Monday 4 November 2013

Some thoughts on the Shrine of San Vicente in Ávila

The Shrine of SS Vicente, Sabina and Cristeta
In the city of Ávila, also called City of Stones and Saints, in the South of Castile within the Basílica de San Vicente, a remarkable Romanesque shrine has survived that unfortunately has not received the attention of scholars it deserves. In today's post I will introduce the shrine and its saints and give an overlook of its imagery and meaning.

The shrine was probably built between 1180 and 1185 (with several later Gothic additions) for the Basilica San Vicente in Ávila.1 It houses the remains of Saint Vicente, also the patron saint of the church, and his sisters Sabina and Cristeta. According to legend, Vicente refused to partake in pagan rituals and was thus imprisoned in Talavera, his home town. While imprisoned, he is visited by his sisters who aided in his escape to Avila. The siblings were caught shortly after their escape and tortured by their captors until they were finally executed. This rendition of the legend was first recorded by Prudentius in his Peristephanon in the fourth century. By the time the shrine was built, however, the legend had been expanded to include an additional episode. After the saint's martyrdom, their bodies were guarded by a snake sent by God until they were discovered by a Jew. The snake attacked him and only released him once he called unto Christ. The Jew thus converted and built a basilica for the saints, so they could receive a proper burial there. As we shall see later, this additional episode became a significant feature in the visual programme of the shrine.
North side of the shrine
The shrine follows the design of a two-aisled basilica. The shrine's north and south side depict the legend of Saint Vicente, Sabina and Cristeta. On the east and west side, we can see a depiction of the Epiphany and the Theophany. The arcades on which the whole structure rests, is decorated with representations of the apostles as well as religious and secular figures. On the north side of the shrine the visual narration begins with Vicente's refusal to worship the pagan gods, followed to the right by his sisters’ visit and their escape. On the south side the story continues with their capture in Ávila, their torture on X-shaped crosses and their martyrdom by having their heads smashed by massive stone blocks. The next two scenes focus entirely on the Jew who found them; first by showing him, identifiable by his cap, beard and physiognomy, being attacked by the snake, then by building the shrine for the saints. In the second scene the change in his attire is of great significance as his shirt indicates that the scene occurs after he received his baptism.

The Jew builds the shrine for the saints
The Jew is attacked by the snake
It appears the shrine shows an ambiguous image of Jews within the legend. On the one hand we see the Jewish figure, corresponding to the legend, finding the bodies, converting and making sure that the saints receive the burial they deserve by building a shrine for them above which the basilica was built. The fact that this part of the legend constitutes large part of the imagery, as well as the resemblance of the depicted basilica to the Basilica de San Vicente creates an image of the church within the church.2 Additionally, the convert becomes an integral part not only of the story but of the history and identity of the Basilica and the city of Ávila
The martyrdom of the saints
However, there is a significant addition in the visualisation of the legend. In the scene of the martyrdom a figure has been added that is identifiable as Jew by its physiognomy. Simultaneously an additional Jewish figure seems to partake in the execution of the martyrs. It has been suggested that the Jew in this programme is turned 'from the happenstance observer of the Visigothic tale to a persecutor who nurtures as an active hostility to the young saints.'3 However, based on the different clothing it appears to me that these figures may in fact be two separate individuals. This would imply that the imagery of the shrine is not polemicising again Jews in the same generalising way as can be observed in other visual material. Though of course a polemic still remains, and the positive aspect of the Jew who finds the bodies is only possible due to his conversion. Nevertheless, the imagery seems to indicate an approach to the Other, that is not purely generalising, but explores notions of individual actions. However, such reading needs to be looked at in more detail, especially with regards to the specific socio-historical context in Ávila, which will be part of my further PhD studies.


1 See Goldschmidt, Werner. “El Sepulcro de San Vicente, En Avila.” Archivo Español de Arqueología 12 (1936): 161–170 for a full account of the dating.
2 See Camps, Daniel Rico. “A Shrine in Its Setting: San Vicente de Ávila.” In Decorations for the Holy Dead: Visual Embellishments on Tombs and Shrines of Saints, edited by Stephan Lamia and Elizabeth Valdez del Alamo, 57–76. Turnhout: Brepols, 2002 for a detailed analysis of the different layers in the relationships between shrine, imagery and church.
3 Patton, Pamela Anne. Art of Estrangement: Redefining Jews in Reconquest Spain. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012, 27-31.


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