All Hail Covetotop (Dennis Aubrey)


This year’s trip to Europe has been filled with visits to friends old and new. We saw Servane de Layre-Matheus in Chartres, our lifelong friends Therese Gayet and her son Francois in Vivonne, France. We saw Albert and Monique Pinto for lunch in the Provençal town of Saignan in a wonderful local restaurant Au comptoir de Balthazar. We will see Angelico Surchamp at the Abbey of La Pierre qui Vire later this week. But we had the immense pleasure to finally meet one of our favorite bloggers, Covetotop, whose eponymous blog chronicles his native Catalonia and the Costa Brava, in English no less!

Covetotop is famously reclusive and even gives no details of his private life, not his name, his profession, where he lives. His blog does give specific instructions on how to contact him – “Telepathically: close your eyes and think aloud: “I wish to contact the fabulous Covetotop’s author … I wish to contact the fabulous Covetotop’s author … I wish to contact the fabulous Covetotop’s author …”.”

PJ and I followed the instructions to the letter and were actually able to make contact and schedule a luncheon during our visit to his beloved Empordà region of Catalonia. The day arrived for the lunch we arrived early, anxious not to miss a moment with him. We went into the restaurant, were shown to our table and speculated on what he must be like. PJ asked if I had a mental picture of him and surprisingly I realized that I didn’t. I knew he was well educated, witty, well-travelled, a gourmet who favored the best small restaurants of Catalonia, but no physical image. As we were speculating, we heard a tumult outside. We went to the window and saw hordes of small children waving Catalan flags running alongside a 1924 Hispano-Suiza H6 roadster painted the same bright yellow as the Catalan flag itself. It pulled to a stop in front of the restaurant and out stepped an impossibly handsome man dressed in a white suit, greeting the children and the adults who crowded around noisily. He looked up and saw us and flashed a brilliant smile in the sun and we knew it was he – it was Covetotop.

Covetotop’s car

As we sat to lunch, his graciousness made us feel immediately at home. When he asked how we were enjoying Catalonia, we mentioned that many of the Catalan churches were closed and our disappointment in not being able to photograph. Covetotop merely smiled and suggested we visit a few churches that he mentioned by name. Of course, when we arrived at each on the following day, they were open and we received full cooperation from the local residents in our work, including the ever-present children waving Catalan flags. In the town of Beget, though, with its stunning site and the picturesque church perched at one end of the village, we arrived during the hours of the siesta. But when the church warden heard the delighted cries of the children and realized that we had arrived, he rushed out of his house, pulling up his yellow and red suspenders and tucking in his shirt as he rushed to open the church for us.

Exterior, Església de Sant Cristòfol, Beget (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

Inside the Església de Sant Cristòfol in Beget, we were able to see on the ornate Baroque retable the “dressed Christ” that Covetotop told us about.

Nave and apse, Església de Sant Cristòfol, Beget (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

When it came time to order our meal, rather than try to select individually among the many offerings, Covetop recommended that we eat Pica Pica style, featuring a “little bit of this, a little bit of that”. There was a truitas de patata, the Catalan omelet, the croquetes de pollastre, the canelones de Can Roca, gambas, honeyed botifarra, fried carxofa, and the Anxoves de l’Escala, among many other splendid dishes.

Side aisle to nave, Sant Feliu de Beuda, Beuda (Girona). Photo by PJ McKey

As we progressed through a wonderful lunch of Catalan specialties, Covetotop gradually revealed more of his intensely private life. We learned his real name, but promised on our very lives never to reveal it to anyone. We found that he was born in the little village of Beuda and was baptised with great celebration by the entire community in the font of the church of Sant Feliu, a font filled with the local Empordà wines.

Baptismal font, Sant Feliu de Beuda, Beuda (Girona). Photo by PJ McKey

We found that he spent time in a Benedictine monastery in Austria before moving back to his native Catalonia. After spending years as a calligrapher working in traditional materials using handmade inks and tools, he began his current career crafting wooden fishing boats in a small village on the Mediterranean coast.

Altar, Sant Sepulcre de Palera, Beuda (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

Finally our lunch was finished and we faced the end to a fascinating visit with the enigma that is Covetotop. The empty plates that covered the table somehow reflected the physical and mental feast that we had shared together and we said our fond goodbyes. We will see the Empordà with new eyes now, and look forward to our next visit in the Costa Brava.

