Amazing. This is the word which would probably best define San Zoilo Hermitage, located at 2,5 km from the Navarrese village of Cáseda. placed at a distance of 51 km from Pamplona, in the south east of the Foral Community of Navarre, beside the Na-534 road linking Cáseda and Carcastillo.
A top-notch architectural heritage which has been particularly enhanced throughout the last fifteen years by the San Zoilo Hermitage Cultural Association (created in April of 2000) and a selected group of knowledgeable experts on both medieval art and San Zoilo Hermitage, who by dint of strenuous effort, passion for architecture and Gothic style, along with an unutterable love for the village of Cáseda and its cultural background,
have managed to rescue, preserve and spread the memory of this fascinating medieval building: Carlos Sola Ayape (Ph.D in History, professor and researcher of the Department of Humanistic Studies and Social Sciences at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, México City, born in Cáseda and editor of the 300 page book La ermita de San Zoilo de Cáseda. Tributo a un templo de la memoria), Emilio Quintanilla (an art historian and an outstanding scholar on the medieval Navarrese iconography), Luis Ignacio Sola Pérez (Director of the C.P Sáenz de Oiza in Cáseda, a man featuring a remarkable general culture together with a deep insight regarding San Zoilo Hermitage most significant traits and its history, the medieval political relationships between Navarre and Aragon Kingdoms, author of wonderful videos on Cáseda and San Zoilo Hermitage alike, etc), Alvaro Adot (a historian and specialist in Navarre in Modern Age), Rafael Carrique (a specialist in solar clocks, who discovered the three ones existing in the hermitage), Simeón Hidalgo Valencia (who has fulfilled a praiseworthy research on the stonemason marks of San Zoilo Hermitage, finding 133 different signs, as well as counting 1,084 ashlars). Carlos Sánchez-Marco (a great connoisseur of the Navarrese medieval history and author of the book Medieval History of the Kingdom of Navarre, also being the President of the Lebrel Blanco Foundation), and Pablo Larraz, author of an outstanding study on the wall paintings with naval motifs inside the nave of San Zoilo Hermitage, without forgetting the support of the CAN (Savings Bank of Navarre), particularly Joaquín Larrañeta, Director of its Cáseda branch.
San Zoilo Hermitage was built on the initiative of Pamplona Bishop Arnalt de Barbazán (1318-1355) in the first half of the XIV Century, and its most distinctive architectonic feature is
its undulating roof made up by a cover of stone slabs, which provides an imposing appearance to the building, since the slabs lie on the
vaults boasting pointed ribs which show an advanced stage of the XIV Century Gothic, with ribbed vaults made up by stone thin arches running diagonally, transversely and longitudinally (a new and decisive architectural accomplishment that had been invented in France in the second half of the 12th Century and was thinner, lighter and more versatile than the Romanesque vaults, making possible that plenty of architectural developments took place), a fostering of the spatiality and a full-fledged ability to communicate meaning.
In this image taken from the choir, it can be seen that the walls of San Zoilo hermitage are thinner than the usually very thick walls of Romanesque churches and hermitages of previous centuries (which had either semicircular stone barrel vaults or groin vaults consisting of bays of barrel vaults crossing at a right angle, so their walls had to be very thick to counter the outer thrust of the vault, allowing only small windows) and feature much bigger windows, thanks to the pointed ribbed vaults of the ceiling making possible to concentrate the outward thrusts of the vaults in small zones at the springing of the ribs and divert them downward with the pointed arches, counteracting the pressure with narrower buttresses, so much greater height could be reached.
The nave of San Zoilo hermitage is made up by four rectangular stretches covered by Gothic cross-ribbed vaults featuring French severies.
Unlike the Romanesque buildings that depended on buttressing walls to control outward thrust, Gothic buildings were utterly dependent on an interlocking skeletal structure for support and combined the Romanesque rib vaults with pointed arches to generate a much less compartmentalized interior.
