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Christian Landscapes in the Iberian Peninsula: The Archaeological Evidence (Fourth–Sixth Centuries), The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology Edited by William R. Caraher, Thomas W. Davis, and David K. Pettegrew, Online: Jan 2019

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Christian Landscapes in the Iberian Peninsula: The Archaeological
Evidence (Fourth–Sixth Centuries)
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Abstract and Keywords
This chapter traces the material evidence for the spread of Christianity in the Iberian
peninsula (including Spain and Portugal) between the third and seventh centuries,
focusing on a critical review of traditional interpretations and identifications frequently
based on inconsistent chronological references, fragile and poorly surviving materials,
and often contradictory textual and archaeological evidence. The result is a new
perspective on the subject that is much more comparable to that seen in other areas of
the Mediterranean. The chapter will analyze the development of Christianization in cities
and the countryside, taking into account when churches were built, who built them, and
the political, economic, and social context in which Christian topography was created.
Keywords: early Christianity, Iberian peninsula, archaeological evidence, countryside, churches
Alexandra Chavarría Arnau
Introduction
CHRISTIANITY, in contrast to pagan polytheistic cult, identified itself from the beginning
as a holistic religion and ideology that permeated the life of the faithful, from entry into
the Christian community by baptism to their death. By involving its members in a series
of ceremonies, the church consolidated the individual’s sense of belonging, partnership,
and distinction in a pluralistic society.
With the help of written sources, archaeology sheds light on the ways in which Christian
leaders imposed their presence and constructed sacred landscapes. The process began
with the diffusion of a symbolic iconography in the private sphere of houses and
Christian Landscapes in the Iberian Peninsula: The
Archaeological Evidence (Fourth–Sixth Centuries)
Alexandra Chavarría Arnau
The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology
Edited by William R. Caraher, Thomas W. Davis, and David K. Pettegrew
Subject: Archaeology, Biblical Archaeology, Ritual and Religion, Archaeology of Europe
Online Publication Date: Jan 2019 DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199369041.013.30
Oxford Handbooks Online
Christian Landscapes in the Iberian Peninsula: The Archaeological
Evidence (Fourth–Sixth Centuries)
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cemeteries that was wholly distinct from the urban and rural spaces dominated by Roman
public buildings. From the fourth century onward, the construction of monumental
churches slowly led to the formation of a Christian topography in cities and the
countryside. Significantly, archaeology and texts together have allowed scholars to
identify the participants and especially the leaders in the processes of Christianization.
In this chapter, I will trace the material evidence for the spread of Christianity on the
Iberian peninsula (including Spain and Portugal) between the third and seventh
centuries. The topic is one with a full history. The study of Late Antique and Early
Medieval churches especially has been a favorite subject of Spanish researchers
since the monumental work España sagrada by Enrique Florez in the eighteenth century
and the nineteenth-century research of José Amador de los Ríos, Manuel Gómez Moreno,
and Josep Puig i Cadafalch. In the early twentieth century, scholars such as Pere de Palol,
Helmut Schlunk, and Jacques Fontaine made notable contributions to the study of
churches. Over the last half century, the field of early Christian archaeology has benefited
from significant research by scholars such as Luís Caballero Zoreda, Isidro Bango, Thilo
Ulbert, Teodor Hauschild, Cristina Godoy, Achim Arbeiter, Elena Quevedo-Chigas, and
Maria de los Angeles Utrero, among many others (see Ripoll and Carrero 2009 for a
research overview). Nonetheless, despite two centuries of sustained scholarship, few
works have approached churches and Christianization in Spain over the entirety of the
early Christian period or made archaeological evidence the focal point of their syntheses.
The challenge of producing a synthetic study of early Christianity in this region is to
understand the process of Christianization in the longe durée and within its historical
context. Some previous interpretations and identifications will also be discussed in order
to demonstrate that often they are based on inconsistent chronological references, fragile
and poorly surviving materials, and contradictory textual and archaeological evidence.
Apparent contradictions between written sources and archaeological evidence in their
representation of the Christianization process, therefore, should not surprise us. This
chapter considers different classes of evidence on their own terms, allowing
interpretations to follow from the examination of each kind of source.