Side aisle, Sant Sepulcre de Palera, Beuda (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

Our visit ended as it started, with the crowd waving their Catalan flags as the Hispano-Suiza disappeared down the road, like us, inspired by the visit from the great Covetotop.

This is clearly a fanciful post, not reflecting the exact nature of our encounter with Covetotop, but a fantasy based on how it should have gone if the universe were as fanciful and imaginative as Covetotop himself. While the details of Covetotop’s private life are obscured, there is one true personal fact included that we invite you to identify. Meanwhile, PJ and I continue to revel in our visit with our new friend.

In a further development, Covetotop has revealed fascinating private details of his life and our visit in his prequel to our visit. A must-read for Covetotop fans thirsty for knowledge!

The Val d’Aran – Tapas, tres Esglésies, and the Haro (Dennis Aubrey)


In the Middle Ages, there were areas in Europe that existed in an isolation almost inconceivable today. In the center of the Pyrénées, just south to the current border of Spain, is a small east-west valley tucked into the mountains. During the winter snows, the valley is almost completely inaccessible. But in that valley there are thirty villages, each with a Romanesque church built mostly in the 12th and 13th centuries. Every hillside reveals another, often perched just above that of an adjoining village just a few hundred yards away as the crow flies but miles away by twisting roads.

Today, these churches are intact, most in good condition, and all of them of a style consistent with each other, even to the baroque retables and the restorations. Unfortunately, only a few are open to visitors, so we did not have the greatest hope of seeing more than one or two in detail. But that changed when we met the remarkable Diana Falcon, a journalist who lives in Bossòst and offered to help us out in our work. Diana made arrangements for us to get into churches that were closed and gave us invaluable information about almost every church in the valley, all of which she knows well. She is a lover of the Romanesque and all things archaeological, her husband is an architect with a passion for Romanesque, and we could not have found a better guide!

With her help we planned our four days in the Val d’Aran and were able to see about a third of the churches. We started with the northernmost church in the town of Bossost, the gleisia Mair of Diu dera Purificacion.

South facade, Mair of Diu dera Purificacion, Bossost . (Lérida) Photo by PJ McKey

Small, like most of the churches in the Val d’Aran, the Mair of Diu dera Purificacion is unusual in that it has side aisles. We photographed for about an hour and a half and then decided to lunch on the square right next to the church. Tapas was the order of the day, with the stars being roasted salted green peppers and a fantastic Jamón ibérico. We even broke our norm by having an alcoholic beverage, a glass of wine for PJ and a beer for me.

Nave, Mair of Diu dera Purificacion, Bossost . (Lérida) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Arties is in the center of the valley and features a beautiful, complexly painted three-aisle church. This was one that Diana made special arrangements with Elisa Ros Barbosa of the Airau de Patrimòni Culturaur for us to visit and it was worth every second.

Apse, Santa Maria de Arties, Arties (Lérida) . Photo by PJ McKey

The 15th and 16th century frescoes cover much of the apse and the pillars of the crossing and are worth a study of their own. A detail from the Last Judgment and the fate of the damned brings to mind the great tympanum at the Basilique Sainte Foy in Conques. And notice that prominent among the condemned are a cardinal and a couple of kings! Subversive!

Fresco detail, Santa Maria de Arties, Arties (Lérida) . Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We have noticed that most Spanish churches were renovated and decorated in the Baroque style and Diana confirmed our suspicians. The influx of wealth from the New World found its way across Spain and into these humble Romanesque churches. Today we find these additions in even the most modest churches. What is amazing is how well integrated the baroque is with the Romanesque.

North side aisle, Santa Maria de Arties, Arties (Lérida) . Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The third church in this little survey is Sant Andreu de Salardú, one of the grandest in the region. As we would expect, it is filled with baroque additions, but the extent of the fresco work is extraordinary – every surface is filled with the story of the church and the faith.

Crossing pillars, Sant Andreu de Salardú, Salardú (Lérida) Photo by PJ McKey

The vault below the crossing is a Sistine Chapel of its own with imagery rising up from the columns to the arches and then to the four segments of the groin vaulted crossing.

