The “Pilgrimage” Sculpture of the Spanish Romanesque

Interior view of the Benedictine Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos (village of Santo Domingo de Silos, southern Burgos Province, Spain).

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.

Internal view of the cloister of the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos showing two of the pier reliefs with the Ascension (left) and Pentecost (right).
A heavily ornate capital of one of the columns at the cloister of the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos.

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.


A carved panel from one of the cloisters’ piers showing the “Doubting Thomas” scene.
A capital from one of the columns of the church of San Martín de Tours de Frómista (Frómista, province of Palencia, Spain), from the 11th century.

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.

The southern door (also known as the “Lamb’s Door”) from the Basilica of San Isidoro de León (León, Spain), Xth to XIth centuries.
The “Absolution Door” of the Basilica of San Isidoro of León, It opens on the south side of the crossing.
The tympanum above the “Absolution Door” of the Basilica of San Isidoro of León. It represents three different scenes: to the left, the Ascension, in the middle, the Descent, and to the right, the three Maries contemplating the empty Holy Tomb. In the nimbus above the Ascension scene is the Latin inscription: “Ascendo ad patrem meum et patrem uestrum” meaning “‘I am ascending to my Father, and to your Father”.
General view of the facade of the Silverware (façade das Pratarías in Galician). The facade owes its name to the silver and goldsmith workshops that during the Middle Ages used to occupy the square located right outside of this facade.

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.

The western door of the Basilica de San Vicente in Ávila, Spain.
The Annunciation (left) and the Santa Sabina (right) from the lateral jambs of the southern door of the Basilica de San Vicente (Ávila).






The figures of the Apostles which decorate in pairs the column’s shafts at the Cámara Santa or Holy Chamber of Oviedo (Spain).

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 Portico of Glory of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela a work by Master Mateo and his workshop (XIIth century). The portico includes over 200 sculptures in Romanesque style and is considered the highest artistic achievement found in the cathedral. Up to these days, the Portico of Glory is considered the greatest work of the Spanish Romanesque sculpture. The portico is divided into three arches. The left arch is decorated with sculptures of the patriarchs of the Old testament and Jewish people waiting for arrival of Christ. The central arch represents the final fate of the true Christians: glory and resurrection. The right arch represents the New Testament and the Final Judgement.


Sculptures adorning the Portico of Glory at Santiago, here the poly-chrome decoration applied on the figures is evident. This detail shows four prophets of the Old Testament: Jeremiah, Daniel, Isaiah and Moses. The face of Prophet Daniel (second from left) has been praised as one of the best smiles ever carved in stone in the history of art.

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 particularly during 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.

One of the tympana above a door of the Benedictine Abbey of San Pedro el Viejo (Huesca, Aragon, Spain), 12th century.
An ornate capital at the cloister of the Abbey of San Pedro el Viejo in Huesca depicting the biblical event of the Flight into Egypt, with Joseph leading the donkey with Mary and infant Jesus on her lap. Palm leaves decorate the scene’s background.
A capital from the monastery of San Juan de la Peña in Jaca (Huesca, Spain) with the scene of the Resurrection of Lazarus.

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.

The fresco decorated vaults of the Pantheon of the Kings of Leon at the Basilica of San Isidoro of León. During the Middle Ages, this was the place where most of the kings and queens of the kingdom of León were buried. The group of frescoes adorning its walls is considered one of the masterpieces of the Spanish Romanesque painting.
The figure of Christ Pantocrator, fresco in the vault of the Pantheon of the Kings in the Collegiate Church-Basilica of San Isidoro of León (Spain).