In 1168 Mestre Mateo (and his obradoiro) got down to work with his masterpiece: completing the Romanesque Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. But new winds were blowing in art, or at least in Mateo’s head. The architect and sculptor had groundbreaking ideas, and that included breaking the laws of the Romanesque a bit to create something completely new, in keeping with the times, and at the same time timeless.

Given the number of visitors who came to the —so to speak— spiritual capital of Europe at the time (the famous botafumeiro was implanted there, to cover the plague of sweaty pilgrims that flooded the temple), the thing surely had a lot of propaganda and artistic ego. With such a showcase, Mateo wanted to induce stendhalazo.

The project that the artist was thinking about (although at that time the figure of the artist did not exist as we know it) was revolutionary: a crypt to bridge the gap between the naves of the temple and the adjoining land and a hitherto unseen façade, with multiple figures that almost seemed to move and even play music.

Then, paint the doorway with extraordinary colors that would withstand the Compostela rain (the portico was out in the open before the Baroques did their thing), place apostles and prophets on the columns, and make them talk to each other! some even seem to laugh…!

The Portico da Gloria thus becomes one of the most innovative sculptural ensembles of the time, an extraordinary doorway that welcomes the Cathedral through its western façade.

Mateo, to culminate the architecture of the Romanesque temple, created a portal with three arches to serve as the entrance to each of the temple’s naves. The central arch is divided in two by a mullion, another innovation of the master, thus being able to increase the size of the enormous central arch.

You can already smell the gothic, in which light is a fundamental part of the architecture.

Mateo put columns in those arches, and like a sorcerer he endowed them with life. The bases show animals fighting or directly eating human figures. Monsters that may represent human vices and miseries crushed by the power of Christ.

When going up, resting on the shafts of the columns, we see those amazing characters who definitely leave the Romanesque behind. The rigidity and enigmatic mannerism of that High Middle Ages disappears —where, as if they were post-impressionists, the artisans seemed to give a damn about the study of nature. Now, almost human figures emerge that stand out for their idealized naturalism. Let us remember the verses of Rosalia de Castro:

Will they be alive? Are they made of stone Those looks so true, Those wonderful tunics, Those full eyes of life?

They are sculptures that are both expressive and naturalistic. An example is that extraordinary smile of Daniel (which far exceeds that of the Gioconda ) but you can also see the art of Mateo (or his workshop, it is evident that several different artists created there) in that Christ showing his wounds on the center of the portico, surrounded by the evangelists, or that Apostle Santiago seated under JC in the mullion, or those Jeremias, Moises or Isaias who, if they are not alive, are close to missing…

More than one pilgrim in the Middle Ages must have been stunned after traveling hundreds of kilometers and seeing those futuristic faces of saints and prophets welcoming them .

The main course is in the central eardrum (the upper part that fills the arch), which is pure 3D. Figures of all sizes fill the space (the fear of the void is evident) and are positioned on different scales. Some look like playmobiles, others are almost life size. Everything indicates that it is the representation of glory based on the lysergic hallucinations of Saint John, the guy who wrote the Apocalypse. One proof is that in the archivolts are the 24 old men playing their instruments, looking at each other or looking at us.

The side arches, however, are much more enigmatic in meaning. In the one on the left, perhaps the limbo is represented. Some angels carry the souls to the central portico. And there they go — I insist on the perhaps — Adam and Eve.

The right arch certainly looks like hell, which is where the damned go. There’s a lot of snake and people suffering, it’s almost a medieval Black Metal cover. There we see several sins represented: lust, gluttony, pride, greed… Each vice is eternally punished by monstrous creatures: a demon tears out the tongue of a blasphemer with large tongs, the sweet tooth cannot swallow a delicious Galician empanada by having a rope by the neck, the drunkard cannot drink when hanging upside down…

If at that time most people could not read, and did not understand any of those masses in Latin, a visual manual of indoctrination, dissemination and evangelization like the Portico da Gloria was essential. And since people came from all over Europe, this new art created by Mateo spread like a virus.

Mateo, who by the way, took a self-portrait —or so some say— behind the whole ensemble. If we enter the Cathedral of Santiago we will see the Santo dos croques kneeling before the central nave of the temple. This is how proud he signed his work in the throes of the Romanesque, one of the first medieval artists fully aware of being so.

That said, if you want to enjoy the Portico da Gloria in all its fullness, it is essential to see it live. Pay the corresponding tithe (unfortunately now common in all Catholic temples… if Jesus Christ rises, he will expel a few merchants), but you will be able to feel the artistic energy of almost 10 centuries of history before your eyes.

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