Santa María del Naranco – Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm


The church of Santa María del Naranco was originally built as part of a palace complex which King Ramiro I (843-850) of Asturias decreed built on the slope of Mount Naranco, about 3 kilometers north of Oviedo. Today, it is placed in a park setting overlooking the city of Oviedo.

Exterior, Santa Maria del Naranco, Oviedo (Asturias) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The construction of the church of Santa María del Naranco was complete by 842. According to an inscription in Latin on the altar, which now has been moved to a different Asturian church, it was consecrated in 848 in honor of Virgin Mary. It was declared Bien de Interés Cultural in 1885, and was registered as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage in 1985. The church is a single space about 20 meters by 10 meters, placed on the upper level of a two-story structure.

View of two-story structure, Santa Maria del Naranco, Oviedo (Asturias) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

On either side of the hall there are balconies.

Plan, Santa Maria del Naranco, Oviedo (Asturias)

The south façade shows trace of two-story structure, now destroyed, joined to the extant structure forming a T. Scholars assume that the space in the now demolished structure may have been the “royal hall,” and the original altar was placed there, and that the existing hall may have formed “transepts.”

South facade, Santa Maria del Naranco, Oviedo (Asturias) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

In this assumed original T-shaped plan, the liturgy could be heard by the general populace outdoors through the open balconies. As there are elaborate stairways on the north façadel, it is further assumed that the congregation may have been let into the “transepts” before the “hall”.

North facade, Santa Maria del Naranco, Oviedo (Asturias) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The lower level is framed by a tunnel vault running lengthwise.

Santa María del Naranco has several architectural features which are considered significant innovations over the previous era. First, the master builder used barrel vaults in conjunction with precise stone work for the transverse arches.

Vaulting, Santa Maria del Naranco, Oviedo (Asturias) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

In order to build the curved vault surfaces, he used tufa stone mixed with lime, a form of concrete like the Roman pozzolan.

Vault detail, Santa Maria del Naranco, Oviedo (Asturias) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The transverse arches are supported by clustered columns attached to the wall.

Clustered columns, Santa Maria del Naranco, Oviedo (Asturias) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The support points are further fortified on the exterior by buttresses. In order to create wider openings for the entrance to the now extinct “hall” and the stairways on the opposite wall, the master builder joined two smaller spans of barrel vaults supported by architraves. The arches are not evenly spaced but graduated in order to create visual hierarchy of vault spans.

Graduated arches, Santa Maria del Naranco, Oviedo (Asturias) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

On the interior, there are six blind arcades, three each on either side of the central axis on the long face of the hall, marked by clustered columns supporting the transverse arches. Large strap-and-medallion ornaments with elaborate carvings are placed in line with arches and columns.

Arch ornaments, Santa Maria del Naranco, Oviedo (Asturias) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

It was written in an admiring tone in a chronicle of about 1025 that King Ramiro I of Asturias built structures with sandstone and marble in a “vaulted work.” Another noteworthy architectural achievement of the master builder and his building workshop is the program of ornaments which have been preserved to this day. The clustered columns have helical rope moldings instead of fluting found in Classical columns.

Capitals with rope molding, Santa Maria del Naranco, Oviedo (Asturias) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The capitals are not proportioned to Classical capitals, but tauter and vaguely Byzantine in feeling, and they have a wide variety of carvings of human figures, animals, vegetations, and geometrical patterns.

Capital, Santa Maria del Naranco, Oviedo (Asturias) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The strap-and-medallion carvings, interestingly, are also found in the pre-Asturian church of Santa Cristina de Lena, not too far in Zamora province, to which the altar piece from the Santa María del Naranco had been moved. Carvings of abstract geometrical designs are incorporated on some key spots on the exterior, also.

Exterior designs, Santa Maria del Naranco, Oviedo (Asturias) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Finally, shallow parallel indentations unify frames and lintels of door and window openings.

Portal indentations, Santa Maria del Naranco, Oviedo (Asturias) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Although it shows Byzantine and Visigothic heritage and even a hint of indebtedness to Moslem design, it may be said that, in terms of plan organization, Santa María del Naranco shows a Carolingian spirit, and that it occupies in the Spanish context, the position of Germiny-des-Prés in France, and the Palatine Chapel in Aachen in Germany in the development of Romanesque architecture.

Location: 43.379028 -5.865972

I would like to offer my sincerest appreciation to Jong-Soung Kimm for this post. Not only is this the twenty-fifth article he has contributed to Via Lucis, but the church of Santa Maria del Naranco in Oviedo is one that we have admired for years but have not yet had the opportunity to visit. To see this church described in such professional detail is an honor for us.

8 thoughts on “Santa María del Naranco – Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm

  1. Dear Mr Jong Soung, I presume that you refer in your last sentence to (Germigny-des-Prés). Your erudition is boundless… Few people know this treasure, even in France. You belong with PJ and Dennis in my Pantheon…

    1. Thank you for your compliment.
      Germiny-des-Prés is high on the list of any student of Medieval architecture.
      Jong-Soung

  2. Another outstanding contribution to the history of early Medieval art. I have always presented S. M. del Naranco as a palace/church. It is missing only a surrounding enclosure as we find in Carolingian churches having a balcony where both priest and king could address the crowd below. Your details of the carvings are so valuable to the student and teacher of Christian art in Spain. In those carvings I also see remnants of Gallic art to the North, especially in the rope and figurative carvings. Many thanks again Mr. Jong Suong Kimm.
    Darrell D. Davisson

    1. Thank you for your kind words. The balconies are identical, although the altar was placed on the eastern balcony only at later time.
      Jong-Soung

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