The church of St Mary at Mount Naranco is a pre-Romanesque Asturian building on the slope of Mount Naranco. Ramiro I of Asturias ordered it to be built as a royal palace, part of a larger complex that also incorporated the nearby church of San Miguel de Lillo, 100 meters away. The palace was completed in 842 and had in part a religious function, being consecrated in 848. Its character as a civil building changed in the 12th century when it was converted into a church dedicated to St. Mary.
The palace, on a rectangular ground plan, has two floors. The lower level, or crypt, quite low, has a central chamber and another two located on either side. The upper floor is accessed via a double exterior stairway adjoining the facade, leading into an identical layout as the lower floor; a central or noble hall with six blind semicircular arches along the walls, supported by columns built into the wall, and a mirador at each end. These are accessed via three arches, similar to those onto the wall, resting on columns with helicoidal rope moulding, typical of Pre-Romanesque. The barrel vault is made from tufa stone, and is held up by six transverse arches resting on consoles.
Santa María del Naranco represented a step forward from a decorative point of view by enriching the habitual standards and models with elements from painting, gold work and the textile arts. The rich decoration is concentrated in the hall and miradors of the upper floor, where it is especially worth noting the cubic-prismatic capitals (of Byzantine influence), decorated with reliefs framed by cord decoration (from local tradition) in trapezoid and triangular shapes, inside which there are sculpted forms of animals and humans. This kind of motif is repeated on the disks with central medallions located above the blind arches' intersections. The 32 medallions distributed around the building are similar in size and shape, varying the decorative designs and the interior figures (quadrupeds, birds, bunches of grapes, fantastic animals), a style inherited from the Visigoth period, in turn descended from Byzantine tradition.
The medallions have decorative bands above them, again framed by rope moulding, inside which four figures are sculpted and arranged symmetrically; the upper two carrying loads on their heads and the lower two representing soldiers on horseback carrying swords. These figures seem to have some kind of symbolic social meaning; the warriors who defend and support the men of prayer, or alternatively, the royal and ecclesiastic orders complementing each other.
Santa María del Naranco shows other, equally beautiful and important sculptural elements; for the first time, a Greek cross appears sculpted as emblem of the Asturian monarchy, at the same time protecting the building from all evil, something which was to become habitual in the popular architecture of towns and villages. Other sculptural elements, such as the capitals of Corinthian inspiration on the miradors' triple-arched Windows or the altar stone in the eastern mirador (originally from the neighbouring Church of San Miguel de Lillo), make this palace the most distinctive building in Pre-Romanesque, a singularity highlighted by being the only palace complex that has lasted until the present day with both Visigothic and Carolingian court structures.
Santa María del Naranco was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in December 1985 (as part of the site Monuments of Oviedo and the Kingdom of the Asturias).References:
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