Situated in the central Catalonia, the town of Cardona is the historical center of the Cardener river basin at the southern edge of the river to the northwest of Barcelona. Due to the large salt deposit in its terrain, the area had already been settled in pre-Roman times, and Louis the Pious, the son of Charlemagne and a Holy Roman Emperor, had recognized the strategic importance of Castrum Cardonam, and in 798 had it secured for his subsequent campaign for Barcelona.
The existence of a church on the site of Sant Vicenç is referred to in documents from 980. In 1019, the viscount Bermon d’Osona had monks living in the territory reformed as a community of canons. Little is known about the master builder of the church of Sant Vicenç constructed inside the castle of Cardona, but it is recorded that building of a new canonical church on the site of the old church was commissioned by Bermon at the instigation of abbot Oliba. The new building was begun in 1029, and was dedicated by bishop Eribau of Urgell around 1040. It is interesting to note that Oliba was the son of a count of Cerdagne, and abbot at Ripoll, Cuxa and Canigou, before he was bishop of Vic from 1008 to 1046 during which period he exerted a decisive influence on construction of several churches of the then nascent architectural style, the first Romanesque architecture in Catalan region. In 1090 an abbey with the Augustinian rule was established for the church, free from the jurisdiction of the diocese of Urgell, and in 1592 it became a collegiate church. In 1794 Sant Vicenç went through a more sobering transformation into a military barrack during the Napoleonic war, and remained as one until the early 20th century.
The church of Sant Vicenç is built on the Latin cross plan.
Ground plan, Sant Vicenç de Cardona, Cardona (Barcelona)
Starting from the west end, it has a narthex with a gallery above, the nave of three square bays connected to the crossing, a rectangular chancel bay and the apse.
Nave, Sant Vicenç de Cardona, Cardona (Barcelona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm
The nave is covered with barrel vault, and it is articulated by the half-round transverse arches springing from the substantial piers into three bays. The piers are shaped as a square core with rectangular projections on four sides seemingly creating a cross shape, except that there are another layer of projections facing the nave, of the same width as the transverse arches above. The two additional stepped corners of the inner layer on either side facing the nave are terminated by tapering to the nave wall plane at the springing of the transverse arches.
Nave elevation, Sant Vicenç de Cardona, Cardona (Barcelona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm
There are small clerestory windows centered on each bay of the nave. The church is 51 meters long, 23.5 meters wide at the transept. The nave itself is 6.5 meters wide and 18.7 meters high.
The barrel vaults of the chancel and transepts spring from the same horizontal plane some distance below the nave springing, defined by the bottom of a diaphragm wall between the nave and the crossing.
Nave vaults, Sant Vicenç de Cardona, Cardona (Barcelona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm
The transepts extend from the crossing only slightly farther than the exterior walls of the aisles in lengths, and they are also adorned with tall apses of their own. The crossing is surmounted by a dome on squinches with an oculus at the center, which in turn is encased in a twelve sided lantern on the exterior.
Crossing dome, Sant Vicenç de Cardona, Cardona (Barcelona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm
The chancel is built over the crypt, which is entered down the central stairs, a 17th century intervention, between the wider stairs leading up to the chancel. All stairs occupy the eastern half of the crossing. The very tall central apse is built with thick semi-cylindrical masonry with seven concave shafts hollowed out from the inside surface of the masonry, and they are articulated by slender colonnettes between them.
Apse colonnettes, Sant Vicenç de Cardona, Cardona (Barcelona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm
The side aisles, very narrow in relation to the nave, are covered with groin vaults, three smaller bays for each nave bay. In the south aisle, a section of the old paving at a lower level than the present one is left on view.
South side aisle, Sant Vicenç de Cardona, Cardona (Barcelona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm
The crypt appears to be a carry-over from the existing portion of the earlier church. Although the stone work is visibly coarser, and the capitals at the top of columns rather primitive, the masons have succeeded in building the groin-vaulted ceiling and the half round apse of the crypt remarkably well.
Crypt, Sant Vicenç de Cardona, Cardona (Barcelona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm
Sant Vicenç in Cardona evokes a sense of Roman architecture in its pure form and precisely cut stone work. It is an important milestone in the development of the first Romanesque architecture in the northern Iberian peninsula along with Sant Pere de Rodes, Ripoll, Sant Pere Galligants in Girona and others. In its highly sophisticated conjoining of different building elements, Sant Vicenç reminds visitors of the structural rationalism of the High Gothic architecture which emerged a century and a half later. Scholars note that the dome on squinches is an architectural element developed independently of the Byzantine or the Lombardy models which built domes on pendentives. On the exterior of the church of Sant Vicenç, however, there are touches of Lombardy design in the moldings and so on. As Cardona was not on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, and more importantly, as it was built as a church for a community of canons inside a castle, Sant Vicenç had not been endowed with radiating chapels and ambulatory, essential components of all pilgrimage churches.
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