The Hairy Count and his Monastery (Dennis Aubrey)


A few years ago, I did an enormous genealogical study for my family. It was a combination of research, history, and detective work that was irresistible and I spent all of my late nights working on this project. It was, of course, before this Via Lucis blog, which now occupies that space in my life. One of the ancestors that I found was a Visigoth known in Catalan as Guifré el Pilós, a suitably romantic name for the ninth century Count of Barcelona who unified the region of Catalonia against the Muslims. His name, translated, is far less romantic; he is known to history as Wilfrid the Hairy.

Wilfrid fought constant wars against the Muslims who feared his growing power in the north. Legend has it that the Saracens brought a dragon to the Llobregat river, terrifying the local residents. The fierce dragon resisted all attempts on its life until Wildrid killed it with an oak cudgel. On a more peaceful note, one of the major accomplishments of his very active life was the foundation of the Monastir de Santa Maria de Ripoll in 888. The monastery was very powerful in its day and one of its daughter houses was the Abbaye Saint Martin-du-Canigou.

The Monastir de Santa Maria is one of the most photogenic churches that we have ever seen, despite the fact that it is mostly the product of a nineteenth century restoration. The severe purity of simple nave is visible in the arcades with their rounded arches topped square piers. Above the arcades are the clerestory windows alternating between the arches. The ceiling is one continuous, unbanded barrel vault from the west facade to the chancel crossing.

Nave of the Monastir de Santa Maria, Ripoll (Girona)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave of the Monastir de Santa Maria, Ripoll (Girona) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Romanesque version of the monastery was rebuilt in the 12th century for the Benedictine monks who had taken residence here. A very interesting feature of this version of the church is the presence of twin side aisles on the north and south sides of the nave. These double side aisles have a wonderful feature – the interior line of supports alternates square piers and columns. Each of the columns has superb carved capitals which contrast beautifully with the unadorned piers.

Side aisles, Monastir de Santa Maria, Ripoll (Girona) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Side aisles, Monastir de Santa Maria, Ripoll (Girona) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

At the far east end of each side aisle is a raised chapel, approached by a series of steps.

Side aisle of Monastir de Santa Maria, Ripoll (Girona)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle of Monastir de Santa Maria, Ripoll (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

These chapels are unusual because they are not completely enclosed – it is possible to see through to the oven-vaulted apse beyond.

Altar of Monastir Santa Maria de Ripoll (Girona)  Photo by PJ McKey

Altar of Monastir Santa Maria de Ripoll (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

The view from the outside side aisles through the inner side aisle to the nave is quite striking. I was very busy photographing when the noise of people gathering filtered into my consciousness. From this very vantage point I could see that the previously empty church was starting to fill up; these people were preparing for a large funeral for a dignitary. I found PJ and we left as quietly as we could.

Side aisles of Monastir de Santa Maria de Ripoll, Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Side aisles of Monastir de Santa Maria de Ripoll, Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The funeral was an appropriate end to our visit. Wilfred built many other monasteries and churches during his life, but reverted back to warfare at the end. The founder of Catalunya died in battle against the Saracens at the Battle of Barcelona on 11 August 897. He was buried – fittingly – in the monastery at Ripoll.

18 responses to “The Hairy Count and his Monastery (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Oh, a family church, Kalli, wouldn’t that be great. But unfortunately, we’re not part of the community and that ancestry goes back 1200 years. Oh well. Thanks for the kind words about the photos. I loved doing the last shot – that’s the one that was being taken as the people came in. The double aisles are great photographically.

      • My name is Colin Ripoll. My father had told me the stories of Catalan and La Monasteria De Ripoll. I hope to one day visit and potentially meet any living Ripoll’s in Ripoll. My grandfather was Tirado Ripoll and fater was Edgardo Ripoll. Thank you for the beautiful photo’s of the monastery and all of your time working in this endeavor.
        I do want to learn know who was the first Ripoll known to history and or named the town Ripoll?

  1. Little wonder you have an interest in ancient churches and monasteries. Wildred the Hairy is whispering to you from the grave. 😉 … I understand the fascination of genealogy having engaged in a fair amount of family sleuthing myself. What a remarkably appropriate find for you! … Beautiful images. Thanks got sharing … Be well, Dorothy 🙂

    • Dorothy, one of the great things about the genealogy project was the opening up of my mother’s family. My father’s antecedents are well known in the family, but my mother’s grandmother was the end of the trail for her. But we found some census records and in a misspelled name, we recovered the trail. What a trail it was; we started seeing names like Coronado and the like. Once we hit that, it was a clear path back to Wilfrid.

  2. Wonderfully and masterfully written and photographed. I have been there and found the monastir both austere and stately.
    I wonder if you were not allowed to take pictures of the gorgeous arcade of the main entrance. It would be nice to see them because I am pretty sure that you both would do a mastery work!!

    • Jesus, thanks for the kind words. We actually took pictures both in the cloister and of the portal that is preserved in the narthex. But for the purposes of this post, we didn’t include them. We will soon, however.

  3. oh goodie- u did family genealogy- i am a blood descendent of christina of the 2 sicilies ( b 1806)and ferdinand(ugh) the whatever- he wasn’t so nice (that’s why my ggg father b. 1832 ( an unknown twin )was spirited out of the country.)..do u have any goodies on the line- also i am fr the naill clan via molloy of queens county….if you can come up with the hairy monk i should have something delightful too . my german side is sweet friendenauer = freindthal – aka friendly folk 🙂 lots married into notable? lines ie:houdini- aka wiess- family settings were slightly different, the howards (moe curly etc…yuck yuck…)
    a cool viking would be nice- yours in kindness, kathy molloy lawler

    • Kathy, that was the shortest, most intense genealogical review I’ve ever seen! Thanks for this … not sure I can come up with a hairy Wilfrid for you, but if you have Welsh or Irish blood you’re sure to run into the greatest characters imaginable.

  4. Great images, as per usual. I wonder though, how hairy would a Visigoth need to be to warrant such an appellation? 🙂

    • Craig, apparently it was the location of the hair as opposed to the amount. There is a story that as a boy he was sent to Normandy to protect him against usurpers and when he returned as a young man, his proof of identity was the hair – on the bottom of his fee! That’s the story, anyway. It’s a pretty good one.

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