Hermitage of Our Lady of the Fields (Maeztu)

Introduction

The cultural landscape around the village of Maeztu has deeply changed over centuries. In a pastoral visit of 1556, Mr. Martín Gil cites six active hermitages as the last remains of some old hamlets. During the 14th century, the Gaona lineage led the absorption of the surrounding small villages. Therefore, people moved to Maeztu, and the town became very significant in the territory. However, the inhabitants were so bond of the hermitage of Saint Euphemia that the building resisted the change. Curiously, Saint Euphemia is the former advocation of Maeztu’s current temple. In 1771, the hermitage of Our Lady of the Fields was in ruins, so the Virgin’s depiction and the main altarpiece were relocated at Saint Euphemia. Thus, Saint Euphemia was renamed with Our Lady of the Fields, and the already mentioned devotion led its excellent conservation until today.

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Was Alexander the Great in Maeztu?

The surprising iconography inside has motivated curious speculations. On the capitals of the triumphal arch, some fantastic animals face each other, among which a figure dressed in a strange full-length costume emerges. According to experts, the composition of two monsters flanking a main character is related to the representation of Alexander the Great soaring the sky. Indeed, some popular medieval legends affirm that, when Alexander the Great reached the edge of the known world, he wanted to go further and came up with a plan. He captured two large scavenger birds, built a basket in which he could climb and attached the basket to the birds with a yoke. Later, he placed a long pole with food in the front and the hungry birds flew away with them. During the Middle Ages, the daring gesture was usually linked to the depiction of the courage that every ruler must have. However, some interpretations criticized Alexander the Great’s feat, claiming that he was arrogant and too ambitious. It is difficult to ensure if the iconography is related to Alexander the Great’s legend, because the humans that appear with the beasts could have other meanings. Nonetheless, the iconographies were simplified and separated from the original models. Therefore, the visual representations became simpler but still maintained their original meaning.

Old photographs

Gerardo López de Guereñu was one of the few photographers interested on the hermitage of Our Lady of the Fields. Indeed, the photographer of Alava took many pictures of the capitals, façade, and interior part. In 1981, the building was restored, and the main altarpiece was cut into pieces. The 18th century carving was originally from the old Our Lady of the Fields but was never re-located. In the middle, we spot a depiction of Our Lady of the Fields, and a Saint Joseph’s carving coronating the art piece. Other photographs show a whitewashed interior and the appearance the temple had before the restoration.

The hermitage

Once the advocation of the hermitage changed, and the old building was demolished, some of the remaining elements were relocated at Saint Euphemia. The typology of the materials is not named, so we cannot ensure that the corbels, large windows, and other elements were always there. Indeed, at some point, they could have been transferred from the original hermitage together with the altarpiece and the Virgin’s carving.

The exterior

Outside, we spot quite simple elements: a nave and a smaller plain head. Both southern and eastern walls of the head have two interesting Romanesque large windows. The eastern window has two archivolts that rest on vegetal shaped capitals and a plain relieving arch. During the restoration processes, its interior part was discovered. On the contrary, the southern window is more damaged, and its vegetal shapes can be hardly distinguished.

Above, there is an interesting bracket collection with varied decorations. Among the schematic faces and the fantastic animals, some figures stand out, such as a funny figure that wears a long dress and a cap, a dog that bites its tail, a figure that throws up plants, or a cat-like hideous mask.
Overall, the most impressive element of the hermitage is its façade. Designed as a triumphal arch, the façade ends with eight brackets that hold the ledge. Four of them depict mysterious faces with creative headdresses. Moreover, the façade is built with four archivolts on columns. The work is beautifully decorated, as both the archivolts of the intrados and extrados have bezant decorations inscribed in circles. However, the greatest decorative element is found in the overarch and the impost line.
According to experts, the façade was made by one of the finest workshops from the Montaña Alavesa. Therefore, it could be a relevant territory and what today seems to be a simple hermitage, in the past was a building made by a powerful but unknown lineage. Also, other façades from the Llanada (Alaiza, Txintxetru, etc) and the Mountain (Cicujano, Leorza, etc) are very similar.

The interior

Inside, the building closes with a slightly pointed barrel-vault in the presbytery and a much pointed one in the main nave. The simple wooden choir is a modern construction.

During the 1981 restorations, Francisca Sáenz de Urturi carried out some archaeological excavations. As stated in her research, between the 8th and 14th centuries there was a necropolis inside and outside the temple, whereas between the 16th and 17th centuries the cemetery was only inside. Furthermore, archaeologists found several silos with abundant medieval pottery.

LOCATION

Photo credits:

Color photographs: © Álava Medieval / Erdi Aroko Araba.

Old photographs: Archivo del Territorio Histórico de Álava.

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