Aneu Valley Churches

22/07/2023 10:03

Parallel to Andorra, Aran or Boi valleys, with their famous Romanesque churches, Aneu valley, with its hidden detours, also hides its architectural treasures from the turn of the millennium, although they are not as spectacular or famous as its neighbours.

At the time when the Romanesque temples spread, after the Carolingian rule of the valleys, control was under the counts of the incipiently independent territories, here by those of Pallars from Valencia d'Aneu castle, the so called pagus anabiensis, and by the monks who radiated their influence around Gerri de la Sal monastery, where they worked the well-known mountain salt pans.

Starting the tour at its northernmost point, Alos d'Isil, you will find, in the middle of the town, Sant Lliser church, despite the fact that its appearance already belongs to the Baroque, although it is a simple rural Baroque, it preserves important Romanesque elements, appreciable on its doorway, which is reached by a small monumental five steps stairway. Three columns on each side support the respective archivolts with their sculpted capitals and covered by a checkered cover. The capitals show human faces and animal figures. There is a particularly curious one, in which two hands open the mouth of a disproportionate face. In the upper portal corners, two embedded pieces show, each of them, two human couples holding arms, as well as small roses and star motifs. Inside there is a font with the figure of a lion.

To the south, next to the Noguera Pallaresa, it seems that the river stream wants to carry away the apses of the church of Sant Joan d'Isil. A magnificent temple with a three naves plan, the central one with a cannon arch and the lateral ones with a fourth, with the corresponding apses with Lombard decoration, those that are shown to the river. To see that perspective, you have to take a considerable detour after crossing the river. The portal, facing south, has an entrance with three archivolts supported on two columns and the corresponding capitals with human faces, on which there is a checkered cover while the second archivolt is decorated with small semi-cylindrical blocks and various floral decorations. On the same façade there are a couple of pointed arch windows, one of them mullioned, which are later additions, probably from the 14th century.

Following a route of endlessly ascending curves, you reach Sorpe, where the church of Sant Pere has a plan, originally with three aisles, slightly deviated to the right. The lateral aisles were transformed into chapels in the reforms that were undertaken in the 17th and 18th centuries when the bell tower was added. Of the three apses, only the left one has been kept, converted into a baptistery. The interior was decorated with mural paintings replicas, the originals are preserved in Barcelona and in La Seo d'Urgell. On Isavarre outskirts, Sant Llorenç shows a square bell tower surmounted by a spiral of flagstones. The door, on the southern facade, is very similar to that of Alos d'Isil, which suggests the participation of the same workshop; it has three archivolts embedded in a gradation towards the interior of the temple, thus providing a light protection. The archivolts are decorated with rosettes and small semicircular cylinders. The capitals are carved with figures of human faces and the apse cornices corbels with animal faces. The remains of mural paintings are preserved in Barcelona, Urgell and in the Toledo Museum of Arts in Ohio, United States. In the graveyard were buried in 2020 some of the ancient victims murdered during the Spanish Civil War.

West of the valley, perched on the slope of the Tinter river, the town of Son is home to the outstanding group of Sant Joan i Sant Pastor. The church is protected by a wall where there is also the bell tower and the comunidor tower. The church, documented as early as 1076, has a single nave with chapels and a sacristy added; the apse and the bell tower preserve the invoice of the Romanesque period with blind arches and lesenes; the bell tower, moreover, is in line with those of the Boi valley, with a growing structure of window openings on each floor, separated by Lombard arches. The comunidor, or conjuratory, is a free-standing tower that was used to ward off harsh weather. Inside, the three fonts stand out, one baptismal and the other for oil; the Gothic altarpiece, from the 15th century, is attributed to the painters Pere Espallargues and the so-called Master of Son.