The Earliest Christian Evidence and the Cult of
the Dead
The death of a person, the preparation and burial of the body, the fate of the soul, and
hopes for salvation and the final judgment on the day of parousia were important aspects
of early Christianity and are essential to understanding the earliest Christian
archaeological evidence (Stancati 2006). For this purpose, we must remember that the
main message contained in the New Testament was eschatological, and early Christians
believed that Jesus accomplished his mission of redemption and salvation not only with
(p. 624)
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prophecies, miracles, and signs but also, first and foremost, with his death, burial, and
resurrection.
For this reason, one of the first priorities of bishops, evident from textual sources, was
the acquisition of land and the organization of Christian cemeteries where the faithful
could bury their loved ones and fulfill funerary rites. These cemeteries probably existed in
Spain by the third century, since a letter signed by Bishop Cyprian of Carthage
(254–255) reprimanded the bishop of Augusta Emerita (Mérida) for burying his “sons” in
a pagan collegium, among profane tombs, and following pagan customs (Sotomayor 1979,
44). This reference agrees with other written sources from Rome and North Africa that
attest to the existence of Christian cemeteries during the third century.
Before the Churches
The oldest archaeological evidence for Christianization in the West relates to funerary
cults—in particular, sarcophagi, mosaics, paintings, and objects used in cemeteries
depicting Christian subjects, symbols, and formulae relating to death and the life beyond.
The oldest Christian cemeteries in Spain may date as early as the third century (see
discussion of the Christian quarter of Tarragona later in this chapter), while the earliest
sarcophagi, catalogued by Manuel Sotomayor in the 1970s (Sotomayor 1973, 1975; see
also Ripoll 1993), date to the fourth century. Often depicting scenes of the Old and New
Testaments, these sarcophagi have generally come from suburban cemeteries of the main
cities (Córdoba, Italica, Tarragona) and are expensive, high-quality pieces mostly of
Italian origin, connecting them to the highest levels of urban society. This series of
sarcophagi starts in the Constantinian period and, in some cases, may already be linked
to early cult buildings (probably memoriae rather than churches), but this is impossible to
confirm from the existing evidence.
Scholars have tried to find the places where Christians met before the construction of
monumental churches, but the possibility of clearly identifying the remains of a pre-
Constantinian domus ecclesiae (a term that never appears in sources before the fourth
century) is very rare (Adams 2013). Moreover, the presence of a Roman house under a
church could have a wide range of possible interpretations (such as being property
bought by the church or donated by a private individual) apart from the house having
been used as a religious meeting place. The subject invites further research, since it is
difficult to imagine that organized Christian communities, such as those suggested in
Cyprian’s letter to the bishop of Augusta Emerita or in the canons of the early fourth-
century Council of Elvira, were not meeting in places designed to accommodate Christian
cult practices and rituals.
(p. 625)
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Constructing Christian Urban Landscapes
Martyria appear across a range of fourth-century textual sources, perhaps most
prominently in Prudentius (e.g., Crowns of Martyrdom), and are scarce but not invisible
in the archaeological record. This evidence indicates that the creation of a Christian
urban landscape in the main cities in Hispania began in the fourth century and was in full
development during the fifth. During this time, cities had already been endowed with a
“mother church” (ecclesia mater, later called “cathedral”) and at least one suburban
funerary church, likely built to commemorate the place where a martyr had been
previously buried.
Fourth-century urban structures that suggest the activities of Christian cult include a
primitive squared baptismal font in Barcelona, in the same area where the monumental
baptistery was later to be built (Figure 32.1) (Beltran de Heredia and Bonnet 2007, 775,
fig. 1). The first church structures in Egara (today Terrassa) seem also to belong to the
fourth century (Figure 32.2) (García, Moro García, and Tuset Bertan 2009). There was
probably a cathedral in Mérida by 380 (Figure 32.3), when pro-Priscillianists attacked
supporters of the bishop Hydatius. This church was probably at the same location as the
current cathedral, where an inscription decorated with an alpha and omega from 388 was
found (and is unfortunately lost today) (Ramírez Sádaba and Mateos Cruz 2000, 114–15,
271 n. 65).
Figure 32.1 Map of main cities and sites noted in the
text.
(Alexandra Chavarría)
(p. 626)
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Christian Landscapes in the Iberian Peninsula: The Archaeological
Evidence (Fourth–Sixth Centuries)
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Other attributions to
fourth-century buildings
are generally very
doubtful. Recent studies
on the amphitheater of
Córdoba (Figure 32.4) link
a series of three
“apses” (located against
the wall separating the
cavea from the arena) with
a fourth-century martyrial
church built in the place
where the martyr Acisclo
died at the beginning of
that century. No evidence
of a Christian use (such as
liturgical material or
graves) has been found,
and it is probable that the
“apses” are some kind of structural reinforcement for the building (Hidalgo 2012). Only
further excavations in the area will shed light on this identification. Similarly, the
interpretation of intramural burials as evidence for the existence of early churches is
problematic, since graves may occur in urban areas without the presence of any kind of
Christian building (although Late Roman burials were initially uncommon within city
Figure 32.2 Plan of fourth-century squared
baptismal font in Barcelona.
