extrados and directly leaning upon the capitals, as usually there is no keel moulding, are formed by voussoirs carefully engraved on calcareous stone and joints with a perfection that shows a very refined technique, only comparable in Spain of that period with the mosque of Córdoba. With regard to its decoration, we must consider three very differentiated but very meaningful sets, all of them of a very high quality.
- Friezes. There are 25m of friezes that go along the transept and the central apse, most of them in stone, though there is also one in stucco in the iconostasis and in the entrance of the main chapel. There we find motifs inherited from the Visigothic art, like winding stems or birds pecking bunches, with others from the Islamic culture like figures of animals and vegetals, like palm trees and lions, all of that treated more stylized and flexible than in the Visigothic sculpture, recalling in some cases the miniature of the Mozarabic blessed ones.
- Inner doors. The transept’s lateral compartments were separated from the central one and of the naves and lateral apses with stone inner doors, from which eight have been preserved, and the rest have been replaced by flat inner doors of the same size. It is also quite possible that in the lateral arches of the iconostasis there were other two smaller inner doors. Its decoration with geometric, vegetal and animal drawings, ordered symetrically in vertical series, are inspired, as with the friezes, both, in Visigothic art -Quintanilla de las Viñas and San Pedro de la Nave, mainly- as well as in Omeya art of the Near East and Africa, although in Al Andalus we do not know of elements of that kind. One of those inner doors, in an excellent state of preservation, is located in the tympanum of the Romanesque church attached to our basilic.
- Capitals. All of them but five may be considered of the same period than the part of the church where they are placed, although some have been engraved over previous elements. There are three very different series of capitals, where we can follow the development of the Mozarabic engraving in the kingdom of León.The first series is formed by five Asturain capitals, probably reutilized Ramirenses. Two of them are placed between the southern transept and its nave, other two in the two unattached columns of the closest naves to the chevet, and the fifth one in the front of the southern side. They are Corynthian with thick flat leaves, some of them maimed recall the ones in the porticos of Santa Maria del Naranco and in the interior of Santa Cristina de Lena.The rest of the capitals of the interior of the church are included in the second series. They are typically Mozarabic, all of them with a collar and in general, with two layers of flat leaves or with fine central veins. They include other kinds of decorative elements, being the most complex ones those that support the iconostasis, and the simplest ones are the two in the triumphal arch that have only one row of leaves.
The last series, supposed to be from 30 years later, is where the Mozarabic sculpture reaches its full development. It is formed by the capitals of the portico, although the ones in the seven western arches have very differentiated characteristics from the other five. They all have Asturian collar, and are engraved with drill bits, very similar to those of Santiago de Peñalba, San Cebrián de Mazote and Santa María de Wamba.
No traces of the previous Visigothic church have been found so far, although the characteristics of the Mozarabic constructions, with a plan so much alike the classical Asturian and so different to the Visigothic constructions, plus the fact that no previous structural elements have been found, it does not seem likely that they might lay under the present one. However, during the last campaign of excavations, a set of buildings of various periods has been found, some of them contemporary that seem to be part of the monastic constructions of the 10th century. We must not forget that there was in San Miguel de Escalada a “scriptorium” from which stemed one of the most important “Beatos” of Mozarabic miniature that is now is the Morgan Library in New York.
San Miguel de Escalada is a monument of great interest, not only for its unquestionable worth from the artistic standpoint, but also for what may be interpreted of it with regard to all the development
of the Spanish High Medieval art. In fact this is a temple built in the zenith of the Asturian monarchy that had just moved the court to León, and the presence of the king is a fundamental element in the foundation of new monasteries since he conditions the design. As we have explained, the basic structure of the church corresponds with great accuracy to the model we suppose was developed in times of Alphonse the Second and followed by Alphonse the Third in all religious buildings (See Characteristics of Asturian Art). However, the project was developed by people that had kept for centuries the eclectic spirit, so meaningul in art during the Visigothic monarchy, and it seems evident that it was also kept in the Mozarabic period. For that reason, even accepting that imposed design, they were not used to abide to fixed prototypes, that raise a clearly differentiated building with an interior appearance very different to the one we find in immediately previous Asturian monuments, at the same time that they modified also in a very short period of time the whole aesthetics of their sculpture, what they would also achieve with the illumination of codices, and with the paintings. From this point of view, we may consider that this monastery marked the definite change in style in High Medieval Spanish art. Along this thought it is interesting to recall that the Asturian basilical model was only partially repeated in San Cebrián de Mazote, the big difference is that this church had two opposite apses.
Other interesting information
Access: Leave León by road N-601 to Valladolid. 15Km after Villarente, take LE-213 to Gradefes. At 10Km the detour left to San Miguel de Escalada is announced. Continue some 5Km. Total distance: 30Km.
GPS Coordinates: 42º 34′ 16,86″N 5º 18′ 10,32″W.
Information telephone: Ayuntamiento de Gradefes, Consistorio, 2, 24160 Gradefes (León). Telephone: 987 33 31 53. You can also contact Isidora, the watchlady in charge, tel.: 609 85 98 10.
Visiting hours: From October through April, Wednesdays through Saturdays, from 10 to 14hours and from 17 to 20 hours. Sundays only from 10 to 15 hours. Mondays and Tuesdays closed.
Imagen del Arte Mozárabe; José Fernández Arenas
SUMMA ARTIS: Tomo VIII
L’Art Préroman Hispanique – L’Art Mozarabe: Jacques Fontaine(ZODIAQUE)
Arte y Arquitectura en España 500/1250: Joaquín Yarza
de España de Menéndez Pidal: Tomo VI
Historia de España de Menéndez
Pidal: Tomo VII: Claudio Sánchez Albornoz