Painted crossing, Sant Andreu de Salardú, Salardú (Lérida) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Diana was a fount of information not just about the churches but every aspect of life in the Val. She told us of a festival in the village of Les, La Crèma deth Haro, that takes place on June 23 for the Feast of San Juan. A tall tree is stripped of its branches and bark, split open with wedges, and erected in the Place del Haro in the center of town. During the year, people place wishes written on pieces of paper into the wedges, and on the festival night the Haro is burned with great celebration.

Les 22/06/2013 Sociedad Fiesta de Sant Joan en la Vall D’Aran queman el Haro, Foto de RICARD CUGAT

We would not be in town for the Feast of San Juan but we went to view the Haro as it stood in the Plaza. There we stumbled upon something completely unexpected – the villagers were gathered to celebrate of the Shasclada deth haro, where the replacement haro is prepared for the next year. The entire population of the town was singing, dancing, and feasting as the men of the town hammered, cut and split to create the next haro.

Shasclada deth haro, (Lérida) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This festival predates the ascendancy of Christianity in the Val d’Aran and elsewhere in the Pyrénées, and we feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to see the the Crèma deth Haro in real life. We are planning a return to the Val d’Aran, perhaps at the same time that we shoot the nearby Val de Boí, another treasure trove of Romanesque architecture. Our first call will be to Diana and her comprehensive knowledge of the area she loves so much.

A trip to the Mountains in May (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I are planning another mammoth photography session in France and Spain this year. We’ll be gone about two months and will photograph most of the southern periphery of France, through the Pyrénées and up through Provence. We will, of course, visit our favorite spots in Chartres, Poitiers, Vézelay and the Souillac, but this is primarily new territory for us. The new stuff begins south of the Dordogne, where we will spend a week between Villeneuve-sur-Lot and Agen. From there, we head to the mountainous border between France and Spain, the Pyrénées, where we will spend a full month.

We begin our trip in virgin Pyrénées territory for us, the extreme southwest of France. In the area around Vic-en-Bigorre ①  we are planning to photograph eight important churches, most of which are part of the Compostella pilgrimage route. We are particularly excited to photograph the mosaics at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption de Lescar.

The Pyrénées section of the trip

The Pyrénées section of the trip

From Vic-en-Bigorre, we head southwest towards the main route into Spain at Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port, but will be using Oloron-Sainte-Marie② as our headquarters. This will be the base as we explore the last French churches on the Compostella route before the Roncesvalles pass.

From Oloron, we make a short drive to Luz-Saint-Sauveur③. The purpose here is to shoot the Église Saint-Savin in Saint Savin and see the Vierge noire des croisades. She is no longer a Black Madonna, but is a compelling vierge romane. In Luz itself is a Templars’ church, Eglise des Templiers de Luz with its own vierge romane.

Next is Bagnères-de-Luchon④ in the Haute-Garonne which we will use to explore a line of six mountain churches in Bonnemazon, Cazaux Frechet, Mont, Saint Aventin, Cazaril-Laspènes and the Spanish town of Bossòst.

Église Saint Julien et Sainte Basilisse, Jujols (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey

Église Saint Julien et Sainte Basilisse, Jujols (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

After Bagnères-de-Luchon, we leave France briefly and drive south to the Val d’Aran⑤ in Spain. This is one of two narrow valleys in the Pyrénées region of Spain with a string of beautiful Romanesque churches. The other, the Vall de Boí, is only about fifteen miles south of here but we don’t have the time to shoot there and we are saving these spectacular churches for a later trip. In the Val d’Aran we shoot nine churches, if possible, arrayed on an approximately twenty mile east-west line. Nine churches is a lot to photograph in three days, but we have been offered the logistics assistance of our very kind AirBnB host in the town of Escunhau.

We then return to France and drive northeast to Saint-Lizier⑥, a town with a population of 1500 souls but boasts two cathedrals that testify past prominence.

Exterior of Eglise à Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines, Saint Genis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales)

Exterior of Eglise à Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines, Saint Genis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales)

From Saint-Lizier we continue southeast to the Ariège⑦. Centered on the town of Luzenac is a cluster of four beautiful Romanesque churches.

