The surviving buildings of Guifré and his early descendants are all to the north, in Catalunya Vella - especially, in the area around Ripoll and Sant Joan de les Abadeses, where the snow-fed Freses and Ter rivers come racing down the limestone gorges of the Pyrenean foothills, converging at Ripoll. This hill town likes to call itself the cradle of Catalunya, which, in an ecclesiastical sense, it is: the Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll was the largest and one of the earliest of the church foundations set up by Guifré the Hairy, whose bones- recovered from the ruins of its cloister in the nineteenth century - lie in a plain sarcophagus on the wall of its left transept. Only the bones are real.
The rest of the church interior is total pastiche. Originally it had five naves: one imagines a gloomy, powerful, and dankly troglodytic structure of parallel tunnels with squat columns. But an earthquake demolished its roof system in 1428; it was the rebuilt, only to suffer a disastrous restoration in the 1820s at the hands of a neoclassical architect named Josep Morato, who turned it into a conventional basilica with one high nave and two aisles. Then came the 1830s and a whole-sale suppression of religious communities; the monks were thrown out and the monastery was soon a gutted ruin. (Fortunately, the abbot had already given the monastery’s irreplaceable archive of documents and illuminated manuscripts to the archive of the Crown of Aragon, in Barcelona.
What fire, vandalism, and neglect did not finish off, a new wave of pious restoration did. In the 1880s, Catalan nationalism required that the cradle of Catalunya should be glorified and reconsecrated. This job went to Elias Rogent i Amat, the supervising architect of Barcelona’s 1888 Universal Exposition. It was done by 1893, complete with a large, pale, and saccharine mosaic altarpiece of a doe-eyed Madonna and Child - a present from Pope Leo XIII, made in the Vatican workshops. Since a number of Ripoll’s finest illuminated codices, dating from the eleventh century, wound up in the Vatican Library, one could say that Rome got the better of the deal. Santa Maria would be closer to the depressing pietism of Lourdes than the virile Catalunya of the early counts were it not for two features.
The first is its two-story cloister, a noble contemplative space begun in the late twelfth century by Ramon de Berga, who was abbot from 1171 to Its Romanesque arches (some of which were not actually finished until the fifteenth century) are raised on paired columns linked by carved capitals of the hard, dark local limestone. The eched Romanesque ones are a marvel of invention and still in good condition. They embody the grotesque fecundity of twelfth-century dreaming at full pitch: vegetable motifs, demons and mermaids, hybrid monsters, signs and portents of every kind. Spend an hour with them, and you are ready for the main portal of the church.
Cracked by fire, spalled by weather, battered by iconoclastic liberals, and now, fortunately, protected by a glassed-in porch, the alabaster facade of Santa Maria de Ripoll is the greatest single work of Romanesque sculpture in Spain. Even in its degraded state it remains mesmerising, not only for the aesthetic vividness of its figures and emblems but for its narrative completeness. There are more than a hundred separate scenes, and the better-preserved figures, such as the out-leaning, stocky, fiecely intense Pantocrator surrounded by angels above the doorway, are of the tersest formal beauty, every line as intent on its job as the curl of a whip or the forking of a twig.
What is especially interesting about it, as storytelling, is its power as a political statement. This is the earliest surviving Catalan work of sculpture to set forth metaphors of the foundation of Catalunya itself - the retreat of its people to the mountains and valleys before the Saracen armies and then the vision of return and the expulsion of the Moors. In the two bands of panels on either side of the entrance arch, one sees the Biblical story of Exodus: Moses guiding his people to the promised land, the rain of manna, the striking of water from the rock, the Israelites following the angel and the column of fire. Then there is the removal of the Ark of the Covenant and the founding of Jerusalem; Daniel’s vision of the Jews set free by the Messiah; and much more besides. For “Jews,” read “Catalans”; for “Egyptians,” “Saracens”; for “Moses,” by implication “Guifré the Hairy”; while the presence of stern stalwarts like Joshua (whose battle against Amalec at Rafidim takes up a large panel on the right of the door) could only have been understood by a twelfth-century viewer as prophetic of the noble valor of the counts of Barcelona. And, of course, one also sees the Catalans working at their promised land: the inner face of the door way arch bears scenes of labor, month by month - casting bronze in January, tilling in March, picking fruit in may, pruning in June, harvesting in July, butchering a deer in November, and so on.
And so, although the inside of Santa Maria cannot be compared with any one of twoscore genuine Romanesque churches in northern Catalunya, its portal justifies its status in the order of Catalan memory. It is the Ur-temple of Catalunya, the archexample of the kind of church - remote, obdurate, provincial, and yet humming in its day with scholastic life - that evoked a founding myth for the poets and architects of the Renaixença. Such places represented the Romanesque root of national being that had been torn out of Barcelona itself by its own development as a medieval city, its volte-face from the plains and the Pyrenean valleys and out toward the Mediterranean.
Here's a video I put together of the monastery...
Some medieval bands were playing Troubadour music in the streets around the Monastery.
Have a listen...