(Beltran de Heredia and Bonnet 2007, 775 fig. 1)
Figure 32.3 Plan of fourth-century church structures
in Egara in modern-day Terrassa.
(Alexandra Chavarría)
Christian Landscapes in the Iberian Peninsula: The Archaeological
Evidence (Fourth–Sixth Centuries)
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walls and tended to be located in suburban areas: see Lambert 1997 for a wide analysis of
the evidence from Italy).
The existence of a
significant chronological
disjunction between
written sources—which as
early as the fourth century
refer to bishops and
churches—and much later
archaeological evidence is
common to other areas of
the Roman Empire such as
Italy and has not yet
been completely
resolved, although it can
be attributed in part to
gaps in the ways we are
dating and interpreting the
archaeological record.
Detailed excavations and attention to scientific dating of early structures will be essential
in the future to solve this problem.
Intramural Churches
The process of Christian monumentalization of urban space universally started with the
construction of a main church inside the city walls, followed shortly thereafter by the
founding of funerary and martyrial churches in suburban areas. This process seems to
have started in the fourth century. Some scholars have recently claimed an inverse
perspective that interprets the existence of suburban cathedrals as a characteristic
feature of Spanish Christianity (Gurt i Esparraguera and Sánchez Ramos 2011, 278). As
we will discuss later in this chapter, however, this proposal is not supported by either
written sources or archaeological evidence (Chavarría Arnau 2010).
The person mainly responsible for these architectural programs was the bishop,
although he could count on the munificence of civil authorities and private Christians who
aided the episcopal authorities by contributing either property or cash. Urban elites and
bishops were generally part of the same social group and had similar interests,
collaborating with each other when necessary. Already by the fifth century, written
sources reveal the interests of local potentes in controlling episcopal sees,
something that was to continue during later centuries when bishops became the main
interlocutors between the local population and central government.
Figure 32.4 Plan showing church topography of
Mérida in the fourth and fifth centuries: (1)
Cathedral; (2) Santa Eulalia; (3) Xenodochium.
(Alexandra Chavarría)
(p. 627)
5
(p. 628)
6
(p. 629)
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Extensive excavations in late Roman urban cathedrals have occurred only in
Barcelona, Valencia, and Mértola, but knowledge of the churches themselves is
fragmentary. Tarragona and Córdoba have seen only limited archaeological work. In
Mérida, Toledo, Zaragoza, and Seville, among other places, archaeologists can only
surmise the location of the cathedral from textual references and sparse archaeological
material (such as inscriptions and sculpture). Precise archaeological evidence for fourth-
century intramural churches comes from a few cities such as Barcelona and Terrassa,
while written sources refer to Christian communities but rarely to architectural contexts
(only for Illiberris and Mérida). The number of references multiplies in the fifth century:
Hydatius mentions cathedral and martyrial churches in Astorga, Braga, Chaves, and
Tarazona (Chronica 449). According to Consentius and a letter sent to St. Augustine,
there was a cathedral with its secretarium in the city of Tarragona by 420, although the
first archaeological evidence can only be dated to the end of the fifth century. The letter
does not mention the monumental martyrial complex that already existed by that time in
the suburbs, which is a reminder of how haphazard written sources can be.
Consistent archaeological evidence for cathedrals emerges by the middle of the
sixth century, when church structures become numerous and monumental. While the
precise dating for these transformations is generally difficult to determine, dating of
mortars in Barcelona and of skeletal remains in Valencia, when combined with the
analysis of the building techniques and the stratigraphic sequence, points to an important
expansion phase during the second half of the sixth century. Of extraordinary
significance is the discovery in Mértola of two monumental baptisteries located at a short
distance from each other (Figure 32.5) (Lopes 2014). Both were being used during the
sixth century, and they may indicate the presence of an Arian bishop and a Catholic one.
The ways in which Arian communities developed their religious activities when settled in
Roman Catholic cities during most of the sixth century deserves further investigation.