After Saint-Lizier we are back in familiar territory, the Pyrénées-Orientales, Catalan country. We stop first in Angoustrine-Villeneuve-des-Escaldes⑧. This is at the west end of the long valley that extends from the Mediterranean coast near Perpignan to the heart of the mountains.

Our next stop is a favorite, Prades⑨, home to the music festival founded by Pablo Casals. The Romanesque heritage in this part of the world is astounding, but one of the highlights is that we will return to the Abbaye de Saint-Martin du Canigou and visit with our friend, Sister Anne-de-Jésus.

PJ and Sister Anne-de-Jésus, Abbaye de Saint-Martin du Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ and Sister Anne-de-Jésus, Abbaye de Saint-Martin du Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

From Prades we return to Spain for a week. We’ll spend a couple of days relaxing in Cadaqués⑩ on the Mediterranean.

Cadaqués, photo by Covetotop

Cadaqués, photo by Covetotop

We then return to work and head west to the small town of Besalú①①, home to no less than five churches. There are many eminent churches in the region but we are intrigued with La Vall de Bianya, a narrow east-west valley filled with Romanesque churches.

We are particularly excited that we will get to meet our WordPress friend Covetotop, whose blog is the best chronicle of the Catalan countryside that we have found. At his suggestion we will dine at the Restaurant Can Roca in Esponellá, just outside of Besalú.

Restaurant Can Roca, Esponellà. Photo by Covetotop

Restaurant Can Roca, Esponellà. Photo by Covetotop

This will end our month in the Pyrénées and we proceed to the Provence for a week. There we will continue our strict diet of Romanesque churches, fine food, and wonderful local wines.

The Benedictine Monastery Church of Sant Pere de Rodes, a Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm


The former Benedictine monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes is one of the important monuments of early Romanesque architecture which developed in the early 11th century in the Catalan region of Iberian Peninsula. Perched above the Costa Brava fishing and resort town of El Port de la Selva in the Verdera mountain, the partly restored monastery offers a breath-taking view of the bay of Llançà.

Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona)

Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona)

The beginning of the monastery is not known, and it is shrouded in legends. The first reference to a simple monastery cell dedicated to St. Peter is documented from around 880, but the founding of an independent Benedictine monastery under an abbot is recorded to have taken place in 945. It flourished in the 11th and 12th centuries, but slowly began to decline in importance, and it encountered sacking on several occasions in the 17th century. The Benedictines left the monastery altogether at the end of the 18th century.

As the monastery complex is constructed on a mountain site, different parts are built at varying levels on a terraced arrangement. The 12th century cloister occupies the fairly flat central terrain. The monastery church itself, sited at the northwest corner of the complex, was only partially completed at its consecration in 1022 by the archbishop of Narbonne. It is built on the Latin cross plan.

Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Sketch plan by Jong-Soung Kimm

Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Sketch plan by Jong-Soung Kimm

As a visitor enters the church through the fairly spacious narthex at the west, the most striking architectural features that come into view are the double-tiered “classical” columns set on very high plinths, which collectively form the T-shaped piers.

Nave piers, Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Nave piers, Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The nave is four bays long, and it is covered with barrel vault, each bay being defined by substantial transverse arches supported by the upper tiers of “classical” columns.

View of nave to west, Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

View of nave to west, Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view looking up at the barrel vault of the nave bays illustrates the simple space of the monastery church well.

Vault, Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Vault, Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The aisles are rather narrow, and they are covered with half-barrel vault.

Side aisle, Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Side aisle, Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The arches defining the relatively short north and south transepts which open out from the crossing, are supported by columns on the lower tiers.

Transept arches, Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Transept arches, Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The chancel is defined by an egg-shaped, rather than a half round, apse with oven vault above, with ambulatory surrounding it, but without radiating chapels.

Chancel, Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Chancel, Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

It is probable that the columns supporting the entry arch to the chancel is the work of a master mason who restored Sant Pere at some later period than the original church: the columns have about the same diameter as the nave columns, but stand in one continuous shaft from the chancel floor to the springing of the chancel arch by stacking two pieces of marble one on top of the other, creating somewhat unexpected and dissonant, slender proportion for that pair of columns. The rectangular capitals above these columns, also, are deviations from classical design, reminiscent of Mozarabic capitals found at San Pedro de la Nave, for example.

