Santa María del Naranco, an example of the Asturian pre-Romanesque style. Oviedo © Turespaña
The UNESCO has recognised the value of the pre-Romanesque art in Asturias with the World Heritage designation in 1985. There are numerous examples all over the region, from the capital, Oviedo, to the most secluded valleys. The complex of Cathedral buildings in the city of Oviedo includes the 9th-century site known as the Cámara Santa (Holy Chamber) which originally formed part of the palace of Alfonso II “the Chaste” (792-842). It has a crypt and an upper chapel and was refurbished in the 12th century.
Also in Oviedo and dating from the same reign is the church of San Tirso el Real, of which only the upper part of the central apse can be seen today. The window has three arches between columns ending in semicircular arches, capitals and bases in the late Roman style, framed by the characteristic Islamic moulding known as an alfiz. A little further away stands the fountain of La Foncalada, which dates from the reign of Alfonso III the Great (866-910), and the church of San Julián de los Prados, also dating from the time of Alfonso II, the largest pre-Romanesque church in Spain, with clear Roman influences both in its layout and in the interior decoration of frescoes.
In the area around Oviedo, perched on the slopes of Monte Naranco and overlooking the capital, are the churches of Santa María del Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo, the first of their kind to feature naves crowned with barrel vaults. Santa María was originally conceived as a summer palace for King Ramiro I and was later converted into a church. It has a rectangular floor plan and is laid out on two levels. Its outstanding features are its perfectly aligned vaults and the tracery work columns with their capitals, as well as the delicate arrangement of the buttresses supporting the walls.
By contrast, only a third of the original structure of the church of San Miguel de Lillo is still standing, and the outstanding elements here include the capitals and the lattice work, as well as the jambs decorated with Roman-inspired circus scenes, a truly unusual feature of the religious architecture of the time.
The church of Santo Adriano de Tuñón dates from the late 9th century and stands on the road to Galicia. It has three naves with apses and a wooden gable roof. The mural paintings on its interior are particularly outstanding. The basilica of San Juan de Santianes is in Pravia, and dates from the period of King Silo (774-783); which makes it the oldest building in the Asturian pre-Romanesque. It has three naves separated by pillars, a square sanctuary with two side sacristies, and a narthex at the foot.
The church of San Salvador de Valdediós, also affectionately known by the Asturians as “el Conventín” (the little convent), is possibly the most finished of the period of Alfonso III Great, who opened it for worship in 891. It is distinguished by the original addition of clear Mozarabic influences to the earlier architectural tradition, which can be seen particularly in the horseshoe arches. The mural paintings on the interior are particularly interesting.
The church of Santa Cristina stands in the village of Lena, amid a spectacular landscape of valleys and mountains, and is one of the greatest architectural creations dating from the time of Ramiro I. Its most noteworthy element is the iconostasis, a delicately worked stone screen with arches and lattices which separates the faithful from the priests in the Byzantine tradition. The sight of this church, humble but immensely beautiful, immersed in the greenery of the landscape, arouses feelings of devotion and reflection in all who see it. It is impossible to avoid thinking of the curious emergence of the Astur dynasty in the 8th century, coinciding with the unstoppable advance of Islam on the Peninsula, and of the dream of the visionary monarch Alfonso II, who believed in the possibility of someday reinstating the capital of the Visigoth kingdom, Toledo.
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