In Marca Hispanica XVIII: more stone than parchment II (Sant Pere de Vilamajor)

For the last few days of the April trip to Catalonia I was no longer in Vic but staying in the bosom of part of my family, who now live about halfway between Barcelona and Girona and up a bit. This meant less gadding about historical sites and more time reading, writing and running about with two of the only dogs I’m prepared to say nice things about. Nonetheless, my estimable half-sister did agree to take me over to one particular place I’ve been interested in for a while, Sant Pere de Vilamajor.

The church of Sant Pere in Vilamajor

The church of Sant Pere in Vilamajor

Sant Pere is interesting because it’s one of a small but important group of sites which are archæologically datable to well before we first see them in documents. The best one of these in purely chronological terms is a place called Santa Margarida de Martorell, which pops up in documents in the twelfth century but which when dug proved to have been built in the fifth, and moreover repeatedly rebuilt in the undocumented period.1 Sant Pere de Vilamajor is less pronounced than that but it’s much easier to grasp, because here the evidence is epigraphic: the first documentation of the place is via the monastery of Sant Cugat del Vallès in 936, but there is a funerary monument for a priest called Orila which dates itself to 872, so a full generation before somewhere else got interested in recording it.2 I wanted to get a decent picture of the stone, and was a bit concerned that we might not be able to get in to see it. In actual fact, that wasn’t a problem, because when the place was rebuilt they built the stone into an exterior facing. Here it is.

Funerary stone of the priest Orila at Sant Pere de Vilamajor


Simply translated, that is: “Here lies the priest Orila. He lived 80 years. He died in the Era 911.” The dating is in the Hispanic era, which runs from 38 BCE, so his obit was 872 CE. 80’s a pretty good run. So that was that question answered, though who he was and what he was doing here of course can’t be answered because he died before the documents start, and as far as I know no actual grave has ever been found here that might go that far back, in fact I don’t think the church has been dug. I wish they would dig it, though, because architecturally it is really confusing. For a start, you see that classically Romanesque tower, known here as the Torre Roja for obvious reasons?

Torre Roja at Sant Pere de Vilamajor

It’s not actually joined to the church. And the church is a right mess of fabrics and after I’d gone round it, horribly confused, several times, I concluded that it was probably anywhere between sixteenth and eighteenth centuries but had been made essentially by knocking down whatever was there first (which was presumably attached to the tower, as witness its side here…)

North-west corner of Sant Pere de Vilamajor

North-west corner of the church, where I think an erstwhile doorway in opus spicatum is fairly obvious; also, see how the foundation courses are different

The lower courses of the Torre Roja that face the church of Sant Pere de Vilamajor

The side of the lower courses of the Torre Roja that face the church, with, if I'm not mistaken, another ghost portal showing

… and then reusing all the bits to make a new church. I mean, even the path up the hill to the buildings appears to be made of mortared bits of herringbone masonry. I had a horrible feeling that the actual Romanesque, or even older, building had been spread out thin under my feet as I walked back down. But this is the kind of story that is best told after consulting some kind of actual information, so I have been to the ineluctable Catalunya Romànica, and thence learn that the church as we see it was built between 1581 and 1604, and that there are certain signs of a previous one on a different angle, which would presumably be what the doorway in the tower opened onto.3 The incredibly mixed-up fabric is however not explained, not least I suppose because the building is modern, so not part of the CR‘s remit.4 I would still like it dug or at least gone round with ground-penetrating radar, therefore, though it would have to be a very accommodating rig given how little flat land there is close by.

East side of Sant Pere de Vilamajor and the Torre Roja

East side of Sant Pere and the Torre Roja

So, in so far as that’s an answer, there is the answer. But here does not end the weirdness, because although it’s still the parish church, the settlement of Sant Pere has a kind of artist’s colony working out of shops near the church. This means that the area round the church is thickly scattered with slightly quirky and in some cases downright creepy sculpture. You may notice, above, as well as the three or four different sorts of stone in the nave walls, a rather odd black affair at bottom right. Viewed full on it looks like this:

Angel sculpture on the east wall of Sant Pere de Vilamajor

Fallen or rising?

I think this is amazing, because it leaves me with so many questions. Stones, to weigh down or to flesh out? Halo, or headset? Goggles or eyes? Man or bird, Angel or Icarus? Are the wings the upper limbs or is it actually clutching the lung-stones with claws not ribs? And as I say in the caption, going up, or going down? It intrigues me, but in no way does it comfort me. A success for the sculptor then, but I might say the same about the whole church it’s attached to, as well as its attachment to that church; what were they after? Who’s it for? And what was here before?

1. A. Mauri & R. Navarro, Les excavacions arqueològiques a Sta. Margarida (Martorell), Quatre Ratlles: Quaderns d’Estudis Locals 1 (Martorell 1986), online at, last modified 4 September 2007 as of 24 April 2011, updated by the website at, last modified 13 April 2011 as of 24 April 2011.

2. I know of this from R. Vall i Rimblas, “El repoblament del Vallès durant la Reconquesta” in Arrahona 2nd series Vol. 1 (Sabadell 1976), pp. 7-25, online at, last modified 23 November 2010 as of 24 April 2011, at p. 15, but much more detail on the area is given in Mercé Aventín i Puig, Vilamajor 872-1299: de la fi del sistema antic a la consolidació del feudalisme (Sabadell 1990), because Vilamajor is one of the very few places in Catalonia that has left us a polyptych, albeit a very late one, so that we can say quite a lot about how its community fitted together and to whom they answered.

3. Manuel Anglada i Bayés, Antoni Pladevall i Font, A. Aynier i Ruart, “Campanar de Sant Pere de Vilamajor” in Pladevall (ed.), Catalunya Romànica XVIII: Vallès occidental, Vallès oriental, ed. Maria-Lluïsa Ramos i Martiínez (Barcelona 1991), pp. 420-421. This also tells me, however (Pladevall in ibid., p. 420) that the stone was removed from the wall and put in safe keeping at the Museu Diocesà de Barcelona. I haven’t been there and their website is very basic and so I don’t know if that’s still true and I saw a replica. It was a very good replica if so, my photo and the CR photo could be swapped and no-one notice.

4. Not, I think, that this would have deterred the immense team in the first few volumes, but the Catalunya Romànica does seem to have had something of a reality check about ever getting finished somewhere during its history, and this volume is definitely after that watershed and sticks very tightly to its remit.

4 responses to “In Marca Hispanica XVIII: more stone than parchment II (Sant Pere de Vilamajor)

  1. highlyeccentric

    … I really, really like that sculpture. *goggles at it*

  2. My thanks to Joan Vilaseca for some well-placed corrections of my reading of the inscription date.

  3. Pingback: In Marca Hispanica XIX: a dead count’s church in the Barri Gòtic « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  4. Hi Jonathan Jarrett,
    It’s nice to read this kind of article about my village where I live since I was born. I live very close to the church and my forefathers lived there for generations.

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