During the following centuries, the construction of new churches and monasteries with a
larger and more complex variety of promoters and founders completed and enriched this
developing Christian topography.
(p. 630)
(p. 631)
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Suburban Funerary Christian Complexes
The characteristics of the funerary churches built in the suburbs are better known,
mainly because many of them have been unearthed in recent decades due to urban
development.
There is a long history of research in the suburbs of Tarragona (Figure 32.6), where a
large Christian quarter has been excavated some 700 meters west of the city walls (López
2006). It originated from a suburban residential quarter that was later reused as a
cemetery in the third century and included the burials of the martyrs Fructuosus,
Augurius, and Elogius. During the third and the fourth centuries, the cemetery developed
with thousands of tombs, including mausolea, sarcophagi, mosaic slabs, and inscriptions,
all with a strong Christian character. A church with baptistery was constructed by the
year 400 (López 2006, 250–51). In the fifth century, a larger funerary basilica (24.00 by
15.20 meters) with a monumental atrium (20.75 by 17.50 meters) and a number of
subsidiary buildings, was built to the north of the first Christian buildings. The
characteristics of this enormous Christian complex and its sequence—residential
suburban area, Christian cemetery from the mid-third century, funerary church in the
fourth, and new Christian buildings in the fifth—reflect those of other suburban martyrial
complexes in cities such as Rome, Cimitile, Tours, and Arles, among others. These sites
developed as vici christianorum during the Early Middle Ages due to the bishops’
emphasis on Christian burial areas and the cult of relics. Tarragona was
therefore endowed from the beginning of the fifth century with a Christian topography,
including an intramural cathedral and a suburban martyrial and funerary complex, and
Figure 32.5 Plan of monumental baptisteries
excavated at Mértola.
(After Lopes 2014)
9
(p. 632) 10
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was enriched in the following centuries with new churches inside and outside the walled
city area.
The same
can be said for Mérida,
where the important
martyrial complex devoted
to St. Eulalia was located
in the northern suburbs
(see Figure 32.3). In this
case, the texts also
underline the close
connection between the
development of this
Christian area and the
power of bishops. The area
was used as a Christian
cemetery with Christian
inscriptions and
monumental mausolea
(Mateos Cruz and Sastre
2009) by the middle of the
fourth century; it developed, as at Tarragona, from a residential suburban area
abandoned around the end of the third century or the beginning of the fourth.
Excavations have also confirmed the information given by Prudentius (Crowns of
Martyrdom 3.39) about the tumulus of the young martyr (dated to the fourth century) and
by the Vitas Sanctorum Patrum Emeretensium (VSPE) on the monumentality of the
church built in the second half of the fifth century and later enlarged by two towers in the
sixth century (VSPE VI.7). Linked to this basilica were several monastic structures
dated to the seventh century and also documented by epigraphic data (Ramírez Sádaba
and Mateos Cruz 2000), and a large building that has been identified either as the
xenodochium built by Bishop Masona (Mateos Cruz 1995) or an otherwise unknown
residential building (as suggested by Arce 2002, 187 n. 39). The basilica was extensively
used for privileged graves including the Emeritan bishops as well as some of the main
individuals mentioned in the VSPE, among them the archdeacon Eleuterius, who died in
604, and the uir inlustris Gregorius, who died in 492.
Figure 32.6 Plan of Christian quarter excavated in
the suburbs of Tarragona.
(After López Vilar 2006)
(p. 633) (p. 634)
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Suburban Cathedrals?
The heterogeneity in the quantity and quality of Spanish archaeological data and the
clear imbalance between knowledge of suburban areas and that of extramural
ecclesiastical complexes are probably why some researchers have identified martyrial
funerary churches as cathedrals and consequently attributed to Spanish Christianization
a “singular” suburban character. Those who support this proposal refer to “parallels
throughout the Empire of cathedrals constructed in the suburbs” (Gurt i Esparraguera
and Sánchez Ramos 2011, 278, 274), particularly in Italy, referencing sites in Cornus,
Canosa, Arezzo, or Velletri. However, for years Italian researchers have raised doubts
about these suburban locations for different reasons. The most significant critique is that
the ecclesia mater (cathedral) signaled a place where urban communities gathered and
prayed together under the leadership of the bishop, and this would be inconsistent with a
suburban location, where it would appear that churches served other, completely
different purposes.
