The origin and evolution of Romanesque styles in Spanish sculpture, so deeply influenced by French Romanesque, remain in mystery. The most conspicuous monuments of the Spanish Romanesque sculpture are found in the ancient route followed by French pilgrims in their way to Santiago de Compostela. The French Romanesque influence is noticed in the stone-paved roads and bridges of Castile and Leon, but also in the hospices and monasteries that were located in each stage of the pilgrimage route. It is precisely in these hospices and monasteries where we can find Spanish Romanesque sculptures.
One of the most important centers of this “pilgrimage” sculpture, as it is called, is the cloister of Santo Domingo de Silos (in Burgos) built between 1085 and 1100 with its capitals and reliefs located in the oldest part of the cloister. These beautiful reliefs represent themes like the Doubt of St. Thomas, the apparition of Jesus to the disciples of Emmaus, the Deposition from the Cross, the two Maries at the Holy Tomb, the Pentecost, and the Ascension. These large panels in bas-relief are arranged in pairs, in the inner corner of every two bays. Each one of them is framed by a simple arch supported by two slender columns with capitals, and over them the anonymous artist displayed a soft fantasy representing fine episodes with religious and chivalric tones. No other work can equal these reliefs in the Spanish Romanesque.
Other important elements of the Spanish Romanesque sculpture are the exquisite capitals of San Martin de Frómista, and the reliefs and other carved elements of the southern door of San Isidoro de Leon, as well as the expressive Southern tympanum of the crossing of the same temple a work definitely linked with the same artist who produced most of the figures in the “Puerta de las Platerías” (or The façade of the Silverware) of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
This façade of the Silverware is a capital monument of this “pilgrimage ” sculpture that flourished with such exuberance along the pilgrimage route to Compostela. This gate was completed, as stated in its facade, in 1103 under Alfonso VI. This monumental decorative group consists of a double door, and each of its elements is itself a masterpiece whose carving was made by different master artists. Probably, the sculptural decoration of the two arches and columns of this famous door, as well as its tympana, are the work of the master sculptor Esteban who moved later to Pamplona. But the façade of the Silverware has embedded other very important reliefs and figures produced by different artists.
Other important examples of the Spanish Romanesque sculpture of the twelfth century are the west portal of the basilica of San Vicente (in Avila) and the figures of the Annunciation and the Santa Sabina embedded on both sides of the southern gate of this same temple. It should be also cited the group of the Apostolate in which pairs of Apostles are attached to a pair of columns, and that decorate the walls of the upper chapel of the Holy Chamber of Oviedo dedicated to St. Michael (XII century) and the Portico of Glory from Santiago.
Finally, following the pilgrimage route to Compostela, we arrived at the temple of the Apostle in Compostela. The so-called Portico of Glory consists in the interior decoration of a narthex or portico with four doors. Originally, this decorative ensemble was double, since its opposite wall was also decorated. This last mentioned decorated wall was destroyed when the current Baroque façade was built in the eighteenth century, leaving only the inside surface of the portico with its original Romanesque decoration. It is called Portico of Glory because in the lunette of the central arch is the relief with the scene of the Glory of the Lord, surrounded by angels and a semicircular frieze with the 24 elders mentioned in the Book of Revelation, a theme so prevalent in the French Romanesque sculpture.
The gradual process of the evolution of the Spanish Romanesque sculpture is seen in these different “pilgrimage sculptures”. It is easy to appreciate the artistic exchange and double influence caused by the continuous flow of pilgrims traveling from Spain to France and vice versa. This astonishing decorative group of the Portico de la Gloria is stylistically placed on the border between the Romanesque and Gothic.
Other center characteristic of archaic Spanish Romanesque sculpture was focused in the small Aragonese/Pyrenees court of Jaca during the eleventh century, but particularly its last decades. The most prominent examples of this emerging Aragonese school are the tympana of the doors of San Pedro el Viejo in Huesca, the capitals adorning its cloister, and the reliefs and capitals of San Juan de la Peña.
Since the Portico of Glory was originally polychrome, it is possible to think that this Spanish Romanesque school of sculpture was joined by a Spanish Romanesque school of painting. As in France, the painted walls of the Spanish Romanesque have been conserved in fragments and most of the paintings that survive to this day are found in rural churches of minor importance at the time which for lack of resources were not subsequently “cleaned” and decorated with newer styles. However, the few surviving fragments of Romanesque frescoes in Castile, Leon and Galicia suffice to ensure that there were far more important compositions. One of the greatest monuments of Romanesque decorative painting has been preserved in the vaults and walls of the pantheon of the Kings in the collegiate church of San Isidoro de León. This is an imposing and very solid construction, divided into six sections by thick columns. The six vaults are decorated with frescoes dating from the reign of Ferdinand II in the mid-twelfth century. The themes, poorly innovative, represent biblical passages; these same themes are also found in the miniatures illuminating Hispanic manuscripts.