Santo Toribio de Liébana is reached by a well made road just off the Fuente Dé road just west of Potes. The road climbs steeply up the mountainside to a huge car park in front of a plain stone rectangular building (?the monastery and admin buildings) which has a small shop. The church and cloisters are behind this.
This is one of the four holy places in Christendom and is an important pilgrimage centre. There has been a monastery here since the 6thC. It was disbanded after the forced sale of church land in Spain in 1837. Re-established in 1961, it now houses small community of Franciscan monks.
The church was begun 1256 and remodelled several times. It is a solid Romanesque building with a low pantiles roof and long narrow windows. At the west end is a low square tower. There are two doorways on the south side. The smaller, Puerta del Perdon is on the right. This is only used when Jubilee Years on 16th April fall on a Sunday. It has three round pillars supporting round arches, On the door are metal castings of saints and a crucifix. The larger Puerta Principal also has round pillars with carved capitals of mystical beasts and heads holding keys which support the round arches above. There is a carved wood shield above the door.
Inside the church is very dark with the only light coming through the tiny Romanesque windows which have modern stained glass in them. There are modern wooden pews in the nave. Multi-angular pillars separate nave and side aisles Above are round arches and a vaulted roof with carved bosses. At the back is a large round font. Beneath the tower are six confessional boxes and a modern painting of (we assume) St Toribio blessing a kneeling figure. Above is a small wooden balcony with the organ.
At the east end are three apses. The central one has a plain free standing altar. Behind it on the east wall is a painting of the crucifixion with the Virgin and St John on either side. There is a small font and floor standing lectern. The South apse has a wooden reliquary box and a carved wood statue of the Virgin and Child on the back wall. The north apse is very dark as there is no window. It has a 14thC recumbent effigy of St Toribio, no longer in the glass case as stated in some guide books to prevent pilgrims taking away splinters of wood.
The monastery contains the largest known piece of the true cross brought here in 7thC by St Toribio to protect it from possible capture by the Moors. The cross is in an 18thC chapel with highly carved and decorated walls and an octagonal tower. it is reached through two other chapels on the north wall of the nave. A locked metal grille door prevents entry to this area and you now peer through to admire the shrine at a distance. This is a huge gilded Baroque structure with a dove suspended above it. The illuminated silver gilt cross containing the relic relic dates from 1679. The monks split the fragment in two and mounted it in a cross shape set in a gilded frame. An opening left a gap for pilgrims to kiss the cross. It is a splendid sight, but frustratingly only visible from a distance.
The cloisters are accessed to the east of the church through two small archways with a small bell cote above. They were built in the 17thC during a period of major expansion. They are very plain with simple round arches and pebble and stone floor forming patterns of a vertical and diagonal cross. There is a locked doorway which leads into the north chapel containing the shrine. This has a shield above with a carving of a pilgrim on the left and a scallop shell on the right. This now has a small exhibition of illustrations from the 8thC Commentary on the Apocalypse written by the Monk Beato de Liébana when he was at Santo Toribio. This became compulsory reading in monasteries as it contained a series of images in the codexes illustrating forces of evil in a struggle against the ‘triumphal and celestial’. It described the Second Coming of Christ and the End of the World. It became one of the most copied books in the Middle Ages and its illustrations played a decisive role in Romanesque sculpture. The original book of Beato no longer exists but there have been about 20 successive copies referred to as Beatuses written between 9-13thC. There is an exhibition of facsimiles of some of these in Tourist Information in Potes.
We were distinctly underwhelmed by Santo Toribio and it didn’t live up to expectation. It is one of the major tourist attractions in the area but we can’t understand why everyone gets so excited about it. Maybe because it is one of the very few religious buildings that are open?
The area around the monastery is surrounded caves, chapels and shrines used by monks and there are footpaths to many of them. We drove to the end of the road to Ermita de San Miguel where there is a small parking area. This is a small square stone building with a small bell cote with spaces for three bells. It has a wooden doorway covered by a small porch. There are small holes in the door which you can peer through to see the inside, which has a wall mounted wooden cross and a small carving of St Michael killing the Devil represented by a serpent. There are good views across to Potes and down to Turieno in the valley below with Arguébanes in the valley above it. On the hillside above it is Ermita de Santa Catalina which is a much larger building.
For those planning a visit, remember the monastery shuts for three hours at lunchtime. Opening times are 10-1 4-7. It is free.