The second chapter of the Pilgrim’s Guide designated as The Day’s Journey on the Apostle’s Road, describes thirteen sections for the journey to the shrine of Saint James, from the ascent of the Roncevaux Pass to the final arrival at Compostela, optimistically attributing to each leg one day’s travel. The sixth day’s journey is recorded as being from Burgos to Frómista.
Frómista derives its name from the endless wheatfields of the Tierra de los Campos which stretch across the Meseta plateau. It was from this abundance of grain that the town owed its great wealth after it had begun to recover in the tenth century, from its earlier destruction at the hands of the Saracen conquerors.
It was located at the crossroads of the old north south road from Santander to Palencia and the westward bound Camino and together with Carrión de los Condes and Sahagún, was one of the three principal stations which linked the pilgrimage road as it traversed the lonely plain between Burgos and León. Pilgrims reached the town after crossing the Rio Pisuerga over the bridge commissioned by Alfonso VI.
It was to Fromistá in her native Castile, that Doña Muña Mayor, widow of Sancho III el Mayor of Navarre, retreated after the death of her husband. Together they had both been early architects of the development of the pilgrimage road. Already responsible for the construction of the bridge named in her honour at Puente la Reina, it was in 1066 that Doña Muña chose to donate to three monks, a church then already under construction and some land at Frómista, for the establishment of a monastery dedicated to Martin of Tours.
The dedication to the celebrated saint was part of the general tendency of the Christian Spanish royalty towards promoting French alliances and affinities as well as being an indication of the French presence on the pilgrimage road in Castile. This was further endorsed when, at the behest of Doña Muña’s great-granddaughter Queen Urraca, San Martin was donated, in 1118 to the Cluniac abbey of San Zoil at nearby Carrión de los Condes. The ensuing increase in pilgrimage traffic is attested by the subsequent establishment at Frómista of four hospices to minister to the needs of those traveling to Compostela.
Doña Muña’s church is the same church which still stands today. Along with the royal basilica of San Isidoro de León and the cathedral at Jaca, it is the earliest example of Romanesque architecture in Spain. San Martin de Frómista is a remarkable structure, almost a pilgrimage church in miniature, the refined elegance of its architectural and decorative elements more readily associated with a larger building.
The much debated question among art historians regarding the role of the pilgrimage to Compostela on the development of Romanesque sculpture at the end of the eleventh century finds it most compelling evidence in the geographical spread of the style which found its origins at the Castilian monastery church of Frómista.
In the late 1080’s the master sculptor of Frómista took his inspiration from the carvings on Roman sarcophagus located in the church of Santa Maria de Husillos fifteen miles south, which depicted the Greek legend of the Oresteia. These distinctively dynamic bare-limbed figures with their swathes of drapery are the clear inspiration behind the original and arresting designs combined with profuse vegetal motifs to be found on the interior capitals at Frómista.
A chronological spread of this school along the pilgrimage roads has been detected, originating at Frómista and then moving to Jaca and Loarre in Aragon and travelling across the Pyrenees to Toulouse and then back along the Compostelan road to León and eventually to be found on the columns of the Puerta Francigena at Santiago. The pilgrimage was thus the engine which drove this sculptural school to spread all the way from Castile to Languedoc to Galicia.
For a church of its relatively small size, San Martin manages to incorporate a surprising number of decorative elements without diminishing the simplicity of its architectural grace and refinement.
There are one hundred carved capitals. They appear to be the work of two different schools, the first already mentioned, derived from the Roman sarcophagus at Husillos and a second workshop, whose figures are more hieratic and static in their poses. Some of these are enigmatic in their significance. A hermit and an abbot, hands raised in benediction and between them, a man restrained by two guards. On each side two sets of men, one embracing and the other wrestling. One suspects the abbot and hermit refer to Saint Martin.
Outside the church is decorated with a total of three hundred and fifteen modillion figures, possibly the most imaginative array of profane and apotropaic images in Romanesque sculpture. Among them, androphagous monsters, acrobats, monkeys, young girls cradling strange offspring and a harp playing ass, this latter an image that goes back at least five thousand years to ancient Sumeria