Jamie and I hiked past the tiny church in Júbar four or five times and gave it little heed. One day, our host David suggested he give us a proper tour. Every conversation with David imparts some astonishing history or story. We wondered, what could this unassuming church in a village reduced today to only 20 or 30 residents tell us about the village life centuries ago.
It turns out that sometimes the most unassuming location or building can tell you a lot if you dig a little deeper. How much information do we all walk right past every day?
The outwardly unassuming church rests on land that commands views of mountain passes to the east and west that frame the sunrise and sunset of the summer solstice. It’s been a place of worship for at least 4,000 years. Over the epochs the site has hosted prehistoric nature “worship,” a Roman temple whose ceramic floor lies under the current building, an Islamic mosque, elements of which survive in the current building, a sort of blended mosque/church/synagog in the 16th century and finally today’s Roman Catholic church.
Our first indication of the church’s unusual past is the ironwork on the bell tower that once was its minaret. It pairs a cross with the Star of David. The main door is framed by an Islamic arch.
We entered the building to find a sparsely decorated, ordinary looking space with plaster walls, stone floors, and a few wooden pews. I wondered, "What's the big deal?" A closer look at the wooden ceiling revealed a blend of decorative elements like the famous shell found throughout the city of Santiago de Compostela and all along the Camino de Santiago. This is a significant Christian symbol in Spain. Stars of David are interspersed among the ceiling beams. What kind of amalgamation of beliefs results in this blend of religious symbolism?
Hold on, the mystery deepens. Some years ago structural reinforcements were needed to straighten the collapsing walls. The diligent work crew discovered frescoes obliterated by coats of plaster. The partially exposed frescoes, dated to about 1600, include recognizable images of Christian saints coupled with some unrecognizable people. Perhaps importantly, these unusual figures are not facing the central image of the Christ. Experts from the university in Granada can only speculate that these people may be the commissioners of the works. But why are they facing away? Might they have been the non-christian members of the community? Who knows?
The next mystery is why were the frescoes covered and when? Well it turns out that when is easy, about 1650, only 50 years after they were originally painted. So why the cover-up?
Given the dynamics of religious turmoil in the country during the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834) a cover-up makes perfect sense. The final mystery is how in the world did this little country church with its mixture of Judaic, Christian and Islamic motifs ever survive into the 21st century?
I’ve visited many grand cathedrals and basilicas throughout Spain and Europe. I find the historical aspects of churches and their art both intriguing and horrifying. You don’t have to walk far to stand on ground where populations were decimated in the name of religion. Here in the little village of Júbar, the surprising history of their little church suggests all that religious animosity wasn't necessarily universal.