Wednesday, 21 July 2010

San Miguel de Lillo, an Asturian pre-Romanesque church

A gust of wind and suddenly the church of San Miguel de Lillo emerges from the fog that enveloped Mount Naranco, a small range of hills just to the northwest of Oviedo, the capital of Asturias in northern Spain.
The church was built a few hundred metres uphill from the Santa María del Naranco palace by Ramiro I, who reigned over Asturias between 842 and 850. Only one-third is still standing but what a jewel of pre-Romanesque art it is! The three square apses and part of the central nave and aisles collapsed around the thirteenth century certainly because of ground subsidence. Originally barrel vaults covered the entire church. The one above the central nave extended over most of its length, but for the aisle a more complex design was chosen. Each of the five portions of the aisles was covered by an independent vault and each vault was perpendicular to the closest one. Additionally the second and fourth ones stood on higher walls, giving the impression the church had two transverse naves. At a time when churches had in general a flat wooden roof, this was certainly very impressive. Additionally the narrowness of the nave and aisles gives a feeling of verticality, which contrasts with churches built previously across the Iberian peninsula.
The lattice windows with all their decorated elements are also remarkable.

The interior of what is left of San Miguel de Lillo is as richly decorated as the exterior is striking (sorry, no photo allowed). On the door jambs and the square bases and capitals of the pillars that separate the nave from the aisles are human figures, including an acrobat and a lion tamer. Sculpted floral and geometric patterns can also be found around the church. On the walls some fragments of painting, including one with the earliest representation of human figures in pre-Romanesque Iberian art, have survived until now... but maybe not for much longer.

In spite of its importance, San Miguel de Lillo has been badly neglected and is deteriorating rapidly. Humidity in particular is causing much damage to the wall paintings and the sculptures. The famous painted figure of a musician was lost recently. In early 2009 academics and several associations warned that if nothing was done, not only all these treasures could be lost but the church could even collapse. After several months of campaigning, teams of experts from Madrid came to assess the situation and it was decided to carry out a complete restoration of the church to preserve it for future generations.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Site Meter