In Spain, the identification of suburban “cathedrals” (in Girona, Empuries, and Ceuta,
among other places) is generally based on unverified assumptions about where the
cathedral should have been built, or arguments based on the existence of bishops’ graves
or bapitisteries. These elements, however, are completely compatible with martyrial
suburban complexes. At Córdoba, recent research has identified the fourth-century
cathedral with the archaeological site of Cercadilla, located in the western
suburbs of the city (Marfil 2000). Leaving aside the complex identification of this
monumental building (Arce 1997, 2010; Hidalgo 2014; Hidalgo and Ventura 1994), there
is no evidence at all that this site had any Christian use in the fourth century and still less
that it could have been the residence of Bishop Osius, as some have proposed. At a
certain moment, probably during the sixth century, a church was built over the ruins of
the building, and it was associated with a funerary area where at least one bishop of the
city was buried in 549 (Hidalgo 2002). Rafael Hidalgo identifies this church with the
sanctuary devoted to St. Acisclus, which, according to Isidore, stood in the western
suburbs of Córdoba when King Agila profaned the site in 549. Prudentius (Crowns of
Martyrdom 4.19–20), however, mentions the cult of St. Acisclus at the end of the fourth
century, when Cercadilla was still a residential building and lacked any traces of
Christianization. It is more likely that the sanctuary of St. Acisclus was south of the
amphitheater and in front of the western gate of the Roman city, as other Cordoban
scholars have proposed, and that the Christian use of Cercadilla started during the sixth
century.
There are some exceptional examples of non-urban cathedrals, but they were limited to
very unusual circumstances rather than a common pattern. One example includes the
monastery of Dumio in northwestern Spain, which became an episcopal see when the
abbot of the monastery was appointed as a bishop (Fontes 2015, 402–3). Another
exception is the Visigothic king Wamba, who created non-canonical bishoprics, including
(p. 635)
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one in the suburban church of Toledo dedicated to the Apostles (Canon 4, Toledo XII
[681]). However, contemporaries emphasized the exceptional nature of this event, and
the situation returned to normal quickly.
Christianizing the Countryside
The creation of an ecclesiastical network in the countryside was a complex process that
occurred across a range of different periods and involved a variety of figures who
collaborated, succeeded each other, or competed for support and recognition. Generally,
the Christianization of the countryside in western Mediterranean areas was intimately
linked to the destiny of the cities in these regions, since the cities were the sees of the
bishops and the residences of the civic elites, and both of those groups were responsible
for the building of churches.
The twenty-first canon of the council, held at Agde in 506, distinguishes between
parrocias (churches linked to the diocesan authority of the bishop) and oratoria (private
buildings whose function was subject to certain restrictions). It is nonetheless clear that
rural churches could have served many different functions at different times such as
pastoral care, funerary space, centers of private cult, commemoration, or devotion, and
the needs of monastic communities. Only in respect to these different functions
can one understand their place within the territory and their association with
settlements. In other instances, their existence is linked to the management of large
properties (sometimes of monastic or royal origin) or to places in the landscape that had
a particular significance for people, beyond the context of a nearby settlement.
These functions sometimes changed through time. A recent reinterpretation of the church
called El Gatillo, in Cáceres (Figure 32.7) (Caballero Zoreda and Sáez 2009), shows that
the first building, which was small in size (11.95 by 6.00 meters) and dated to about 500,
had probably been conceived as a funerary monument, since graves were located close to
the presbyterial area. In a second period, this funerary character continues with the
addition of two funerary annexes, one in front of the façade and the other attached to the
southern perimeter wall. Not until the third phase was a monumental baptistery added to
the main building. This example demonstrates the difficulties for archaeologists in
establishing a precise chronology for the various phases of a complex, including both the
original construction and later additions. Yet an exact dating for such phases is
fundamental to understanding the meaning of the transformations in relation to their
political, economic, and social context. An extensive campaign of carbon-14 dating of
mortar samples offers one way to solve this problem by providing an assessment of
chronology independent of diagnostic artifacts or particular architectural styles.
12
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According to the First
Council of Toledo, at the
end of the fourth century
there were already
Spanish churches built in a
wide variety of different
settlements. The fifth
canon refers to priests who
celebrate mass “in the
place where there is a
church: a castle, a village,
or a villa” (in loco in quo est ecclesia aut castelli aut uicus aut uillae), an enumeration
that reveals the main types of rural settlements where a church could be built. Even
though there has been intensive discussion about the meaning of these words (Carrié
2012, 2013; Isla Frez 2001), this classification corresponds quite accurately to
the different kinds of settlements found in Spanish territory in the late fourth and early
fifth centuries. It is a more difficult task, however, to link the construction of churches to
these sites during the sixth century.