It was mainly the widespread introduction of the pointed arch what brought about the change that separated Gothic art from Romanesque one, and the new technological breakthroughs enabled a stylistic change which broke the tradition of massive masonry and solid walls pierced by small openings inherent to Romanesque, replacing it with a new art, the Gothic, whose meaningful core is to get as much verticality and natural light as possible by means of the use of large stained glass windows, rose windows and window traceries counteracting the horizontal divisions of the inner structure.
Therefore, the increase in size of the Gothic windows in comparison to the much smaller Romanesque ones results from the use of the ribbed vault, specially the pointed ribbed vault, which transferred the weight to a supporting shaft with less outward thrust than the Romanesque semi-circular vault, in such a way that in Gothic architecture walls don´t need to be so weighty, in addition to the key fact that the pointed arch has a lesser lateral thrust than the Romanesque round arch and is easily adaptable to openings sporting different widths and heights.
Longitudinal detail of the Gothic cross ribbed vaults of San Zoilo hermitage seen from the choir and making up a total of five bosses.
Boss with the moon and a star carved on the stone.
Boss with the Fleur-de-Lys and a large M letter with a much smaller a letter on it, referring to Marie d´Evreux ( 1303-1335, member of the French House of Capet and eldest child of Louis d´Évreux and his wife Margaret of Artois ), in remembrance of her.
Her younger siblings included Charles d´Évreaux, Philip III of Navarre (who married Joan II of Navarre, founding the Navarrese branch of Évreux House) and Jeanne d´Évreux (Queen of France through her marriage to Charles IV of France).
The Fleur-de-Lys is the symbol of the French Évreux House.
The French-Navarrese Evreux dynasty had a significant role in the financing of San Zoilo Hermitage.
Boss with the latin inscription IHS, the latinized version of the name Iesous in Greek, transliterated as Ihsous and pronounced Iesous, while in Latin it is written Iesus, and in Hebrew is transliterated as yeshu´a and pronounced yeshua.
Therefore, IHS refers to the first three letters of the Greek spelling of the name of Jesus.
Boss with the letters CA (corresponding to the village of Cáseda, to whose municipality this fascinating hermitage belongs) framing a coat of arms like shield encompassing the old castle of Cáseda who was located in the downtown of the current town and doesn´t exist any longer.
Definitely, the Gothic sculptor has the knack with his trade, as is shown by the very thin left part of the letter A of Cáseda — on the right of the shield, featuring roughly one third of thickness in comparison to the other one —, which the stone mason was bound to create to prevent it from entering the shield.
On the other hand,
decorated with various sculptural motifs carved in stone.
A high percentage of the sculptures inside San Zoilo hermitage follow the principles set forth by the French master mason Villard de Honnecourt in his mysterious sketchbook made in Paris roughly one century before, between 1220 and 1235, with a number of drawings showing human figures and animals, the latter ones in realistic and fantastic shapes alike, proving the worth of geometry as a great help for artists, on the ground that simple geometric shapes like the square, circle and triangle are the base of natural forms and buildings.
It is apparent in the abstract geometric form — hinged upon a triangle — of the head of the horned fantastic creature resembling a bull appearing in this left lateral image of the previous picture.
In this another corbel decorated with anthropomorphic, animal and vegetal motifs, we can see the abstract geometric shape of a bull´s head — which is being set on by the man raising a long and thick stick with both of his hands — based on a triangle, the rounded faces of a woman and two men appearing on its left, based on circles and the profusion of parallel straight lines on their garments.
Beginning of another of the ribs of a vault with two corbels: one depicting a man being attacked by two beasts and on top of it another one with lavish decoration of leaves.
Detail of the corbel showing a man attacked by two carnivore wild animals.
Detail of one more corbel ornated with a sculpture of an eagle hunting a rabbit.
A further corbel decorated with the heads of six men being inside a huge pot.
Detail of the corbel decorated with the heads of six men inside a huge pot.
Close-up of the six men´s heads inside a huge pot. The fifth one from left has been carved with two ascending stairways steps starting up on the lower areas of his cheeks and converging in both sides of his nostrils.
