SANCTUARY OF NUESTRA SEÑORA DE LA PEÑA (CALATAYUD)
The sanctuary of Nuestra Señora de la Peña is situated on a promontory where one of the five surrounding Islamic fortified castles was located. It is precisely this hazardous strategic location that determined its architectonic history. According to tradition, after the conquest of the city by Alfonso el Batallador, a star shone over the Muslim castle there, and they found an image of the Virgin under a bell that they named “of the Crag (peña),” perhaps to rename this Islamic fortification. The prompt establishment of her cult there is borne out by the fact that towards 1180, its parish church was elevated to the level of collegiate church, with a prior and twelve friars under the Rule of St. Augustine. In 1187 Alfonso II el Casto, ratified their status, and named them as Royal Chaplains at the same time. Nothing is known of the first church, and it is possible that they may have inhabited some rooms in the castle, or perhaps they built a Romanesque church.
Whatever the case, in 1343 work was begun on a new church in the Mudéjar style. To speed its construction, in 1347 the Bishop of Tarazona conceded indulgences to those who made gifts or personal loans for the work, which was completed around 1350. A few years later, during the War of the Two Pedros (1362), the vaults were damaged by the Castilian King’s artillery, and they were only rebuilt during the reign of Martín I.
In 1629, the chapter of the collegiate church of the Virgen de la Peña was united with that of Santa María by a Papal Bull under Pope Urban VIII. The prior Juan Bitrán Pujadas tried to block this union by all means possible, but he failed, and so the merger was carried out in 1632.
Since the church was now without a cult, the Ayuntamiento of Calatayud, in agreement with ecclesiastic authorities, gave it to the Clerics of San Francisco Caraciolo, who occupied it until 1835.
During the War of Independence, owing to its strategic position, the French army used the church as a barracks, and it was so abused when they abandoned it that extensive repairs were needed between 1814 and 1826, with the cult reestablished there on 2 September of the following year. The present structure of the building dates to this time.
A few years later, on 2 September 1835, to put it in conformity with the Exclaustration Edicts, all of the convent’s goods of the Minor Friars were inventoried, and the ornaments and sacred vessels were given to the Bishopric of Tarazona, while the building and furniture went to the National Government. In December of this same year, La Esclavitud de Nuestra Señora de la Peña, a brotherhood founded in 1649 with the aim of furthering the cult in the Sanctuary, requested that the Church become a parish for this part of the city. This request was granted with the proviso that the Brotherhood be responsible for the physical plant of the church, and perform the necessary work of consolidation. This was carried out in 1836.
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In 1839, during the first Carlist War, the church was once again used as a barracks due to its strategic position. When the war was over in 1840, the State put the building up for public sale, rejecting the reclamation by the Ayuntamiento and the Brotherhood, basing its argument on its contention that the handover of 1835 was for a limited time, given that the provincial administration was not a competent organism for it. All of the goods of the Minor Clerics was acquired by Zacarías Marco, who sold the church to the Brotherhood for 5000 reales, in 1844. At that time, the state of the building was lamentable, and for this reason, repairs were begun a few years later in 1852, under the direction of Juan Vargas Vicente Badesa. On 23 January of the following year, the cult was established again with the celebration of a Mass, and an image of the titular saint installed from Santa María.
The vicissitudes of the Sanctuary didn’t end here, because on the night of 8-9 December 1933, the church was intentionally set on fire, and the Romanesque image of Santa María de la Peña lost. It was the brothers Albareda who restored the high altar and carved a new image, and the painter José María Rubio who did the mural paintings in the apse.
In its present state, the church is made up of parts of the Mudéjar construction of the early 14th century that coexist with other classical ones fundamentally from the restoration of the 19th. The Mudéjar building was a fortress-church of marked defensive character, consisting of a single nave with chapels between buttresses and a flat apse containing three rectangular chapels. A tribune open to the exterior ran over the side chapels.
On the exterior, one complete bay of the tribune can be seen on the north side, with three wide pointed openings. Below is a cornice with projecting brackets. The façade also retains a single portal with a pointed arch with a little corbel above it based on brackets of the same type and simple angled brick, and the fragment of a window. On the buttress closest to the foot one can see perfectly the springer for the following bay of tribunes and the pointed arched passage through it. On the lower part is the beginning of the groin vaulting of the next chapel. The same can be seen on the south side of the church.
Returning to the earlier Mudéjar building of the early 14th century, its early construction converted it into the archetype of the fortress churches built in that century and the next in Aragon, mostly in the Territory of Calatayud: Torralba de Ribota, Tobed, Morata de Jiloca, Herrera de los Navarros, Azuara, or San Gil in Zaragoza.