High-Speed Lleidan Medievalist Tourism

Here is the post that you were actually promised for last week, but which this week did not allow me to deliver early as I’d hoped. You may recall from two posts ago that in July 2017 I was in Lleida to examine a thesis. I recall a lot less of that trip now than I would like, but the photos I have tell me something still, and now they can you too.

Sant Llorenç de Lleida

The church of Sant Llorenç de Lleida, which immediately struck me as medieval as I passed it, but of which, I must say, this is the less interesting side

Other than the Universitat de Lleida, where I was laden with so many free books that I actually had, as first priority the next day, to go out and buy another small suitcase to bring them home in, with concomitant extra cabin bag payment—still cheap at the price, however!—I went to four places in the city, in two of which I had time to do no more than look around for a few minutes. First of these was the church of Sant Llorenç.

The tower and portal of Sant Llorenç de Lleida

The tower and portal, on the other side of the building, which are a bit more like it by my lights

There’s very little exterior signage to this impressive building, or if there was I didn’t photograph it, so I have to admit to looking up the following details on the internet like a poor student, but: it is a thirteenth-century church with some Gothic bits added in the fifteenth century and now houses quite a lot of artwork, and I did not have time to look inside because of that thesis thing I was there for. So this run round the outside is all I can offer, but it does show that the building itself is surely not the least of the art on display, once you get round the other side from where I started.

Apsidal chapels of Sant Llorenç de Lleida, from the outside

Apsidal chapels and general Romanesquery

The next day I had more time, before I needed to board a train back to Barcelona where my plane home would be, but I also had two great afflictions: one, two bags stuffed to the gunnels with books hanging off my shoulders on inadequate straps, and two, though I didn’t realise it, limited camera battery. So the photos sadly stop before the top, as it were, and you’ll see what I mean. I had two clear destinations in mind, and the first was the Museu de Lleida.

Exterior of the Museu Diocesà i Comarcal de Lleida

Exterior of the Museu Diocesà i Comarcal de Lleida

Now, the Museu is a fine collection despite its prison-like exterior—we have seen here before how Catalonia seems to like that look for its cultural institutions—but it is also, it turns out, a diocesan museum as well as a civic one. It took me some time to figure this out, as it’s not named as such on the outside or the tickets, and the progress through the collections starts you with the geology of the area and the Bronze Age.

Bronze Age ceramics in the Museu de Lleida

Bronze-Age ceramics, looking remarkably well for their age

It then takes you through the Iberian period into the Roman one, with admirable use of numismatics throughout. Lleida was an Iberian oppidum and then a Roman city and indeed a Visigothic one, though there was more Iberian than Roman on display here, and very little Visigothic. And by now some of the signage, about conversion to Christianity, was beginning to make me detect an editorial agenda I hadn’t expected.

Visigothic jewellery in the Museu de Lleida

Even the Visigothic stuff included a crucifix and chalice, but I thought I’d rather showcase these bits of finery from the era

Part of the baptistery of Bovalar in the Museu de Lleida

Structures from a seventh-century baptistery at Bovalar

The city’s most glorious periods for these displays were either the Islamic one or the subsequent Christian one, and once you’re into the latter, the focus of the exhibits just narrows and narrows, from architecture, handicrafts and material culture generally to religious architecture and art, then just art until, finally, by the time you reach modernity pretty much all they have to show you is bishops’ copes (not illustrated).

Display of caliphal coinage from Lleida in the Museu de Lleida

Display of caliphal-period coinage

Charter of Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer IV of Barcelona, lord of Aragón, in the Museu de Lleida

Charter of Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer IV of Barcelona, lord of Aragón, issued after the conquest of Lleida by Barcelona

Selection of column capitals from Sant Joan de Lleida in the Museu de Lleida

A selection of thirteenth-century column capitals from Sant Joan de Lleida set against the ultra-modern backdrop of the Museu

Altar frontal from Sant Vicenç de Tresserra in the Museu de Lleida

Thirteenth-century altar frontal from Sant Vicenç de Tresserra

Wooden effigy of the Madonna and Child in the Museu de Lleida

Wooden effigy of the Madonna and Child, rather a nice one as these things go I think

There is some beautiful stuff in it, don’t get me wrong…

Medieval wooden crucifix in the Museu de Lleida

I don’t usually react much to crucifixes, which at least shows I’m not demonically possessed I guess, but this one did strike me for its combination of non-scientific physical features and its very real feeling of suffering

… but if you wanted to know about the city’s proud industrial heritage or modern culture, this place is not your ideal destination. Time well spent for this medievalist, all the same. Now, after this, I had only one other place in mind, but I found that on the way I was passing the Institut d’Estudis Ilerdencs, and it called me like a scholar.

The Institut d'Estudis Ilerdencs, in the old Hospital de Santa Maria de Lleida

That would be partly because it’s the local scholarly institute, but mainly because it was plainly a medieval building, as it turns out the fifteenth-to-sixteenth-century Hospital de Santa Maria

As it was, really all I could do was glance in… but that was worth it.

Balcony over the central courtyard in the Institut d'Estudis Ilerdencs

You see, I could stand this as a scholarly environment

And then it was on to the real destination, which was the old cathedral, la Seu Vella.

