Church of Santa María, Tobed

Plaza de San Pedro, 50325 Tobed (Zaragoza)

CURRENT PROTECTION STATUS: Asset of Cultural Interest (ACI)


CATEGORY: Religious


CONSTRUCTION DATE: Chronology by Gonzalo Borrás

There is one constant in the chronology of these fortified churches and it is that, while the three aforementioned churches – the churches of Tobed, Torralba de Ribota and Morata de Jiloca – have similar structures, they each have certain unique features that make it possible to establish a timeline for them.

According to professor Gonzalo Borrás, the width of the single nave is different in each of the three (Tobed 9.90 x 11m), and the later ones are wider, leading to the assertion that, with each endeavor, there is an effort to cover a wider space.

Another evident detail is that the bays covered by pointed barrel vaults are wider in Tobed (2.60m) than in the other three examples, meaning that the abutments have become lighter. There are also other enhancements seen as the style evolves, such as the appearance of a bay with a pointed barrel vault between the three square-plan chapels forming the presbytery and the first bay of the nave, which had not yet been introduced at the time the church in Tobed was built. Therefore, a chronological sequence can be established in which the church of the Virgin in Tobed is the earliest construction, representing a prototype of the fortified church.

There is a large body of documentation about the construction of the church of Santa María in Tobed, so it is possible to assert that work began on April 1, 1356, when Brother Domingo Martinez de Algarví (1347-1384) was prior of the church of the Santo Sepulcro in Calatayud and Brother Juan Domingo was the prelate of Tobed.

Some of the sources that support this assertion related to the chronology state that Enrique II of Castile, the count of Trastamara, bore the costs of the three altarpieces in the main chapel of the church of the Virgin of Tobed, that Pope Benedict XIII – whose coat of arms is seen on the boss of the west end bay, contributed to the completion of the church, and that Martín I, the king of Aragon, gifted a Byzantine icon of the Virgin to the church in February 1400.

In short, the church of the Virgin in Tobed was begun on April 1, 1356 and three years later, by June 3, 1359, at least the east end had been constructed. At that time, the three altarpieces paid for by Enrique II as the count of Trastamara were probably created, while the coat of arms of Benedict XIII on the boss of the west end bay can be from no earlier than September 28, 1394, when he was made pope. Thus, it is possible to date the church of the Virgin in Tobed to the second half of the 14th century.
Among the different types of Mudejar churches in Aragon, one important type that has been highlighted by historians is the fortified church. These churches receive this name because of their pronounced military appearance and the violent events that gave rise to their construction (Fig. 1). The spread of this type of churches was largely influenced by the violence experienced in the territory of Aragon at that time, such the War of the Two Peters (1358-1366) between Pedro I of Castile (the Cruel) and Pedro IV of Aragon (the Ceremonious).

One clear example of this type of fortified church is the church of Santa María in Tobed, declared a world heritage site by the UNESCO in 2001[1]. The setting in which it was built is related to the monarch Pedro IV, the initial force behind the Mudejar art of Aragon. The monarch’s good relations with the Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Calatayud and with archbishop Pedro Martínez de Luna were also decisive. In addition, Brother Martín de Alpartil acted as a liaison between all the parties sponsoring the church, acting at once as canon of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher, treasurer of the archbishopric of Zaragoza and chamberlain for Benedict XIII.

The interior of the church of Santa María in Tobed shares certain typical features with other fortified churches such as the church of San Felix in Torralba de Ribota. The church of the Virgin in Tobed has a single rectangular nave, affording a unified view of the space. The central nave divided into three bays covered by a quadripartite rib vault with diagonal ribs and there are other shorter bays between the bays with rib vaults, which are covered by a pointed barrel vault projecting to the exterior in buttress towers.[2] The east end or apse is straight, composed of three square-plan chapels interconnected at the sides and covered by quadripartite rib vaults, which lead to the nave through three pointed arches on columns. In relation to the church of the Virgin in Tobed, this threesome of chapels in the apse could be a reference to the triple dedication to the Virgin, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Mary Magdalene.

The side chapels are set between the buttress towers, covered by pointed barrel vaults, and they are the same width as the bays of the nave covered by a pointed barrel vault, the width of which is the same as that of the bays of the nave covered by a rib vault. Furthermore, an analytical study of the building and its current condition has revealed a series of graphic inscriptions that will be the subject of future research projects.

Above the side chapels and the chapels in the apse, characteristic of the fortified church style, there is a wall-walk or alure, a kind of passageway that connects to the interior via pointed arch openings decorated with fretted plasterwork, covered over on the inner side. The buttress towers inside the church afford access to this wall-walk.

