Iglesia Santa Maria la Real de Piasca

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We had been told Iglesia Santa Maria la Real de Piasca was open at weekends. Reached from the CA-872 off the CA-184 south east of Potes, the 12thC church is all that remains of a 9thC monastery which housed both monks and nuns until 17thC.

It is a marvellous setting on a grassy terrace high above the river with the small village built above it. As you drive up the road to Piasca, there is a brief glimpse of the church from the road. It is down a short side turning which leads to a large farm which hides the church. You walk through an archway and suddenly the glorious west end of the church comes into view. It really does stop you in your tracks.

Even though we had been told it was open from 4pm, the church was very shut when we arrived just turned four o’clock. We walked round taking photos and then several cars of Spaniards arrived who knocked on the door of the farm for the old woman to unlock the church. We followed them in. Entry was €1.50. When we left, the church was relocked.

The church is a simple stone building with a pantiles roof set in a small enclosure with the ruins of the cloisters visible in the grass to the south of the building. There is a monumental west front. There are round pillars with carved capitals and a frieze along the top which support the carved round arches above the doorway. Each has a different pattern. On one of the pillars is a small carving of St Michael killing the devil, represented by a serpent. One of the capitals has a carving of two centaurs and has a figure on horseback. Carvings on the arches include a knight in armour with a shield, musicians, mythical beasts human heads and acanthus leaves.

Above, set in three arches is a carving of the Virgin and Child with St Peter holding the keys of Heaven on one side and St Paul on the other holding a book. The arches separating the three carvings also have carved capitals. Above is a small bell cote with one bell.

The south door is smaller and less elaborately carved and would have given access to the cloisters. It has a single column on either side with a double carved arch above with figures of a stonemason and two scribes.

The small apse at the east end has a carved frieze round it. The nave has carved corbles under the pantiles roof. The roof of the east end is being restored and has wooden corbels beneath the roof. The walls of the apses have heavy buttresses. Buttresses on the north wall of the nave have small arches forming a channel through the bottoms.The double east window has a trefoil inset with two small carved stone circles with six pointed stars in them. On either side are round pillars with carved capitals and above a carved arch with grotesque animals.

Inside the west door, steps lead down into the church. If the outside was good, the inside is even better. Square pillars supporting round arches separate nave and side aisles. The nave and walls are plastered and it has a simple barrel ribbed ceiling. The transept and chancel apses retain the original rough stonework walls. they are very tall and have vaulted ceilings.

At the back of the church are two painted pedestals. One has a statue of the crowned Virgin and Child, also wearing a crown and holding an orb representing the world. The other is St Michael killing the dragon (Satan). At the back of the south wall is a small wall mounted retable with a painted carving of the Virgin and Child. On the south transept wall is a painted panel with vases of flowers. Above is a very moving painted carving of the Pietà, with the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus. A round arch leads into the south apse which is very dark and contains an old wooden chest and two old wood host boxes.

At the back of the north aisle is the remains of a small Baroque reredos with barley twist pillars with carvings of grapes and vine leaves. The centre panel is now empty but has an abstract design of silver and black on a red background. In the north transept is a small recess with a metal grille across which contains an old host box with the painted figure of Christ on it. Next to it on the wall, is a painted wood carving of St Bento. At the end of the north aisle is a massive roughly carved round bowl font. Inside is a smaller bowl with a scallop shell scoop. On the wall above is a carved wood panel with flowers, castles, lions and scroll designs.

The chancel is tall and narrow. It has a carved arcade on either side with two trefoliate arches supported by pillars with beautifully carved capitals. One depicts the nativity scene set under acanthus leaves. At the north corner is a old painted wooden carving of the Virgin cradling the dead body of Christ with four other figures behind her. Above is a blocked archway with a carving of a lamb holding a cross.

This is a delightful church and well worth the drive to find it, even if you can’t get inside.

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