The basilica of Saint Prudencio and Saint Andrew of Armentia, see of cult of the patron saint in Alava San Prudencio, is located on the outskirts of Vitoria-Gasteiz. It was built as a collegiate church during the 12th century, but when its neighbouring town became more important, Armentia went into decline. Its worst moment was in the 18th century when it lost the cloister and other spaces of the complex. In 1776, the temple was restored for the first time, probably because of a collapse on the part its foot. Therefore, the appearance of the basilica changed forever. Some of the Romanesque remains were scattered and others were relocated totally decontextualized at the portico. Despite this unfortunate intervention, the basilica of Armentia is still one of the greatest Romanesque temples of the Basque Country.
The basilica of Saint Prudencio and Saint Andrew
The basilica of Armentia was built in different phases throughout the 12th century. The semi-circular apse was probably the first and oldest part built in the temple, where three interesting windows with a puzzling iconography can be found.
The large windows
On the exterior capitals complex representations are depicted, full of characters, some of them with an almost grotesque look, which coexist with lions, horses and griffins in scenes that are difficult to interpret. Some of the most remarkable capitals are the representations of fertility of the northern side. On the left capital, a naked woman shows her backside and genitals below, whereas her torso and her face are perfectly seen on the upper part. Next to her, we see some feminine genitals with an additional head and feet. Those genitals are outlined along the entire remaining surface. On the opposite capital, a man holds his beard surrounded by two women, one in an advanced stage of pregnancy and the other one is holding her belly. All the characters carry in their hands branches of plants, a symbol of fertility.
The capitals of the interior have a more recognizable iconography: vergers, eagles, birds, lions, wrestlers and even a possible representation of Daniel among the lions. An altarpiece hid them for centuries, but after relocating it, a Pentecost scene remains on the wall of the nave.
The decontextualised images from the portico correspond to a different workshop to the one in the apse area. According to experts, the inscription from the tympanum’s lamb is from the end of the 12th century. More precisely, between 1146 and 1190, as the inscription says “Rodericus Eps”, also known as Rodrigo de Cascante, the Bishop of Calahorra. The tympanum of the lamb used to be located over a door that no longer exists. It shows an Agnus Dei or lamb of God in a circle, flanked by the prophets Isaiah and Saint John the Baptist. In the lower strip, two angels holding a Chrismon symbolise the Holy Trinity. Under the tympanum, the tomb of an ecclesiastic lies behind some bars of stone.
Two large reliefs survive at the back of the portico. On the right side, three juxtaposed scenes can be seen. First, we perceive the damaged images of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus over Christ’s dead body, reproducing the Holy Burial. Next to them, the three Marys head to the sepulchre, finding it empty except for an angel who tells them that Christ has resurrected. In the upper left corner, despite the damage, we distinguish two angels elevating the soul of Christ to the heavens on a cloth.
There are also decontextualized remains: some arches with column-statues that reveal a Romanesque portico, Isaac’s sacrifice as part of a column, the pieces of archivolts and cornices with which the improvised façade has been repaired, or two reliefs of an Annunciation and a knight like the Roman emperor Constantine.
Armentia presents the best collection of brackets from the Romanesque art in Alava. During the restorations they were relocated, but their current organisation does not correspond to the original. The ensemble shows the stereotypical fantastic images: mermaids, griffins, harpies, hybrid beings, horned men spitting leaves… But there are also some characters and animals of daily life, like monks, women, and men, a spinario or boy taking off a spine from the foot, owls, lions, goats or a character leaning out of the interior of a medieval building.
Color photographs: © Álava Medieval / Erdi Aroko Araba
Old photographs: Archivo Municipal de Vitoria-Gasteiz/Interior de Armentia, from: Manuel Díaz de Arcaya, Armentia, su basílica y su obispado, 1901.