Situated on steep slopes of a hill in the medieval city of Estella (Navarre), the church of San Pedro de la Rúa lies directly on the Pilgrims’ Way of St. James and forms part of one of the most interesting Spanish monastic complexes of the second half of the 12th century. Of its medieval cloister only two wings (north and west sides) with a total of 19 capitals have survived. Two further capitals are preserved in a tomb in the south apse of the church and one in a funerary niche in the west wing. Only seven of the capitals present narrative scenes, but they are of outstanding quality. They also testify to an advanced stage of intellectual reflection. The main thematic focal points of the surviving sculptural decoration consist of scenes of martyrdom and figurative and foliated motifs (animals, mythical beasts, plants). But the iconography of the decorative ensemble as a whole is obscured by the damage caused by the blowing up of the nearby castle in 1572, as a result of which half of the capitals have not survived.
The town of Estella was founded by King Sancho Ramírez (1076-1094) in 1090, not only to offer protection to pilgrims on the Way to Santiago de Compostela, but also to erect a bastion against the continuing Muslim occupation of Spain. The medieval town centre, the inns and hospitals grew in tandem with the expansion of trade, so that Estella developed into one of the most important stations on the Way of St. James. In the twelfth century Estella was governed by the Azagra family on behalf of King Sancho Ramirez; the same family also had close links with Tudela.
Little was hitherto known of the building history of this Romanesque church, which was finished in the gothic style and declared a cultural monument in 1931. Excavations in 2010 showed, however, that its site had hitherto been occupied by a primitive single-aisle church, which was built between 1090 and 1140 (Muñoz/López de Guerreño, 2012). The written sources of 1174 and 1179 and a study of the fabric of the building permit a dating of the existing church to the period between 1160 and 1180, a period that falls in the reign of King Sancho VI, called the Wise (1150-1193).
A broad and long flight of steps leads over the uneven terrain up to the north portal of the church of San Pedro de la Rúa. This was the original late-Romanesque portal, with splayed jambs and some gothic features. It was erected next to the bell-tower in the second half of the 13th century. In the second half of the 12th century the choir of the pre-existing building was enlarged with three high apses on various levels, of which the central apse was later transformed with three apsidal chapels built into the wall. This peculiarity was imported into Navarre from the southern regions of France; documents show that some inhabitants of Estella came from these areas.
The impressive size and image of the three-aisled church (without transepts) no doubt reflect the fact that Estella was one of the most important cities in the kingdom of Navarre (only surpassed by Pamplona and Tudela) in the Middle Ages. It was finally raised into the parish church of the town in 1256.
The cloister abuts onto the south side of the church. Its irregular, slightly trapezoidal shape was determined by the unevenness of the terrain. It is one of the few Romanesque parish churches in the Iberian peninsula. The cloister too reflects this function.
The series of arched recesses for tombs set into the perimeter walls and the lack of cloistered rooms make this clear, as also does the iconographic programme of the capitals.
The cloister had fallen into ruin by the 19th century, and many buildings had begun to encroach on it. A programme of restoration was conducted in 1940, during which the perimeter wall of the two demolished wings of the cloister was reconstructed. But it was not until 1960 that more extensive restorations were undertaken. Especially the restorations in the 1970s and more recent conservational measures have yielded most information. Not least due to the repairs undertaken after the destruction of the castle in 1572 it is improbable that the sequence and layout of the capitals still corresponds to their original order. Each of the two surviving sides of the cloister comprises nine arcades with semicircular arches and capitals resting on paired colonnettes. At the corners the round supports are multiplied and assembled round a bundled pillar (five on the north-east corner and eight on the north-west corner). The regular sequence of colonnettes is only interrupted by an entrance into the garden on the west side, where four colonnettes are bent and twisted together: an idiosyncratic feature that has few parallels, e.g. in Silos, Osma, La Vid or Caracena.
