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Living Art History on the Camino de Santiago

Living Art History on the Camino de Santiago

Our scenic, secluded route in Rioja

On tour, topics at dinner vary between talking about the day’s ride or hike, past trips and future trips and everything in between. It isn’t long though before I inevitably am asked the difficult question: “which is your favorite tour?” My first response is generally a hesitant “well . . . it depends . . . ” and then finally I conclude – “it depends what I’m in the mood for.” It’s hard to find the one favorite trip, when each one offers different highlights: if I want beautiful mountains and incredible scenery, I would go to the Dolomites in Italy. If I wanted great food experiences, I would pick the culinary trips in Emilia Romagna or France. But if I had to combine all of my different “favorite parts” into one tour, in order to chose one Favorite (with a capital F), I would chose the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. The “Way of St. James” has history, art, scenery, food and best of all, the feeling that your journey has purpose, you are a pilgrim no matter the reason for your pilgrimage.

Although many of our trips go through culturally rich regions, the Camino de Santiago is an art and history lesson in European art styles, from the beginning in Roncesvalles to the entrance into the Praza de Obradoiro in Santiago de Compostela. I was first introduced to this special characteristic of the Camino during my first semester studying abroad in Madrid. I took an Art History course that, to this day, is still one of the top 3 classes I took during my college career. The Professor, Javier, was a guide for our group trips to different sights around Madrid.

Imposingly beautiful cathedral in Leon

Essentially we had class during the week and on the weekend. And, although he wasn’t along when I did my first Camino, I heard his voice every time I walked over a bridge, through a town, and into a cathedral along the Camino de Santiago. Thanks to him and the class, the art and architecture along the Camino makes this tour special for me – I see how this famous “Way” was the gateway for every major art movement in Spain since the 10th century B.C. when people first started their pilgrimage towards Santiago de Compostela.

As this is a religious pilgrimage, churches are the first place to look for the changes and evolution of art along the Camino. I can still hear Javier describing the differences between the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque arches, windows and walls of each monument – “The Romanesque – ahh, these churches are low and solid because they were used for protection, as fortresses . . . the Gothic churches, this was when being closer to God was important so the walls are high (too high) and need help standing up . . . the Renaissance painters and architects didn’t worry about God so much, they concentrated on the pilgrims and the people . . . the Baroque – too much. Showy, fancy, and fake . . . ” And as I hear his voice and think of my studies I more fully appreciate these living records of changing art influences and beliefs.

The journey through these different art epochs is not always chronological and linear, but it starts nicely. The first major art movement in Spain, the Romanesque, is visible on our first day on the trail when we visit the Church of St. María Eunate, also known as the church of 100 Arches – yes we counted, there are 100 arches – near Puente la Reina. This church stands alone along the Camino, was a refuge for pilgrims (there is still a little hospital there for those on the pilgrimage), and is one of the better preserved Romanesque churches. It’s octagonal style is unique to the time period and makes it a bit more interesting. Although there are many important buildings and bridges to the art and architectural history of the Camino, the stars of all the Cathedrals are those in Burgos and León. These two churches are the largest Gothic churches in all of Spain, and are particular because they were built only in one artistic style. Unlike the cathedrals in Santiago de Compostela or St. Domingo de la Calzada which are a montage of different styles, these two churches exemplify Gothic: imposing, jagged, rough and beautiful.

Portico de la Gloria and its detail

Ironically, one of the slides on Javier’s art history final was the entrance to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela: the famous “portico de la Gloria” sculpted by Maestro Mateo, and considered to be his great masterpiece in the 12th Century. I feel a strange sense of satisfaction and completion every time I arrive in Santiago and ride or walk into the Praza de Obradoiro where the fancy Baroque façade stands, which now covers the original Romanesque portico. I feel like I’ve come full circle and passed my art history class once again.

Hope you can join me!

Maria Elena