In the “Previous Notes” of this web we mention that in order to visit the High Medieval monuments, an added value to the enjoyment of a chapter of our Art so little known like the Pre-Romanesque, has been the number of interesting places and
friendly people we met as a consequence of our aim to search for these monuments. Possibly the best example was the first visit we paid to the Valle del Silencio (Valley of Silence). It is hard to explain our impressions when, after more than twenty years ago, after travelling through a mountain freeway from Ponferrada, that by then in some zones just one vehicle could get along and that ended before reaching Peñalba de Santiago, we found ourselves in this small Medieval ensemble of slate houses for which time had not gone by and from which a magnificent Mozarabic church stood out, that we could visit before an excellent meal at the bar next door savouring an excellent marc served in porron (We have to mention here that in those times the breathalyzer had not yet been invented and that today the road is still in the came condition).
If we stick to the history of the region, it is clear that already in the last centuries of the first millenium, this Bierzo zone had some kind of special attraction, as it was the place chosen by two religious men of the 7th century and by a third one of the 9th century, as different one another as the monk, bishop and courtier, St. Fructuoso, who created there San Pedro de los Montes, one of the multiple foundations in the north of the peninsula, and the hermit and ascetic St. Valerio, who enlarged it a few years later, and St. Genadio, a cenobite resettler who rebuilt it by the end of the 9th century and that in 919, pursuing for for more solitude, he founded Santiago de Peñalba. The church was the work of abbot Solomon, between 931 and 937, after the saint’s death.
The church is built in slate masonry and limestone as the rest of the building in its environment. Seen from the outside, it looks like the Visigothic churches of cruciform type
as it forms a cross inlaid in a rectangle of 20×14.40m, with walls 72cm thick. But its real structure is a very different one as it is formed by a set of six elements of prismatic shape, four in the main axe of the church and two lateral chapels of a smaller size that form the cross but that do not generate a transept nave. Also there is not a single main nave, as the different spaces have staggering descending heights starting at the main nave that accomplish the function of the transept towers of the Visigothic churches of this type. The roofs are also made of slate with very sharp eaves, supported by big stone modillions of up to seven lobes, with decoration based on helicoidal wheels and six-petal rosettes, of the same type of those of most Mozarabic churches in the area. Another interesting detail is the presence of buttresses in the syle of Asturian constructions in the laterals of the nave and the lateral compartments. At present, the ensemble is completed with an unattached belfry in its west side, which was built much later.
As it is usual in Mozarabic architecture, its main access is located in its southern side. Upon seeing the magnificent facade we realice that its interior will become a surprise opposite to its austere external appearance. It is possibly the most beautiful element of the Mozarabic art that has reached our times. It is formed by two horseshoe arches with perfectly sculpted voussoirs supported by columns in marble from the area, upon Atic bases and completed by magnificent Degenerated-Corynthian-type capitals and staggering abacis. The extrados of the arches is decorated by a triple moulding that continues to create a rectangular drip cap that circumscribes both arches.
However, all this ensemble, that is under 30cm thick, does not have any supporting function, as it is framed by a big horseshoe arch that covers the complete thickness of the wall and serves the purpose of a relieving arch, generating a small portico in the access of the church.
The first thing we notice upon entering the church is a double apse building according to the tradition of North African type churches that had been built three centuries before in Southwest Spain, of which some rests can still be seen, like those of the basilic of Vega de Mar and those that in the tenth century more examples known by the Mozarabic resettlers must have remained, a we find another example of two opposed apses in San Cebrián de Mazote, of somewhat earlier date and built by monks who had come from Al Andalus.
The interior is formed, beside the two apses, by two other central compartments, placed between them, the chancel and the nave, and two others at each side of the chancel but smaller in size. They are all designed as independent spaces with different forms of coverings and separated by very steep horseshoe arches, of Cordoban type of the ninth century, although with different shapes between them.
As we have mentioned, the chevet counts with one single apse square in the outside and in a very steep horseshoe shape in the interior, of around 3.6m diameter with access through a
magnificent horseshoe arch upon columns and capitals that, as in the main door, has an extrados decorated by a large moulding that continues to create a rectangular drip cap. This kind of structure of the apse, flat at the outside and curved in the inside, was already known in some Visigothic churches, like Recópolis or Melque and is frequent in Mozarabic constructions, as we can see in Bobastro, Mazote, Escalada,… Its covering is a vault of a similar structure than the tiny apse in San Miguel de Celanova, that rests upon an impost that goes along the entire apse and is formed by seven segments plus an eight much bigger, with the shape of a barrel that closes the open part of the horseshoe.