San Zoilo hermitage brims with mysterious details like this one, as well as oodles of encoded and encrypted messages with a symbolic meaning
Furthermore, we can see the prowess of the Gothic sculptor to convey different moods to the persons countenances with not very complex profiles and facial traits, something much more difficult than one could think, specially in the third one from left, whose face apparently reveals fear, in the same way as happens with the terrified countenance of the head of a man inside a dish located between the seventh and eighth archivolte of the gorgeous portal of San Zoilo hermitage, above the tympanum.
Stone pillar under the right corner of the choir. It is decorated with two star motifs encircled by rings, seven acorns above them, a castle in its middle front (probably the one which was inside Cáseda village in early medieval times, before the construction of San Zoilo hermitage), a deer on the left, two birds flying over it and on far left — out of image — an anthropomorphic head framed by a circular border with some concentric lines on top and nine sharp teeth like inverted triangles in its middle and lower zone.
Apse of San Zoilo hermitage with two stained glass windows with marine motifs. It is narrower than the four stretches rectangular nave of the building and features a pentagonal shape and a vault with six webs defined by six very sturdy moulded ribs converging into a large keystone on top.
In addition, both in its central inner wall and other ones of the head of the church, there are remnants of polychromies from XVII and XVIII centuries.
It can be seen that the work made by the artist Antonio Blanco manufacturing the new stained glasses for both Gothic ogival splayed windows of the apse has substantiated that the original medieval stained glasses framed the chancel of San Zoilo Hermitage with the natural colourful light crossing them, as happens presently with the just installed ones.
Detail of the top area of the apse, revealing the skill of the masons. We can see the mighty stone ribs featuring remarkable thickness and converging into the sizeable and stalwart boss located at the intersection keystone of the ribbed vaulting ceiling and with the coat of arms of Pedro de Olloqui (host of Pamplona Cathedral from 1331 to 1372).
Left stained glass window of the apse.
Right stained glass window of the apse.
Granite steps of access to the apse area with the presbytery and the high altar, the most important zone in the temple. Throughout seven centuries, a lot of priests, altar boys and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims walked these steps up.
Window framed with four pointed arches typical of the Gothic. It is located in the south inner wall of the hermitage and its stained glass windows were installed in 2015 following medieval patterns after a thorough research.
Because of the great versdatility of the pointed arch, the Gothic windows structureevolved from simple openings to exceedingly rich, intricate and decorative designs.
The second aspect that most draws the attention of any visitor who has ever had the chance of beholding San Zoilo Hermitage is its huge size, bigger than many churches, something really odd for this kind of construction and for which an explanation hasn´t been found hitherto.
San Zoilo Hermitage is a very strong building featuring sturdy dressed stone walls, as well as lateral buttresses spotting the different sections.
The whole hermitage brims with beauty, originality and mystery.
Another of the most representative areas of this colossal hermitage is its gorgeous and very interesting façade Gothic portal, located in the south wall, and framed by a two eaved triangular moulding resembling a gable and under whose apex is
the cock and coat of arms of d´ Évreux dynasty, as a homage to Marie d´Evreux ( 1303-1335, member of the French House of Capet and eldest child of Louis d´Évreux and his wife Margaret of Artois), whose younger siblings were Charles d´Évreaux, Philip III of Navarre (who married Joan II of Navarre, founding the Navarrese branch of Évreux House, which provided a significant economical back for the construction of San Zoilo Hermitage) and Jeanne d´Évreux (Queen of France through her marriage to Charles IV of France), whereas just under its left lower end there is
the sculpted in high relief head of a medieval man with long hair, beard and moustache at the same height of
the sculpted in high relief head of a wild beast located just under its lower right end.
Over this two eaved kind of roof with the cock and coat of arms of Evreux,
there´s a ledge with
more high-relief carved heads: one anthropomorphic — placed on far left of the ledge— and six ones of
different ferocious creatures, each one featuring frightening facial traits, some of them showing sharp fangs and even the third one devouring two boys at the same time.
This Gothic portal of the façade features a pointed arch, under which there are eight ogival archivoltes, with four central voussoirs and two lateral ones, all of them with different coats of arms and sculpted motifs:
Coat of arms of Pamplona bishop Arnalt de Barbazán (1318-1355). It is the highest one and located under the cock and coat of arms of d´Évreaux dynasty, between the first and second archivolte.
