Pre-Romanesque Visigothic Art

Church of San Juan de Baños de Cerrato (Baños de Cerrato, province of Palencia, central Spain), ca. 661.

The Visigoths included some of the nomadic tribes of East Germanic peoples known as the Goths, who were divided into two main groups: the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, and together played a key role in the fall of the Western Roman Empire and consequently in the emergence of Medieval Europe. The Visigoths derived from earlier Gothic groups who had invaded the Roman Empire around 376 and that later defeated the Romans at the Battle of Adrianople in 378. Under Alaric I, the Visigoths invaded Italy and sacked Rome in 410. After the sack of Rome, the Visigoths began to settle down, first in southern Gaul and later in Spain and Portugal, where they founded the Kingdom of the Visigoths.

The apse at the church of San Juan de Baños

From the 5th to 8th centuries the Visigothic Kingdom occupied what is now southwestern France and the Iberian Peninsula. It was originally created when the Roman government granted the settlement of Visigoth peoples under the rule of King Wallia in the province of Aquitaine in southwest France and from there they extended by conquest over all of the Iberian Peninsula. The Visigothic Kingdom was independent from the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, which unsuccessfully attempted in several occasions to re-establish Roman authority in Iberia.  By 507, the Visigothic rule in Gaul ended due to the victory of the Frank forces under Clovis I during the Battle of Vouillé. After that, the Visigoth kingdom was limited only to Hispania. By 589, under their king Reccared I the Visigoths of Hispania converted to Christianity and gradually adopted the culture of their Hispano-Roman population. When there were no more legal distinctions between Romani and Gothi, they all  became known collectively as Hispani.  During their rule over the Kingdom of Hispania, the Visigoths built several churches that survive to this day.

Decorative freeze carved in stone in the interior of San Juan de Baños.
San Pedro de la Nave (Campillo, San Pedro de la Nave-Almendra, province of Zamora, Spain) built between 680-711.

The oldest known Visigoth monument in Spain is the small church of San Juan de Baños de Cerrato (Palencia, central Spain) with three naves and a portico on its facade, dedicated in 661 by the Visigoth king Recceswinth of Hispania. The numerous friezes decorated with sculptures found in this church (i.e. in the entrance arch, triumphal arch, central apse, lateral naves, etc.) were completely unknown in the architecture of other western countries during this same period of time and they could only be compared to decorative elements of Syriac or Coptic monuments.

Above and below: Two historiated capitals at the transept of San Pedro de la Nave. Left: The hand of God preventing the sacrifice of Isaac. Right: Daniel’s prayer in the lion’s den.

Above and below: Two decorated imposts above the capitals of the transept at San Pedro de la Nave decorated with birds and convoluted vines.

The church of Santa María de Lara, known as the Ermita de Santa María, (village of Quintanilla de las Viñas, Castile and León region, Spain) ca. 7th century.
Decorative frieze at the Hermitage of Santa Maria de Lara.

Other Visigoth monument is the church of San Pedro de la Nave in the province of Zamora (Spain) built in the late seventh century. The decoration of this church is among the most outstanding of all known Visigothic architecture. Some of its columns are crowned with historiated capitals*, which are of great importance for the study of the development of sculpture during this period. This type of capital contains representations of all sort of “stories” of early Christian derivation (Daniel in the lions’ den, the sacrifice of Isaac, etc.) and also includes explanatory inscriptions all clearly influenced by Coptic or Syriac models. Above each capital there are imposts decorated with twisted plant stems forming circles filled with birds and quadrupeds reminiscent of the medallions found in Sassanid and Byzantine silks. Also from the seventh century are two small sanctuaries: the Hermitage of Santa María de Lara or Quintanilla de las Viñas in Burgos (Spain), richly decorated with reliefs of undoubted Sassanid influence, and the church of Santa Comba de Bande in the province of Orense (Spain), with Greek cross floor plan in which one of its arms is projected with a square apse similar to those found in several churches of Asia Minor. Remains of other Visigothic religious buildings abound throughout Spain: in Toledo, Merida, Cordoba, Barcelona, Tarragona, Tarrasa, etc.

Church of Santa Comba de Bande (municipality of Bande, province of Orense, Spain), ca. second half of VIIth century.
Horseshoe arch in the church of San Juan de Baños.

