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Jaca, Huesca

San Pedro Cathedral

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Jaca internal capital_edited
Jaca interior_edited
Jaca_west portal_details.JPG
Jaca_interior capital_cropped.jpg
Jaca icon_capital with musicians and Dav

Despite uncertainties as to when exactly the construction of San Pedro Cathedral of Jaca (or Jaca Cathedral) began, it is without a doubt that it was contingent upon Jaca's rise in status from a town to a city (1076) and a bishopric (1077); in this light, much of the church's construction took place from the last quarter of the eleventh century to early twelfth century (1). Under the rule of Sancho Ramírez, the eldest son of Ramiro I, the royal family - in particular the female members of the royal family, such as Sancho's sisters, Teresa, Sancha, and Urraca, as Janice Mann discusses in depth - was closely involved in the patronage and construction of the cathedral, and contemporary Aragonese architecture nearby (2). Although the cathedral has undergone numerous renovations from the Renaissance onwards (3), there are still many well-preserved medieval elements, including the carved tympana and capitals at the south and west portals, as well as various interior and displaced capitals.

Much has been said about the classicising features at Jaca Cathedral. Serafín Moralejo Álvarez first points out the stylistic similarities of a few capitals at Jaca to the second-century (CE) Husillos sarcophagus, one of the chief examples being the "heroic nude" depictions of Isaac - and Abraham, though with more originality there - on a south-portal capital, which bears resemblance to the figure of Orestes on the Roman sarcophagus (4). Rosario Álvarez Martínez observes that an interior aisle capital (second one from right/bottom above) shows winged genii, who are flanking the central figures, playing the tibia (a kind of Roman funerary musical instrument), and, following Moralejo's line of argument, goes on to propose that the sculptor might have referenced Roman sarcophagi, where this musical motif was common (5).

Such stylistic and iconographic transmissions may speak more broadly about medieval funerary practice - especially the reuse of ancient sarcophagi - and the Jaca sculptors' engagement with such social practice, on top of with artistic motifs from Roman and early Christian sarcophagi. As Doron Bauer discusses, burials of the nobility in reused Roman and early Christian sarcophagi endowed these classical structures with political power (6). By extension, decorative motifs on those ancient sarcophagi acquired political and aesthetic desirability as well, which may be why sculptors at that time were motivated to reinterpret these imagery on church sculptures (7). David L. Simon, likewise, keeps a keen eye out for the social context, and suggests that the sculptural program at Jaca - so prominent for its classicising elements - was in fact a manifestation of King Sancho Ramírez of Aragón's ambition to establish his kingdom's status and to push for Christian reconquest of Muslim-held land, by aligning with the Roman papacy (8). After all, Jaca had been the capital and the see of bishop of Aragón during much of the cathedral's construction period, until the nearby Huesca was reconquered in 1096 (9) - the town would have held much weight in the kingdom of Aragón.

Explore different parts of the Jaca Cathedral in details below.

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San Pedro Cathedral


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Jaca south portal.JPG


West portal 3D

[Full West Portal]

A chrismon (or Chi-Rho) inhabits most of the tympanum. Below, the two capitals to the right narrate scenes from Daniel's life. The left-most capital depicts Moses and Aaron, while the one to its right is carved with vegetal motif.

West portal details 3D

[West Portal Details]

The chrismon here has the Greek letters "A" (alpha) and "Ω" (omega) hanging at the end of the cross's arm. An inscription surrounding the chrismon describes that the "P" (at the head of the cross) represents the Father, "A" the Son, and the double letter (X) refers to the Spirit, which together form "PAX" - Latin for "peace" (10).

The lion on the right tramples over a bear and a basilisk, while the left one stands over a man holding a snake in his grasp. An inscription on the lintel relates to the theme of penitence, which may be linked to the south porch's function as the setting for public rites of penance (11). Drag to the sides to explore the capitals in more details.

[South Portal Left (West) Capital]

This capital illustrates the Old Testament story of Balaam and the Ass (Numbers 22). We see Balaam astride an ass, about to turn the corner, beyond which - yet hidden from Balaam's sight - an angel holds a sword aloft in one hand in warning. (Compare with a similar capital at the monastery of San Zoilo here.)

Balaam capital 3D
Isaac capital 3D

[South Portal Right (East) Capital]

The dramatic scene of the Sacrifice of Isaac fills up this capital (Genesis 22). In the portrayals of both Isaac - standing upright with legs spread wide, hands seemingly bound behind - and Abraham we may detect traces of the "heroic nude" in the classical tradition.

More specifically, their forms and postures recall that of Orestes on the Husillos sarcophagus (12). Interestingly, both the Isaac and Balaam stories deal with the theme of submission to God's will.

San Pedro Cathedral

Detached Capitals

Detached capitas 3D

As the cathedral underwent various transformations over the centuries - including the destruction of the Romanesque cloister in the seventeenth century - a number of capitals were displaced. Most of them (including all of the below examples) now reside in the Diocesan Museum of Jaca Cathedral.

