Under the choir of the Gothic Cathedral of Palencia we find ourselves with two high-medieval constructions, belonging to different periods, but with many features in common. One of them is a large vaulted hall of what we have described as Proto-Romanesque style, from which access is gained to a second smaller hall, undoubtly belonging to the Visigothic period and to which we dedicate this analysis. Both present -each in its own style- a curious ressemblance with the lower plan of the Cámara Santa (Holy Chamber) of Oviedo that, according to its chronological order, would be inspired in the Visigothic crypt of San Antolín but, at the same time, that Asturian building of the ninth century would be a clear precedent of the Proto-Romanesque hall of Palencia. The three are buildings in the form of rectangular naves, completely vaulted, with traverse arches reinforcing its structure, built presumably as the lower plan of a two-storey building. and all three with an already referred tradition of buildings of this type in High-medieval Spain, of which we also find examples in different stages of the Pre-Romanesque period like the Mausoleo de La Alberca, Santa Eulalia de Bóveda or Santa María del Naranco.
We count with historical information of both Palencian constructions, because they are linked with unconfirmed information but with a very valid base. In fact, on the one side there is a tradition collected by Pedro Fernández del Pulgar in the 17th century referring that in 672, Wamba, the Visigothic king, ordered to bring the relics of the martyr Antolín, a Visigothic prince executed in Toulouse at the end of the fifth century, from Narbona to Palencia, where he built a martyr church to shelter them. Around 250 years later, following another legend, Sancho el Mayor of Navarra, a builder king with very important contributions such as the refounding of San Juan de la Peña and the starting of the construction of the chevet of the Monastery of Leire. At those times he also reigned the Condado de Castilla. During a troubled hunting journey -from which hungs the inevitable miracle- he finished by entering in a cave where he discovered our Visigothic construction, known today as Crypt or "Cueva" de San Antolín. The fact is that Sancho rebuilt Palencia and began the construction of its cathedral as an important landmark in the Camino de Santiago, adding the Proto-Romanesque nave to the crypt in its west end. Later this cathedral was replaced by the present one of Gothic style, though fortunately the crypt with the two halls were preserved.
With regard to the type of construction, the "Cueva de San Antolín" meets all the most meaningful features of the best Visigothic art of the end of the seventh century: it is built based on horizontal ashlars of big size and little polished that recall Santa María de Melque; all the arches are horseshoe arches and the decoration of the capitals of its chevet are close to other pieces known from the Emeritense and Toledan groups. However, the kind of covering with the whole nave covered with a flat roof formed by stone tiles that rest upon the three transversal horse shoe arches and the lateral walls, straight and vertical, without any kind of vaulting, does not have any precedent in the buildings we know from that period in Spain but that it had been quite usual for several centuries in Syria, both in Pagan and Christian monuments.
The Visigothic crypt has suffered later modifications that affected its original appearance. In one of them -possibly in the same period when the Proto Romanesque nave was built- several transverse rib semicircular arches were added in order to reinforce the structure before building the Romanesque cathedral on top. We also think it is very meaningful the modification of appearance in the last restauration, lowering the floor and replacing the ones of the two halls by other ones that, together to a very artificial lighting produce a very distorted image of the ensemble, according to our point of view. For this reason we show in this card only the photographs previous to thar reform, where the image of our monument was much more natural without any concessions to this sort of "for the tourist" decoration that is becoming more frequent among our restorers. However we have included in our bibliography to those that would like to know how it looks now, the excellent graphic story that Antonio García Omedes offers in the page of Arquivoltas dedicated to this building.
