Fortified Church of Santa Maria

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Ujue is a small hilltop settlement built round the massive fortified church of Santa Maria. There has been a fortress here since the 8th or 9thC built in an attempt to halt the advance of Islam. The attractive stone houses with pale pantiles roofs fall away down the hillside from the church. There is a large car park signed off to the left at the bottom of the settlement and it is sensible to park here. It is a short walk up the narrow streets and alleyways with steps to the church built on the highest point.

The original church was 11-13thC but the nave was demolished and rebuilt in the 14thC when the church was fortified. It is unusual as the fortifications were built round the existing building, a bit like a skin. From the outside it looks more like a castle than a church. The outer walls are very tall and have massive buttresses. In places machicolations can be seen. There is a square crenulated bell tower and a smaller square tower.

Before going into the church it is worth walking round the outside between the fortified walls and the exterior of the church. This helps explain the architecture of the church and what you see. Enter the porch to the west of the south door. This has open arches with elaborately carved capitals although many have been defaced and their heads knocked off. This leads to the north side of the church which is an enclosed area with flying buttresses built onto the large external buttresses of the church. The north door (no longer used) has arches and carved capitals with figures, heads and animals. There is an animal head swallowing a human, two figures playing a game of chance, a figure holding a tree he has pulled up and two people carrying what look like loaded baskets on their backs.

At the end of the north wall is a carving of a crucifix with the crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary and St John.

The outer walls of the east apse have a carved frieze round the base of the windows. The Romanesque round topped windows are surrounded by round pillars with carved capitals and carved arch above with a double row of alternating cubes.

Entry into the church is through the massive south door reached up a flight of stone steps. This is surrounded by a lot of tall thin round pillars with beautifully carved capitals. There are scenes showing grapes being harvested and packed into panniers for transport. There is a nativity scene with Mary in bed with a woman holding a baby. Next to her is Joseph and Jesus in a manger being watched by the animals in the stable. There is a musician and also Adam and Eve trying to hide their nakedness. The detail of the carving is amazing and it wasn’t until we saw the photographs we realised just how much detail there was.

The tympanum above the door has a scene of the Last Supper at the bottom. Some of the figures seem to have partaken of too much wine. Above is a nativity scene above. The Virgin Mary is holding the Christ Child and her feet resting on a serpent. The three kings are presenting their gifts. On the other side is a kneeling figure with a cockerel carved on the arch next to him. At the top is a star.

There is a small porch inside with wooden doors leading into the church. These have blue panels outlined in pale brown with a painting of the sun and moon, both with faces. There is a small carved stone stoup.

Inside, the church is massive. There is a single very tall Gothic nave with a vaulted ceiling. The east end is the original Romanesque building. There is a round chancel arch with rather nice carved capitals leading into the central apse with smaller round arches on either side to the side apses with rounded ceilings. Four steps lead up to the chancel which is separated from the nave by metal grille doors. At the back is a large stone balcony supported by massive multangular pillars which disappear below ground level as the west end of the church is lower than the nave. There is a low vaulted ceiling under the balcony. The balcony has an open carved stone front with quatrefoil designs and two carved figures on the top. There seems to be a large reading desk and tall carved choir stalls on the balcony.

There is a large round stone font on a square base with carved heads on two corners. Figures carved round the bowl include a delightfully primitive image of a knight holding a sword and shield.

At the back of the north wall is an altar with a painted front with a cross on a roundel. Above is a gilt reredos with a scene of the crucifixion with Christ on the cross with the crowned figure of Mary and another crowned figure holding three nails. This is surrounded by a heavily carved frame and pillars. Above is a portico with the crown of thorns with the symbols of the passion and a bird on the top.

There is the most amazing Baroque pulpit on the south wall in shades of red, blue and gold. Round the pulpit are carvings of the four apostles with their symbols on a blue and gold base. The canopy is blue and gold with a silver dove on the underside. Above there are cherubs and shields with a robed figure standing on the top of a cupola holding a communion cup.

Round the walls are painted carvings of the stations of the cross.

The central apse has a free standing altar. Behind is a stone pillar with water flower carved top and a 12thC wooden carving of the seated Virgin and Child which was silver plated in the 14thC. Both are wearing crows and the surround is covered with semi-precious stones. The walls have blind arcading with carved capitals and arches. There is a small Romanesque window in the centre.

The south apse has the top half of a carved figure on a pedestal. The north apse has a pillar with a modern host box. On the north wall is a small stone altar with a painted reredos above. In the centre under a shell is a carved figure holding a staff and book with an eagle above. This is surrounded by 4 paintings of figures. Above is a frieze of cherub heads. Both side apses have small Romanesque windows with pillars on either side, a carved arch above and a narrow carved frieze along the walls.

There is a €1 charge for lighting which is well worth the money as the apses are very dark.

This really is an amazing church both inside and out. It is well worth searching out.

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