The square crossing at the end of the nave is covered with barrel vault running in the same direction as the nave in one continuous barrel shape, so that the spatial progression from the western entry through the nave is cusped by the chancel with only a slight expansion of space at the crossing towards the transepts. Each transept, about the size of one nave bay in length, but with lower vaulting, has own apsidal chapel that fills the full width of the transept. The view of the south transept chapel indicates that the east facing window had been blocked by adjoining construction at some point later.

South transept chapel, Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

South transept chapel, Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The double-tiered columns on high plinths in the nave are placed facing each other at each pier supporting the transverse arches, while additional single-tier columns on plinths on either side of the piers placed in the longitudinal direction support the nave arches. A typical pier, because of the clustering of columns, comes across wonderfully sculptural in its presence. The view from the north transept toward the southwest across the crossing into the first bay of the nave illustrates this adequately.

View from crossing to nave, Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

View from crossing to nave, Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view of the nave elevation with two piers which are missing plinths projecting toward the nave and lower tiers of columns, shows the scheme of nave elevation well, but also reminds the viewer how important and essential the clustering of columns is in the overall composition which the master builder would have envisioned for the original design of the church.

Nave elevation, Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Nave elevation, Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The columns which had been described as “classical” at the beginning of the article appear to be recycled from Roman ruins as the region of Girona is abundant with them, but with a caveat: while the capitals for columns have the proportion of Corinthian capitals, on closer inspection, the delicate carvings of capitals include designs of Byzantine and Moslem inspiration. Above the capitals are placed large square cushions with interwoven plant designs. Even with carvings of non-classical design on the capitals, the overall feeling of Sant Pere de Rodes is strongly Roman architecture in its ambience. Placing one order of columns on top of another immediately recalls the formal repertory of antique builders by which constituent elements in triumphal arches are deftly joined to create an architecture of powerful symbolism. There are two campaniles at the western edge of the monastery. The more elegant, Lombard design tower anchors the northwest corner of the partially restored cloister.

Campanile, Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Campanile, Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

A footnote to the importance accorded to Sant Pere de Rodes during its heyday: at the beginning of the 11th century, an illuminated bible was produced at the monastery, and it is preserved today at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris.

Location: 42.32361° 3.16667°

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

La Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puente la Reina (Navarra) – A Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm


The small town of Puente la Reina is located less than an hour’s drive southwest from Pamplona. It is near the junction where the old French route (Camino Frances) from the historical Roncesvalles of the Chanson de Roland legend, and the Jaca route (Camino Aragones)  merged for the pilgrims headed toward Santiago de Compostela in the Middle Ages. Tradition has it variously  that either Dona Mayor, the queen to King Sancho el Mayor or his daughter Dona Estefania had the five-arched  bridge constructed over the Arga river for the pilgrims in the 11th century.

Bridge over the Arga, Puente la Reina (Navarra) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Hence the name, the Bridge (of) the Queen. At the entry to the town stands the 12th century La Iglesia del Crucifijo (The Church of the Crucifix), which was originally built by the Knights Templar as a single nave church with an apse starting in 1146 during the reign of Alfonso I el Batallador who founded the town on the Arga river bank. The original Church was expanded with a second Nave in the 14th century, also with an Apse, by the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, who took over the Church after the disbandment of the Templars in the early 14th century. The name of the Church derives from a 14th century wooden Crucifix now in the northern Apse of the Church whose origin is shrouded in mystery. During the time of the pilgrimage, sanjuanistas (the Order of St. John) operated lodging and a hospital for the pilgrims.

Chevet, La Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puente la Reina (Navarra) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The covered passage on the south side of the Church, a gateway to the town, also serves as  Narthex to the Church itself. The east elevation of the Church presents an unusual double Apse composition. The bell tower was built mostly in the 14th century, but crowned in the 17th century with apparently Baroque ornamentation.

South Portal, La Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puente la Reina (Navarra) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The South Portal, added during the 14th century expansion, has a slightly pointed arch with three layers of archivolts carved with beading, vegetal scrolls, as well as the human and beast figures, while the corresponding supports are arranged in three columns with capitals and three straight jambs.

12th Century nave, La Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puente la Reina (Navarra) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The Nave has five bays of barrel vaults reinforced by the slightly pointed arches. The Chancel at the Apse has a modest Altar. The light source right at the Apse window basically makes it difficult to see what icon is placed at the center.  (It is made worse by not having been processed for HDR!)