What could be considered as the original structure consists of four stretches separated by horse shoe arches; all of them, as we have indicated, with lateral vertical walls and covered by a flat roof of stone tiles. The first one would be a sort of a lobby with its floor elevated some 25cm above the nave's level. It is small, 3.15m high. The second stretch between the two horse shoe transverse arches, forms another rectangle of 4.26m wide by 1.86m long, forming a sort of a strange crossing with two horse shoe arches, one at each side, extended one third of its radius and without any central voussoir. Both are enclosed by walls that seem to belong to the same type of masonry than the rest of the building. The third stretch is a square hall, also between two horse shoe transverse arches of approximately 3.10m by side and 3.35m high. The fourth stretch is the most surprising one. It consists of another small rectangle that on its east side has a set of three small horse shoe arches framed in a large arch, similar to the three arch structure of San Fructuoso de Montelios, although in San Antolín, due to the reduced space generated between them -80cm the lateral ones and 70cm the central one- it is clear that its function is that of separation and not of access. The arches lie upon lateral walls and two reutilized columns, supported by bases that seem Dorian inverted capitels and that end in degenerate Corynthian type capitels and decorated keel mouldings, from the Visigothic period in both cases. It is interesting to point out the appearance on one of the keel mouldings with a chord like decoration, that would become quite often in the Astur-Ramirense art. The stretch that closes behind this ensemble by means of a wall, also based on large ashlars that separates it from a later one of unknown structure, possibly a semi circular apse similar to the one of the Mausoleo de La Alberca.
In all what has been described above, there is a series of details that we consider important to confirm the theory, quite common among the majority of experts, that this is in fact a two storey martyrial construction built by Wamba at the end of the 7th century to preserve the relics of St. Antolín:
It is -as usual in several other cases of this kind- a building in the shape of a rectangular nave that finishes in a wall in its east side and with a compartment behind that wall.
The triple series of arches in the chevet, with a narrow space between the columns, does not have any relationship with the usual apses of the Visigothic churches. For that reason it is reasonable to consider that it would not correspond to a typical place of worship but, as in La Alberca and the Holy Chamber (Cámara Santa), the altar had been on a higher plan, being the lower one conceived exclusively as a martyrium.
The form of the cover with a flat roof, so unusual in those times' architecture, is much more reasonable as a separation between the two plans of a building than if it were the higher plan. As an intermediate floor it does not have to support a roof but only the upper plan and reduces the total height of the building, so it may be considered as a structure more adequate for a two storey building than that of the other cases we have referred .
There is also the problem of the two horse shoe arches blocked at the laterals of the small transversal nave. Evidently, being almost impossible to analyse the surroundings of the crypt as it is embedded among the foundations of the cathedral, we cannot be sure of what its objective was nor if it gave access to lateral compartments of the building. A possible explanation would be that this plan was initially at the level of the external floor so it would be two lateral access doors to the Cámara Santa (Holy Chamber), built much later but very similarlye.
The interest shown by Sancho el Mayor to preserve and even enlarge and reinforce the church, that has been able to survive first to the building of a Romanesque church upon it and then of a Gothic one, reinforce the theory that it was a building of a very special meaning, quite understandable if it contained the relics of the city's patron saint.
Anyway, we find ourselves in front of a very special construction, built undoubtly during the best Visigothic 7th century, but with some exclusive features that are not found in the other monuments of that period that have survived to our days, what makes the visit a very interesting one.
OTHER INFORMATION OF INTEREST
Address: Plaza de la Inmaculada s/n; 34001 PALENCIA.
GPS Coordinates: 42º 0' 41,29'' N 4º 32' 12,73'' W.
Information Telephone: Catedral de Palencia 979 70 13 47
Visiting Hours: From 09:00 to 14:00 and from 16:00 to 20:00, except worhip hours: daily from 09:00 to 09:30 and from 18:00 to 18:30 and sundays from 10:30 to 11:00 and from 12:00 to 14:00. Price: 1.5€, Guided visit: 2€
Historia de España de Menéndez Pidal: Tomo III
SUMMA ARTIS: Tomo VIII
L'Art Preroman Hispanique: ZODIAQUE
Ars Hispanie: Tomo II
Imagen del Arte Hispanovisigodo: Pedro de Palol
Palencia: Cripta de San Antolín