No less significant is the interior decoration: given the principles of ornamentation in Islamic and Mudejar art, ornamentation is not an element that can be considered in an isolated manner.
As mentioned before, the final bay of the church of the Virgin in Tobed was done by the workshop of Mahoma Rami, and the change in the color scheme between the two bays can be observed: the final bay has a more reddish hue than the other two, which are done in more yellowish hues, created by the workshop of Mahoma Calahorri. In addition, in this final bay the same decorative scheme is used as in the first two bays of the church: the entire wall is coated with a layer of plaster that is then painted to look like brick using a trompe l’oeil technique consisting in making incisions with a tool known as a scribe awl to create a decorative motif and subsequently applying color to these incisions. This change in artisan’s workshop is also seen in the plaster latticework around the openings, given that those created by the workshop of Mahoma Rami blend motifs with Islamic roots and others of European influence, specifically in the Gothic style, which was becoming more widespread at that time.

The alfarje ceiling structure over the choir, located in this final bay, is a flat structure with exposed beams. There are no girders dividing it into compartments, while the part between the wall and the arch has a row of wood brackets or small bolsters that help support the joists. The bolsters extend beyond the arch, allowing the ceiling to overhang and extend over the nave. The beams and bolsters are finished with sculpted heads. The paintwork is done in several tones, reproducing simple motifs consisting in single or double circles containing six-point stars or stylized flowers.

One relevant detail to bear in mind in relation to Mudejar fortified churches is their location, and the church of the Virgin in Tobed is set in a strategic spot so as to render it a part of the town’s visual memory. In other words, based on its location, its purpose may have had more to do with propaganda than with actual defense. Therefore, certain aspects should be noted in order to understand the church in its entirety: it was ordered to be built in a key style at that time (the fortified church) in a location that was neither strategic nor defensive, which would render this military-related style unnecessary in that place. Considering these details, it can be concluded that the building was not constructed for military purposes but instead was given certain functional features in an effort to convey an image of strength and power in relation to the presence of enemy forces, Castile in this case. Finally, the merging of these two purposes can be seen here: the defensive purpose, noted in the civilian esthetic of the building and in the subsequent defense-related features, and the liturgical and religious use, present in its basilica or hallenkirche layout of the interior.

The completely rational structure of this type of fortified church, in which the support and thrust systems are designed in a very strong and simple manner, is not seen in other Aragonese Mudejar monuments; instead, this group must be considered a series of unique specimens whose features do not become widespread, emphasizing their dual religious and defensive function.


Restoration, 20th to 21st century

The building was in need of certain refurbishing work, and in 1984, the city council building attached to the western side of the church was demolished, thus revealing the west façade and the aperture of the original portal. The oculus and the large windows that had been covered over were returned to their ancient splendor. Restored by the architect Úrsula Heredia Lagunas. In 2001, it was once again restored thanks to the collaboration of the Provincial Government of Aragon, the Archbishopric of Zaragoza and the Tobed City Council. Between 2001 and 2004, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport and the Government of Aragon cooperated on the restoration of the murals on the interior walls of the temple, the plasterwork, the Mudejar alfarje, the parclose on the chapel of the Virgin, tile work and wood features. The budget for these activities amounted to 1,027,888 euros. In 2006, thanks to the collaboration of the Government of Aragon and Caja Inmaculada, the altarpiece of the Virgin in the main chapel, the altarpiece of Christ and the altarpiece of Saint Joseph were restored.

Projects and interventions

Projects and interventions, and the driving forces behind them, define the history of monumental buildings and how they are perceived.


Declaration, 21st century

The church of Santa María in Tobed was declared a National Monument under the Ministry of Public Instruction and Fine Arts Decree of June 3, 1931 published in the Gazette on June 4, 1931. The Official Gazette of Aragon dated October 29, 2001 published the Department of Culture and Tourism Order of October 3, 2001, whereby the original declaration of the church of Santa María (church of the Virgin of Tobed) in Tobed (Zaragoza) is supplemented pursuant to Transitional Provision One of Aragonese Cultural Heritage Act 3/1999, of March 10. On December 14, 2001, UNESCO expanded its declaration of the Mudejar art of Aragon as World Heritage, declaring it an asset that is unique, universal and irreplaceable for Humanity. One of the assets listed in this declaration is the church of Santa María in Tobed, considered one of the best examples of the Mudejar art of Aragon.


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Church of Santa María

Plaza de San Pedro,
50325 Tobed (Zaragoza)

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