Pre-Romanesque is the period of art history between the appearance of the Merovingian kingdom about 500 CE until the beginning of the actual Romanesque period in the eleventh century (the Merovingians were a dynasty of Salian Franks, a western subgroup of the Franks, who ruled for nearly 300 years what is now France beginning in mid Vth century AD). The Pre-Romanesque art was characterized by the introduction and amalgam of classical Mediterranean and Christian art forms with Germanic styles creating innovative stylistic forms that would lead to the emergence of Romanesque art in the eleventh century.
The kingdom of Asturias was founded in the Iberian Peninsula by the Visigothic nobleman Pelagius of Asturias, when his army defeated the Islamic invaders of the Umayyad Caliphate at the Battle of Covadonga in 718. The kingdom of Asturias preceded the kingdom of Leon founded in 924, when King Fruela II imposed his royal court in the new capital of Leon instead of former Oviedo. The kingdom of Asturias occupied the western and central territory of the Cantabrian Mountains, part of Gallaecia and the central area of Asturias.
By the end of the eighth century the kings of the Asturian monarchy of Oviedo built vaulted stone buildings a feature uncommon in the rest of Europe at the time. This architectural style of the Asturian monarchy is called Asturian Pre-Romanesque and flourished under the kings of Asturias, Alfonso II (789-842) and his son Ramiro I (842-850). The end of this artistic period is placed when the capital of the Asturian state moved from Oviedo to Leon in the early tenth century. The Asturian King Alfonso II “the Chaste” built in Oviedo the Holy Chamber and the small church of San Tirso. Alfonso II also erected near Oviedo the church of San Julian de los Prados, or Iglesia de Santullano, a spacious temple that exhibits the definitive characteristics of the Asturian Pre-Romanesque style. San Julian de los Prados has basilical floor plan with three naves separated by squared pillars supporting round arches*.
However, the best preserved monuments considered as the most brilliant examples of the Asturian Pre-Romanesque can be found on a hill next to Oviedo. On Mount Naranco are two buildings from the mid-ninth century. The first is called Santa María del Naranco because it served as church and was believed to be the chapel of one of the palaces of Ramiro I. According to the chronicles, this building was an admirable work of architecture. It is now known that it was not a chapel, but the very Royal Hall or Aula Regia, the suburban residence of King Ramiro. The second building on Mount Naranco was erected to be the chapel of the first palatial building in the area and was dedicated to St. Michael who, as a holy warrior, defended a piece of the Holy Cross probably the holiest relic of the treasure of Toledo. Miraculously saved from foreign peoples’ invasions and later placed in the capital of the new kingdom of Asturias, that portion of the Holy Cross was kept in a separate chapel. Less than half of the temple remains from this Church of San Miguel de Lillo. It was formerly called de Liño (this is Ligno, related to the relic of the True Cross it contained).
Both buildings -Santa Maria del Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo- are of unique beauty. Because the Aula Regia (or Santa Maria del Naranco) served as a rural church it has undergone some modifications although it has been currently restored to its original form. It is a very important monument in Europe because there isn’t any other Royal Hall from that period despite that these type of constructions abound in Norse sagas. This Royal Hall is a wide room covered with barrel vaults and without windows, with transverse ribs that correspond one-to-one with buttresses* at the exterior, feature that makes it a direct precursor of the Romanesque construction. In this building, light enters through the open porticoes of the two solariums. This hall of King Ramiro has two floors: the lower floor is divided into three sections, the central one for the guard and servitude, while under one of the solariums was a private royal chapel, and under the other was the bathroom. The king and his companions, armigers and squires, slept in the large upper room only divided by two curtains. In general, the monument has a very elongated rectangular shape.
The Aula Regia of Oviedo is decorated in Nordic style with a strong Visigoth influence. The arches are not of the horseshoe type but are clearly stilted* and the moldings were carved imitating wood or metalwork. From each one of the vault’s dividing arches hang some stone reliefs also known as bracts, similar to those used by the Vikings as decorative elements, but with strong eastern influences, a characteristic that we also saw in the previous essay when describing the small Visigothic church of Quintanilla de las Viñas.
