Hidden Medieval Portrait Discovered in a Famous Spanish Cathedral
Imagine finding a selfie carved in stone in the high darkness of a medieval church! While working in one of the most famous churches in Europe, a British art historian discovered exactly that. She found a hidden medieval portrait of a stonemason in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Galicia, Spain. This medieval portrait is allowing researchers to better understand the people who built the great Spanish cathedral, some 900 years ago. And this selfie was carved in granite!
Santiago de Compostela, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is believed to be the burial place of Saint James the Elder, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ. Construction of the cathedral began in the 11th century AD and continued well into the 12th century AD. It is considered to be one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe. Santiago de Compostela has been a pilgrimage site for over 1000 years and many still make the long journey to the cathedral via the famous Camino de Santiago highway.
The interior of Santiago de Compostela Cathedral showing the intricate stonework that the faithful can see in the light on the ground floor. (Gerard Koudenburg / Adobe Stock )
How The Hidden Medieval Portrait Was Found
Jennifer Alexander is an art historian with the University of Warwick, England and she was commissioned by the regional government in Galicia, Spain to study the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. She was hired to examine the entire structure stone by stone to understand how it was built.
There are a number of roof support columns in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. While investigating near one of the columns some 40 feet (13 m) above the floor of the church, she came across something astonishing.
She and her colleagues had been looking for stonemasons’ marks with torch lights in areas that have not been investigated for centuries, not even by the clergy who serve in the famous cathedral . While searching for marks, she and her colleagues found an 11-inch (28 cm) medieval portrait of a man, from about the 12th century AD. Professor Alexander told The Guardian that “this little figure popped out.”
It was found in a row of similar columns hewn from granite. The little figure is believed to be a self-portrait of one of the stonemasons who worked on the cathedral. The Guardian quotes the British expert as saying that “we think it’s the man himself.”
A master stonemason, wearing a cross, working a circle into a piece of stone. (ChiccoDodiFC / Adobe Stock )
Medieval Portrait Of a Smiling, Confident Master Stonemason
The figure in the medieval portrait Jennifer found shows a smiling man, down to his waist. The Smithsonian Magazine quotes the art historian as stating that “He’s pleased with himself. He’s splendidly carved, with a strongly characterized face.”
The character of the mason can be guessed from the portrait and everything in the artwork indicates that he had a sense of humor. The art historian told The Guardian that “lovely image of a chap hanging on to the middle of the capital as if his life depended on it.” It is very different from all the grave figures of saints that decorate the cathedral.
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Regardless of who made the medieval portrait carved in stone found on the column, there is no doubt that he was a talented stonemason. He was able to create a lifelike and realistic portrait out of granite, which can be very hard to work with. Alexander told Live Science that “Although these people were trained in the craft tradition, they were very much the artists of their period, quite capable of creating sculpture as well as cutting stone.”
The Journey From Apprentice To Master Stonemason
The stonemason who sculpted the little medieval portrait learned his craft after a long hard apprenticeship. He had to learn how to cut stones and carve moldings. Some of these stonemasons learned geometry and even supervised entire construction projects.
After his apprenticeship ended, a stonemason went on to become a journeyman, traveling from and working in various towns and cities. Only after proving his expertise for a number of years would he have been granted the status of a master stonemason.
The stonemason who made the self-portrait in stone was almost certainly a member of a trade guild. Professor Alexander called them “unsung geniuses,” according to the Smithsonian Magazine .
A smiling angel, yet so humanlike, that was carved in stone at the Reims Cathedral, France. Could this also be a medieval self portrait of the master stonemason who made this work? (Jorge Alves / Adobe Stock )
Selfies Carved In Stone Are Not Unusual In Churches
Many master stonemasons made self-portraits and they hid them among other sculptures and ornate design at great heights so that they were only seen by their fellow craftsmen. These self-portraits are part of a tradition by stonemasons. Other examples have been found in European cathedrals and churches. The little figure found in Santiago de Compostela has been called a “selfie set in stone,” reports The Guardian .
The unknown sculptor may not have been a prominent mason. Only the most well-known craftsmen could include self-portraits in their stonework. The secret location of the figure indicates that he was not a prominent stonemason, and likely not even a master stonemason. One could say that he cheekily placed the portrait in stone where his superiors or clergy would not see it.
While we can get an idea of what the sculptor looked like and even his character, sadly we may never know his name. There were no records kept of those who worked on the cathedral.
The British art historian who found the medieval portrait told Live Science that “Finding the identity of one mason who carved his own image would be very special — and I've never managed to do this!” However, his image is helping us to come face to face with one of the people responsible for the beautiful cathedral.
Top image: The medieval portrait carved in granite that art historian Professor Jennifer Alexander found way up in the darkness of Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. Source: Jennifer Alexander / University of Warwick
By Ed Whelan