Saint Martin of Abendaño’s hermitage (Vitoria-Gasteiz)


Located inside the neighbourhood of San Martin, and fully integrated in the urban fabric of Vitoria-Gasteiz, this medieval hermitage is dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours. Originally, the hamlet of Avendagnu (as it appears in the “Reja de San Millán”, 1025) was near Gasteiz, but preserved its independence from the future villa of Vitoria. Due to the expansion projects developed in the 20th century and the growth of the capital city of Alava, the hamlet disappeared. However, the hermitage has survived as the evidence of this place’s history. Anyway, as the historian Landázuri said in the 18th century, what once “was a great suburb, where neither dream nor house is, only the Church of Sant Martín has remained”. In other words, it is quite possible that, by then, the place was an abandoned area, from which the church, converted into a hermitage, is its surviving element.


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The discovery of the paintings

In the year 1978, the new parish’s construction was initiated, which is attached to the medieval hermitage. When the altarpiece was removed, the workers realized that there were some medieval-looking paintings. Shortly after, the recovery works started. However, the biggest surprise was found outside the hermitage. Once the east wall, which was connected to another building, was demolished, specialists found some Gothic paintings that remained hidden until then. Finally, between 1985 and 1986, those paintings were pulled out from the outer wall and transferred to the inside, their current location.

Old photographs

The old photographs offer the chance to know many things about Abendaño’s hermitage. Indeed, we can determine the development and the main modifications the building has undergone these last decades. For example, some of the photographs published in the Monumental Catalogue of the Diocese of Vitoria show the Neorromanesque-looking redecorations of the hermitage’s lateral chapels, or the simple but significant Baroque altarpiece.

The hermitage

The exterior

The temple of Saint Martin of Abendaño shows a modest dimension that still maintains some medieval elements. In fact, its Romanesque cornices and large window, or even the many blocked off doors and entries clarify some of the many modifications this building has been into overtime.

Its straight apse is opened just by a semi-circular arch. The new parish hides part of the façade’s entrance from the north wall. Nevertheless, that could never be the original access to the temple, because it connects directly to the apse. Thus, it might be the old entrance to the sacristy.

The interior

Inside the hermitage, the first thing that surprises us is the change of orientation of the altar, located at the foot of the building. Saint Martin of Abendaño had, at least, two clearly differentiated construction phases. On the one hand, we have the apse, covered by a sharp barrel vault articulated with thick transverse arches. The easternmost is supported by moulded corbels and, in the end of the wall, we can see the lost springing of some vaults. This fact, together with the Pre-Romanesque style small window from the southern wall of the presbytery, indicates that the hermitage has construction phases worth researching in greater depth.

On the other hand, the main nave is built with large sections cut by broad transverse arches. Wall sides present large windows and entries, some of them still opened whereas others have been blocked off, something that indicates the great modifications the building has undergone throughout its history.

Gothic paintings (14th century)

Perhaps, the most remarkable element of this hermitage of Saint Martin of Abendaño is its fine ensemble of Gothic paintings. In fact, considering the high conservation level of the outside paintings, we find a unique set of pictorial collection. In the (original) head of the church, very fragmented, we can see the Crucifixion of Jesus. As it happens in Gaceo, Jesus is accompanied by the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist, while Longinus is piercing Jesus’ side with a spear and Stephaton offers Jesus a sponge soaked in vinegar. In the lower strip, we have the representation of the Apostolic College divided on both sides of the large window.

On the side walls, as it happens in other fragments, the cycle finishes with what seems to be a Flagellation (or the martyrdom of a saint), and some moments of the childhood of Christ, such as the Annunciation.

If we go to the foot of the temple, the place where we find the altar, the surprise is enormous. The outside paintings were made on top of a special support that allowed their preservation. Even though their condition is quite delicate, and the iconographic elements are barely visible, some scenes can be distinguished. For example, we find a Last Judgement, commonly represented in the foot of the churches. The space formerly used for a large window is now occupied by a wood carving from the 13th century depicting the Virgin with the Child.

As a culmination of the outstanding set of medieval paintings, we should remember that the altar also has some evidence of polychrome with vegetable shapes. In that way, it is easier to evoke the appearance of Saint Martin of Abendaño hermitage during the 14th century, covered with paintings both in and outside.


Photo credits:

Color photographs: © Álava Medieval / Erdi Aroko Araba.

Old photographs: Catálogo Monumental de la Diócesis de Vitoria (Vol. III).

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