The Iberian peninsula was ruled by the Visigoths from the 5th to the 8th century. In 711, the troops of the Umayyad Caliphate killed Roderic, the King of the Visigoths, took their capital Toledo, and soon conquered most of the Iberian peninsula. The Visigothic army and the Asturian mercenaries who supported them retreated to the Cantabrian Mountains in the north. In 718, they appointed Pelagius, a Visigoth nobleman, as their leader and established the Kingdom of Asturias.
In 718 or 722, the army led by Pelagius defeated the Umayyad troops in the Battle of Covadonga. This event is considered to be the beginning of the Reconquista, or the Christian reconquest of Iberia. Over the following two centuries, the kings of the dynasty founded by Pelagius gradually recovered much of the territory from the Muslims.
The first capital of the Kingdom of Asturias was Cangas de Onís. In the second half of the 8th century, the court was briefly in San Martín del Rey Aurelio and in Pravia, until it was moved to Oviedo by Alfonso II (791-842).
In Oviedo (Uviéu in Asturian), Alfonso II initiated a large-scale construction process and built several churches and palaces for himself. These buildings were designed by Tioda, the court architect, and represent the Pre-Romanesque style of Asturian type. This style was influenced by Roman, Visigothic, Mozarabic, and Asturian vernacular architecture, but had its own characteristics and personality. The most important building constructed at this time was the Church of San Julián de los Prados on the outskirts of Oviedo.
The style was dramatically renewed under the next king, Ramiro I (842-850). He built a palace complex on the southern slope of Mount Naranco outside Oviedo, with two of the most spectacular buildings of the Asturian Pre-Romanesque: the Palace of Santa María del Naranco and the Church of San Miguel de Lillo.
In Oviedo, some remains of buildings erected by Alfonso III (866-910), the last major Asturian king, also survive. After his death, the kingdom was divided into three: Asturias, Galicia, and León. These kingdoms reunited again in 924 and formed the Kingdom of León, with the capital in León.
My portfolio contains photos of all the Pre-Romanesque buildings in the city centre of Oviedo and its immediate vicinity. It does not include the Pre-Romanesque churches in the farther reaches of the Asturian countryside. The portfolio also contains images of the three most important pieces of Asturian goldsmithery and jewellery, all held in the Holy Chamber of Oviedo. A notable omission is the Casket of San Genadio of the Cathedral of Astorga from the early 10th century.
I took all the photos in April 2022.
You will find the locations of all the main Pre-Romanesque buildings of Asturias on the map below.
1. Holy Chamber & Tower of San Miguel
Cathedral of San Salvador
Tioda, early 9th century; late 9th century
The city of Oviedo was established in 761, with the foundation of the Monastery of San Vicente. It became the capital of the Kingdom of Asturias towards the end of the 8th century. Alfonso II launched a long-term construction project and built here the royal palace together with churches and monasteries.
The main church of the city was the Church of San Salvador. Its was first built by Fruela I (757-768), then destroyed by the Muslims, later rebuilt by Alfonso II, and consecrated in 821. It was a three-aisled basilica with a rectangular sanctuary and a wooden roof. The Church of Santa María, dedicated to the funeral liturgy of the Asturian kings, had a similar plan. The complex also included the Monastery of San Juan Bautista y San Pelayo. The city was surrounded by a defensive wall.
Most of the structures that formed the nucleus of the 9th-century Oviedo disappeared over the subsequent centuries. The Church of San Salvador, for example, was demolished and replaced by the Gothic cathedral in around the 14th century. Of the original Pre-Romanesque structures on the cathedral grounds, only two survive: the building known as the Holy Chamber and the Tower of San Miguel.
The Holy Chamber was either a chapel of the royal palace or the treasury of the Church of San Salvador, housing the main collection of treasures and relics of the Kingdom of Asturias. It is not conclusively known when it was built. While it has been usually dated to the reign of Alfonso II, other theories have it that it was constructed under Alfonso III, to store the relics of the martyrs Eulogius and Leocricia that arrived from Córdoba in c. 884.
The Holy Chamber is located between the south arm of the cathedral transept and the northern side of the cloisters. It can be observed from a small courtyard where it stands at the corner. Here we can see two latticework windows with brick arches and elaborately decorated eaves. The walls of the building are supported by blind arches and buttresses. Such use of blind arches was quite uncommon in Asturian Pre-Romanesque architecture.
The building has two storeys. Its plan follows that of a Roman martyrium, where the lower storey was used for burials, and the upper storey was used for worship. Its architectural importance comes from the fact that the rooms on the both storeys are vaulted. Up until that time, local architects had dared to use the barrel vault only to cover small spaces, like the sanctuary chapels in churches, and rarely on two storeys.
The lower storey – the Crypt of Santa Leocadia – is a rectangular space covered by a low barrel vault leaning on a plinth. The vault is pierced by several openings. On the side of the altar is a window with an arch supported by columns. There was probably a graveyard right outside the crypt.