Figure 32.7 Plan showing chronological sequence of
the church called El Gatillo de Arriba (Cáceres).
(After Caballero Zoreda and Sáez 2009)
(p. 637)
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Churches and Villas
Although there are already significant signs of Christianization linked to villas during the
fifth century, such as Christograms in villa pavements, the biblical scenes on the vault of
Centcelles, and a clearly Christian mausoleum in Las Vegas de Pueblanueva, there is
currently no direct archaeological evidence for the construction of churches within villas
in the Iberian peninsula. Earlier interpretations of rooms with semicircular walls as
chapels are today generally dismissed in favor of their identification as monumental
triclinia with stibadium furniture. Churches built into villas or adapting previous
mausolea tend to be dated from the end of the fifth century onward and therefore
postdate the abandonment of these residential buildings, which apparently occurred
during the fifth century. Occasionally stratigraphic excavation reveals that churches were
built when the villas were already in ruins or had been reused by new squatter occupants
(see Bowes 2008 and Chavarría Arnau 2007 for different views, and the balanced
interpretation in Fiocchi Nicolai 2018). In these cases, it becomes difficult to link the
Christian buildings to a particular founder, whether a private owner or a bishop. Written
evidence points to multiple possibilities, the most common of which includes a private
property owner donating his house to the bishop for the construction of a public church.
While many fourth- and fifth-century Spanish villa owners were clearly Christians and
could have adapted a room in their house for private prayer, identifying such use remains
difficult and relies largely on assumptions about the relationship between a church phase
and an earlier villa at the same site (or its mausoleum). For example, at the villa of Monte
da Cegonha (Alfenim and Lopes 1995), a fragment of molded marble related to liturgical
furnishing, which was found reused in a grave during a later period, has been interpreted
as evidence of a privately owned church of fourth-century date (Bowes 2001, 324). The
building has three aisles separated by columns and a baptistery located to the south of
the apse. However, a sixth-century marble reliquary casket beneath the altar of the
church suggests a date to the second half of the sixth century, long after the villa had
been already abandoned and reused as a funerary area.
Without very accurate excavation (and good luck), it is impossible to establish the
chronology of the church and the abandonment of the villa to understand the relationship
between the buildings. Another example is the villa of Torre de Palma (Monforte,
Portugal) (Maloney 1995; Wolfram 2015) (Figure 32.8), a large residential and
agricultural building extending more than 13,000 square meters in the fourth century.
One hundred meters north of the villa and adjacent to a funerary area, a large church
was built, dated by archaeologists to the second half of the fourth century on the basis of
a group of coins under the opus signinum pavement (Maloney 1995). This pavement,
however, is not associated with the church walls and could belong to a previous building,
perhaps a mausoleum that only later was transformed into a church (Lancha and André
1999; Ulbert 1978, 105). By the end of the sixth century, according to the carbon-14
dating of mortars (Maloney and Ringbom 2000), builders had enlarged, redecorated, and
embellished the structure, and endowed it with a large baptistery with a cruciform pool.
13
(p. 638)
Christian Landscapes in the Iberian Peninsula: The Archaeological
Evidence (Fourth–Sixth Centuries)
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The relationship of the church to the villa remains unclear, although it seems that the
residential buildings may already have been abandoned in the fifth century. The
construction of a new house close to the church in the late sixth-century phase,
associated with a new balneum, is significant because there is very little archaeological
evidence for new residential elite construction in villas after the fifth century.
The same sequence can be
found in many other “villa
churches,” which seem to
have been built later, well
into the sixth century, such
as Fortunatus (Fraga), El
Saucedo (Talavera
de la Reina, Toledo), La
Cocosa (Badajoz), and
Carranque (Toledo),
among many others. If
these churches do not
belong to the fourth and
fifth centuries, as appears
likely, they cannot be
linked to the villa prestige culture and the Late Antique aristocratic apparatus (cf. Bowes
2008, 181).
A different problem concerns churches connected to later rural residences of the Early
Middle Ages. Churches such as El Gatillo (Cáceres), El Germo northeast of Córdoba, Casa
Herrera (Mérida), and Valdecedabar Olivenza (Badajoz) were built in the vicinity of
structures that have been identified as residences (see the extensive analysis in Oepen
2012). The main difficulty in these cases is to define the exact chronology of the
buildings, understand the nature of residence, and identify their relationship to larger
settlements. In all these examples, though, the existence of baptisteries seems to exclude
the idea of a private church.
