un recorrido por el arte mudéjar aragonés
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Church of San Gil Abad -St. Giles the Aboot- (Zaragoza)



The church of San Gil Abad was built right in the middle of Zaragoza as the head of the parish of the same name. We have notices of its existence from the 12th century when, after the re-conquest of the city in 1118, Alfonso El Batallador ceded the church of San Gil to the Bishop Esteban de Huesca so that its products could support the troops from Bearn who had aided in the conquest. This cession was confirmed in 1121 together with the Church of Las Santas Masas. After years of litigation, in 1145 the Bishop of Palencia ordered by arbitral sentence its reincorporation into the Bishopric of Zaragoza.

Tough there is neither documentation nor remains to prove it, it is entirely possible that the original structure was in the Romanesque style, and there is even the possibility, as in the case of the Church of Las Santas Masas, that before the re-conquest there might have existed a Mozarabic church or an appropriated Islamic building that might form part of the lowest part of the church below the tower. According to Alfonso García del Paso the cession to the Bishop of Huesca, as well as sustaining the payment to his troops, can be taken as a permission for construction, which would date the early building to the middle of the 12th century.

On conversion to a parochial church in 1242, the number of parishioners increased considerably, making it necessary to build a larger structure to accommodate them, so the old one was demolished and a new church built in the 14th century. We know of its existence by this time from Diego Espés, who relates in his “Historia eclesiástica de la Santa Iglesia de Zaragoza” that in 1358 the War Council of Zaragoza, during the War of the Two Pedros, ordered that in case of attack by Castilian troops that the tower, along with others in the city, be destroyed, which certifies that the church was constructed before this date.

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In any case, what we see today in this church is the result of a profound Baroque reform carried out between 1719 and 1725 by the Masters Manuel Sanclemente and Blas Ximénez, which completely altered the interior, but retained almost entirely its exterior, the structure that we will examine on the following pages.

The Mudéjar church was oriented towards the east; this would be modified in the reform. It was of the fortress church type, with a single nave of two bays, flat apse and side chapels between he buttresses. The nave was covered with simple groin vaulting, having diagonally crossed ribs in the two nave bays and pointed barrel vaulting in the apse and at the foot, which was bounded by the two buttress towers at the sides. The side chapels had pointed barrel vaulting transversal to the nave, that on the exterior was manifested in a big pointed arch jutting from the wall and forming blind arches that spanned the chapel between the buttresses. The apse was comprised of three rectangular chapels with simple groin vaulting, with openings on the nave, the center one being the highest.

A tribune ran above the side chapels and those of the presbytery, with interior access via the six buttress-towers that were along the sides of the nave. This structure is typical of the fortress-church type.

The Baroque reform that completely altered the interior was not so drastic on the exterior, where it was reduced to the demolition of the apse and straight gable wall, substituting polygonal apses at the same time it was liturgically reoriented. The two side ones retained their Mudéjar construction. In the last restoration of the church they demolished the structures that annexed the north façade, on the present Calle Estébanes, so that the principal tower, two buttress towers and the tribunes on this side remained visible. Although the south side has this same construction, it is totally masked by attached edifices.

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The buttress towers are divided into two stories, the lower located below the roof height of the side chapels and the upper extending up to the roof of the nave. A simple cornice in the form of projecting brackets with a band of angled brick below, a continuation of the lower roof support, separates the two levels. On the lower part are little loopholes for illumination, while on the upper level are openings with pointed arches. At the top is a cornice of projecting brackets with a saw-toothed band of angled brick below it. Their interiors have a central post and staircases located between it and the exterior wall, covered with vaults approximating the two levels; this distribution is identical to the principal tower that we will see in succeeding pages.

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