[Capital of King David and Musicians]

King David, crowned and enthroned, is playing a three-string fiddle with a bow (13). Eleven musicians flank him, each playing a different instrument - the diversity of which reflects cultural exchanges between the Byzantine Empire, the Middle East, and North Africa (14). This iconography of David as king and musician - derived from the Psalms - is common among Romanesque sculptures along the Camino de Santiago.

King David 3D

Although the original location of this capital is uncertain, it has garnered many guesses, including at the old Romanesque cloister, the main portal, or the stone choir in the nave of the cathedral (15). There is a replica at the south porch.

Satyr 3D

[Capital of the Satyr]

This capital is now famously known as the capital of the satyr because of its reprising the classical imagery of Dionysian satyrs in its nude figure (16). At each corner of the capital crouches a hybrid figure (notice the claw-like feet). At the center of each face (except for the damaged one) we see a figure or creature that is, according to Prado-Vilar, associated with the theme of resurrection, including an ascending nude figure, a phoenix rising from the ashes, and a lion (17).

This capital has sustained considerable damage, although it seems to depict the vice of luxuria or lust. The breasts of two female figures on the front face are bitten by snakes that curl around their necks. Between them a figure holds her hands to her chest palms out, likely in a gesture of prayer or acceptance. Two more figures, one larger and the other smaller, are hidden from immediate view on each of the lateral sides.

[Detached Capital]

[Detached Capital]

This capital only has two sides, which suggests that the column it was once attached to might have been placed at a corner. On one side we see a seated man whose head and upper body is turning towards the corner of the capital. The man's left hand is grasping a part of a quadripedal creature, most of whose body is on the other face.


(1) David L. Simon, "Art for a New Monarchy: Aragon in the Late Eleventh Century," Anales de Historia del Arte Volumen Extraordinario, no. 2 (2011): 369-70; Doron Bauer, "Social Practices and Romanesque Architectural Sculpture in the Pyrenees" (PhD diss., John Hopkins Universtiy, 2012), 12-14.

(2) Janice Mann, Romanesque Architecture and its Sculptural Decoration in Christian Spain, 1000-1120: Exploring Frontiers and Defining Identities (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 75-100, see 90-92 in particular for discussion on Jaca.

(3) Simon, "Art for a New Monarchy," 373.

(4) Serafín Moralejo Álvarez, "Sobre la formación del estilo escultórico de Frómista y Jaca," Actas del XXIII Congreso Internacional de Historia del Arte, Granada 1973, Vol. I (Granada: Universidad de Granada, 1976), 429-30. Francisco Prado-Vilar also presents an in-depth discussion on the inspiration medieval sculptors took from classical imagery, especially those on sarcophagi, in relation to two, now displaced, Jaca capitals and the theme of resurrection, see Francisco Prado-Vilar, "The Superstes: Resurrection, the Survival of Antiquity, and the Poetics of the Body in Romanesque Sculpture," in Transformatio et Continuatio - Forms of Change and Constancy of Antiquity in the Iberian Peninsular 500-1500, eds. Horst Bredekamp and Stefan Trinks (Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 2017), 137-84.

(5) Rosario Álvarez Martínez, " Music Iconography of Romanesque Sculpture in the Light of Sculptors' Work Procedures: The Jaca Cathedral, Las Platerías in
Santiago de Compostela, and San Isidoro de León," Music in Art 27, no. 1/2 (2002): 16-17. She cites the Amiternum sarcophagus (first century CE, now preserved at  the Museo Civico, Aquileia) as an example featuring the tibia instrument.

(6) Bauer, "Social Practices and Romanesque Architectural Sculpture in the Pyrenees," 26-36.

(7) Bauer, "Social Practices and Romanesque Architectural Sculpture in the Pyrenees," 36-49.

(8) Simon, "Art for a New Monarchy," 388-90.

(9) Simon, "Art for a New Monarchy," 368; Bauer, "Social Practices and Romanesque Architectural Sculpture in the Pyrenees," 13.

(10) Both Francísco de Asís García García, and Simon among others, have commented on the inscription, see Francísco de Asís García García, "La portada occidental de la catedral de Jaca y la cuestión de las imágenes," Anales de Historia del Arte Volumen Extraordinario (2010): 77. Simon, "Art for a New Monarchy," 384-85. García García provides an in-depth discussion on the chrismon's function as an aniconic representation of the Trinity in the wake of the iconoclasm crisis.

(11) Simon, "Art for a New Monarchy," 382; Bauer, "Social Practices and Romanesque Architectural Sculpture in the Pyrenees," 15-20.

(12) Moralejo, "Sobre la formación," 429-30.

(13) "Capitel del Rey David y Los Músicos," caption in the Diocesan Museum of Jaca Cathedral.

(14) "Capitel del Rey David y Los Músicos," caption in the Diocesan Museum of Jaca Cathedral.

(15) "Capitel del Rey David y Los Músicos," caption in the Diocesan Museum of Jaca Cathedral.

(16) Prado-Vilar, "The Superstes," 154-61.

(17) Prado-Vilar, " The Superstes," 154-63.

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