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Bertan > Bertan 21 Gipuzkoako eliz ataurreak > Ingeles bertsioa: Political, economic and social factors leading to construction

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Political, economic and social factors leading to construction

In order to understand how some of the great doorways of Gipuzkoa were conceived and developed, we need to examine some general aspects of ecclesiastical architecture in the province. Few medieval church buildings still remain in the area: the use of unsuitable building materials has meant that most have succumbed to the ravages of time. The great majority of buildings date from the Renaissance period; as and from the sixteenth century, a great number of large churches began to be erected with impressive entranceways. This boom came about as the result of changes in the lifestyle of the local population. During the Middle Ages, most lived in scattered farmsteads, served by small mountain churches.

12. Aerial view of Elgoibar, showing the parish church of San Bartolomé de Calegoen.© Paisajes Españoles
12. Aerial view of Elgoibar, showing the parish church of San Bartolomé de Calegoen.© Paisajes Españoles

However, as founding charters were granted to towns in the valleys, they began to attract more and more people down from the surrounding hillsides. However, they were now inconvenienced by the long distances they had to travel to attend religious services. Inhabitants of these areas frequently complained about the laborious journey they had to take up along steep rough paths to reach the old church on the hill. Priests, too, had difficulties getting the sacraments to the sick, and accompanying the dead to the church, especially when rivers were flooded, as often happened in Elgoibar. It was pressure from worshippers, then, that caused the churches to be moved to more central points in the neighbourhood. The same occurred in seaside localities: in Pasai (Pasajes) San Pedro, for example, the original church was situated on a high, inconvenient site and a new one was built by the sea, where local people found it easier to attend parish services and functions. A report from 1573 on the parish of Arrasate sets the problem out in stark terms:

13. Romanesque-Gothic doorway in the convent of San Agustin in Hernani.© Jonathan Bernal
13. Romanesque-Gothic doorway in the convent of San Agustin in Hernani.© Jonathan Bernal

"Furthermore, before the aforesaid town of Mondragon was founded, there was a church on a mountain near the town dedicated to St. Marina, which served some farmsteads and a dispersed population that lived there in years past. Later this church of St. Marina and its parish were transferred to the parish church of St. John the Baptist in this town, which has been founded for over three hundred years, and the church of Saint Marina was converted into a chapel with neither sacrarium nor administration of sacraments."

In Hernani, the old church was abandoned when another was built in the town, next to the council house, and in the sixteenth century its Romanesque-Gothic doorway became part of the convent of St. Augustine.

Other obstacles were placed in the way of new projects for church buildings. A classic example was the case of the doorway of the church of Santa Maria in Tolosa: at different points in time the Aburruza and Aramburu families both raised objections to the building of a tower with a portico beneath, fearing that it would block the view of their own town houses.

Another significant factor was the local boom in the architecture during the sixteenth centuryóa result of the revenues gained by Gipuzkoans involved in the colonisation of the Americas and the wealth which accrued to some port towns from the wool trade in Flanders. However, although this period is generally seen as one of economic bonanza, in many cases, a lack of resources for the enterprises made it necessary to use older churches as makeshift ìquarriesî in the construction of new ones with building materialsóespecially stonesóbeing reused. Generally the churches of the sixteenth century were designed as monumental projects; they were large in size and, despite the best efforts of local people, difficult for small towns to afford. The result was that some projects took centuries to complete, and several were eventually completed only using outdated models or with alterations to the original design. The churches were built in various sections with the subsequent danger that the right proportions would not be maintained between the different parts, and the uniformity of the supports would be lost.

As was the case elsewhere in the Basque Country and La Rioja, we also have evidence that local people in many Gipuzkoan towns suffered considerable difficulties in celebrating worship while these Renaissance churches were being built. This was the case, for instance, of the parish church of Segura, with different artists hired to execute the work at different periods. Eventually, the walls were erected up to the height of the bell tower but since no money was available to complete the vaulting, a wooden structure had to be built to support the boards for the roof tiles and a space left for the vaults to be completed in the future. In this state the church could at least be used by worshippers, but nearly a hundred years were to go by before the vaults were finally completed.

Clearly, the inhabitants of the various towns often overestimated their own economic resources. Dazzled, perhaps by the sudden influx of money from the Americas, they did not realise that if this source of wealth were ever to run short, scanty local revenues and the large number of clergy and holders of benefices who had to be fed (not to mention patrons, who also took part of the church revenue) would make it difficult to keep up the payments and they would be hard pressed to complete the churches and their magnificent doorways.

Two other key factors which shaped the development of some doorways were the influence of fire and feuds between warring factions, which led to the partial burning or collapse of many churches, requiring reconstruction, and postponing completion of planned doorways until successive centuries.

In the seventeenth century, the effects of economic decline were to be felt right across the social spectrum and the church responded by cutting back on the great building projects of the previous century. A lack of ambitious plans and the austere renovation of existing doorways were the order of the day, clearly evidencing the financial ruin the country was suffering. As a result, the only doorways we find from this period are on convents and monasteries, and a few very simple examples on churches.

It was not until the eighteenth century that any important transformations occurred, with new approaches fostered by a building boom. Few new churches were built, however, and most projects focused on additions and incorporations to existing ones. It was during this period that the new more monumental and extensively ornamented facades or stone doorways first appeared.

Few churches could afford to build their doorways at the same time as the rest of the church. Nonetheless, as we shall see when we come to examine the different models, there are some notable cases in which church and facade belong to the same era.

14. Detail of the plan by Vicente Tofiño, 1788. Street plan of Pasajes San Pedro and position on the hill of the old and new parish churches.© Armadako  Geografia Zerbitzua
14. Detail of the plan by Vicente Tofiño, 1788. Street plan of Pasajes San Pedro and position on the hill of the old and new parish churches.© Armadako Geografia Zerbitzua
15. Front of the Church of Santa Maria in Tolosa. Initially, makeshift entranceways were built in this church. Due to lack of space they were not completed until the present doorway was built.© Jonathan Bernal
15. Front of the Church of Santa Maria in Tolosa. Initially, makeshift entranceways were built in this church. Due to lack of space they were not completed until the present doorway was built.© Jonathan Bernal

Financing the building of doorways.

Some churches suffered continuously from a shortage of funds over the centuries, and the ecclesiastical authorities were obliged to supplement revenues by levying "sisas" or excise tax on foodstuffs and other items of upkeep; generally wine, cod and other fish. To exercise this right, the church had to petition the bishopric and be granted the Facultad Real or Royal Power by the Council of Castile. Although the right was awarded by the monarch as a privilege, achieving it was a laborious and expensive business. Apart from contributions from emigrants to the Americas and other bequests, most of the other revenue came from tithes and of rents; when the church was short of hard cash, it often paid the architects by making them the beneficiaries of the tithes. Similarly, deeds or loans made over by the church to the people of the area, were used like money when it came to paying craftsmen.

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