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The art in the Hispanic-Visigothic Extremadura

This itinerary allows us to know some of the main artistic examples from a historical period, which was very important for the region of Extremadura. During the three-centuries Visigothic dominion of the ancient Lusitania, Mérida, which was the capital city of the Roman province of Lusitania, was one of the most important economic and political centres in the Peninsula in the 5th century and above all in the 6th century until Toledo became the capital city of the Visigothic peninsular kingdom at the end of the 6th century.

The Visigothic dominion of Extremadura, and especially of Mérida, made it a strategic centre in Visigothic Hispania and an important political, religious and artistic focus since 469. From this region, interesting artistic examples with clear Roman- Christian influences and beautiful Byzantine, Oriental and African shapes came up. These examples marked the rest of the Hispanic-Visigothic kingdom stylistically, what is known as Hispanic- Visigothic Art.

Unfortunately these artistic examples and other ones, which are mainly of a religious nature, basilicas, baptisteries, etc. get lost in most cases, although some others have been preserved, such as a lot of carved sculptures and architectonic elements belonging to numerous rural religious buildings and to some buildings in the capital city.

This route has its best starting point in the town of Mérida, where we have the possibility of visiting its Museum of Visigothic Art located in “Santa Clara” street, the old building which was the seat of the Archaeological Museum and which harboured, within its walls, important Roman-art pieces. Nowadays these pieces are exhibited in the National Museum of Roman Art. This Visigothic Museum owns a collection of more than a thousand pieces.

In its rooms and showcases we can see some extraordinary collections of pilasters, wrought iron gates, supporters, capitals, friezes, niches, etc., of great symbolic nature, which is a characteristic of this artistic style, by means of bunches of grapes, peacocks, etc.

Many of these exhibited works come from the buildings belonging to the Hispanic-Visigothic Mérida or from some of the archaeological finds from the area near Mérida, where there was a great number of basilicas and baptisteries, like the nearby “Casa Herrera” , with two opposing apses, or like “San Pedro de Mérida”, now covered by a vault.

Nowadays only their floor plans, which have been recovered after interesting excavation works, are preserved.

From the Visigothic Museum we will approach the “Concatedral de Santa María” (Saint Mary’s Church) to know the site of the Hispanic-Visigothic Cathedral of Mérida, which was called “ecclesia senior de Santa Mária o Santa Jerusalén”. At present there are no vestiges either from the Cathedral or from the Episcopal Palace. This one of great religious importance at that time was adjoined to the Cathedral.

In the “Alcazaba” (Moorish Fortress), a few metres from Saint Mary’s Church, we can see a good example of re-using beautiful Visigothic pilasters in its entrance and in the interior of its “aljibe” or cistern .

The “Basílica de Santa Eulalia” (Basilica of Saint Eulalia) is dedicated to Saint Eulalia, a martyr and the patron saint of Mérida, who died in Roman times around 303 AD. In the site of the Basilica, in the 4th century there was a temple dedicated to the martyrdom, which was built by Bishop Fidel around 570. This temple underwent a series of enlargements and constructions to become the Basilica.

These developments, Hispanic-Visigothic in style, involved a new structure with three naves, which reveals the existence of the vault made of stone. This vault shows a clear oriental influence .

Starting from the 13th century new modifications were carried out which gave the Basilica its present appearance, where the Romanesque and Gothic styles highlight with regard to other artistic styles. The excavation works carried out on this Basilica between 1990 and 1992 highlighted an impressive collection of archaeological remains, including a Christian crypt from the centuries before the Visigothic building.

Thanks to these finds and to their magnificent layout, we can have an overall view of what this historical and special place could be through the centuries, with excellent Paleochristian and Visigothic examples.

As a result of the aforementioned excavations, an interesting collection of some archaeological finds is also exhibited in the Basilica.

Three hundred metres from the Basilica, we come to the “Xenodochium” from the 6th century, dependent on the Mérida Episcopacy. This Hostel-hospital was founded by Bishop Mausona, pilgrims and people without economic means were taken of. This is the only non-liturgical construction from Visigothic times which exists nowadays in Spain.

The best example of a rural construction from the Hispanic-Visigothic time in Extremadura is the “Basílica de Santa Lucía” (Basilica of Saint Lucia) in Alcuéscar, a town halfway between Mérida and Cáceres. According to some experts this is one of the best examples of Hispanic-Visigothic religious constructions in the Peninsula.
This Basilica, a few kilometres from the town, is located in a beautiful scenic spot among holm oaks, orange trees and cork oaks. It was built around the second third of the 7th century. The church, which was part of a monastery, keeps a great part from its original structure. We can still see its transversal nave and its primitive upper end. Being, as we have already mentioned, part of a monastery, this Basilica had some room given over to the choir for the clergy, located between the transept and the naves given over to the faithfuls.

The material used for its construction was the rubblework, covered of stucco, which has disappeared nowadays together with the marbles which decorated a great part of the interior of the church.

Besides being able to visit these Hispanic-Visigothic artistic examples preserved in Mérida and in Alcuéscar, through the years archaeological excavations have been carried out, which allow to check that the Visigothic Art was present in all the Extremaduran towns, although there are more examples in the southern area than in the northern one.

Most of these finds come from, as we have already mentioned, religious buildings or necropolis from the Visigothic time, many of them are exhibited in the Provincial Museum of Archaeology in Badajoz and in Cáceres ) or in the National Museum of Archaeology in Madrid, this is the case of some pieces from Puebla de la Reina, a town in the Badajoz province.

A town worthy of note is the city of Badajoz, which was an important Visigothic centre of population, in whose “Alcázar” (Moorish Fortress) a great number of pieces from this time have been found. These pieces are excellently exhibited in the Provincial Archaeological Museum in Badajoz, together with very important pieces coming from towns like Alburquerque, Alange and Almendral , which has the outstanding the Hermitage Finibus-Terrae with numerous examples from the Visigothic time on its façade and in its main building.

In the Moorish “Alcazába” (Fortress) in Reina, we can visit an attractive Visigothic Basilica situated in the courtyard of this military construction, which was built after the Visigothic occupation of that place. There are also beautiful pilasters exhibited in the area of Olivenza, Usagre, Villar del Rey.

In the exemplary Provincial Museum of Archaeology in Cáceres we can see some interesting finds coming from the excavation works carried out in Zarza de Granadilla, Alcuéscar, Ibahernando, Galisteo or Santa Marta de Magasca, we can not forget other towns such as Casas de Millán or Brozas, Montánchez, Alcántara and Alconétar.



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