During the Visigothic influence in Spain, architecture and stone carving developed great stylistic freedom. The horseshoe arch* was a typical and important element. The reason for the presence of this type of arch in Visigothic monuments is still a dilemma with no satisfactory answer as there are several ways to explain its prevailing presence in Spanish architecture. First, it may be that the Arabs learned this arch type from the Visigoths and later apply it to their own constructions, that is, its origin would definitely be Visigoth and would have been introduced as something completely new in Spain during the sixth century.  However, this hypothesis seems to contradict the fact that other Teutonic peoples (i.e. Germanic in origin as the Visigoths were) did not used this arch type in their buildings. Then it comes the question of whether the horseshoe arch was an ancient local element later learned by the Visigoths who occupied the peninsula, or alternatively can be that this type of arch had come to the Iberian Peninsula as a primitive oriental influence.

Horseshoe arches separate the main nave from the lateral naves at the church of San Juan de Baños.

In terms of decor, Visigothic artifacts and reliefs found everywhere in Spain repeat geometric patterns and radial compositions so typical of Teutonic art. In Toledo, reliefs from Visigoth monuments are found everywhere embedded in bridges and churches. The entire Iberian Peninsula is filled with stones decorated with reliefs in Teutonic style, so characteristic for its imitation of wood carving or metal chiseled.

Folio 6r of the Ashburnham Pentateuch, also known as the Tours Pentateuch, representing the story of Cain and Abel, late 6th or early 7th century (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France).

The reign of the Visigoth Chindasuinth (563-653) saw a true artistic renaissance.  This king showed sincere love for culture. The famous Ashburnham Pentateuch, with splendid miniatures, was probably illuminated in Seville. This magnificent book with illustrations filling the entire page is very mutilated as we only know 20 large folios* with miniatures. However, for its antiquity and artistic value, it is one of the most precious western manuscripts. This style of codex illumination was perpetuated in subsequent years and shows what the monumental painting of the Visigoth era must have been: the miniatures in the manuscripts were the portable models of the monumental frescoes.

Of great artistic importance is the Visigothic goldsmithing found in the treasures of Torrendojimeno and Guarrazar. Their most striking artifacts are crosses and gold crowns. From the ten votive crowns found at Guarrazar, two were exclusive of the royal family: the one of king Suinthila (before 631) and the one of king Reccesuinth (before 672) this last being the most valuable of all with thirty large sapphires each framed by four pearls all embedded in its main ring.

Artifacts from the Treasure of Torrendojimeno, they show some influence of Byzantine techniques (Archaeological Museum, Barcelona).

Corona de Suintila
Votive crown of the king Suinthila from the Treasure of Guarrazar (Archaeological National Museum, Madrid), with clearly Byzantine technique.
Above: The votive crown of king Reccesuinth,ca. second half of VIIth century, now in the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid. Left: view of the crown with its pendant cross, the byzantine influence is clear in style and technique. Right: Detail of the same crown made of gold and precious stones.

The Visigoth kingdom was destroyed by the Muslim invasion of 711 that soon conquered the whole Iberian Peninsula and southern Gaul. But in the northwest of the peninsula, in the small kingdom of Asturias, a local Visigothic art school formed since the time of the successors of king Pelagius. Observing the buildings that still remain near Oviedo, capital of the Asturian monarchy, it is noticed that rather than founders of a new State the kings of the Asturian monarchy perpetuated the ancient Visigothic culture and civilization that had thus found its last refuge in the Asturian mountains. This explains why Asturians built steadily and more frequently than was common in the West at those times of constant wars, conquests and uncertainty.

In fact, the Muslim invasion of Spain did not determine the disappearance of the characteristic architecture developed during the period of Visigoth domination. This architecture survived in the magnificent buildings erected by the kings of Asturias and in the Mozarabic churches as we shall see in next essays, all these buildings were made according to the standards established by Visigothic Christians even under Muslim rule.

Most of the Visigothic Kingdom was conquered by Arab and Berber troops from North Africa in 711 or 712 AD in the Battle of Guadalete, with only the northern areas in Spain remaining under Christian rule. These remaining Visigothic Christian territories gave origin to the medieval Kingdom of Asturias when a local landlord called Pelayo, of Gothic origin, defeated the Moors and was then chosen Princeps by the Astures.


*Folio: In terms of some books and most manuscripts that are bound but without page numbers, the term “folio” is used as an equivalent of “page” (both sides), using recto and verso to designate the first and second sides. This usually appears abbreviated: “f16r.” means the first side of the 26th leaf or page in a book.

*Horseshoe arch: As its name indicates, it is an arch in the shape of a horseshoe and is particularly associated with Islamic architecture, however it was in Spain and North Africa that horseshoe arches developed their characteristic form. The horseshoe arch is also known as Moorish arch and/or Keyhole arch.