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Church of Saint Andrew the Apostle, Villafranca


We find Villafranca located at the foot of the hill where the Estíbaliz sanctuary lies. Even though there is no sign in the town that would lead us to think it had a magnificent past, documents reveal that Villafranca was the first town to be founded in the whole Álava, between the late 11th and early 12th centuries. Its founder was the nobleman Lope González, who, following the policy of creating towns of his King Alfonso VI of Castile, decided to create Villafranca from his tower house in Estíbaliz, point from where he managed a large area of land in Álava. Villafranca had its own street market and it was a prosperous town that contemplated the birth of the Romanesque church of Estíbaliz until the creation of the neighbouring Vitoria at the end of the 12th century. This put such a heavy pressure on the town that it lost population and entered a phase of decline.


The stay of the Virgin of Estíbaliz in Villafranca

Relations between Villafranca and Estíbaliz have always been really intense, to the extent that it is very likely that Villafranca was originally located at the top of the hill where the sanctuary lies. Therefore, when Estíbaliz lost its worshippers towards the end of the 19th century, Álava’s patron saint was moved to the church of Villafranca. After the Carlist wars, the carving of the 12th century was in a very poor condition, headless and childless, so the neighbours of Villafranca replaced the missing pieces with reused materials. For this reason, it became necessary to dress it, which concealed completely its medieval appearance. It was later placed on an altar on the north wall of the church, which is still visible in the engravings made after its restoration. Along with the recovery of Estíbaliz came the restitution of the Virgin, which was raised to the shrine again on an improvised procession on October 9, 1904.

Old images

The first preserved image of the church of Saint Andrew the Apostle of Villafranca are some beautiful traces of its two more western vaults, which served as a preparatory drawing for their later execution. In the photographs that we preserve, previous to the restorations of the 1960s and the early 21st century, we can see the state of the church before the transformations. In the images of the interior, we can observe the baroque mural paintings with a curtain, also known as dossal curtain, which framed the altarpiece. This is a type of pictorial decoration that is supplementary to the altarpieces, very common in Álava. In the photographs of the exterior we can still perceive the diverse spaces that were added throughout time to the main body of the church and that were removed at a very close date: the parish house, the sacristy and the portico, which were at the south side of the temple.

The church


The church of Saint Andrew the Apostle of Villafranca, after the removal of the diverse additions that were implemented throughout time, offers a robust and uniform look. Nevertheless, a detailed observation allows us to appreciate that the straight apse of the church was built before the body, given that there are certain fractures both on the external walls and on the inner vaults that tell us about two construction phases developed in two different moments of the 16th century. This was due to the death of Andrés López de Alzola, the architect of the apse, whose project was continued by Pedro de Elosu until its completion in 1574. Since then, this same master completed the temple with the creation of the tower attached to the western side.

The facade

The indisputable highlight of this church is the Renaissance facade that can be seen on the south wall, located among the remains of the old portico. The best alavese Renaissance can be found in the sculpture that surrounds the entrance, from the fluted shaft columns with a candelieri decoration to the frieze full of angels. On both sides of the arch, we find two medallions that represent faces, held by fantastic creatures, hybrids between the plant and animal worlds. The good preservation of the facade and the sculptural quality that it displays turn it into one of the best models that we have in rural Álava.


When entering the interior, the embroidery of the lierne vaults amazes us. The first section of the vault, the one in the apse, is decorated by a series of keystones that represent the group of the twelve apostles, each one represented with his own instrument of torture. All of them surround the central keystone, in which we see the figure of the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin.

Unfortunately, the successive repaintings, specially the most recent ones, have distorted the sculpture of these keystones, which must have originally been of great quality. The other two vaults, whose ribs also draw complex geometrical representations, have simpler keystones, decorated with fleurons.
The altarpiece

The preserved altarpiece dates from the 18th century, and it has a nearly rococo style. We find Saint Andrew in the middle, the advocation of the church, flanked by Saint Paul and Saint Peter. Over them, a calvary dominates the altarpiece. It is composed of the crucified Christ, Virgin Mary and Saint John, while, at the top, God the Father blesses them. On the other hand, the side altarpieces are made in a neoclassical style by the Valdivieso school. On the one on the right, we find Our Lady of the Rosary, while the one on the left is dedicated to Saint Anthony the Great.

The successive layers of paint that the temple has received allow us to perceive remains of mural paintings from other eras. For instance, in the flakings caused by moisture in the Renaissance vaults, we find remains of a piece of grisaille that indicates that the church could have been decorated with a representation painted on grey bricks and drawn in white lines. We also know by photographs and engravings that it was later repainted following baroque criteria. The current paintings date from the 1960s.


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Créditos fotográficos:

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

De las fotografías antiguas: Archivo del Territorio Histórico de Álava.

Traza: Pedro de Elosu, Traza de la iglesia de Villafranca, AHPA. Prot. Not. 6.201, 1574.

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