View from the North Nave toward the South Nave, La Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puente la Reina (Navarra) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The builders used octagon-shaped pillars with projecting brackets for springing of the arches, somewhat unusual regional style, not indebted to the classical architecture. At the time of the visit, the South Nave was being readied for a wedding with a red runner down the aisle.

View of the wooden Crucifix, La Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puente la Reina (Navarra) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

On the Chancel wall of the North Nave is enshrined the mysterious wooden Crucifix laden with legends, which gave the Church its name. The sculpture is first referred to in a 1325  document, and is thought to be linked to the models of the German Rhineland through its Y that resembles a tree, although scholars also detect an Italian influence in the facial features of the Christ and the disposition of the feet. For our enjoyment of the magnificent Gothic work, a more charming legend comes down to us: a German pilgrim returning from Santiago de Compostela presented the Crucifix which had been in tow during his pilgrimage to the Church in appreciation for the hospitality and care he and his entourage received in Puente la Reina on the way to Santiago.

Detail of the wooden Crucifix, La Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puente la Reina (Navarra) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Only a modest bracket on the curving Apse wall in the  northern Nave of the Church supports the Crucifix. In looking at the stone work for the Apse vaulting, one can almost feel the dedication of the masons in trying to build a true and smooth curvature.

Photographic note: all pictures taken with Leica 28mm PC Super-Angulon on Canon 5D with an adapter.

✜ We are delighted to have another post from Jong-Soung Kimm on our Via Lucis site. For more information on Mr. Kimm, please see this link. ✜

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela – A Guest Post from Jong-Soung Kimm


What can one say about the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the final destination of one of the most celebrated pilgrimages in the Christian world? The legend of how the body of the Apostle Saint James was brought to Galicia from the Holy Land in a marble boat in the first century, and then the underground tomb lay unnoticed for centuries before being miraculously rediscovered in the 9th century by a star in the distant field (campus stellae), is the object of great curiosity and veneration even today, as it must have heightened the enthusiasm for the faithful during the Middle Ages.

Remarkably, the history of the Cathedral is chronicled in half a dozen volumes in the Cathedral archive by Aymery Picaud who had visited Santiago in 1131 (some say 1120). “The Pilgrim’s Guide”, the fifth volume of the manuscripts that is sometimes referred to as Codex Calixtinus spells out the years of major construction milestone, information on the twenty-six other shrines of note on the four major routes from France: from Paris and Orléans via Tours, from Le Puy via Conques, from Arles via Toulouse, and from Vézelay via Limoges.

it was Diego Peláez, bishop of Santiago from 1071 to 1088, who had engaged master builders Bernardus the elder and Robertus Galperinus in 1075 during the reign of Alfonso VI of Castile and León to begin the construction on the Cathedral, and the first portion of the work had been completed by 1077. Diego Gelmirez, who succeeded Peláez, oversaw the construction of most of the present cathedral during his tenure from 1093 to ca. 1140 when he died. Although the bulk of the work was built by around 1122, it was consecrated only in 1211 during the reign of Alfonso X.

The first glympse a modern day visitor catches of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela when arriving at the Praza do Obradoiro is the magnificent Churrigueresque western façade, designed by Fernando de Casas y Novoa in 1740, whereas pilgrims during the centuries in the Middle Ages before the façade was constructed would have found a Carolingian western façade, as Professor Conant had persuasively reconstructed.

Western facade, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela (Galicia)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Western facade, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela (Galicia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Most of the exterior as well as some aspects of the interior of the cathedral have gone through transformations to reflect the splendor of that golden age in Spanish art. The façade of the southern transept, called the Puerta de las Platerias, is about the only Romanesque design on the exterior of the Cathedral. It is recorded as the work of Master Esteban executed around 1103. The Cathedral is set approximately seven and a half meters above the Praza do Obradoiro (stone workers) up the Renaissance style diamond steps built in the 17th century. Just inside the western façade is the narthex where the Pórtico de la Gloria of ca.1168 executed by Master Mateo greets visitors.

