Turismo Prerrománico > Asturian Pre-Romanesque Art and Ramirense Art

Asturian Pre-Romanesque Art and Ramirense Art

Are there two Asturian pre-Romanesque arts? Or Asturian pre-Romanesque art and Remirense art?

The discoveries about Visigothic architecture in recent years, for example in Los Hitos or in Idhana a Bella, seem to demonstrate the influence of Visigothic art on Asturian Pre-Romanesque Art Or perhaps on Ramirense Art?

I have always been surprised by the permanent lack of interest on the part of “whoever it concerns” in highlighting and studying in depth the evident differences between the Asturian Pre-Romanesque Art that extends from uniform, homogeneous and standardized manner over some 150 years, and the totally different work, during only eight years within that period, of the architect of Ramiro I.

In fact, in the previous section we present a summary, written many years ago and I think it is still valid, from the periods of Asturian Pre-Romanesque Art. I think that everything in it, except those eight years, is perfectly uniform, is based on Roman architecture and that, in accordance with the theories of Carlos Sánchez Montaña, all its churches, which have three naves separated by semicircular arches on pillars , three apses, a flat front and a flat roof except Valdediós, correspond to the same model originating in the times of Alfonso II – and his architect Tioda? – from the Tuscan temple of Vitruvius.

I think that its most outstanding characteristics are a very careful exterior design, the return to the semicircular arch ignoring the Visigothic horseshoe, the scarce sculpted decoration, limited to some capitals in the apse, generally reused Roman ones or imitations, and the decoration pictorial imitating the Roman one. All this has very little to do with Visigothic art or its new discoveries; On the contrary, it was a clear break to return to Roman art, of which important remains are preserved in Asturias and, I suppose, that then there would be many more and in better condition. At the same time, the eclecticism of Visigothic art disappeared under a strict normalization of its churches

However, Ramirense Art is a total break with the rest of the Asturian Pre-Romanesque. In just eight years of the reign of Ramiro I, the small church of Santa Cristina de Lena and the two buildings on Mount Naranco, near Oviedo, were built, which can be considered the most interesting group of monuments in all of early medieval European art, both for its intrinsic value as well as for being a compendium of the best construction techniques that come from previous periods and, above all, for the paths it opened towards all subsequent art.

But Ramirense Art is a total break with the rest of the Asturian Pre-Romanesque, both in the structure of its buildings, as well as in its exuberant sculpted decoration without any relation in quality, quantity and content with the rest, as in the technique of construction, its coverage systems, always vaulted, or the replacement of pillars with columns with bases and capitals, with the particularity that all this was not continued in the constructions of Alfonso III, which returned to the characteristics defined in the times of Alfonso II , except Valdediós which was also vaulted.

On the other hand, in this period each building corresponds to a comprehensive, very complete program, for which all the sculptural decoration that is inserted into its structure is also designed and developed. They are buildings built from small ashlars that are very well squared and are completely vaulted. The vaults are supported on transverse arches that are supported on the outside by buttresses and on the inside by columns attached to the wall, as we will later see reproduced in Romanesque architecture.

All three have a very rich sculpted decoration in columns, capitals, bases, stone courses, discs and pilasters, in which the human figure reappears, which had not been used since the last Visigoth period, as well as geometric themes , plants and animals in which they wanted to discover Visigothic, oriental and even Viking influences.

Given the integration of all the elements of each building, in which only materials specifically prepared for each of them are used, there seems no doubt that they were built not only by the same architect, but also by the same team of quite a few stonemasons, builders and sculptors with extensive training and previous joint experience.

The architect of Naranco: an unknown genius

Thus, we find ourselves before the work of an architect about whom there is no written reference and who, recovering the creative freedom lost from Visigothic art, was able to build works so different from each other, from everything existing in Asturias at that time and of such a level of quality, both technical and artistic, that they meant an unprecedented advance, but that could not create a school since their immediate successors were incapable to follow in his wake.

