Santillana del Mar
Written by Alfonso Elizondo
Strolling through this beautiful town just as you enter Asturias you will find perhaps the clearest evidence of the complex coexistence of religious power and the power of the monarch in the Middle Ages. This is something that seems very interesting a millennium later, when once again two powers confront each other in today’s global world: military power and economic power.
As you wander through the beautiful, haunting streets of the town of Santillana del Mar, there are façades with the coats of arms of the nobility of the period between the eleventh and eighteenth centuries. The two powers, one royal and the other ecclesiastical, show the influence they had in the layout of the town’s two main squares: the Plaza Mayor, with the Tower of Merino which housed the town’s military and administrative center, and the Collegiate Church, which was the original site of the monastery of Santa Juliana and the religious node of the town. These are the two most interesting squares in Santillana, because of the monuments and stately mansions, and also because they are the town’s historical and artistic center.
One of the most beautiful and enchanting streets in Santillana is Calle de Las Lindas, a narrow, typical medieval alley where the Tower of Merino comes into view. From there one can conjure up the bloody battles between the noble families warring with each other over the right to exercise power in the town. The visitor feels transported to the historical moment when the Manrique and the Mendoza families were disputing the ownership of these lands. Also appearing there is the historical figure, Doña Leonor de la Vega, mother of Don Iñigo López de Mendoza, the first Marquis of Santillana.
However, Santillana del Mar’s most important monument is La Collegiata de Santa Juliana, where the remains of this virgin martyr are supposed to have been deposited in an old hermitage built by the Mozarabs and existing there since the 6th century. Although popular devotion gave birth to the monastery bearing her name until the 10th century, it wasn’t until the 11th century that the Collegiate named after her was built.
The present Romanesque structure dates back to the twelfth century and was built after the demolition of the previous temple that supposedly was Mozarabic in design. The current church consists of three naves that are accessed through a large atrium where the cemetery once was. The portal has a 17th century pediment in the center of which there is a depiction of the image of Santa Juliana. There is also a loggia from the same century that forms the right nave of the church and a Romanesque tower with two very beautiful double windows in the transept.
Over the transept rises a renovated dome in the center of the nave. The Romanesque column capitals are very beautiful and date back to the beginning of the 12th century. They are decorated with stone carvings of soldiers in combat on foot and on horseback, small animal heads, biblical subjects, plants, etc. The tomb of Santa Juliana is located in the center of the main nave protected by a sixteenth-century wrought iron grille and the slab on which the dead body of the saint is depicted is considered a popular fifteenth-century work.
On the Main Altar of the Collegiate valuable objects from very different epochs are preserved, including the Romanesque sculptures of four apostles carved in stone that must have been part of the group of twelve apostles that was located in the west front of the Collegiate. It is believed that these sculptures were created by a French sculptor who stopped in Santillana and also created sculptures in Avila and Carrión de los Condes. Also worthy of note is the altarpiece of the High Altar, featuring the Evangelists, scenes of St. Juliana before her martyrdom and other scenes alluding to Jesus, his birth, the Epiphany and his entry into Jerusalem.
All this can be viewed in an atmosphere of desolation and abandonment, where the Santillana nobility comes alive for a moment as they struggle to assume their original bodies. But there are many more beautiful sculptural pieces, ceramics, statues of penitents, sacramental symbols, the Descent from the Cross, and numerous Biblical scenes. One can only conclude that this Collegiate Church of Santillana del Mar is one of the most beautiful works produced in the High Middle Ages and it has been completely neglected, so much so that there is still no easy way to access the town by car.
Addendum: Something similar is now happening in the Western world, where all the beautiful works created by the particular vision of beauty and art in general that emerged from the Renaissance are being forgotten, devalued and ignored by the new generation of the digital world.