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Basílica of San Prudencio and San Andrés de Armentia


On the outskirts of Vitoria-Gasteiz lies the basilica of San Prudencio and San Andrés de Armentia, seat of the cult of San Prudencio, patron saint of Álava. Built as a collegiate church during the 12th century, the pressure from the neighbouring town of Vitoria made the place fall into decay, hitting the bottom on the 18th century, when it had already lost its cloister and other spaces of the complex. In 1776, probably due to a collapse on the part of the feet, a restoration of the temple was made, which modified its appearance forever. At that time part of the Romanesque remains were scattered and others were relocated to the portico, completely decontextualized. Despite this unfortunate intervention, today it is still one of the great Romanesque temples of the Basque Country.


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The old alavaise bishopric

It is hard to believe that there was a cathedral in Armentia in the Middle Ages. Nothing remains from that illustrious past, but documents reveal that it was one of the seats of the old bishopric of Álava. The first news we have of this bishopric dates from the year 876 and we know that towards the end of that century the seat was in the ancient Roman city of Iruña-Veleia. However, it is during the period of the bishop Vela, between 1055 and 1062, when Armentia is mentioned as episcopal seat. It worked as a cathedral at least from then on until 1087, when the last alavaise bishop, Fortunio, passed away, and Álava remained under the jurisdiction of the newly instituted diocese of Calahorra. Curiously enough, the church we can contemplate today was built during the 12th century, when Armentia had been demoted to collegiate church, so there is no visible remnant of the original seat of the alavaise bishopric.

Old photographs

The Romanesque church that we can contemplate today was remodeled in depth in 1776. From then on, there have not been many changes, except some interventions during the 20th century. In the oldest photographs, we see how the baroque vaults of the transept had not yet been removed to reveal the sculptures of the Tetramorph that are now visible, as well as the antique altarpiece that concealed the interior of the apse. In its original place, we also see the gothic tabernacle that is now on the north transept, taking up part of an apse window. Outwards, the photographs testify to the old cemetery, located in the apse area and demolished during the 20th century.


The basilica of San Prudencio and San Andrés de Armentia

The apse

The basilica of Armentia was built in different phases throughout the 12th century. The oldest part and first to be built would be the semicircular apse, in which we find three interesting windows with a puzzling iconography.

The windows

On the exterior capitals of the apse windows we see complex representations, full of characters, some of them with an almost grotesque look, which coexist with lions, horses and griffins in scenes that are difficult to interpret. The capitals of fertility stand out, located in the north window. On the capital to the left, a naked woman appears, showing her backside and genitals on the lower part, whereas we can see her torso and her face on the upper part. Next to her, we see some feminine genitals to which a head and feet have been added. Those same genitals are outlined along the entire remaining surface. On the opposite capital we see a man holding his beard surrounded by two women, one in an advanced stage of pregnancy and another one holding her belly. All the characters carry in their hands branches of plants, symbol of fertility.

The capitals of the interior have a more recognizable iconography: vergers, eagles, birds, lions, wrestlers and even a possible representation of Daniel among the lions that were hidden for centuries due to an altarpiece, now removed, whose Pentecost scene remains on the wall of the nave.
The portico

The images that can be today found out of context and distributed throughout the entire portico correspond to a different workshop to the one that operates in the apse area. It can be established towards the end of the 12th century due to an inscription in the tympanum of the lamb that gives us the authorship of “Rodericus Eps”, that is, Rodrigo de Cascante, Bishop of Calahorra, dated between 1146 and 1190. The tympanum of the lamb, which in its day was probably located over a door that no longer exists, shows an Agnus Dei or lamb of God in a circle, flanked by the prophets Isaiah and Saint John the Baptist. In the lower strip we find two angels holding a Chi Rho where the Trinity is symbolically represented. The tomb of an ecclesiastic lies under this tympanum, behind some bars of stone.