Santa Maria del Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo were erected by Ramiro I before the year 848 when the first was consecrated as a church as recorded by the inscription on the altar now stored at the Museum of Oviedo. In San Miguel de Lillo, the door jambs* are decorated with reliefs depicting circus games copied from the Byzantine ivory diptych of consul Areobindus from 506. The rest of decorative elements of San Miguel de Lillo (architectural elements, friezes and capitals) always include geometric patterns of Germanic taste, like some of the ornaments found in the crowns of the treasure of Guarrazar or other pieces of jewelry of barbarian style.
A church or small chapel, vaulted, quite high, and with a porch similar to those found in Naranco, was built in Santa Cristina de Lena. Its round arches are somewhat exaggerated, while its presbytery, which is accessed by stairs, is separated from the main nave by a triple arch and by an iconostasis beautifully carved with geometric reliefs.
Another important monument of the Asturian school is the church of the Benedictine monastery of San Salvador de Valdediós founded by Alfonso III the Great in 893 and where he retired to live his last years after being dethroned by his sons. It is a church of three naves, its apses are still squared like in San Juan de Baños. In addition to the narthex has a side porch at the facade and the windows show stone fretwork with drawings similar to those seen in the chains of the Guarrazar crowns.
All the buildings mentioned above are rural or suburban, but the kings of Asturias also built great monuments following the same style in the capital of Oviedo. There they had their palace beside which they built a monumental group of buildings of remarkable proportions that included: the cathedral (dedicated to the Savior) with an attached chapel dedicated to the Virgin, the Pantheon, the Holy Chamber to guard relics, and also a baptistery.
That was how in the Asturias region began a first Pre-Romanesque style totally independent from the one that was already taking shape in the rest of Europe. At most, this Asturian Pre-Romanesque style could be related to the art of the Scandinavian Vikings who often ravaged the coasts of Galicia and Asturias.
These monuments, that today appear naked, were richly decorated with paintings, furniture and jewelry. We have some colored drawings done more than fifty years ago and that copied the original large murals -today almost entirely lost- that decorated the walls of San Julian de los Prados. Other decorations found in San Miguel de Lillo, with human figures, prelude the expressionistic violence that a century later will be develop in Mozarabic miniatures. But only the fantastic pieces of Asturian goldsmiths that have survived to this date can give us an idea of the magnificence and richness of this small kingdom in constant struggle with Muslims and Vikings.
The oldest known piece of Pre-Romanesque Asturian jewelry is the Cross of the Angels that Alfonso II ordered to handcraft in 808 for the Oviedo Cathedral. More elegant and sumptuous is the Victory Cross, donated by Alfonso III in 908. Its green and red gemstones, mixed with enamel, roam its golden arms covered in granulated filigree* similar to those of the Carolingian jewelry. Like the Victory Cross and contemporary to it, is the box of relics of the Cathedral of Astorga. Finally, the last known piece of this series of fabulous jewelry is the famous Agate Box that King Fruela II gave as a gift for the Cathedral of Oviedo in 903. The wise use of veined onyx, its enamels in two shades of blue and ruby-red, the gemstones and metal reliefs evoke a barbarian luxury that relates it to the Visigoth tradition even more directly than what was observed in the Asturian Pre-Romanesque architecture.
* Round arch:
* Stilted arch: an arch whose curve begins above the impost line.
* Buttress: an structure built against or projecting from a wall with the aim of support or reinforce the wall.
* Door jambs: the two vertical parts of the door frame, on one of which the door is attached.
*Filigree: The term refers to a delicate kind of jewelry metalwork, usually of gold and silver, made with tiny beads or twisted threads, or both in combination, soldered together or to the surface of an object of the same metal and arranged in artistic motifs. It often suggests lace and remains popular in Indian and other Asian metalwork. It was popular as well in Italian and French metalwork from 1660 to the late 19th century.