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Cervatos, Cantabria

Monastic Church of San Pedro

The monastery of San Pedro de Cervatos has a long and distinguished history, with its first appearances in the written record at the end of the tenth century. Counts of Castile Sancho García and Urraca granted the institution a fuero (or charter) in the year 999(1). The building was likely enlarged and reconstructed at this point, and possibly also used as the burial pantheon of the Castilian counts(2). The current church of San Pedro was built in the twelfth century. On the right pilaster of the portal is an inscription dating the church, giving 1129 as the construction date and 1199 as the consecration date. Previously monastic, the church was dedicated as a collegiate institution in 1186, possibly under the dependency of the Bishop of Burgos(3)


Although Romanesque art is replete with profane imagery, especially on the more marginal architectural elements of church exteriors, San Pedro is particularly notable for its plethora of profane themes. Over one hundred corbels distributed around the exterior of the church are carved with lively and diverse motifs, from foliate and abstract ornaments to humans and beasts. Apart from the vivacious acrobats and medieval drinkers, the most fascinating elements to contemporary audiences are the sexually charged motifs, which appear on over a quarter of the carved corbels(4). Described as “obscene” by Weir and Jerman, the sexual imagery is rich in variety, rendering a wide range of behaviors under three main categories: exhibitionism, masturbation, and sexual intercourse(5). Interestingly, the diversity of motifs is again evident across the erotic corbel decoration in the representation of both genders and both lay and ecclesiastics. Images of homoerotic desire and animal coitus also appear in the frieze of the cobel right above the south portal which adds another layer to this mysterious church design. 


Such a corbel table is visually astonishing to contemporary viewers and has driven scholars’ interest in deciphering these amusing sculptures. Weir and Jerman see the images as didactic tools “in the medieval Church’s campaign against immorality…” arguing that “…they were not intended to inflame the passions but rather to allay them(6).” In contrast, Olsen discusses medieval erotic images in churches in a series of writings from a sociocultural perspective, and suggests the imagery possibly as an adaptation of carnivalesque art and contemporaneous popular culture in the religious architectural design(7). Regardless of the two different readings, the case of San Pedro de Cervatos allows us a glimpse of creative Romanesque architectural designs and the possible veiled messages behind these visually vibrant riddles. 


Other than the mesmerizing corbels, the church is also decorated with an ornate, patterned tympanum, which is novel in its display of interlacing vegetal ornamentation rather than the figural decoration that more commonly adorns tympana, possibly suggesting Islamic influence. Below are several gigapixel images that allow you to explore the facade of the church and the curious corbels in detail.

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San Pedro de Cervatos

South Facade 

south facade

Click on any highlighted section to view a gigapan (zoomable image).

south facade gigapan

[South Facade Gigapan]

upper corbels

[Upper Corbels Gigapan]

lower corbel

[Lower Corbels Gigapan]

south portal gigapan

[South Portal Gigapan]


(1) Glenn W. Olsen, “On the Frontiers of Eroticism: The Romanesque Monastery of San Pedro De Cervatos,” Mediterranean Studies 8 (1999): 89

(2) Miguel Ángel García Guinea and José María Pérez González, Enciclopedia del románico en Cantabria (Aguilar de Campoo: Fundación Santa María la Real Centro de Estudios del Románico, 2007), 1152-1153, 

(3) Olsen, “On the Frontiers of Eroticism,” 89.

(4) Anthony Weir and James Jerman, Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches (London: B.T. Batsford, 1993), 8.

(5) Weir and Jerman, Images of Lust, 8

(6) Ibid, 11.

(7) Olsen, “On the Frontiers of Eroticism”, 89-104.; Glenn W. Olsen, “Sex and the Romanesque in Occcitania-Provence” in Law As Profession And Practice In Medieval Europe, ed. Kenneth Pennington and Melodie H. Eichbauer (London: Routledge, 2016), 327-356.

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