By arranging the construction of a seven arched bridge across the Aragon river by Rocaforte, it was clearly the intention of Alfonso el Batallador to drive pilgrimage traffic south towards Puente la Reina. The new town which grew up by the new bridge was Sangüesa and it became a substantial pilgrimage station.
Situated on the frontier of Aragon and Navarre, at the time of Sangüesa’s expansion the two kingdoms were joined under Alfonso’s rule.
The charter which the king granted for the town’s inhabitants in 1122 was designed, much like those for Oloron-Saint-Marie and Estella, to provide certain rights which would allow the growth of trade and crafts, thereby both facilitating the Compostelan pilgrimage and adding to the royal coffers at the same time.
In time a wall featuring six separate gates was built to surround the town.
The major Romanesque monument standing today at Sangüesa is the church of Santa Maria la Real. Originally within the precincts of the royal palace, it was donated by Alfonso to the Order of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem in 1131. The presence of the Hospitaller’s at Sangüesa is an indication of the level of provision made for pilgrims.
The location of the church was on the left bank of the Aragon by the bridge and its proximity to the river was such that entrance from the west was restricted. This is why the southern portal is the decorative centrepiece, one of the most elaborate designs in Spanish Romanesque. Clearly the work of a succession of workshops carried out over a period of time, it includes a diversity of influences, whose eclecticism speaks of the cultural movements engendered by the Compostelan pilgrimage.
At the top ranged in two rows of arcades are the Apostles surrounding Christ in Majesty. The bulbous eyes of the figures, plainly the work of the Aragonese sculptor known to art historians as the Master of San Juan de la Peña.
Beneath, a tympanum in the Burgundian style of the Last Judgment is surrounded by a mass of spandrel and voussoir reliefs which recall the facades of Poitevin churches.
Many of the figures are too obscure to hazard more than a guess at their meaning. The recurrence of a variety of craftsmen, cobblers in particular, suggest some of the trades in which the townspeople of Sangüesa engaged, having an affinity with similar figures on the arch surrounding the tympanum at Oloron which pilgrims would have seen before they crossed the Pyrenees.
On either side of the entrance doorway are columnar statues, reminiscent of the western entrance at Chartres cathedral. To the left are the Three Marys, identifiable by the inscriptions on the books they bear. The central crowned figure is the Virgin Mary, patroness of the church and to her left Mary Magdalene, to her right Mary Salome.
The figures on the left side of the entrance are the Apostles Peter and Paul and the hanged figure of Judas. This presentation of the image of the traitorous disciple at Sangüesa is unique in Romanesque sculpture. A demon above his head suggests the chastisement which was Judas’ due and the inscription across the chest, though difficult to decipher has been read as Judas Mercator. This would identify Judas with the mercantile class who were profiting from the pilgrim trade at Sangüesa and advised, like those at Oloron, to heed the church’s warnings about wealth as a barrier to salvation.