It is not the only tympanum that we can find in the portico. A larger one reveals to us the existence of another possible entrance door to the church in which Christ is seen surrounded by eleven of the apostles. His figure takes up part of the firmament, where he is accompanied by two angels and the figures of Elijah and Enoch, two characters of the Old Testament who ascended into heaven.
Two large reliefs survive at the rear wall of the portico. On the right we see three juxtaposed scenes. First, we perceive Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, quite damaged, over Christ’s dead body, reproducing the Holy Burial. Next to it, we contemplate the scene of the three Marys heading to the sepulchre, finding it empty except for an angel who tells them that Christ has resurrected. In the upper left corner, despite the damage, we can distinguish two angels elevating the soul of Christ to the heavens on a cloth.
The other relief represents the Anastasis or Christ’s harrowing of hell to rescue the first sinners. Adam and Eve are depicted behind him and they leave behind a series of infernal and monstruous beings, as well as the gates of hell represented by the jaws of the Leviathan.
There are also other types of decontextualized remains, such as some archs with column statues that reveal to us a Romanesque portico, Isaac’s sacrifice as part of a column, pieces of archivolts and cornices with which the improvised facade has been repaired, a relief of the Annunciation and another one of a knight that reminds us of the Roman emperor Constantine.

Armentia undoubtedly presents the best collection of corbels that can be found in the alavaise Romanesque art. It is known that they were relocated during the restorations and that their current order does not correspond to the original. Among the images of the corbels the fantastic imaginary prevails: mermaids, griffins, harpies, hybrid beings, horned men spitting leaves… But there are also characters and animals of daily life, like monks, women and men, a spinario or boy taking off a spine of his foot, owls, lions, goats or a character leaning out of the interior of a medieval building.

Inside the temple

The profound interventions that took place in the 18th century can be perceived from the interior. The walls of the nave, made in masonry, as well as their groin vaults correspond to this century’s intervention. From the transept, the stone is structured in well-carved ashlars, which correspond to the medieval manufacturing. The vault of the lantern tower was rebuilt on the 20th century. From there we can perceive the two transepts that shape the Latin cross plan and the head with a semicircular apse and semi-domes. In the north arm of the transept several doors and accesses can still be seen. They reveal that the old choir and the access to the annexed cloister were located in that area, which were definitively destroyed in the renovation of 1776.

The choir columns

When it comes to the old choir, only the capitals of the two columns that held it remain standing. They can be seen today at the feet of the church. Some beasts are represented on them. In one of the cases, they devour baby donkeys, while monstrous faces take up the centre of the capital, one of them devouring a human being of who we only see the legs.

Capitals of the interior

In the transept we find a set of outstanding capitals with plant decorations where there are also some of them with animals, such as griffins and eagles. The most remarkable is undoubtedly the one that represents a complex scene of a battle between knights and centaurs over a background of fallen leaves and lush vegetation.

The Tetramorph

The intervention of the 18th century concealed behind a false vault four figures sculpted with great quality that were located in the corners of the transept. It was not until 1870 when the parish priest warned of their presence in the upper part of the vaults. Between 1904 and 1908 the renovation of the lantern tower was performed, making them visible again. These sculptures depict the four evangelists or Tetramorph with their animal form. The bull represents Luke, the eagle represents John, the lion represents Mark and the angel corresponds to Matthew. Over them we see four angels playing trumpets and announcing the new Gospel to the four cardinal points and, below, four masculine characters as corbels.

The baptismal font

The robustness and simplicity of the font are astonishing. The bowl is square, one of the few cases that we find in Álava in this shape. The decoration is inspired by ironwork at the corners and is shaped as an arcade on the edge of the bowl as well as on the pedestal. In the lower area we can see remains of a cornice that belongs to the workshops of the portico where, besides rinceaux, we can identify birds, harpies and dragons.


Créditos fotográficos:

De las fotografías actuales: © Alava Medieval / Erdi Aroko Araba

De las fotografías antiguas: Archivo Municipal de Vitoria-Gasteiz / Interior de Armentia, tomado de: Manuel Díaz de Arcaya, Armentia, su basílica y su obispado, 1901.

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