Churches in Vici and Larger Rural Settlements
Many churches were probably built in relation to regional communication networks, next
to the main roadways that crossed the territory, and in the vicinity of agglomerated
settlements that written sources call vici and which we can envisage as hamlets or
villages. It is possible that some structures close to the churches that are currently
identified as residences but which are in the vicinity of roads could instead be interpreted
as practical buildings serving the communication network, such as mansiones or
stationes. This interpretation has recently been proposed for some rural churches
excavated in the Balearic Islands (Mas Florit and Cau Ontiveros 2013). Large sixth-
century buildings such as Son Peretó and Son Fadrinet, with baptisteries and many
Figure 32.8 Plan of Christian complex and Late
Roman villa at Torre de Palma in Monforte, Portugal.
(Alexandra Chavarría)
(p. 639)
Christian Landscapes in the Iberian Peninsula: The Archaeological
Evidence (Fourth–Sixth Centuries)
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annexes (used for habitation, stock raising, and production) could be what the texts call
parrociae, public churches linked to rural settlements. A similar chronology and plan
characterize the churches of El Bovalar (Fraga) and El Tolmo de Minateda (Albacete). In
spite of the interpretation of the buildings proposed by the excavators, they could
correspond to parrociae in relation to agglomerated settlements such as villages or
fortifications (Figure 32.9). Recent research on the territory of Mérida also seems to point
to the connection between churches, vici, and the road system even for the Christian
buildings apparently linked to villas but which in fact developed after the villas had
already been abandoned or transformed (Cordero 2015).
In northwestern Spain, the
study of rural churches
has been primarily based
on the text called
Parrochiale suevum (a title
the text does not attribute
to itself), dated to the
second half of the sixth
century (probably between
572 and 582), in which the
thirteen episcopal sees of that territory are listed, as well as “the churches that are in
their territories” (ecclesiae quae in vicino sunt) (Díaz 1998; Sánchez Pardo 2014).
Toponymic analysis has enabled the reconstruction of a dense network of churches and
their intimate relationship with the communication system and the villages. At present,
none of the settlement contexts have been researched archaeologically.
Figure 32.9 Plans of the churches in the settlements
of Son Pereto (Balearic Islands) and El Tolmo de
Minateda (Hellin, Albacete).
(Alexandra Chavarría)
Christian Landscapes in the Iberian Peninsula: The Archaeological
Evidence (Fourth–Sixth Centuries)
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Conclusions
Christianization in the Iberian peninsula developed in two completely different stages.
During the first four centuries, Christianity expanded in a context of frequent conflict
with central authorities, who reacted with periodic repressions that, in turn, produced
martyrs’ cults. It is not surprising, therefore, that evidence from that time concerns
mainly funerary contexts although some churches must have existed before Constantine.
During the second stage, after the Constantinian peace, the new religion was imposed
over polytheistic religion as well as the different Christian confessions. In this second
phase, Christianity moved from the private to the public sphere and became increasingly
traceable in material evidence.
Defining the social context in which Christianity developed is a necessary part of this
investigation. There is no doubt that cities were episcopal sees and therefore the
locations of some of the elites who continued to lead the organization of the provinces
and, later, the new barbarian kingdoms; these included primarily the bishops but also
potentes and other members of the leading classes. Because they were mostly Roman
landowners, it is quite possible that their residences alternated between town and
country (as had always been the case) and therefore any aristocratic role in the
Christianization of the countryside started from the cities. Archaeological data clearly
show that churches began to be built mainly in the cities in the fourth century and in the
countryside probably during the fifth.
Extensive monumental evidence dates mostly from the second half of the sixth century, in
the cities as well as in the countryside. Although the subject warrants further
investigation, it is quite possible that the multiplication of churches during this particular
period may be due to the rivalry between Arian (Visigothic) and Catholic (Roman)
factions, which could have led to a particularly active building period. This tension was
resolved only with the 589 Council of Toledo and the acceptance of Visigothic kings into
the Catholic creed, although some conflicts still remained in the years following.
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Notes:
( ) For a wider analysis with a broader chronological span of Christianization in the
Iberian peninsula, see Chavarría Arnau (2018).