Pictorial language and iconography
The capitals of the north wing, situated closest to the church, show hagiographic scenes such as the martyrdoms of Saints Lawrence, Andrew and Peter, as well as episodes from the childhood, passion and resurrection of Christ. By contrast, on the west side, a quite different (allegorical) programme is presented with animals or fantastic creatures (lions, birds, harpies) and a rich variety of plant motifs. The capitals of the north wing, furthermore, are furnished with some upper inscriptions that identify the individual scenes and figures. Their palaeographical features, suggesting a period of creation in the second half of the 12th century, can in particular be dated to the decade 1160-1170. This kind of close relation between text and image is also a peculiarity of Spanish Romanesque cloisters. But in spite of the inscriptions, the episodes represented are often complex and not easy to decipher. Above all they should also be read in the light of the other sides of the same capitals or even adjacent capitals. The pictorial means used in these narrative scenes are varied, but the narrative modes often very similar.
Since there is no apparent sequence for ‘reading’ the capitals and their present arrangement is in any case contested, it is presumable that – as in Tudela – the sequence would have begun with the capitals carved with episodes from the life of Christ on the north side. The original portal (the present access to the cloister was laid out in the 20th century) was no doubt situated in the middle of this wing, so that the person entering the cloister would be immediately confronted with the three capitals with stories from the life of Christ (N04FL04, N03FL03, N02FL02). Following the sequence of the capitals eastwards, the biblical stories could then be ‘read’ in chronological order.
The sequence of allegorical and hagiographical motifs by which the christological themes are interrupted begins in the middle of the north gallery, proceeding westwards. In capital N05FL05 sin is represented in terms of combat and confrontation. It is followed by a capital in which scenes from the life of Saint Lawrence are represented. It is followed in turn by two capitals dedicated to Saint Andrew.
The last capital of the north wing shows Saint Peter, but the scene of his martyrdom is lacking. It can be inferred from this, that a second capital – similar to the two capitals devoted to Andrew – would have originally existed, including the scene of his crucifixion. The fact that this capital is missing further implies that the present sequence of capitals is not the original.
Few parallels to these representations can be found among the Romanesque cloisters of Spain. Although several forms of expression can be differentiated in the Estella cloister capitals, it is possible to speak of a coherent and homogeneous style. Its distinguishing features are pronounced three-dimensionality, decorative richness, and varied and complex compositions. Architectural miniatures (real or allegorical) are found on some capitals; they belong to the many peculiarities of this cycle of capitals. The figures are relatively stylized, but their postures are varied. The sculpting of dress and drapery folds is rather schematic.
The style of the capitals has been connected with that of the cloister of Pamplona and that of the façade of Santiago de Puente la Reina. Stylistic affinities with Silos and with some aspects of Castilian Romanesque sculpture have also been pointed out. In Estella itself there is a more direct connection with the nearby royal palace of Navarre, where the sculptor Martín de Logroño was active. The capital he created for the façade of the Palacio de los Reyes de Navarra with the representation of the contest between the knights Roland and Ferragut also forms a parallel for the capitals in the cloister of Estella. Nonetheless, these capitals seem to bear the ‘signature’ of another artist. Whoever the sculptors of San Pedro de la Rúan were, they can be credited with creating one of the most magnificent cloisters of the second half of the 12th century.
Esther Lozano López
Photographic plan and naming of the capitals
All capitals are depicted from four sides (North, South, West, East) or from eight sides (N, S, W, E, NW, NE, SE, SW). The abbreviations N, S, W, E follow the English names for the cardinal points of the compass North, South, West, East.
The numbering of the photographs also comprises that of Fernández-Ladreda 2012, who numbered the capitals in order of their arrangement from 1-19.
For example W04FL13:
W04 is the number of the capital and side in the cloister. FL05 is the number in Fernández-Ladreda Aguadé 2012. The final letter stands for the point of the compass, from which the capital was photographed. The name of the photo of the same capital if taken from the north-east will thus be W04FL13NE.
Del Porto Ortúzar, Renée / Biay, Sébastien: Silence, ça tourne – la structure narrative des chapiteaux hagiographiques du cloître-cimetière de San Pedro de la Rua Estella, in: L’image médiévale…, Turnhout, 2011, pp. 341-372.
Fernández-Ladreda Aguadé, Clara: Escultura monumental: templo y claustro, en: VVAA, San Pedro de la Rúa de Estella, Pamplona, 2012, pp. 131-153.
Muñoz Párraga, Maria del Carmen / López de Guerreño Sanz, Maria Teresa: Las fábricas medievales de San Pedro de la Rúa en Estella (Navarra): la complejidad de un largo proceso constructivo, in: De Arte, 11, 2012, pp. 27-52.