Detail of the coat of arms of Pamplona bishop Arnalt de Barbazán (1318-1355), great promoter of the construction of San Zoilo Hermitage along with Blanca de Navarra d´Evreux and Pedro de Olloqui (host of Pamplona cathedral).
Warrior on a horse, handling the bridle with his right hand and brandishing a raised sword in his left hand, between the third and fourth archivoltes.
Detail of the warrior on a horse, handling the bridle with his right hand and brandishing a sword in his left hand, between the third and fourth archivoltes.
Lamb with a flag and the cross on it, located in the middle zone between the fifth and sixth archivoltes.
Terrified countenance of a man inside a dish, placed in the middle zone between the seventh and eighth archivoltes.
Detail of the terrified countenance of a man inside a dish, placed between the seventh and eighth archivolte. The ability of the Gothic artist to create different facial expressions to depict a number of various moods using simple traits is really stunning. Both the eyes almost popped out of his head and his open mouth enhance the feeling of fear.
Coat of arms of Pedro de Olloqui (host of Pamplona Cathedral from 1331 to 1372) and arcediano (head of monks) of the table from 1360. It is located in the high left area of the archivoltes, between the first and second one.
A second coat of arms of Pedro de Olloqui, placed in the high right area of the archivoltes, between the first and second one.
Immediately under the lowest archivolte is
the tympanum, where we can see San Zoilo in the middle, grabbing a book with his left hand and surrounded by four knelt persons praying: one man (just on his right), one woman (just on his left) and two youngsters (one on far left and the other on far right). The man, the woman and the youngster on far right appear holding large sticks, while the one on far left is staring frontally at any observer.
On the other hand, the eight archivoltes rest on capitals decorated with different reliefs and eight elongated thin stone columns on each side (making a total of sixteen) fulfilling both an ornamental and structural role.
Left frieze of the Gothic portal, with corbels lavishly decorated with a lot of persons and animals carved in stone and making up a spectacular iconography. On far right can be seen the monster head-shaped left rabbet (a thoroughly sculpted element protruding in the upper left angle of the door and on which the tympanum of the portal is supported) devouring a man.
A woman leans her right hand on the head of another one.
A man defecating on a jar held by another one.
Little boy looking straight ahead and a warrior fighting with sword and shield.
A second warrior wearing sword and shield fighting with the previous one, two men playing dice, and a man with his right hand inside his robe.
A woman with a little dog lying on her left arm, and a horse with its saddle and stirrup being taken by the man on the right.
A woman and a man with sticks (respectively grabbed by her right and left hand) while another man (the one on far right) raises his right arm and hand holds a bowl whereas simultaneously grasps a stick with his left hand.
Monster head-shaped doorsill rabbet devouring a boy beside the far right of the Gothic portal left frieze of the façade, on top left of the big entrance door to the hermitage.
Right frieze of the Gothic portal, with corbels lavishly decorated with a lot of persons and animals carved in stone and making up a spectacular iconography. On far left can be seen the right monster-shaped doorsill rabbet (a thoroughly sculpted element protruding in the upper right angle of the door and on which the tympanum of the portal is supported) devouring another boy.
Two women washing their hair, a warrior wearing a spear hunting a winged dragon, two warriors hunting a lion and a horseman wearing a bow and hunting a deer (on his right, out of image).
A man with a large spear holds his big and fierce dog with a rope while both of them watch over a castle (highly probably the old castle which was located at the top of Cáseda village).
A warrior wearing a spear killing a winged dragon, two warriors striking out at a lion and a horseman with bow hunting a deer (out of image, just on the right).
The horseman with bow hunting a deer.
Detail of the horseman with bow.
A man hunting in the wood. He is wearing a spear and about to attack a boar.
Monster head-shaped doorsill rabbet devouring a boy beside far left of the right frieze of the Gothic portal, on top right of the big entrance door to the hermitage.
Stained glass window located in the south wall of San Zoilo hermitage, giving to the courtyard, and a few meters on the right of the portal roof.
