Basilica of Saint Prudencio and Saint Andrew (Armentia)

Introduction

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.

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The old bishopric of Alava

Even though it is hard to believe, Armentia had a cathedral in the Middle Ages. Nothing remains from that illustrious past, but historical documents reveal that it was one of the seats of the old bishopric of Alava. The first news we have of this bishopric is from the year 876. However, in the end of the 9th century, its seat was in the Roman city of Iruña-Veleia. During bishop Vela’s rule (1055-1062), Armentia is mentioned as episcopal seat. It worked as a cathedral at least from then on until 1087, when the last bishop of Alava, Fortunio, passed away. After that, Alava remained under the jurisdiction of the newly instituted Roman Catholic Diocese of Calahorra. Curiously enough, the current church was built during the 12th century, when Armentia was demoted to collegiate church. Therefore, there is no visible remnant of the original seat of Alava’s bishopric.

Old photographs

The current Romanesque church was deeply remodelled in 1776. Since then, no big changes have been made at the basilica, except for some interventions from the 20th century. The oldest photographs show the Baroque vaults of the transept still hiding the sculptures of the Tetramorph, as well as the antique altarpiece that concealed the interior of the apse. Besides, the Gothic tabernacle is located at its original place, but nowadays is in the northern transept, taking up part of an apse window. Outwards, the photographs give evidence of an old cemetery that was in the apse area, but later demolished during the 20th century. 

The basilica of Saint Prudencio and Saint Andrew

The apse

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 portico

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.

It is not the only tympanum that we can find in the portico. A larger one reveals to us the existence of another possible entrance door to the church in which Christ is seen surrounded by eleven of the apostles. His figure takes up part of the firmament, where he is accompanied by two angels and the figures of Elijah and Enoch, two characters of the Old Testament who ascended into heaven.

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.

The other relief represents the Anastasis or Christ’s Harrowing of Hell to rescue the first sinners. Indeed, Adam and Eve are depicted behind him, and they leave behind a series of infernal and monstruous beings. Finally, the gates of hell are represented with the jaws of the Leviathan.

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.

The brackets

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.

The interior

Inside the temple, we can still perceive the profound interventions from the 18th century. For example, the masonry walls of the nave and their groin vaults correspond to this intervention. From the transept, the stone is structured in well-carved ashlars, which correspond to the medieval manufacturing. Besides, the vault of the lantern tower was rebuilt during the 20th century. From there, two transepts are displayed with Latin cross plan and the head presents a semi-circular apse and semi-domes. In the northern arm, several doors and entrances can be seen. According to that, the old choir and the access to the annexed cloister were in that area, but were definitively destroyed in the renovation of 1776.

The columns from the choir

Just two capitals from the columns that hold the choir remain standing at the church’s foot. Among their motifs, we spot some beasts devouring baby donkeys, and monstrous faces are depicted in the middle of the capital, one of which is devouring a human. From that human being, we just distinguish the legs.

The capitals from inside

In the transept, a set of outstanding capitals with plant decorations is displayed. Some depict animals, such as griffins or eagles. Undoubtedly, the most remarkable capital represents a complex fight scene between knights and centaurs over a background of fallen leaves and lush vegetation.

The tetramorph

One of the consequences of the 18th century intervention was that four greatly sculpted figures from the corners of the transept were hidden behind a false vault. It was not until 1870 when the parish priest noticed their presence in the upper part of the vaults. During the renovation of the lantern tower between 1904 and 1908, they uncovered the figures. The sculptures depict the Four Evangelists or tetramorph along with their creatures: Luke (the bull), John (the eagle), Mark (the lion) and Matthew (the angel). Over them, four angels play trumpets announcing the new Gospel to the four cardinal points. Bellow, we spot four brackets with masculine representations.

The baptismal font

The robustness and simplicity of this artwork are astonishing. The rare cup is square, one of the few cases that can be found in Alava. Besides, the decoration from the corners is inspired on ironwork and shows an arcade-shape on the edge of the cup and the pedestal. Bellow, we spot diverse remains of a cornice made by the same workshops of the portico. Along with the rinceaux, we identify birds, harpies, and dragons.

LOCATION

Photo credits:

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.

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