The opposed apse is similar to the former one, the only difference being a higher height; the plan has a very open horseshoe shape, almost prolongued semicircular and the access arch is also larger; in this case, without moulding nor drip cap. St. Genadio was burried there until the 16th century.
Both, the nave, which has also another door in the northern side with a horseshoe arch upon jambs, as well as the two lateral compartments, are covered by barrel vaults.
The chancel is the space that articulates the whole building. It is higher than the rest and forms a square of around 5m by side, and has access from the nave through another horseshoe arch, upon columns and capitals and without a drip cap. The sides, that give access to the lateral compartments, have two other much smaller arches, also in horseshoe shape, but in this case they stand on an impost that is embedded in the wall that continues the shape of the arch,
without attached columns as in the rest of the arches of the church. The space is covered by an eight segment gallonada vault that leans on formeret arches that end in small corbels in the corners. This vault is considered as one of the most important technical developments in Mozarabic architecture, as by having the segments of the vault leaning directly upon the arches that discharge in the corners, the thrust is transferred to them liberating the support of the walls what makes the buttresses unnecessary and lets the opening of big windows in the cimborio as well as big horseshoe arches in the access that we have already described.
In this sense it is interesting to point out that the whole structure of the church, that we know was built in a single phase, seems to have been designed to support and enhance the importance of the cimborio. In fact, its walls are supported in three sides by the perpendicular thrust of the nave’s barel vault s and the chevet’s segments. This supporting system of different heights has proven to be so stable as shown by the magnificent state it has reached the present days despite the great spans in all the structure of the chancel.
In the last years, under seven layers of lime, an important set of High Medieval paintings that are still under study, has shown up. So far it is believed that they might belong to three different stages, the most ancient one, that covered the complete building, being of Caliphal type, consisting in some cases in vegetal and geometric motifs, and in and others imitating brick, as it can still be seen in the arches of the dome of the chancel, in the apses of the church and in a baseboard of red ocher, a red paint based on clayey type iron oxide similar to the one in Medina Azahara, built in the same period.
Along the same way we think that San Miguel de Escalada, promoted by Alphonse the Third shows us the transition from the Asturian basilical structures to the spirit and techniques
incorporated ny the new Mozarabic settlers; Santiago de Peñalba, heir of the Visigothic monastic spirit, is a proof of the integration of this Mozarabic culture, that had added everything learned in Al Andalus to a Hispanic-Visigothic cultural base, in a church design that came directly from the near by Visigothic constructions of the seventh century, like Santa Comba de Bande or San Pedro de la Nave.
We recommend the visit to the Valle del Silencio (Valley of Silence), not only to those, interested in Pre- Romanesque art to get to know this incredible Medieval spot, the near by caves where St. Genadio retired to meditate and the church that abbot Solomon built in his honour respecting in his own style the type of cruciform church that St. Fructuoso started in his mausoleum of Montelios, but adding all the technical quality -in space distribution, supports, vaults and arches- and artistic -in capitals and fresco paintings- provided by the Christian immigrants from the south of the peninsula.
Other interesting information
Access: Leave Ponferrada through the road of Puebla de Sanabria. Peñalba de Santiago is 25.5Km far.
GPS Coordinates: 42º 25′ 38,09″N 6º 32′ 26,76″W.
Information Telephone: Oficina Turismo de Ponferrada: 987 43 22 36.
Visiting Hours: Mondays and Tuesdays closed. Admission free.
Winter (From October lst through March 31st): From Wednesdays through Saturdays, from 10:40 to 14:00 and from 15:00 to 17:50. Sundays and holidays, from 10:40 to 14:00.
Summer (From April 1st to September 30th): From Wednesdays to Saturdays, from 10:15 to 14:00 and from 16:30 to 20:00. Sundays and holidays, from 10:15 to 14:00.
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
Historia de España de Menéndez Pidal: Tomo VI
Historia de España de Menéndez Pidal: Tomo VII: Claudio Sánchez Albornoz