In Navarre, only a stone’s throw from the pilgrim’s road, stands the isolated chapel of Santa María de Eunate. Its octagonal shape and exterior stone cloister arcade grant it a quite exceptional appearance. Despite its location away from an urban centre, there is nothing rustic about the building. On the contrary the fine quality of the stonework and construction bear the mark of an edifice of some consequence.
Situated in a fertile valley near the hamlet of Obanos it is on the route which the Pilgrim’s Guide declares was used by those travelling on the Toulouse Road via the Somport Pass and Jaca and passing through Aragon.
Eunate is located very close to the point where this road joins the other great pilgrimage route from the Roncevaux Pass via Pamplona to Puente la Reina. The Pilgrim’s Guide describes this stretch of the road from Monreal to Puente la Reina as the third day’s journey from the Somport.
The solitary aspect of the church gives it a mournful quality in keeping with its likely function as a funerary chapel.
Long thought to have belonged to the Templars, this was a supposition based simply on the fact that its octagonal shape was a copy of the church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem which the Templars were charged with guarding. The lack of documentary evidence of the presence of the Templars in the area would seem to refute this idea.
Nevertheless the origins and purpose of the church remain somewhat mysterious due to a shortage of contemporary references.
Stylistic considerations suggest a date of construction in the second half of the twelfth century during the reign of King Sancho el Sabio of Navarre.
In the mid thirteenth century a Navarrese monastic document makes mention in granting certain privileges to monks of Obanos of a hospice “on the way”.
A document of the Pamplona Cathedral of the sixteenth century refer to numerous ancient sarcophagi and in particular to a sculpted stele which located the burial site of the patroness of the foundation.
Excavations have revealed numerous burials within and without the arcade area including the discovery of a scallop shell.
These would appear to suggest a funerary church which formed part of a hospice complex for the benefit of pilgrims travelling to Santiago. Within Navarre, there were three of these octagonal churches. The Sancti Spiritus at Roncevaux and Santo Sepulcro at Torres del Rio just before Logroño. If one considers the dispersion of these locations it is apparent that they have a strategic and topographic function, Roncevaux being the point where the pilgrim road enters Navarre and Torres del Rio the point where it leaves. Eunate is halfway between and significantly at a point where the two main pilgrimage routes coincide.
The arcade which surrounds the church at Eunate does not appear to have been joined to the church by a roofing structuring but more likely to have been a part of the now dismantled hospice complex of which the church would have been the central part. The area within the arcade may have been reserved for important burials.
Both Torres del Rio and Eunate incorporated a staircase within the structure of the building. In the case of Torres, this led to a Lantern of the Dead where a beacon was lit and the stairs at Eunate may have had a similar purpose.
The lack of window space provides a suitably dark interior for a church whose main function was the performance of funerary rites. This only serves to enhance the effect of the twelve metre high dome, whose style is redolent of Islamic architecture. Eight starlike holes punctuate the ribbed ceiling to provide the spare lighting.
Of these openings, there are four octagonal and four smaller hexagonal shapes. The symbolic significance of the octagonal structure of the building, once reserved for baptisteries is further emphasised by these skylights. The use of the number eight was frequent in Romanesque art, symbolic not only of baptism and rebirth but also resurrection.
Biblio. Navarre Romane, Dom L-M de Lojendio
Lexique des Symboles, Olivier Beigbeder