A church that looks like Roman for its design and its section; Latin for the disposition of its secondary departments; Byzantine for its plan, and Visigothic and Primary Arabic for the contexture of its arches; Romanesque for its vaults, its dome and its semicolumns; Barbarian for its way of execution; and has several details belonging to various of those arts. What is it?
Included in what was a broad monastic ensemble, built in lands of the city of Toledo during the 7th and 8th centuries, this church, from which we already find references in the "Relations" of Philip the Second, was rediscovered by the Count of Cedillo, the author, in 1907, of the description heading this file. From then it turned into the most conflictive construction of the whole Spanish Pre Romanesque art. Since Gómez Moreno, who was the first one to study it in depth, until not long ago, it has been considered as Mozarabic although there were several arguments against that theory, but after the latest excavations between 1970 and 1972, there are very few doubts left that it is a Visigothic church of the 7th century.
Its plan is similar to Santa Comba de Bande, in the shape of a Greek cross inlaid in a square of around 20m by side with a lantern over the crossing that extended itself with an apse on the east side; lower and interior plan in horseshoe shape, although square to the outside, and a portico of the same size as the apse, on the west, from which only a few remains have survived. At the end of the main nave it has two chambers at the sides of the presbiterium that communicate with the central one through linteled doors that, according to what was demonstrated during the excavations, were added at different moments during the first period of the Chrstian Hispanic-Visigothic occupation. Also of a later period is a sort of a small cloister formed by impressive horse shoe arches leaning on two walls that were added on the northern side between the crossing nave and the base of the main nave.
The whole church is vaulted upon horse shoe arches: The one of the apse, with a vault that is the continuation of the arch, as in San Juan de Baños that extends 1/3 of its radius and leans upon columns that have now disappeared. The central arches that supported the crossing, extended up to ½ of their radius that leaned on semicircular pilasters in the angles of the walls that end in ashlars with an exterior shape of a semi cylinder. The nave has over elevated barrel vaults in granite blocks "Roman style", of 4.5m wide and 7.7m high and stem out from a frieze with the shape of a moulding that goes through the whole interior of the church, at the height of the beginning of the arches. The dome, with four curious circular windows, has a diverging groin vault, also based on granite blocks.
Its only external decoration consists of triangular pediments and without any modillions, similar to the ones of San Fructuoso de Montelios, horse shoe windows that recall the chevet of San Juan de Baños and an original circular rabbet in the corners of its four facades with vertical cleft at both sides that look like pseudo columns, from which we find meaningful parallels in temples, triumphant arches and mausoleums of Roman architecture and even in Byzantine architecture, like the Mausoleum of Teodorico in Rávena.
Built with huge ashlars in horizontal courses, of a great width to support the stone vaults, its external appearance looks granitic, almost cyclopean, that recall the large Roman constructions, like the Aqueduct of Segovia. As we have mentioned, in its northeastern corner there is a sort of small pseudo cloister, probably from the Mozarabic period, with horse shoe arches in three sides, very interesting and beautiful; it must be the most ancient one in Spain. A big niche at the end of the southern arm of the crossing, what suggests that Melque could have been the beginnings of a mausoleum for the burial of an important figure of the Visigothic kingdom of Toledo.
It had a limited sculptoric decoration that consisted only of a simple frieze that goes through all the interior walls except the apse's and a set of elements that have been found during the excavations, such as the altar base and inner door's fragments of barroteras and plates. Decorative stuccos completed the work, like the ones that still exist in the extrados of the arches of the crossing that keep some ornamental motifs but are no sufficient explanatory to determine whether they belong to the time the church was built or to a later period. Being this decoration so atypical, and some arches extending over 1/3 of their radius and the magnificent vaults that cover the whole building, it lends it a most special character among the Visigothic churches of the 7th century, and have raised a reasonable doubt about its dating within the group of Mozarabic churches of the 9th and 10th centuries.
From our point of view, there are sound reasons to think it is a cruciform Visigothic church of the end of the 7th and beginnings of the 8th centuries, which decoration was not finished in 711 but its structure was, and that during the Arabic domination was initially occupied by Mozarabics and when, starting the 9th century, they emigrated to the north; the church burnt out and partially destroyed, on a date close to the year 930 that coincides with the taking of Toledo by Abderramán the Third, as we learn from the essays with C14 carried out in the last excavations, according to the report by Pablo Latorre. Later it would be occupied by the Arabs for defensive purposes, as it is supported by the existence of a watch tower of military characteristics in the Caliphal period. Let us see some of those reasons:
From the historical point of view:
It does not seem reasonable to think that it had been built, not even partially, under the Arabic domination, as the Koran specifically forbids, under death penalty, the building of churches, and had it been any construction of that period, nothing of it could possibly remain, after the order of sultan Mohammed the First around 855 to destroy the Christian churches of recent building and the elimination of all new ornamentation in the old ones as an answer to the revolt of San Eulogio and his "Christian martyrs". In fact, the only Mozarabic church that was built in Arabic zone of which we have any information is later to Bobastro, in an independent kingdom that Omar ben Hatsun, a Mozarab, probably a descendant from a Visigothic count, achieved to keep in the mountain range of Ronda, between 869 and 917, after the uprising against the caliphate of Córdoba.
