Saint Stephen’s church (Betoño)



Betoño’s council is almost integrated in the urban fabric of Vitoria-Gasteiz, the city to which it belongs. According to the “Reja of San Millán” (1025), the old hamlet of Betoniu was a very prosperous place in Alava. Indeed, as we can know from the preserved documentation, during the 16th century, Betoño was one of the richest settlements of Vitoria’s surroundings. Therefore, the inhabitants of the hamlet could accomplish various modifications in the church with high-quality artisans. Betoniu had also two hermitages and a hospital, but its most relevant building was the convent of the Discalced Carmelites. Completed after 1904, the building was designed in a refined Neo-Gothic style. Currently, the convent has turned into the College of Design and School of Art, and the former elegant cemetery is now Sancho el Sabio Foundation’s location.


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Old photographs

During the 60s, Gerardo López de Guereñu took some photographs of the outline of Saint Stephen’s church. Thanks to those photographs, we know that, at that time, the temple was amazingly preserved, so it was still being used. Nevertheless, the prominent photographer and ethnographer from Vitoria just focused on the Romanesque remnants and on some details from the surprising choir. Thus, the remaining modern elements were not photographed.

The Renaissance underchoir

Once crossing the doorstep, we find one of the most remarkable artworks from the church: its Renaissance underchoir. It was developed in the late 16th century by the master of Cantabria and one of the best artists of that period, Juan Vélez the la Huerta’s workshop. The arch is profusely decorated with angel heads in a classical style. In addition, the spandrels represent the allegories of Justice and Faith. The parapet is made of a succession of ribbing pilasters, which connect with magnificent openwork with whimsical geometric shapes. However, the true architectonical wonder from Saint Stephen’s church is the vaulted and coffered ceiling. As we can see from beneath, the ceiling is formed with concentric shapes inspired on the models developed by authors like the treatise writer Serlio. During the 17th century, the underchoir was painted with multiple saints in every hole from the nerve scheme.

Saint Stephen’s church


Considering the great volumes of Betoño’s church, as well as the heterogeneity of its masonry, the building has undergone significant modifications throughout time. Even though no remain from the primitive Pre-Romanesque hermitage of Betoniu is preserved, still some elements from the 12th century High Romanesque church can be spotted.

The south wall has some embedded limestone stone blocks between the masonry. Apart from that, there are a few smooth brackets and decorative elements such as bezants or what seems to be the former Romanesque large window’s voussoirs.
The façade

But the most important Romanesque remnant of the building is, with no doubt, the façade. Although its sculpture is simple, the realisation is great. Overall, the façade is composed of three archivolts and a relieving arch with oval leaves vertically set out, a decoration also repeated in the impost. The second archivolt has an interlaced stem with scaly bulges.

The capitals are nearly symmetrical on both sides, something that proves the elegance of the façade. All of them have vegetal decorations based on sets of horizontal leaves, but they also have some different details. For example, the first capital’s leaves are shorter, ending with a pineapple or an artichoke. Regarding the other two capitals, they both have longer leaves and finish with a fleur-de-lis shaped volute. All in all, the similarities between the façade’s motifs and the ones in the Puerta Speciosa are obvious, because the ones from Betoño’s church are inspired in those from Estibaliz.
Inside the temple the Romanesque elements disappear and, instead, we have a modern appearance. Saint Stephen’s is a Latin cross church with three wide sections, all covered with diverse vaults. Besides, its head was built in 1770 under the direction of Rafael Antonio de Olaguibel.
At the foot of the church, a simple ribbed vault directly connects with the second section’s tierceron vault thanks to powerful bead moulding. The third is a star vault, and its easternmost nerves are oblique from the transept.
Another significant element from the church is the set of keystones sculpted between the 15th and 16th centuries, the most impressive in the centre of the star vault. At the confluence of fourteen nerves, we find the image of the Virgin crowned by the Holy Johns with the Child, whose devotion was widely spread during those centuries. 
That sector was created in the second half of the 18th century and is composed by a large oval dome on pendentives. From those, we find short arms covered with lunette vaults. The set was completely painted by the famous local painter Pablo Uranga with the trompe l’oeil technique, which emulates fake architectures and heavenly landscapes. The paintings hide the previous polychromies but can be discerned in some of the loose walls.
The main altarpiece

Another important artwork from Saint Stephen of Betoño’s church is the main altarpiece. Raised in the 18th century, its architecture is characterized by Solomonic columns with plenty of grape leaves and bunches. On the bench, framing the Neoclassical tabernacle, we find the representations of Saint John and Saint Luke with their Gospels.

Inside the tabernacle, there is a magnificent Ecce Homo sculpture by Mauricio Valdivielso, one of the great sculptors from the late 18th and early 19th century.

On the second body, flanking the sanctuary and the main scene of Saint Stephen, we find two high-quality sculptures of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. That first big composition is completed with relieves of the two remaining Evangelists (Saint Matthew and Saint Mark). Finally, the upper body represents the Assumption surrounded with different angels, as well as the images of Michael and Gabriel the archangels.


Photo credits:

Color photographs : © Álava Medieval / Erdi Aroko Araba.

Old photographs: Archivo del Territorio Histórico de Álava / Colección de Federico Baraibar y Lorenzo Elorza.

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