The Romanesque architects, sculptors and painters displayed their best efforts in churches, leaving an important legacy of buildings whose spirituality, imagination and symbolism still surprises centuries later.
In Montañana, Nuestra Señora de Baldòs church and the chapel of St John are excellent examples of the late Romanesque style, and make you want to find out more about two nearby buildings, which bear some of the finest witness to the art.
Continuing along the N-230 towards France, you come to Sopeira, whose parish church belonged to the former monastery of Nuestra Señora de Alaón, one of the oldest and most important monastic centres in Huesca, dating back to the Visigoth Age, although the first building was destroyed in an attack by the Moors in 1006, and a new one was consecrated by San Ramón in 1123.
The monastery still impresses by its location at the end of the narrow pass of Escales. Close by, upstream on the old road to France, is the Pont d’Alt, a fine mediaeval bridge, with three asymmetrical spans.
The church is designed on a basilical plan, with three naves ending in apses, the central nave is higher and twice the width of the other two; the belfry is a modern addition. The new styles coming from Jaca sit side by side with the well-established Lombard Romanesque design and decoration of Ribagorza.
Thus, the walls have a blind arcade next to a chequerboard pattern of sunken and raised blocks. An unusual feature is the stepped profile of the walls on the roofs. The portico is also decorated with a chequered border and a Chi Rho.
The interior is narrow and harmonious. Decoration is sober, but has a highly original feature – a mosaic of large pieces of marble on the presbytery floor and the central apse, with a simplified depiction of the miracle of the loaves and fish. Beneath the main sanctuary is a crypt with sets of dedicatory inscriptions.
The cloister is on the north side of the church, also outbuildings, such as the chapter house, which is undergoing restoration.
From Benabarre, a secondary road leads to Roda de Isábena, on a hill over the Isábena river, controlling the way to the Pyrenees. This position made it a very important town in the county of Ribagorza, even more so when it became an episcopal diocese in 956.
The former cathedral seen today was reconstructed after the raid by Abd-al.Malik, and was started in the Lombard Romanesque style, especially visible in the crypts, and then changed to full Romanesque. The cathedral was consecrated between 1020-1024, but some excellent features date from the 12th century.
As the kingdom of Aragón expanded, the town lost its episcopal status in favour of Lérida, although, in the 13th century, the portico and frescoes in the north crypt were added. Roda continued as an active religious and cultural centre until the disentailment, and later works included the tower, choir and portico.
The cathedral is in a basilica design with three naves, of which the central one is wider and higher, ending in apses with the traditional Lombard motifs of blind arcades and pilaster strips as exterior ornaments. A fourth apse in the chapel of St. Augustine, with 12th-century murals of saints.
The main entrance is in the south façade, with the large porch and steps added in the 18th century. The 13th-century entrance consists of six bell-shaped arches resting on columns alternating with pilasters, and sculptured capitals. The doors are decorated with wooden Mudejar knotwork and fittings.
The 12th-century cloister adjoins the cathedral on the north side, comprising four arcades of round arches opening into a central patio with a fountain. The capitals have rustic, geometric motifs of plants and a few figurative ones, but the most outstanding feature is the almost 200 funerary inscriptions carved all around the precinct. The cloister leads into the refectory, which has painted murals from the 14th century (currently, it is the dining-room of a Hospedaría de Aragon hotel); and a chapter house./span>
The interior of the cathedral is interesting because it is on two levels, with the sanctuary rising over three crypts, one per nave.
The central crypt of San Ramón, bishop of the cathedral (1104-1126), is the most attractive as it holds the saint’s tomb. It is entered through a 15th-century arcade and has three small naves with rib vaulting and separated by five pairs of plain columns. The main feature is the tomb of San Ramón, used as an altar, and one of the best examples of funerary sculpture in Aragon, with scenes from the childhood of Christ and an image of the saint.
The crypt on the north side is dedicated to San Valero, whose relics are kept here; although it is also known as the Archive crypt. It features the painted murals in the sanctuary, dating from the 13th century. The motifs include religious scenes (Christ with the symbols of the apostles, baptism of Christ and St. Michael judging a soul), and secular motifs (men fighting monsters and a calendar with allegories of the twelve months).
Lastly, the simple southern crypt was discovered in 1980 and preserves the remains of the flooring.
The cathedral also holds a large collection of portable art, in spite of losses in the confiscations, the civil war and the shocking robbery by Erikthe Belgian in 1979, which caused the complete loss or irreparable damage to highly valuable pieces recovered, such as the casket with the relics of San Valero, or San Ramón’s chair. The main treasure is the saint’s liturgical vestments, with textiles from between the 10th-11th centuries, of outstanding value in the history of textile art.