West wall of San Zoilo hermitage showing the solid ashlar work, the rose window in the middle, the bell gable (a vertical structure which surpasses the height of the building and is where the bell is located inside an opening) on top and the facilities for pilgrims on the right of the image, which included houses with rooms for sleeping, an inn to eat and drink at any hour of the day and stables for horses, since this building was placed in a strategic area where met different important ways like the Cañadas of the Salacencos and Roncaleses, the one towards Tudela, and the routes from Leyre monastery to La Oliva one, and from the Five Villas to Sangüesa, so the figure of pilgrims who arrived at San Zoilo Hermitage was enormous for many centuries.
Though the rose window is pretty beautiful with a semicircular arch above it and a very nice ornamental appearance with an oculus featuring a six petals middle rosette and six quadrilobes, unlike the usual very complex and intricate stone filigree typical in other medieval Gothic buildings, the Gothic architect of San Zoilo Hermitage made the wise decision of devising a minimalist quatrefoil decorative framework design regarding the use of stone filigree, because this hermitage features a massive size, and top priority was to get as much natural light as possible entering inside to illuminate the whole temple, easing it with a scheme of six stone circles with four semicircles within each one and a central one featuring six inner half circles, in such a way that roughly a 75% of the hollow remains empty, with a great deal of sun light penetrating both through the large inner vacuum space inside the semicircles and through the clear spaces of the opening existing adjacent to six of the seven big circles.
Detail of the bell gable crowned by a pinnacle. In the background can be seen a section of the cover of slabs resting on the vaults sporting pointed ribs.
Semicircular apse reinforced with very powerful buttresses. It epitomizes the hybrid nature of San Zoilo hermitage, a breathtakingly beautiful religious building where coexist both Romanesque (this apse and its solid buttresses — though the windows are clearly Gothic —, the west façade, etc ) and above all Gothic (like the pointed rib vaults of the nave, the pointed arches, the rose window, the portal, the windows traceries and moldings, etc ) elements.
Detail of the semicircular apse with a pair of exceedingly sturdy buttresses and one of the two Gothic splayed window featuring three pointed arches and a trefoil above it.
Detail of the complete Gothic splayed window with three pointed arches above it and the trefoil form representing the Trinity, carved in stone and made up by the outline of three overlapping rings, Under it there are two very thin and elongated arches studded with seven pairs of flowers of Lys , the symbol of the d´Évreaux dynasty (because the Infanta Blanca de Navarra d´Évreux was also Queen Consort of France), distributed in upward and downward configuration, separated by a horizontal shaft, it all manufactured in wrought iron.
It is one of the four openings with stained glass windows featured by San Zoilo Hermitage.
Side of San Zoilo hermitage where can be seen the different very strong buttresses in various sizes and heights. The largest ones spot the different sections of the building and help to support both the weight of the sill walls and the cover of stone slabs resting on the vaults with pointed ribs, while the shorter one visible on the left is one of the aforementioned buttresses of the semicircular apse.
On the other hand, a very high and ornamental elongated blinded arch can be seen on the lower right area of the picture, partially hidden by the vegetation.
Ornamental very high and stylish elongated blinded arch located in one of the sides of San Zoilo Hermitage, very similar to some of the also high and thin embellishing blinded arches set in specific outer areas of the Romanesque church of Santa María de Taüll in Lleida.
Upward view of the very high and elongated blinded arch located on one of the sides of San Zoilo Hermitage, where the very good ashlar stonework can be seen in both the two lateral walls and the low area of the arch on top.
Small secondary access door to the area of the portal seen from its surroundings, in a zone covered with rectangular and square flagstones.
You can see through the door three of the thin lower columns of the portal, three of its capitals decorated with sculpted iconography and the lower area of three of its archivoltes.
To get access to the small auxiliary door from the rivulet area (in the medieval times it was much more fast flowing than currently), a long and narrow walkway was built with large flat pieces of stone sporting remarkable width and relatively short height attached to the wall on the right and ending in a step and a large entrance platform, both of them likewise manufactured in stone.
Niche located very near the left side of the portal of San Zoilo Hermitage, made on the inner side of the perpendicular wall to it, adjacent to the rivulet and in which is also the small secondary access door to the courtyard with the façade Gothic portal in the south wall and the facilities for pilgrims and shepherds. It had as purpose to put in it a votive image or statue.
