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Church of Saint Julian and Saint Basilissa (Oreitia)


Oreitia is geographically located in the western Alavese Plains, ten kilometres away from the capital, Vitoria-Gasteiz. As the vast majority of the small towns that are scattered across this region, its history starts in the first medieval centuries and, at the same time, the history of its church also begins. What we can see today, the result of multiple transformations, tells us about a rich medieval past, a prosperous 16th century and a no less interesting Baroque. Together with Matauko, Oreitia paid 3 rejas (tithes) to the monastery of San Millán de la Cogolla in 1025, establishing itself as a town of certain importance and dimensions. Over its history, it has lived in close connection with the Sanctuary of Estíbaliz, leaving good proof of all of it in historical documentation.


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Hidden paintings

As in the case of many churches in Álava, its walls were once completely covered with paintings that, over time, have been hidden or destroyed. Oreitia’s case is particularly interesting in this sense since, behind the baroque altarpiece, fragments of paintings can be seen that, altogether, would form a large fake altarpiece. It is not easy to know neither the theme nor the period, but based on the remains that can be observed, it is very likely that it is a medieval set.

Old photographs

In the case of Oreitia’s church, the old photographs, obtained by Gerardo López de Guereñu in the 1940s, do not reveal considerable changes in the building. For example, the Romanesque facade has been slightly modified and some of the shafts it presents today have recently been incorporated. It is also interesting to see that the medieval facade preserved some remains of polychromy that, unfortunately, have been lost over time.


Church of Saint Julian and Saint Basilissa

The exterior

There is no trace of the Pre-Romanesque church left, since the history of the building that we can see today starts at the end of the 12th century. From this period, the magnificent Romanesque facade and a large window of the same style that appeared on the portico in a recent intervention are preserved. The facade is conceived as a triumphal arch with four slightly pointed archivolts. It is part of a family of facades, among which the ones in Durana and Otazu stand out, all of them carried out between the 12th and 13th centuries by high-quality workshops. One of the typical features of these stonemason teams is found on the inner archivolt, where a crafted decoration with crossed arches unfolds.

The apse

The east end, however, dates from later than the facade and the large window. It is very probable that there was a building of the 12th century that, for unknown reasons, would have been extended short after with a much more ambitious new east end. Some elements of the previous manufacture were relocated inside, such as the famous knight that is located over a huge oculus.

The polygonal apse (late 13th century) shows a Gothic structure that still preserves typical Romanesque characteristics, as the rich corbels that run through the upper cornice. On them, we can see hideous masks, female exhibitionists, monsters with large genitals and even a demonic image devouring a person. The east window already has a markedly Gothic appearance with some interesting harpies facing each other in one of its capitals.
Inside the temple

Once inside, we quickly notice the different structural phases that the temple has had. Both the east end and the first section of the presbytery are covered with medieval rib vaults. Nevertheless, the great renovations that completely changed the appearance of Oreitia’s temple started throughout the 16th century. For the funding of these works, Oreitia counted on distinguished figures such as Doña María Pérez de Lazarraga and Don Pedro Vélez de Guevara, founders of the entailed estate of Oreitia’s palace in 1523. They would contribute to the new renovations with considerable amounts of money, since they placed their graves to the left of the presbytery.

Coinciding with this historical moment, the second section of the church was extended with a large body that considerably widens the floor of the building. No documents about its history have been preserved, but the corbels with balls on which the networks of ribs are supported set us in the first decades of the 16th century. In any case, the vaults would have been carried out in the second half of that century.
The choir is a great work of the second half of the 16th century. On four large columns decorated with geometrical motifs, it covers the entire width of the second section at the feet of the temple over a moulded segmental arch. An interesting Romanist-style Annunciation is sculpted on its spandrels, with hefty and monumental figures. It is covered with a good rib vault in whose central keystone the Immaculate Conception appears. The parapet is one of the best worked parts of the ensemble. It is decorated with a course of openwork squares with fanciful straight lines, flanked by Ionic pilasters.
We should set the astonishing sail vault that covers the sacristy within this same structural period. Due to its similarity to the vault of the choir in Betoño, we can set this work within the sphere of the Cantabrian master Juan Vélez de la Huerta, one of the great figures that contributed to the renovation of Renaissance arts. .
After a brief dispute, the sculptor Miguel de Aldasoro and the architect Martín de Tellería were finally in charge of carrying out the baroque altarpiece that covers the east end of the church. On the predella we can see two scenes of Christ’s childhood, such as the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi. Among them, four smaller figures represent the Four Evangelists: Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, all of them identifiable by their iconographic attributes. The ends of the predella are completed with two carvings of Saint Dominic to the left and Saint Francis to the right. In the centre, an important tabernacle is preserved. It shows an image of the Crucified Christ on its cover, whose execution is of great quality.
Continuing with the first horizontal section of the altarpiece, between large columns of wavy flutes, the individual figures of Saint John the Baptist and Saint James are placed. The two central positions are reserved for the most relevant personalities of the Catholic Church, Saint Peter and Saint Paul
The second section rests on four small reliefs of the Fathers of the Church, lying down and in couples. On the sides, two small carvings complete the base with the images of Saint Anthony the Great and a saint monk. The second section is formed by the large carvings of Saint Lawrence and Saint Stephen on the ends, the archangels Saint Michael (20) and Saint Raphael on the quirks, thus reserving the central place for the incumbents of the parish: Saint Julian and Saint Basilissa.
The altarpiece is crowned with three vertical panels. On the left side, a very simple but expressive relief captures the scene of the beheading of Saint John the Baptist. To the right, the scene in which Christ tells Saint Peter that he would deny him three times before the cock crows is represented; the animal is sculpted between both figures. The central panel, as usual in most of the altarpieces from these years, is crowned with the Calvary, that is, the Crucified Christ accompanied by the Virgin Mary and Saint John, thus completing the message of Redemption that these great works were conceived with.

Without deviating from the Baroque period, four side altarpieces complete the decoration of the remaining parts of the church. To the left of the main altarpiece, we see a small one dedicated to the Immaculate with decorated and fine carved columns of Churrigueresque style. To the right, we see another of similar characteristics that is dedicated to Saint Augustine and in whose attic a good work with the effigy of Saint Barbara is painted.

On the left side of the nave, towards the feet of the church, we find a small reredos of the late 17th century dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary. In its attic we see another painting with a Saint Joseph of lower quality than the painting of Saint Barbara. On the right side of the nave, towards the door, we can see another reredos dedicated to Saint Roch of the same period as the previous one, with a painting in its attic of Saint Francis Xavier preaching in the Indies inspired by an engraving of the Frenchman Jerome de Sourlay.

The large bell tower of the parish of Oreitia is already neoclassical, from the second half of the 18th century to be precise. The documents indicate that the author was Juan de Echevarría, who was paid for the work in 1763. The belfry of the church has a high-quality finish and belongs to a common typology in the area that the Olaguibel family would bring into fashion.


Photo credits:

Current photographs: © Alava Medieval / Erdi Aroko Araba

Old photographs:: Archive of the Historical Territory of Álava

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