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Nájera, La Rioja

Sarcophagus of Doña Blanca

Monastery of Santa María la Real

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Only the carved lid of the sarcophagus of Doña Blanca of Navarre (d. 1156) survives today, on display inside la Capilla de los Infantes (Chapel of the Princes and Princesses) at the monastery church of Santa María la Real (1). Blanca's original place of burial was in a cave, adjoining the church, that served as the royal pantheon of Navarrese kings and queens (2). The royal pantheon underwent a major reconstruction in the sixteenth century - the sheer fact that the sarcophagus lid survived, as Elizabeth Valdez del Alamo stresses, attests to the status of Doña Blanca and the value of her memorial even several centuries after her death (3).

The monastery of Santa María la Real was founded by King García Sanchez III of Navarre (known as García from Nájera) in 1052, after the king allegedly saw a miraculous vision of the Virgin in the cave that would become the royal pantheon (4). García III vowed to build a church over that cave in Mary's honour if he was to prevail over the Muslims he was about to battle - which he did (5). After its foundation, it became customary for Navarrese royals - Doña Blanca's ancestors - to be buried at Santa María la Real, until parts of Navarre and La Rioja, including Nájera, came under Alfonso VI of Castile's dominion (6). Alfonso VI even gave Santa María la Real to the Cluniac order in 1079, partly to drive home the point of his territorial control and partly to show his devotion and favour towards Cluny (7).

Our protagonist, Doña Blanca, brought the two dynasties of Navarre and Castile together when, in 1151, she married Sancho III of Castile, great-grandson of Alfonso VI. Sancho III and Blanca took up royal duties side by side for a brief period of four to five years, during which Blanca confirmed royal documents according to the tradition of Spanish queens, before her death on 12 August 1156 (8). Based on the fact that Blanca's death seems to have been a drawn-out process, and that her only surviving son - the future Alfonso VIII - was born on 11 November 1155, Valdez del Alamo convincingly argues that she died of complications from childbirth (9). Childbirth and motherhood are prominent themes on the sarcophagus lid of Doña Blanca, and so what we have in her sarcophagus, as Valdez del Alamo discusses in much depth, is a gender-specific iconographic program (10). As an aside, Doña Blanca was related to a number of other powerful queens, including her grandmother-in-law, Urraca of León and Castile, and her namesake and granddaughter, Blanche of Castile, the Queen of France and mother of Louis IX (known also as Saint Louis).

Explore and read more about the sarcophagus cover below.

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Santa María la Real

Lid of the Sarcophagus of Doña Blanca

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Although the lid of the sarcophagus is now displayed as a free-standing sculptural work at Santa María la Real, the sarcophagus in its entirety may originally have been placed where visitors and commemorators could circumambulate around it to see the imagery on all sides clearly (11). Unfortunately, when Doña Blanca's tomb was refashioned into an arcosolium and installed into a niche, the two ends of the gabled lid sustained irreparable damage (12). The gabled top and the two long sides, however, are still well-preserved - you can investigate the lid from all sides in detail in the 3D model below.

On one side, we see Doña Blanca on her deathbed in the center of the lower register, flanked by two angels who carry an eidolon between them, representing the bearing of Blanca's soul to heaven. This gesture is made literal as the angels raise the nude, child-like figure up towards the upper register (the gabled top), where Christ in Majesty resides with his twelve apostles. While an eidolon representing the soul of the deceased is not novel - a similar scene can be found on the contemporary sarcophagus of Doña Sancha (d. 1096) - the eidolon here, however, takes on a double meaning. A now lost epitaph once inscribed on her tomb read, "(...) Stricken down in childbirth, she brought forth a noble son, pledge of love; the Son born of the Virgin's womb assisted her (...)" (13). The eidolon, in this light, alludes also to Blanca's "noble son" - Valdez del Alamo supports this hypothesis by observing the unconventional treatment and posture of this eidolon in comparison with other sarcophagi, such as that of Doña Sancha (14). The lost epitaph also drives home another double meaning in the reference to "the Son": Just as Christ gave his life to give believers - His children, including Blanca - new life, Doña Blanca, as a mother, gave her life to give birth to a son, the future Alfonso VIII of Castile.

