Santa Cristina de Lena, the unknown Asturian World Heritage Site

The north of the Iberian Peninsula is full of small hermitages and churches with lots of charm, such as Santa Cristina de Lena. Located on top of a hill and surrounded by a bucolic landscape, it has become a must for those who enjoy discovering the unknown corners of Asturias. Whether you are on holiday in the north of the peninsula or if you want to enjoy the hiking trails of Asturias, undoubtedly the church of Santa Cristina de Lena is a place to visit.

Santa Cristina de Lena

Main access to the interior of Santa Cristina de Lena. | Shutterstock

Santa Cristina de Lena is a pre-Romanesque church located in Asturias. Because of its architectural style, it is believed to have been built during the 9th century. The lack of documents from the period, in any case, does not make it easy to frame it temporally.

And it is precisely this fact that has caused the church of Santa Cristina de Lena to be the focus of much debate. The Lena building has been studied, analyzed and debated by a multitude of specialists and historians, without reaching an exact and objective conclusion about its origin.

Some experts place its construction even much earlier, in Visigothic times, but having been reformed in later centuries to offer a more modern appearance. This theory is based on the different reused pieces of Visigothic origin that can be seen inside the building.

There are several hypotheses regarding the function of the building. It may have been part of a small monastic foundation or it may have been part of a larger complex related to the royal family, as a place that was used for recreational purposes.

A bit of history

Santa Cristina de Lena

Santa Cristina de Lena offers an unbeatable landscape for rural tourism. | Shutterstock

Considering a theory with a more solid origin, the beginning of the history of Santa Cristina de Lena dates back to the 9th century. Specifically, to the stage known as ramirense. This occurred when the Kingdom of Asturias was crowned by Ramiro I and his son, Ordoño Primero, between 842 and 866 AD. However, we have to move forward almost a millennium to begin to find literary references. In this case, by the Spanish writer Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, who in 1793 made several drawings of the construction of Santa Cristina de Lena.

A little less than a century later, in 1885, the Academy of History catalogued the chapel of Santa Cristina de Lena as a Historic-Artistic Monument. At that time it was in a much improved state, so from this event would be invested in reforms to improve the situation of the building. There is also an oral tradition that indicates that, during the Asturian miners’ revolution of 1934, the church was used as a defensive place against the state troops. It was damaged in these attacks, but at present there is no evidence of this. It is possible that this is due to the repairs that took place in 1950.

It was not until 1985 that UNESCO declared the church of Santa Cristina de Lena a World Heritage Site. During the following years, especially in the 21st century, more work was done to reinforce the structure and improve the surrounding area.

What is the church of Santa Cristina de Lena like?

santa cristina de lena

From the aerial view the Greek cross plan can be observed. | Shutterstock

The structure and architecture of Santa Cristina de Lena differs greatly from other religious works that can be found in Asturias, such as the parish of Espinaréu or the hermitage of La Regalina. The church has a Greek cross floor plan, with a central nave divided into five bays and using sash arches supported by blind arches. The ceiling uses a barrel vault, while it can be seen that two heights have been used on the floor, the highest being in the altar area. It has both narthex and iconostasis. Three stone arches with latticework are used to separate the presbytery area with the main nave, offering an interesting interior appearance and decorated with Visigothic motifs.

It is not a very large construction, since it is 10 meters long and 5 meters wide. On the outside, different buttresses can be observed that reinforce the whole structure of the church. The combination of different elements, such as Corinthian columns and Visigothic decoration, suggests that the architect in charge of its construction was based on a Visigothic church. It could be reconstructed respecting the floor plan, as well as some other details.

Due to these and other characteristics, the hermitage of Santa Cristina de Lena can be related to those of Santa María del Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo. Its construction or reconstruction could have been a previous work of the architect and his team before embarking on the other two architectural works.

Mountain villages and green landscapes

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Spring and summer are the best seasons to visit the church and its surroundings. | Shutterstock

The church of Santa Cristina de Lena is located 35 kilometers south of Oviedo. From that city just take the A-66 highway, passing Mieres and Pola de Lena in the direction of Vega del Rey. Surrounded by a good amount of Asturian mountain villages, it is located very close to Puerto de Pajares, one of the points that connect the Castilian plateau with the autonomous community of Asturias.

It crowns a hill, surrounded by green meadows that offer a wonderful landscape. Not only invites you to learn more about the church of Santa Cristina de Lena, but also to spend a fantastic day of rural tourism. The latter is recommended on the last Sunday of July. It is on these dates when the inhabitants of the nearby villages gather for a pilgrimage in honor of Santa Cristina. Taking advantage of the event, the peculiar Asturian auction of ‘la puja del ramo’ is also practiced.

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