Entry to the complex of the Seu Vella de Lleida

Entry and a sign of climbing to come

This is a site with a complicated history. The first cathedral of the city was here, in the Roman period, and that lasted through the Visigothic period and was, presumably, the basis of the subsequent mosque. When the city was conquered by the Count of Barcelona in 1149 the church was reinstalled in the structure—I can’t believe it had held up for 600 years without rebuilding or expansion, but we don’t know much about that because the present structure completely replaced all of that in a building program that lasted 1203 to 1278. Some parts of what now stands go back that far still.

Tower and nave of the Seu Vella de Lleida, from outside and below

Tower and nave, looking squarely Romanesque to these eyes

Apses of the Seu Vella de Lleida

Apses at the east end of the nave, also pretty solidly Romanesque I’d say

The cloisters, however, were not completed until the fourteenth century, and are consequently much more Gothic, and also amazing.

Cloister vaulting in the Seu Vella de Lleida

One arm of the cloister, showing the vaulting and window tracery

Window tracery in the cloister of la Seu Vella de Lleida

Window tracery against the light

View across the cloister of la Seu Vella de Lleida

View across the cloister

Now as you may detect, the place is not in perfect shape any more, and that is because of the War of the Spanish Sucession. This is not the time or the place (or the author) for a retelling of that sad story but the short version might be: in the end, everybody lost. During the particular part of the war that was between Philip V, son of Louis XIV of France, and Charles III, son of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, it was Lleida’s turn to lose when in 1707 it tried to hold out for Charles III against Philip and failed. The final defence centred on the old cathedral, by this time nearly as old as its predecessor, and once victorious Philip therefore had it stripped of much of its artwork, fortified and converted into a barracks. It served in that function until the era of Franco, as is still pretty visible on site.

Fortress precinct at la Seu Vella de Lleida

The early modern fortress works around the hilltop

Since then it has been maintained as a monument, but it’s still not a church.

Cloister of la Seu Vella de Lleida and the Castillo del Rey

Cloister and fortress works together

There was also previously a Muslim ḥisn, or refuge fortress, up here, and that may form part of the upper levels of this fortification, but the 1707 buildings took in the whole hilltop.

Platform and walls of the Castillo del Rey de Lleida

The so-called Castillo del Rey sits on a platform which seems to me earlier and larger, and I wonder if that’s the old ḥisn

Mixed fabric in the platform of the Castillo del Rey, Lleida

… especially when I see jumbled fabric like this in the platform. I suppose it could be patched damage from the siege, though!

Weirdly, aside from a few bits of remaining art…

An emptied niche with still-visible polychrome in the cloister of the Seu Vella de Lleida

An emptied niche with still-visible polychrome

… the main thing that is left here from the church’s period of religious dedication is the burial of a king, Alfons IV of Aragón (and III of Barcelona). By the time I found him, my battery was dead, so I have no picture, but no-one seems to have thought it appropriate to move him, and I suppose it was still a royal fortress, even if not the church where he’d have hoped for eternal prayer for his soul. Oh well.

Tower of the Seu Vella de Lleida

The tower!

This was the last part of my venture. Much of the place was not open, but the tower was, and so I had to climb it. That was not as easy as it sounds, because of the two heavy bags I mentioned. The weight I could have managed, in a rucksack; but these two just had shoulder straps, and aside from making me somewhat oddly balanced, they also increased my breadth through narrow spaces considerably. Add all this to a certain level of vertigo and it was not an easy climb. I wish I had a photo to prove I’d done it, not least as I can only dimly remember the view from the top; but I did, and, if you can manage it without ten kilos of books slung awkwardly off you, I do recommend it. The site has a weird pride still breathing through its empty windows.

Windows in the nave of the Seu Vella de Lleida

Empty windows in the nave

8 responses to “High-Speed Lleidan Medievalist Tourism

  1. While we were watching the Vuelta a Espana, it seemed like all the village churches and a lot of the bigger churches in towns were practically windowless, even heavier-walled and darker than what I think of as Romanesque—highly defensible, even. Was this just an accident based on this year’s Vuelta route, or is it really the case that there is less Gothic architecture in Spain than in France or England, and that Spanish Romanesque is so very solid? Feel free to tell me to go read up on my own, though I would appreciate reading recommendations!

    • Absolutely true! For some reason, Gothic never really elbowed Romanesque out of the Iberian Peninsula. There are some iconic Gothic buildings and lots with Gothic features—try Santa Maria de Manresa, which will some day appear here as backlog diminishes, for the most startling hodge-podge of the two I know of—but the bulk of medieval survival is Romanesque. As for reading, there are worse places to start than The Art of Medieval Spain A.D. 500–1200, ed. by John P. O’Neill (New York, NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1993) <> [accessed 10 February 2014].

  2. Thank you! And how marvelous that the Met makes it available as a PDF. I think this will answer many of the questions that sprang to mind on the virtual tour of Northern Spain that was this year’s Vuelta. Who knew that cycling and medieval art mixed so well?

  3. I wish you hadn’t told me that . . .

    • I would say that you can never have too many stray PDFs, but I am in my fourth year of slowly cataloguing mine into Zotero and they only just all fit on my laptop now… I suspect I am not a good person to advise on this!

  4. Lawrence McCrank

    Hey Jonathan, Wonder if you mind my using a couple of your photos — you have an eye for details in our like-minded interests. Funny we don’t run into each other in all the same places we visit.
    a LJM

    • That’s absolutely fine, though if by ‘use’ you mean actually publish, then I’d like to know and to be credited. It has, sadly, been a while since I was in Catalonia and my occurrences there are not very predictable…

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