( ) Rebillard (2009) denies the existence of Christian cemeteries during the third century,
but scholars have strongly debated that denial. They have criticized the interpretations of
some of the textual sources cited by Rebillard, and pointed to the archaeological
evidence, which indicates the existence of Christian cemeteries at this time (Duval 2000,
448–57; Fiocchi Nicolai 2016; Guyon 2005, 235–53).
() For all the Spanish councils quoted in this chapter, see vols. IV–VI of the Colección
Canónica Hispanica.
( ) The best textual evidence is from the Council of Elvira, held in ecclesia Illiberritana at
the beginning of the fourth century, whose acts were signed by the bishops of Acci
(Guadix, Granada), Cordoba, Sevilla, Tucci (Martos, Jaen), Epagro (Aguilar de la
Frontera, Cordoba), Castulo (Cazlona, Jaen), Mentesa (La Guardia, Jaen), Illiberris, Urci
(Pecina, Almeria), Emerita, Zaragoza, León, Toledo, Calagurris, Fibularia (Loarre,
Huesca), Ossonoba (Faro), Ebora, Eliocroca (Lorca, Murcia), Basti (Baza, Granada), and
Málaga.
( ) This has been established by the French team of the Topographie chrétienne des cités
de la Gaule des origines au milieu du VIIIè siècle and confirmed by ongoing research in
other areas of the western Mediterranean such as Italy or Spain (see a synthesis in
Chavarría 2009).
( ) Bishops in Hispania remained oriented to urban centers in Late Antiquity and had as
much power as other civic elite. Spanish bishops, for example, were capable of
constructing monumental churches in their cities by the fourth century. In the few
instances in which Spanish bishops could not construct monumental churches, as in the
case of the Eastern bishops of Mérida, this oddity is clearly underlined by the sources.
Local elites, moreover, continued to take part in urban life and administration, as textual
(p. 644)
1
2
3
4
5
6
Christian Landscapes in the Iberian Peninsula: The Archaeological
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sources indicate (generally, see Wickham 2005; for a similar context in southern Gaul, see
Mathisen 1992).
( ) See Epistulae Romanorum pontificum genuinae XVI, 1, a letter written by Pope
Hilarius in 465 referring to a communication of elite citizens written in defense of
Silvanus of Calagurris: honoratorum et possessorum Turiassonensium, Cascantensium,
Calagurritanorum, Varegensium, Tritiensium, Legionensium et Birovescensium ciuitatum.
() In Barcelona, AMS dating suggests a date range of 545–595 (Bonnet and Beltran de
Heredia 2004, 155–80); in Valencia the reconstruction of the whole cathedral with two
cruciform annexes in the eastern side can be dated to the middle of the sixth century
(Alapont Martin and Ribera i Lacomba 2006).
( ) Next to the basilica there was a Late Roman residential building, but its chronology
shows that it never functioned alongside the church: it was built in 333–50 and
abandoned before the fifth century.
( ) It is hard to agree with Kulikowski (2004, 233), who sees the complex as a private
foundation donated by a private property owner residing across the street from the
church. As established earlier, it is more likely that the Christian cemetery had been
organized by the bishops of Tarragona, who continued to control the evolution of this
important Christian devotional area in the centuries that followed.
( ) During the first half of the fifth century, the area seems to have been destroyed and
exploited for spolia (Mateos Cruz 1999, 112–39). These destructions have been related to
the Suevic incursions of 429 that, according to Hydatius, included the profaning of
Eulalia’s tomb by King Heremigarius (Chronica 80).
( ) Gurt i Esparraguera and Sánchez Ramos (2011, 276), affirm that “the fourth canon of
the Twelfth Council of Toledo offers a clear reference to how usual it had become, by the
seventh century, for bishoprics to be created with no reference to the civitates” (but there
is no clear evidence for this in the council canon).
( ) The well-known Christograms in villa mosaics at Prado (Valladolid), Fortunatus
(Fraga, Huesca), and Quinta das Longas (Alentejo) probably date to the second half of the
fourth century or the beginning of the fifth. More recently this symbol has been
documented in burial contexts in the villa of Veranes, near Gijón (Fernández Ochoa, Gil
Sendino, and Salido 2013) and El Jardin (El Pelicano, Arroyomolinos) (Vigil-Escalera 2015,
167–69).
Alexandra Chavarría Arnau
Alexandra Chavarría Arnau, Associate Professor of Medieval Archaeology, University
of Padova, Padua, Italy.
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Christian Landscapes in the Iberian Peninsula: The Archaeological
Evidence (Fourth–Sixth Centuries)
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