The Abbey Church of San Salvador de Leyre is situated on one of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela at the southern edge of Sierra de Leyre in northern Navarra 50 km from Pamplona. It traces its origin to 842 when the then king of Navarra and the bishop of Pamplona made donations for founding of a Benedictine monastery. Due to the privileges and gifts bestowed on it by the kings during the first and middle periods of the Navarra kingdom, the monastery has prospered for almost three centuries, reaching its zenith in the 12th century. During the seven decades of dispute in the 13th century between the Benedictines and Cistercians, the monastery was taken over by the Cistercians in 1269 for many years before being returned to the Benedictines.
The construction of the church crypt and the chancel above at the eastern end was initiated by King Sancho III (Sancho el Mayor) in early 11th century, and was consecrated in 1057 after his death. It is one of the earliest and most important examples of the Romanesque architecture in northern Spain. Construction for the nave followed, and the Gothic vaulting replacing the original wooden roof was built during the 14th century.
The Romanesque Nave is a single space, rather than of the familiar plan with aisles on either side, and therefore, appears relatively wider in relation to the length. The height of the Nave was increased over that of the Chancel to the east of the diaphragm wall at the end of the 11th century. A modest round window above the wall is aligned with the main arch, but not with the axis of the Chancel. Beyond the wall, the Chancel and two aisles with barrel vaults are visible with two rows of intermediate columns and three Apses.
When the height of the Nave was increased, and again when the stone vaulting was built, the north wall had to be thickened on the inside face, reducing the width of the north aisle and the northern arched entryway. The open grille indicates the entry to the Royal Pantheon where the remains of some members of the first dynasty of the Navarra kingdom are enshrined. “El Cristo de Leyre,” the Cross with Christ on the wall of the bay to the left, a treasure of San Salvador de Leyre, is a 17th century work.
When the Gothic ribbed vaulting was constructed in the 14th century, the master builder chose to remove two rows of columns and arched walls demarcating the Nave and aisles, creating a 14 meter wide single Nave, four bays in length.
The precise and sharp profiles of the Gothic ribs and the smooth, curving planes of stone infill clearly give away the relatively late date of its construction in the 14th century.
The Western Portal, fondly called Porta Speciosa, with an impressive tympanum with sculpture by a Master Esteban, thought to be the sculptor of Santiago de Compostela, depicting the Saviour, Virgin Mary and the Saints was built at the time of the construction of the higher Nave at the end of the 11th century.
The Crypt is above the adjoining terrain, and there is no indication that it was ever intended for burial. It is assumed that the Crypt, directly below the chancel and the eastern two bays of the nave, was constructed in order to level the site and serve as foundation for the church. The achievements of the masons here in the Crypt constructing the barrel vaults over the fairly narrow aisles, supported by disproportionately large capitals on short columns, is considered one of the finest examples of the early Romanesque building art in Spain.
For construction of the Crypt, the builders were obliged to introduce a row of columns down the middle of the central bay and the Apse. A simple stone altar is placed in front of the two apsidal windows. The capitals are not proportioned in accordance with the classical architecture of the antiquity, nor do they show any hint that the masons were aware of the classical order. The short columns, in spite of appearing as though the Crypt floor level had been raised, were used in the construction right from the beginning. The material, limestone with rich quartz and iron content, gives a clue to the excellent state of preservation for the Abbey Church at San Salvador de Leyre.
Note: All photographs taken with Leica 21mm Super Angulon on Canon 5D with an adapter.
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