Puerta de las Platerias, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela (Galicia)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Puerta de las Platerias, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela (Galicia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is built on the Latin cross plan: eleven bays long nave with aisles; the crossing with a tower above; three bays long chancel; an apse with ambulatory with five radiating chapels; five bays long north and south transepts with aisles on three sides. The Cathedral is built of beige colored granite. One can marvel at the prowess of the stone carvers who had created one of the most remarkable sculptural ensembles of the period in granite.

Plan, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela (Galicia)

Plan, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela (Galicia)

On walking into the nave past the narthex where the Pórtico de la Gloria is ensconced, a visitor is greatly rewarded beyond expectation in finding the interior mostly left as the Romanesque architecture, unquestionably French in design and execution. It is nothing short of breathtaking to feel the palpable rhythm being created by elegantly proportioned compound piers with attached shafts and the aisle arches down the nave, and to take in the long vista toward the elaborate altar, with the Baroque organ pipes jutting out near the crossing as if trumpeters were at the ready.

Nave, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela (Galicia)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Nave, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela (Galicia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

All the architectural elements in the Santiago cathedral can be found in churches built north of the Pyrenees before 1070’s. Scholars of the Romanesque architecture seem to group five churches, variously referred to as “pilgrimage group,” or “Santiago group” as having common architectural features: they are Saint-Sernin, Toulouse, Sainte-Foy, Conques, two now demolished churches of Saint-Martin in Tours and Saint-Martial in Limoges, and finally, Santiago de Compostela.
The nave elevation shows the superiority of design by Bernardus and Robertus as well as the high caliber of workmanship of the stone cutters.

Nave elevation, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela (Galicia)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Nave elevation, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela (Galicia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view from the north transept entrance towards the south transept with double set of modern interior doors at the Puerta de las Platerias is as impressive as the view down the nave, if not more so because there is no elaborate altar to impede the vista.

View to south transept, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela (Galicia)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

View to south transept, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela (Galicia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

A special feature of the pilgrimage churches, which is that the aisles are not only at either side, but also round the ends of the nave and transepts, is well illustrated at the north transept.

North transept side aisle, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela (Galicia)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

North transept side aisle, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela (Galicia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

There are steps to the Puerta Francígena at the north transept connecting the Cathedral to Praza de las Azabacheria to mediate the difference in the level of the surrounding terrain. The view looking straight up to the transept vaulting from north to south also shows intricately decorated chancel ceiling.

Transept vault, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela (Galicia)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Transept vault, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela (Galicia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view of the aisle turning round the transept at the Puerta Francígena, with slightly angled placement of entrance doors, shows that the gallery also wraps the transept around. The widths of stairs leading to the gallery seem to indicate that the pilgrims were ushered up to the gallery level when the need arose.

Puerta Francígena, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela (Galicia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Puerta Francígena, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela (Galicia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

“It is a great moment for the lover of the Middle Ages, when he finds himself in the soft light and shadow of that harmonious nave, gazing towards the high altar which has been the object of pilgrim devotion for so long.” – Kenneth John Conant –

This post by Jong-Soung Kimm has corrected a long-standing deficiency of Via Lucis’ survey of Romanesque churches, an appreciation of the ultimate medieval pilgrimage church at Santiago de Compostela. For that we thank him wholeheartedly.

Location: 42.880602, -8.544377

Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) – A Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm


The basilica of San Isidoro (La Real Colegiata Basilica de San Isidoro) was dedicated in 1149 in the presence of King Alfonso VII and several bishops including the archbishop of Santiago. The importance accorded to the church at the time is due to the fact that it was a church honoring the 7th century archbishop of Seville San Isidoro, Doctor de las Españas, one of the most celebrated academic and theologian of that era; the older part of the church, Pantéon de los Reyes was the resting place of royalties of not only the kingdom of León, but also some royalties of Castile; and the two bishoprics of Santiago de Compostela located in the kingdom and León had a close tie between them.

San Isidoro stands on the site of a Roman temple. The first Christian structure on this site was a church dedicated to St. John, the Baptist and San Pelaya, which was destroyed in the Moslem invasion by Al-Mansur (Almanzor) in 996. After the devastation and repopulation, Alfonso V of León established a monastery, and a new church was built in the early part of the 11th century. Alfonso’s daughter, the infanta Sancha would marry Count Ferdinand of Castile, and he would ascend to the throne as Ferdinand I. When the relics of San Isidoro were brought from Seville in 1063 through Ferdinand’s diplomacy, the church was dedicated to the saint in December of that year.

