Andorran Romanesque Churches

At the beginning of the middle ages, as Europe began to see the first sweeps of unifying art and architecture since the Roman era, a particular style of building became all the rage. Later dubbed "Romanesque" by scholars because of the prominent use of "roman" semi-circular arches, the style coincided with a rapid expansion in Christianity and with a boom in church construction. Between the 10th and 12th centuries, nearly all the religious structures erected in Europe were Romanesque. Then, Gothic architecture became the new fad, and most of the old churches were rebuilt in the new style. Today, it's rare to find surviving examples of Romanesque churches - unless you're in Andorra, which has a staggering trove of them.
In Andorra, the buildings are more precisely "pre-" or "first-Romanesque," which means that they have a general lack of sculptural adornment and a somewhat simpler design than later instances. Also, while the arches have the characteristic shape associate with the movement, they are often limited to window and door openings, and are not seen in more ornate colonnades and ceilings. Early adoption of the architecture isn't necessarily the reason for first-Romanesque attributes, though. Partly, the remoteness and poverty of the region is the cause, as the people of the Pyrenees didn't have the means to build complex or large structures.
Santa Eulàlia's seventy-five foot tower, in Encamp, is the tallest medieval structure in the principality, and the only surviving part of the original church.
The most emblematic facet of the Romanesque style is the semi-circular arch, which replaced simple lintels and allowed for more open walls - most importantly in the bell towers, which could be built taller and with more openings than before. This bridged an important architectural gap between solid and ornamented walls, but the buildings were still generally thickly constructed and, especially in poorer areas, made of unrefined stone.
Sant Romà, situated high above the medieval hamlet of Les Bons, is almost too tiny to be much more than a nave, apse and little porch. Church porches are common in the region, perhaps to allow for some shade as the congregation leaves a service.On some of the simpler Andorran churches, a bell-gable, like Sant Miquel i Sant Joan in Encamp, stands in for a tower. The bell-gable was popular on the Iberian peninsula because of the haste with which much of the buildings were erected. Called "espadanya" in Catalan, they were often the architectural precursor to larger structures in other parts of the world, but remained relevant here and were eventually exported to the Americas and elsewhere by Catalan and Spanish immigrants and missionaries. Though there are very few openings or distinctive marks, notice how the lower windows, in the older part of the church, have the Roman arch.
Romanesque churches survived in Andorra because the region was too poor to build new chapels and too remote to be influenced by new architectural trends. Although many of the structures here have been renovated or repaired over the centuries, the original designs have remained intact and a kind of stasis has been achieved - to an Andorran, the Romanesque church is just what a church is supposed to look like. The Sant Serni de Canillo, above, was built in the 18th century, long after the rest of Europe had adopted other styles. Here, the same characteristics seen elsewhere in the country were copied and only slightly modernized - notice, for example, the familiar shape of the tower, but the finer, more precise masonry.
Nostra Senyora de Meritxell, sitting by itself high up the valley side, is the inevitable exception that still proves the rule. Built in 1994 using a 1976 design, the church (which is dedicated to the national patron saint, Mary) is about as far from traditional as can be. The architect, Ricard Bofill, managed to incorporate the Roman arch motif - here represented in open, exterior shapes - and the blunt shape of the Romanesque tower and nave, while creating something ultimately very contemporary.
My favorite of the Andorran Romanesque churches is probably the 11th century Sant Joan de Caselles. It sits at a narrow point in the Gran Valira river valley, up above the town of Canillo. It's impossible to miss on the drive from the French border down towards Andorra la Vella - we first encountered it just after entering Andorra, at dusk on a cool evening. It's a spectacular sight. Later, we camped just down the valley and walked up to see it on a few evenings. It's a peaceful spot when the traffic quiets and the only sound comes from the flowing water and the autumn wind.
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