In the middle of the valley, there, between where Valencia and Esterri d'Aneu stands, in fact between both, rises the castle of Aneu, which was the residence of the counts of Pallars. The fortress dominated not only the valley, but also the route to the Aran valley. The stronghold had two walled perimeters, the one that protected the castle, equipped with a moat, and the one that involved the town, of which some section of wall still remains. Between the 11th and 12th centuries, the existence of a settlement called Mercat is documented, which, with the construction of the fortress, was incorporated into the walls; subsequently, the population moved to the area surrounding Sant Andreu church, in Valencia d'Aneu. This, although the Baroque style currently predominates, preserves the original Romanesque apses and wall paintings, which are exhibited, together with a 12th-century Christ, in the Mares Museum in Barcelona.

Between Esterri and Guingueta d'Aneu, in the middle of the valley plain and close to the Noguera Pallaresa, is the magnificent temple of Santa Maria d'Aneu. First documented in 1088, it is believed to have been part of a monastic complex. The dimensions of the church are considerable for the rural environment in which it is located; currently there is a single and wide nave covered with wooden beams and side chapels, although there were probably three naves with the corresponding apses but only the central one remains. The Romanesque frescoes, related to the Pedret Circle, are a replica of the originals that the MNAC preserves and exhibits, in which prophetic images from the Old Testament are represented, such as the Isaiah vision seraphims, or the four wheels of fire from the Ezekiel’s vision and other images belonging to the New Testament, such as the Adoration of the Magi. A very short distance away is the church of Sant Martí, located on the outskirts of the town of Escalarre, a town of which there is news in the year 981 when Count Ramon of Pallars reintegrated it into the monastery of Gerri de la Sal; on a modern plaque on the facade, the year 1213 is mentioned, although it is most likely earlier. Externally it has a very balanced structure, with the succession of the heights of the nave, the presbytery and the apse. Internally it has two naves of unequal dimensions, the southern one is wider. The entrance door has two arches in gradation and a third one that acts as a dust cover, this one decorated with rosettes, head figures and semi-cylindrical elements.


San Pere del Burgal, just over one kilometre away on foot from the town of Escalo, is, so to say, the crown jewel in the valley's in terms of wall paintings, belonging to the Pedret Circle, which decorate the central apse. Among the figures represented is that of Llucia de la Marca, Countess of Pallars, who ruled between 1081 and 1090 and who appears with a candle in her hand, an attribute of the deceased, which suggests that the paintings were made after her death. As in other cases, the murals are replicas of those kept in the MNAC. The Benedictine monastery is mentioned in the year 859 in a document of Count Ramon of Toulouse while the church must have been built in the 11th century. Only the ruins remain and the restored and covered head with the copy of the murals. The last action to preserve it was made in 2013. The structure of the church is unique for presenting two opposite headers, in the main one it had the three apses that corresponded to the three naves and, at the other end, a single apse but with two floors, of which a part has been restored. This characteristic is linked to Carolingian architecture and in the Catalan Romanesque there is only another example in the church of Santa Maria d’Arles, in Vallespir. The monastery lost the county protection in 1488, with the last counts of Pallars, Hug Roger III and Caterina Albert, even so it would maintain the activity for three more centuries. In 1787 it was already completely abandoned.

Further south, San Sebastia de Estaron and Sant Iscle de Surp are two small Romanesque churches worth visiting. Sant Sebastia de Estaron rises up the hillside in the highest part of the town. It preserves the Lombard-made ornaments of the apse and has a curious belfry with a free-standing belfry added later; it has an arch at the bottom and two eyes for the bells. Sant Iscle i Santa Victoria de Surp, is located in a valley that opens towards the west, it is Assua valley. The place has been documented since 1102, always in the orbit of the powerful Gerri monastery. The church is isolated on the outskirts of the town, from where the square-shaped bell tower stands out, with Lombard decoration and mullioned windows on the first floor and one that looks like a horseshoe arch on the upper floor. Inside, in the only nave, replicas of the wall paintings have been placed, the originals of which are distributed among the MNAC, the Diocesan Museum of La Seu d'Urgell and the one in Ohio, United States.

© J.L.Nicolas

See the pictures