Full view of the two-storey adjoining facilities intended for offering bed, meals and drinks to the great quantity of pilgrims and shepherds who constantly arrived at the hermitage.
It included an inn, a total of six two-storey dwellings with upstairs rooms to sleep, and the ground floors were used as stables to shelter horses and other animals.
The highlight of this area is the stone double stairs enabling the visitors to go up to the rooms.
Behind these houses there were an orchard and some croplands.
Detail of the left side of the stone double stairs and a door just by it, whose wood is very well preserved.
Around four meters on the left of the semicircular apse with two stalwart buttresses we find the main access to the architectonic medieval complex of San Zoilo Hermitage featuring a fairly beautiful Gothic pointed arch through which can be seen a semicircular arch and the left side of the adjacent to the hermitage two floored facilities, built to offer bed, food and beverages to the many pilgrimages and shepherds who steadily arrived at the temple.
After crossing the arch, the visitors turned on the right to walk across the paved courtyard made up of square and rectangular flagstones in different sizes, until reaching the portal of the façade with the main door through which people went into the hermitage.
First of the three solar clocks for canonic hours and featuring different styles and manufacturing designs discovered by Rafael Carrique, a great specialist in this scope and member of the Madrid Association of Friends of Solar Clocks.
Roughly drawn and carved on the wall sill, it has a diameter of 12 cm and belongs to the mass sphere type, being located next to the SouthEast corner, at a height of 1 meter.
It is highly probably the oldest of the three.
It´s much bigger than the previous one and features a shape of time half circle with a radius of 35 cm, having a 30 cm rod in its centre.
We know all of these data regarding the three solar clock of San Zoilo Hermitage thanks to the laudable investigation carried out by Rafael Carrique.
Aside from being located in a strategic location in the middle of the countryside, on a dale crossed by a number of ways and roads, San Zoilo Hermitage became a riveting sight for the hundreds of thousand pilgrims who visited it throughout almost seven centuries and even nowadays goes on being an enthralling view for tourists arriving at it from different countries like Japan, United States, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, México, Korea, China and others, who get an unforgettable experience and lingering remembrances on seeing this unique and massive Gothic hermitage fraught with a myriad of interesting details and the scent of medieval times.
This central very strong and high buttress placed in one of the sides of San Zoilo Hermitage resembles very much the shape and size of the two left buttresses of the Cerco de Artajona. Though clearly inspired by the Romanesque in this regard, the Gothic architecture used often this kind of buttresses to support both the walls and the weight of the vaults, and became a frequent feature of the medieval French and Navarrese Gothic. As a matter of fact, the Cerco de Artajona was built by the canons of Toulouse Cathedral.
This way, the architect of San Zoilo Hermitage was perfectly aware that in spite of the huge size of the building for its type of construction, it wasn´t necessary to use flying buttresses to counteract the lateral pressure of the vaults, because the height of the hermitage is obviously much lower than the grandiose Gothic cathedrals of Amiens, Narbona, Chartres, etc. so the use of robust buttresses sagely placed in symbiosis with the ogive vaults, on whose ribs pressure lines are directed and concentrated, is more than enough and highly efficient for San Zoilo construction.
Aside from being strategically located in the bottom of a valley as a junction of ways and roads, San Zoilo Hermitage area has proved to be a top-of-the-line spot for astronomical observations of the Moon, the Sun, the Saturn rings, the Jupiter clouds, the shooting stars, etc, and thousands of people have come to the zone with powerful telescopes to fulfill that aim for decades.
In this regard, the labour developed by Jon Teus, professional astronomical scientist reporter, author of fabulous documentary films like Stellae — delving into the history, functioning and influence of the sun on different cultures throughout thousands of years and a great expert in telescopes, who has directed the already famous Nights of the Stars at San Zoilo Hermitage, organized by the San Zoilo Hermitage Cultural Association, with a lot of people camping pitching tents and being the whole night enjoying this fascinating experience.
© Text and Pictures: José Manuel Serrano Esparza