By Rolf Strom-Olsen
You can find the symbols of cultures from the distant past hiding below the eves of hundreds of churches. Some of these symbols refer to fertility, and seem strangely inappropriate alongside traditional Christian icons. Recently, a group of students from the IE University campus in Segovia joined me on a warm and sunny Saturday morning to explore the extraordinary Romanesque legacy of medieval Segovia. The churches of San Clemente and San Millan are both located a short distance from the imposing aqueduct and both help reveal something of the history, not only of Segovia, but of the pattern of medieval reconquest and re-Christianisation generally across the northern half of the Iberian Peninsula. Now, among the many pleasures to be had in exploring old churches is untangling the rich, complex and often ambiguous symbolic and iconographic representations that decorate both interiors and exteriors. A centrepiece of our excursion revolved around just such a symbol.
Medieval churches, in particular, tend to feature a syncretic symbolic language. As Helmut Schlunk und Theodor Hauschild have observed (Die Denkmäler der fruhchristlichen und westgotischen Zeit), the symbolism found across early-medieval religious architecture in Spain is often deeply rooted in a Roman or Celt-Iberian past. Typically, such symbols are re-interpreted within the Christian tradition. Thus, for instance, ancient symbols of sun-worship are recast in the light (no pun intended) of John 8:12: “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” An abstract motif of intersecting petals, common across the Roman world starting under the Antonines (and probably a great deal earlier), can be easily translated into Christian terms because of its cruciform shape. Both are ubiquitous features of Iberian Romanesque. This syncretistic borrowing applies elsewhere, of course: churches from Ireland to Armenia bear witness in their carved or sculpted forms to an iconographical landscape that stretches deep into antiquity.
For the casual visitor, one of the most incongruous instances of this cultural fusion is found in the persistence of fertility symbols, since they often seem jarringly out of place with what we think of as a normative Christian iconography.
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