A possible self-portrait of a mason has been discovered carved in the capital of a column inside the nave of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The Easter egg was spotted by art historian Dr. Jennifer Alexander during a detailed survey the 11th century cathedral’s Romanesque architecture.
Alexander was conducting a stone-by-stone analysis to work out its construction sequence, in a project funded by the Galician regional government. It was when she was studying the capitals, about 13 metres above the pavement, that “this little figure popped out”, she recalled.
“A lovely image of a chap hanging on to the middle of the capital as if his life depended on it. It’s in a row of identical off-the-peg capitals where they’ve been knocking them out in granite – ‘we need another 15 of that design’ – and suddenly there’s one that’s different. So we think it’s the man himself.
Some of the column capitals in the central nave of the church have uniquely-carved variants featuring animals, angels, devils, Biblical scenes and the like. They imparted at-a-glance theology to the thousands of pilgrims who flocked to the cathedral, and added visual drama to the space. Those capitals are in less obscure locations, however, and this guy is a little too regular compared to the fantastical and Biblical figures on the splashier capitals.
The carved figure is about a foot high and has a round face with large ears reminiscent of a Dr. Bunsen Honeydew with eyes and no glasses. His arms are bent at the elbow so they can comfortably nestle in the chevron shapes formed by the wide banana leaves decorating the capital, basically in a shrug emoji posture. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ His right hand is curled into a fist. He has no left hand. He could be a mason, sure. Then again he could not be one too.
In other Santiago de Compostela news, The Portico of Glory, the cathedral’s high-drama three-arched entrance façade built in the 12th century by French architect Master Mateo, underwent a 12-year program of restoration that was completed in 2018. As much as possible, the polychrome paint on the portico’s 200+ figures was conserved, but much of it was lost centuries ago and what remains is mostly the result of later interventions. During the restoration work, the portico was documented in unprecedented detail with more than 2,700 gigapixel photographs capturing every inch of the elaborately-decorated surfaces. Those photographs were converted into a digital 3D model and made available in a ground-breaking free app that allows users to crawl over every last detail of The Portico of Glory, see it before and after restoration, learn about the deterioration of the carvings and the treatments, all accompanied by an audio tour.
The app goes a giant step beyond the visuals with the music. The characters on the portico include 21 who bear musical instruments. Researchers recreated those instruments in 3D and then recreated the music they played, so while you examine the masterpiece of medieval art, you are accompanied by a soundtrack that not only matches the period, but the specific musicians on the archway itself. It is unbelievable, truly.
You can download The Portico of Glory app for iOS here and for Android here.
7 thoughts on “Is this the self-portrait of mason hidden in a column capital?”
Possibly the little guy’s round face isn’t really quite as round as it looks, but has a beard?
It’s nice to think it’s a self portrait.
Is it possible the missing hand held a trowel?
Or are there any one-handed saints in the Spanish pantheon?
Or instead of a mason could it be a depiction of a medieval thief whose hand was cut off in punishment?
His left hand isn’t missing. It’s wrapped around the capital like he’s hanging on. In the picture, three of his fingers are just barely visible above the capital. There are corresponding bumps in the shadow.
Mike, every Saint from the Spanish pantheon that I personally know of features in fact no less than 24 right hands, on average distributed to 54 church buildings :skull:
Thanks Michelle! I see those fingers now that you pointed them out.
He looks a little plump to be a stonemason though.
I discovered your blog this morning. Thank you for sharing this bit about Portico de la Gloria. When I arrived in Santiago in Jun 2018, I missed it just by a month. Wish I can go back there again SOON. And thanks for the information about the app, I am downloading it now.