Surrounding Blanca's deathbed are mourners, whose expressiveness and individuality in their acts of lamentation are qualities that make this sarcophagus one of a kind. To the left, a row of women gather around the dying queen: some bow their heads in silent grief and prayers, one seems to be waving both her hands about as if in a frenzy, or even tearing at her hair, one more may be weeping in earnest and needs the support of her companions. This last weeping woman's placement and posture find parallels in those of the king himself, who stands, as a mirror-image, to the right of Blanca's recumbent form, likewise supported by two companions. In fact, he seems to be in an even more intense grief than his parallel - his head lolls more to the side and his eyes are clearly closed, as if in a swoon; as Valdez del Alamo concludes, King Sancho III's mourning as represented here far exceeds the ritual lamentation that was expected of him (15). For all we know, the king's grief for his queen and partner looks and feels genuine, and if he indeed had a hand in the design of this sarcophagus (16), it would mean that he wanted to be commemorated in his act of commemorating his wife. While this may have been a very personal commission for Sancho III, politics still came into play. Sancho burying Doña Blanca in her ancestral Navarrese royal pantheon may seem like a natural and innocuous choice, but as king of Castile, burying his queen there also served to consolidate Castilian rule over the previously Navarrese-held territory (17).

On the opposite sides, female-specific imagery taken from the biblical narrative prevails even more. On the upper register, we have the parable of the Ten Virgins, while on the low register, from left to right, we see the Adoration of the Magi (with the figures of Mary and the Christ child partly destroyed), the Judgment of Solomon with the good mother and the evil mother, and the scene of Massacre of the Innocents where bereaved mothers helplessly look on.

Altogether, as Valdez del Alamo observes, the many figures depicted on this lid surround the death scene of Doña Blanca as visitors would the sarcophagus itself (18) - certain groups of figures, like the mourners on one side, the five Wise Virgins who are entering the door to the Bridegroom's house, and the Three Magi, even move in clear directions as one would in a funerary procession. In a way, the designer(s) of the sarcophagus lid ensured that Doña Blanca would be mourned and her life and legacy celebrated in perpetuity - by the carved lamenting figures around her, and by future visitors who would activate and mirror those figures.

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Notes (top)

(1) Elizabeth Valdez del Alamo, "Lament for a Lost Queen: The Sarcophagus of Doña Blanca in Nájera," in Memory and the Medieval Tomb, eds. Elizabeth Valdez del Alamo and Carol Stamatis Pendergast (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), 44; Margarita Cantera Montenegro, "Elección de Sepultura y Espacio Funerario: Santa María la Real de Nájera (Siglos XI-XV)," Hispania Sacra 69, no. 140: 458. Cantera Montenegro provides a detailed study of the funerary use of different parts of Santa María la Real.

(2) Valdez del Alamo, "Lament for a Lost Queen," 44. Cantera Montenegro adds that the cave of the royal pantheon was originally at the foot of the monastery church, but not physically connected with it, see Cantera Montenegro, "Elección de Sepultura y Espacio Funerario," 457.

(3) Valdez del Alamo, "Lament for a Lost Queen," 44-45.

(4) Cantera Montenegro, "Santa María la Real: Fundación y Primeros Tiempos," 254.

(5) Cantera Montenegro, "Santa María la Real: Fundación y Primeros Tiempos," 254.

(6) Cantera Montenegro, "Elección de Sepultura y Espacio Funerario," 456; Valdez del Alamo, "Lament for a Lost Queen,"54.

(7) Cantera Montenegro, "Santa María la Real: Fundación y Primeros Tiempos," En la España Medieval 2 (1982): 254-58.

(8) Valdez del Alamo, "Lament for a Lost Queen," 44-45.

(9) Valdez del Alamo, "Lament for a Lost Queen," 44-45. Valdez del Alamo draws this conclusion after consulting a number of primary sources, including Anales Compostelanos, Anales Toledanos, and records of a now lost epitaph on Doña Blanca's sarcophagus by the seventeenth-century historians Prudencio de Sandoval and Antonio de Yepes.

(10) Valdez del Alamo, "Lament for a Lost Queen," 47-64.

(11) Valdez del Alamo, "Lament for a Lost Queen," 44.

(12) Valdez del Alamo, "Lament for a Lost Queen," 44.

(13) Valdez del Alamo, "Lament for a Lost Queen," 67-68, note 13; see also 45. The lost epitaph was recorded by the seventeenth-century historians Prudencio de Sandoval and Antonio de Yepes.

(14) Valdez del Alamo, "Lament for a Lost Queen," 51-52.

(15) Valdez del Alamo, "Lament for a Lost Queen," 49.

(16) Valdez del Alamo, "Lament for a Lost Queen," 43.

(17) Cantera Montenegro, "Elección de Sepultura y Espacio Funerario," 457; Valdez del Alamo, "Lament for a Lost Queen,"54-55.

(18) Valdez del Alamo, "Lament for a Lost Queen," 61-62.

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