Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada – Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm


It is documented that the Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada was built by abbot Alfonso and his refugee monks who fled Córdoba on the site of an earlier church dedicated to Archangel Michael, probably a Visigothic structure, in the span of twelve months in 913, the historical moment when the Kingdom of León was founded. It is located in Gradefes, about 30 km east of León, slightly off the camino francés to Santiago de Compostela. San Miguel de Escalada is one of the best-preserved examples of Mozarabic architecture, a style of architecture created by conquered Christian builders who stayed in the Iberian Peninsula after the Arab invasion of 711, and later by the builders who migrated north but carrying with them artistic traditions of the Mozarabic architecture from the southern regions. After the disentitlement of ecclesiastical properties in 1836 in Spain, the monks had to leave the monastery, but the structures were registered as national monuments later in the 19th century. The extant monastery consists of the restored 10th century Mozarabic church, a tower and the chapel of San Fructuoso built in the early Romanesque style.

Exterior, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada (Castile-León)

The first sight of the Mozarabic church that leaves a strong impression on a visitor is the 12-bay colonnade of horseshoe-shaped arches of the porch, or an outdoor narthex, which was added to the church around 940 on the south façade.

South facade, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The horseshoe-shaped arch is the most distinct design element of Mozarabic architecture. On closer examination, one will discern that the south façade was built in two phases: the western seven bays of the colonnade have alfiz embellishing the arches, while the eastern five bays are left without the additional stonework.

South facade bays, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The last three columns to the east are set on a lower ground, necessitating placement of dosseret over the capitals in order to align the springing level for the arches, even with the slightly taller columns.

South facade arch detail, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

All columns appear to have been recycled, possibly from the nearby Roman city of Lancia, although capitals are not of the Classical Corinthian design, but freely, albeit imaginatively carved by stonecutters for the Mozarabic structure.

The church is laid out as a basilica plan with the porch added to the south as mentioned earlier. The nave and the slightly narrower aisles are divided by five large horseshoe-shaped arches on columns. The choir at the crossing is defined by a choir screen, or an iconostacion, as a Spanish writer called it, built of three somewhat smaller arches than the nave. The rectangular spaces to the north and south of the choir, embryonic transepts, though not expressed on the exterior are distinguished by arches from the aisles. Three apses of horseshoe-shaped plan are carved into a thick mass of masonry at the east end of the structure, all endowed with horseshoe-shaped arches of their own and vaulted in stone.

Elevation and plan, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Courtesy of Wikimedia

The entrance to the church is located at the midpoint of the nave behind the colonnade at south, and there is another entrance to the south transept several steps up from the lower ground.

“The visitor finds himself in an austere but surprisingly sophisticated ensemble,” to quote Kenneth John Conant. “The architectural membering, the proportions, the scale, the management of space and light are all very fastidious.” The nave framed by arcades on both walls and the choir screen is dimly lit from small clerestory windows above. Both the north and south aisles are devoid of any windows, except the door. The nave possesses that immaterial character of a Byzantine space.

Nave, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view to west from the choir screen shows that the main entrance on the west wall of the church which is indicated on the plan had been walled off.

Nave looking west, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view of the corner pier where the nave arch and the outer arch of the screen are joined shows that the master builder treated the east-west direction of the nave as primary, then the outer arch of the choir screen was simply brought to the pier without an attached column as it was done for the nave arcades.

Nave detail, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

As the three arches forming the choir screen are smaller while retaining the same proportion of the larger arches, their tops are lower. The master builder obviously judged that the screen needed more wall plane above the arches to achieve the desired spatial definition for the choir. The roof trusses are left without a ceiling, and one can see the church space is a parallelogram.

Ceiling, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The chancel in the central apse has a simple slab of stone as the altar. The cornice above the chancel arch mirrors the cornice over the choir screen.

Apse, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The carving on the capital above the attached chancel column highlights the caliber of the stone cutters, although the imagery is not yet meant to tell a biblical parable as are the Romanesque capitals of a century later.

Chancel capital, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The high skills of stone cutters is very much in evidence again on a simple block of stone placed as a low partition between the choir and the south transept.

Carved partition, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Another example is this capital on one of the columns supporting a horseshoe-shaped arch.

Location: 42.560000° -5.314722°

For more information about our guest writer, Jong-Soung Kimm, please see this link.

7 responses to “Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada – Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm

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