The conquest of Toledo by Alphonse the Sixth took place in 1085. It is unthinkable that this church could have been built later, as in those times, the churches built in Castuilla arae manifestly Romanesque, like the Priorato de San Frutos de Duratón.
Therefore, all the historical circumstances support the thesis that it was built before the Arabic invasion.
From the design of the church:
The structure of Santa María de Melque is clearly the one of a cruciform church, to the extreme that it is not only obvious its similarity with Santa Comba de Bande and San Pedro de la Mata, but that Luis Caballero has demonstrated that its plan corresponds to the same ones that were used for the construction in Mata, using measuring units like "Deunx", around 30cm, in Bande; "Cubitus", around 50cm, in Melque; and "Palmitas", around 41cm, in Mata.
Whilst its external image, of solid appearance, with triangular pediments, is a clear reflection of the one in San Fructuoso de Montelios. Its interior, not only for its structure and decoration, but also for the "spirit" that both inspire, is very similar to Santa Comba de Bande.
Another detail of its similarity with Montelios and Bande, that increases its relation with de mausoleum of Gala Placidia, is that in all three cases there is a niche inlaid in a wall, located in Melque in the interior of the church, whereas in the two Galician ones it was in their exterior. Even for the type of construction, very solid, based on big ashlars, its funeral nature, the circular small windows on the vault, the atypical circular rabbet in the corners and even for the blind series of arches in the cloister, this churrch also recalls us the grave of Teodorico in Rávena. The similarities found between this group of cruciform churches and San Vital and both mausoleums in Rávena are indeed surprising and we think very little studied so far.
By the end of the 7th century the kind of structure of cruciform churches disappears, to the extreme that even the latest Visigothic ones tend to the basilical plan with crossing, like San Pedro de la Nave and Quintanilla de las Viñas. No plans of this kind are known from the three later centuries.
For the remains of decoration:
In one of the chambers in the north of one of the close excavated buildings there are two granite mouldings, decorated in three sides with secant circles, typical in Visigothic art.
In the excavations of the church at the level of the foundations of walls and floors that correspond to the moment they were built, some sculptoric elements came out, like barroteras fragments, inner door plates and an altar base, considered to be of Visigothic times.
Both the church and a part of the environment have been restored, although in a questionable way but, in spite of that, the visit should be one of the most interesting ones within the High Medieval Spanish panorama. In the surrounding land levels of different periods intersperse separation walls and gray metal banisters, whereas a very different kind of stone than the original one has been utilized in the exterior of the building. All of this helps the visitor to differentiate, from our point of view, in a very exaggerated way, the different levels and the restored and original zones, but changing completely the original appearance of the church and its environment that still existed not long ago, as can be seen on our first photograph. However, other aspects of the restoration seem very positive to us, like the roofs that have been completely covered with new tiles of a similar colour than the original tile must have had, and the works inside the church, with an excellent treatment of the light and the floor, the latter one with a high density floating wooden floorboards, upon which the results of the excavations have been drawn so that they can be easily seen in the most meaningful zones.
With all of that, an interpretation centre has been created that explains the visitor the numerous historical details that Melque treasures and the research process developed during the last thirty years. The "Sitio Histórico de Melque" has been created to reveal the most ancient monastic ensemble preserved in the Spanish peninsula, that was formed by the walled enclosure, the dwellings of the monks, several ancient dams, probably of Roman origin, and the church of Santa María de Melque.
OTHER INFORMATION OF INTEREST
Access: Road CM-401; 40Km after leaving behind Gálvez, take the detour towards San Martín de Montalbán through B-road CM-4009. You will reach San Martín after 5Km. From there you will get to Santa María de Melque through a road in good shape.
GPS Coordinates: 39º 45' 3,13" N 4º 22' 22,66" W.
Winter: From 10 to 19 hours. Summer: From 11 to 20 hours. Mondays and Tuesdays closed.
Information telephone: Diputación de Toledo:925 28 77 95.
L'Art Préroman Hispanique **: ZODIAQUE
Imagen del Arte Mozárabe: José Fernández Arenas