Very little has been studied about the origin of this brilliant artist, evidently so far from the rest of the Asturian pre-Romanesque, and I am not aware that any conclusion has been reached, but I think it is important to consider that Ramiro I’s architect would have been able to know more Visigothic monuments than have reached us and in much better condition, which would explain the vaulting of their buildings, unknown in Asturian Art until then, the similarities between what was discovered in Los Hitos and Santa María del Naranco, that of the coverage of the lateral naves of Lillo and that of the transept of Santa Lucía del Trampal, the lateral arches of San Miguel de Lillo, on columns with bases and capitals…

Another very important point to consider is where the work team that was able to build and create all the sculptural decoration of those three buildings came from in just eight years. I think it will not be necessary to insist that it seems impossible that the craftsmen who worked for Alfonso II could become those who decorated these buildings in stone – and I suppose with paintings. Where did they come from and where were they formed?

When trying to analyze the origin of this group we can consider some characteristics that seem significant to us:

  • This was a group totally foreign to the builders that existed until then in Asturias.
  • The architect was, in addition to being a brilliant artist, a great expert in techniques not then known in Asturias and which remained unmastered in subsequent constructions, except in the isolated case of the Valdediós vault.
  • He had a great team, in number, quality and experience, that was able to work with complete guarantee from its first construction, we think that Santa Cristina de Lena, and do an impressive work in just eight years.
  • The only non-military work of importance at that time in the peninsula on which a team of those characteristics could have worked was the expansion of the Mosque of Córdoba by Abderramán II (833-848).

To all of the above we must add that the latest discoveries in San Miguel de Lillo, which demonstrate that the tribune was not initially planned and was added during the construction process itself by reusing Decorated pieces prepared for the original project and adding new material with different characteristics, possibly all under new construction management, seem to demonstrate that the cycle of our brilliant architect ended during the construction of this church.

In principle three possibilities can be considered regarding its origin:

  1. The arrival in Oviedo of a team of external builders with extensive previous experience who, as happened later in the Romanesque and Gothic periods, built to order. This would be the most reasonable solution, especially because it is the best way to explain the existence of an entire work group so homogeneous and with the level of training that they demonstrate, but the fact that no documentary evidence has remained and, above all , that there are no buildings in Spain or the rest of Europe that could be attributed to the same team, make this possibility very unlikely.
  2. That an Asturian architect could have visited others and learned new techniques and styles from them to, upon his return, form his own workshop? and apply them later in these works. It is also an unlikely option because, although some partial similarities with monuments from those countries are recognized, there are no real reference models for the Ramirense style.
  3. The third would be that an exceptional architect, both from a technical and artistic point of view, and with an enormous capacity to assimilate and integrate different influences and to form and direct a team, using what he had been able to learn from the environment and of the many Visigothic buildings that would still be preserved that could have inspired him, he was able to design and direct these three works in a few years. But in that case, where did his equipment come from?

Rereading some articles about the Mosque of Córdoba that Mª Dolores Gómez-Zafra sent us years ago, I remembered some details that could point to a new possibility:

  • The expansion of the Mosque of Córdoba by Abderramán II was done between the year 833 and 848. The Ramirense buildings between 840 and 848.
  • In it, most of the material was Roman and Visigothic, but eleven new capitals were made carved with trephine, like all the decoration in Ramirense Art.
  • At a time when Andalusian art had not yet developed, it is very likely that a large part of its builders were Mozarabic.
  • Because of all the material reused in the first two phases of the mosque, we know that many Visigothic churches still existed in Córdoba at that time.
  • Some experts have suggested similarities between the Ramirense sculpted decoration and Mozarabic art, for example in Lillo, which is undoubtedly prior to the 10th century. Could it be a reflection of what the Mozarabs were building in Córdoba in the 9th century?

Which makes us think of a new option according to which a team of Mozarabic builders led by a brilliant architect, who had participated in significant Arab works, such as the Mosque of Córdoba and/or in the palace of Abderramán II, they moved to Asturias, hired by Ramiro I and were the creators of Ramirense Art.

Analyzing this last option we also found a possible answer to the question of how both the architect and his team were able to come up with the necessary mastery to build buildings as complex and so perfectly executed as Santa Cristina de Lena, which we think was the first, the most “Visigothic” and in which The new style was defined and refined, Santa María del Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo.

It is only a possible option, we hope that new research will help us better understand the history of Ramirense Art and its brilliant creator.

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