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A 12th-Century Mason Created a Hidden Self-Portrait in Famed Spanish Cathedral

Over the past 900 years, millions of pilgrims walked through Santiago de Compostela Cathedral without spotting the secret carving

Art historian Jennifer Alexander believes the carving is a self-portrait made by a medieval stonemason. (Courtesy of Jennifer Alexander)
smithsonianmag.com

A British scholar surveying a famed Spanish cathedral has discovered a hidden carving that she believes a 12th-century mason created as a self-portrait.

The 11-inch-tall carved figure is located is at the top of one of the many columns that stand in the corners of the ornate Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Galicia. Jennifer Alexander, an art historian at the University of Warwick, found the likeness during a survey of the church, which was constructed—in starts and stops—between 1075 and 1211.

“You find this in medieval buildings,” Alexander tells the Observer’s Dalya Alberge. “They’re usually in dark corners where only another stonemason would find them. This one is in a bit of the building where you’d have to be a stonemason to be up there to see it.”

Per the Observer, the Galician regional government hired Alexander to conduct a stone-by-stone analysis to determine the sequence of the building’s construction. As she was looking at the tops of the columns far above the pavement, “this little figure popped out.”

“He’s got a nice little smile,” the art historian adds. “He’s pleased with himself. He’s splendidly carved, with a strongly characterized face.”

Nestled more than 40 feet above ground level, “[t]he carving brings us face to face with one of the people whose work we’ve been studying, and it was delightful to meet him,” Alexander tells artnet News.

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral has been a destination for Christian pilgrims for hundreds of years. ( Yosika (happyholiday.travel) via Flickr under CC BY 2.0)
The figure is located in a hidden spot at the top of a 40-foot column. (Courtesy of Jennifer Alexander)

Santiago de Compostela is one of the world’s greatest examples of Romanesque architecture. Said to be built at the burial place of Saint James the Elder, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ, the site was a destination for Christian pilgrims even before the cathedral’s construction. It’s remained a popular pilgrimage location for more than 1,000 years. Hundreds of thousands of people visit each year, many of them walking the Camino de Santiago, a network of pilgrimage routes in Spain, France and Portugal.

The cathedral is a Unesco World Heritage site recognized for its historical and religious significance, as well as for its art and architecture. Among its most famous features are the Pórtico de la Gloria, a medieval sculpture that depicts a Christian conception of the world, and the western façade, a later addition that mixes architectural styles and forms part of Obradoiro Square.

Generally, no records of the names or lives of the stonemasons who created medieval cathedrals survive. Only the most prominent of the stonemasons were allowed to include images of themselves in their work; Alexander tells artnet News that the creator of the secret “selfie” would likely have been a lower-level craftsman who didn’t qualify for that privilege, but “he clearly had other ideas and placed himself where someone working on the building would find him, but the clergy would never notice what he’d done.”

Medieval stonemasons were not just skilled craftsmen, but “unsung geniuses,” Alexander tells the Observer. They were responsible for engineering, hiring workers, securing materials and managing enormous construction projects. Although their names were not recorded, the new discovery provides a tiny personal glimpse into one of their lives.

“It’s just such a charming connection between us and the person that carved it,” says Alexander. “It’s almost as if it was designed just for us to see it by those people working on the building. Of course, this stonemason probably had no idea that he’d have to wait so long to be spotted.”

About Livia Gershon
Livia Gershon

Livia Gershon is a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire. She has written for JSTOR Daily, the Daily Beast, the Boston Globe, HuffPost, and Vice, among others.

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