On the floor of the crypt some tombstones survive. The two most ornate of these are from the time of construction of the crypt.
The upper storey – the Chapel of San Miguel – consists of a nave and a chapel.
The nave was originally higher than the chapel. It had a wooden ceiling. In the 12th century, the ceiling was raised and covered by a barrel vault. The vault is supported by arches that lean on columns. The columns are decorated with statues of the pairs of apostles. These belong to the best examples of Spanish Romanesque sculpture.
The chapel is from the 9th century. The arch through which it is entered is supported by columns of possible earlier origin. The barrel vault springs from imposts that run along the lateral walls. The third wall is pierced by a window with an arch supported by columns.
The chapel houses the collection of treasures donated by the kings of Asturias to the Church of San Salvador. It is one of the most important goldsmith collections from the Middle Ages. It contains three magnificent pieces from the Pre-Romanesque period: the Cross of the Angels, the Victory Cross, and the Agate Casket.
The Cross of the Angels is the oldest surviving example of jewellery made in the Kingdom of Asturias. It was created in 808 on the instructions of Alfonso II, most probably for the consecration of the Church of San Salvador. According to a legend, it was made by angels who appeared to Alfonso II as pilgrims (and who, in reality, may have been goldsmiths of Lombard origin).
It is a Greek cross, or a cross pattée with little curvature. The wooden core is covered, on the front, by a filigreed mesh of gold thread with various gemstones. A smooth gold sheet with inscriptions covers the back of the cross. On the central disk there is an agate cameo surrounded by two circles of small stones. A similar composition can also be seen at the end of each cross arm.
The Cross of the Angels is a symbol of the city of Oviedo.
The Victory Cross was donated by Alfonso III to the Church of San Salvador, to commemorate a century of the victories of the Kingdom of Asturias. It is a Latin cross with arms ending in foils. The wooden core is covered by gold leaf and filigree. The front is especially elaborate, showing gold thread, coloured enamel, pearls, and gemstones. There is an inscription in gold letters on the back.
According to a legend, the wooden core of the Victory Cross was carried by Pelagius in the Battle of Covadonga and later kept in the Church of Santa Cruz in Cangas de Onís. In reality, the cross is from the late 9th century, as verified by a recent radiocarbon study. Its casing was made in the Castle of Gauzón in 908.
The flag of the Principality of Asturias has been derived from the Victory Cross.
The Agate Casket was donated to the Church of San Salvador by Fruela II in 910. It is a rectangular wooden box covered by a gold sheet, cabochon gemstones, coral, and sections of veined agate. The top of the lid is a gold plaque decorated with gems and animals and trees in enamel in the champlevé technique. It is a century older than the rest of the box, possibly taken from a smaller reliquary of Carolingian origin. The base of the box is made of silver and shows the symbols of the Four Evangelists.
Other treasures stored in the Holy Chamber include the Holy Ark, an oakwood reliquary with gilded silver in Romanesque style (1075). The most notable relic kept in it is the Sudarium of Oviedo, a bloodstained cloth that is believed to have been wrapped around the head of Jesus after he died.
In order to protect the treasures held in the Holy Chamber from Muslim or Norman attacks, the Tower of San Miguel (also known as the Old Tower of San Salvador) was built, most probably by Alfonso III towards the end of the 9th century. Of this tower, only the lower part is from the Pre-Romanesque period. The upper part, the bell tower, is newer.
Some architectural details from the Pre-Romanesque period are displayed in the cathedral museum, like the below window and capital (both from the 9th century).
2. San Tirso el Real
Plaza Alfonso II el Casto / Calle Santa Ana
Tioda, late 8th or early 9th century
The Church of San Tirso is located next to the cathedral. It was a part of the ecclesiastical complex of Alfonso II. The original church was probably a cruciform building – a rectangular space with an adjoining structure in each façade (cf. Santa Cristina de Lena). The building was thoroughly transformed in the 12th and 14th centuries. It was almost entirely destroyed in a fire in 1521.
Of the Pre-Romanesque church, only the eastern wall survives. Its most notable feature is a three-light window with marble columns, brick arches, and an alfiz. The position of the window in the wall is unusual. In the Asturian Pre-Romanesque churches, such windows are usually located in the chamber above the central chapel of the sanctuary, not in the chapel wall itself.
The columns of the window are from an earlier building. The capitals of the semi-columns on the sides date back to the Roman period, while those of the central columns show a 9th-century interpretation of the motifs of acanthus leaves. The alfiz shows the influence of Mozarabic architecture. The two protruding stones near the corners of the alfiz served as hinges for the wooden shutters that closed the window.
The eaves of the wall are supported by modillions with semicircular ends and grooves. A part of the wall is underground, which explains its apparent lowness.