The basilica of San Isidoro stands facing the spacious Plaza San Isidoro to the south. As the basilica abuts the older Pantéon de los Reyes to the west, the main entrance, la Puerta del Cordero is located on the south façade leading into the south aisle. Above the Puerta del Cordero is placed the 18th century equestrian statue of San Isidoro. Also on the south façade is located a second door at the south transept, la Puerta del Perdón.

León-Basilica de San Isidoro 01sm

The church of San Isidoro has gone through a major restoration of its exterior in recent year, and the beige toned exterior is rather unexpected and refreshing to the eyes of visitors who were used to the centuries old patina before the restoration. One view of the restored exterior of the Puerta del Perdón and the southern apse amply illustrates the striking difference.

Southern apse, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Southern apse, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The west end of San Isidoro is anchored by the Romanesque Torre del Gallo right on top of the medieval city wall.

Torre del Gallo, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Torre del Gallo, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

San Isidoro is built on the basilica plan: the nave with two aisles, projecting transepts and three apses on the axes.

Plan, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León)

Plan, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León)

Of the standing church, the Pantéon de los Reyes (church IV to borrow Fernie’s classification), is the earliest, probably the latter part of the 11th century, thought to be under the patronage of Doña Urraca, the daughter of Ferdinand and Sancha. The Pantéon is a three bay by three bay structure abutting the Roman wall to the west, ending at the western wall of the present church, but not aligned to the axis of the old foundation on which the present church was built. The church of San Isidoro in most part, however, is from the church V and VI from the period of Alfonso VII, the son of Ferdinand and Sancha.

The nave (church V), with a gallery, or a tribune over the three western bays, is covered with barrel vault with semi-circular transverse arches defining each bay, most of them springing from the capitals of the engaged columns.

Nave, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Nave, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The second transverse arch from the crossing, however, springs from responds on the nave walls for some reason.

Second transverse arch, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Second transverse arch, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The barrel vault surface of the nave is plastered, and painted with a burnt clay color. It is thought that the nave was covered with flat timber roof initially, and was rebuilt with stone vaulting some decades later, probably by the master builder of the church VI. The aisles are built of groin vaults between semi-circular arches, again thought to be a replacement of flat timber roofs. There are columns located in front of windows on both the north and south aisle walls, indicating that they were added in order to support the additional load of the vaulting.

Side aisle, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Side aisle, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The nave arcades are slightly elongated half round, with extension of the straight sides, rather than half round resting on capitals.

Nave arcades, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Nave arcades, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The intersection of the nave and crossing presents a marked visual difference in the colors of masonry as well as the stone joinery. The transepts (church VI) are built also with barrel vaults, probably contemporary to the nave vaulting. The crossing, where one would expect a crossing tower, is covered with a barrel vault running east-west, continuing the flow of the length of the nave.

Crossing vault, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Crossing vault, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

A new sensibility is imparted in the north and south transept arches of the crossing, however, in their scalloped stone work, a nod to the Moslem influence.

Transept arches with scalloped stone work, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Transept arches with scalloped stone work, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The chancel (also church VI) was the section of San Isidoro that was built the last with the rib-vaults of the mature Gothic style.

Gothic rib vaults, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Gothic rib vaults, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The shape of the central apse was intended to be semi-circular when we look at the plan, but it is built as a flat end, with slightly faceted masonry on the exterior. It is unusual for a medieval church that the name of the master builder should be known, but the builder of the Church VI is Petrus Deustamben, and he is buried in the church with an epithet, which states that he built the “upper part” of the church, presumably referring to the vaultings of the nave and aisles, the crossing, as well as the chancel.

Apse, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Apse, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

La Real Colegiata Basilica de San Isidoro is important monument of Romanesque architecture on the pilgrimage route which has benefited from the royal patronage of the successive kings of León due to its being the home of the Pantéon de los Reyes. It recalls the position of San Salvador de Leyre in Navarre, another important work of Romanesque architecture contemporary to San Isidoro, which also housed the Pantéon for the royalties of the kingdom of Navarre.

Location: 42.600702° -5.570983°

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