THE BASILICA OF LA PURÍSIMA CONCEPCIÓN
The Basilica is the town’s most outstanding architectural heritage feature and one of the finest examples of Renaissance religious architecture to be found anywhere in the Basque Country.
The building stands out for its size – it is almost 50 m long and 25 wide -, for the standard of its construction and for the wealth of its furnishings. Its appearance is fairly consistent in style in spite of its long, complex history.
In general terms, its construction can be broken down into three phases:
The Gothic phase: this covers the years from 1464 to 1530, when work first began on the original design. The two entrances and the north portico on the square date from the latter part of this least documented period of the building’s history.
The Renaissance phase: from 1530 to 1620, when the essential elements of the building were defined. The walls and windows were completed, the impressive columns were erected and the vaults were covered.
The Baroque phase: from 1620 to 1767, when certain accessory parts of the building were constructed such as the choir, the top of the bell tower and the sacristy. It was during this period that the furnishing of the interior came to the fore, with the installation of the stalls and the nine altarpieces.
The mausoleum altar dedicated to St Valentine Berrio-Otxoa was added later, in the early 20th century.
THE GOTHIC PHASE
There are few records concerning this period: all that we have are the inscription on the north portico and a few documents dealing with disputes between the town council and the Ibarra family, who were the patrons of the church, regarding the form of services.
According to the said inscription work on the church began in 1464, when the people of the town decided that they needed a church of their own so as not to have to go to the church of San Agustín de Etxebarria to hear mass. They argued that San Agustín was too far outside the town and was hard to get to in bad weather.
We know that by 1517 the church had an organ and a clock. By that time the two late Gothic entrances would also have been completed. The structure of the portico laid out on either side of the entrance probably dates from around the same time. The more highly ornamented entrance at the bottom end of the church is probably a little more recent.
THE RENAISSANCE PHASE
The most widely accepted theory is that work was going so slowly that in around 1550 the builders were able to change the plans and the initial Gothic design was replaced by the Renaissance layout that can be seen today, with the nave and two side aisles all of the same height.
From the mid-16th century onwards records of the work survive, revealing that the man in charge was Pascual de Iturriza, a master stonemason from Mutriku. It is thought that it may have been he who decided to switch from the initial design to a Hallenkirche or “hall church” layout with all the vaults at the same height. He was also in charge of the completion of the outer walls and the erection of the impressive columns, which stand more than 18 m tall.
The window openings and supports also help to identify the church as Renaissance in style.
THE BAROQUE PHASE
Work on the choir was begun by Juan de Barasibar and completed by Rafael de Garaizabal in 1632. It featured two stone stairways and was supported on mortised cruciform pillars topped by three arches. The central segmental arch is more than 13 m wide, and doubts were raised as to whether it would be stable. To demonstrate that it was sound Garaizabal did not hesitate to stand underneath the keystone when the construction frames were removed. The relatively austere choir stalls, only part of which survive, were added later.
Another outstanding feature of the church is its bell tower, which is around 57 m tall. Its design is Andalusian in inspiration and reminiscent of the Giralda tower at Seville Cathedral. It was begun in 1661 (more than a century later than work on the main building) and not completed until 1672. Building work was funded in part by donations from local people, who also helped to carry materials, even on feast days, in exchange for 40-day indulgences for those who took part in the work. It is a sober, elegant construction characterised by its use of cobalt blue ceramic tiles (an unusual feature in the architecture of Bizkaia).
The dome was topped by a wooden weathervane, carved by Jerónimo de Yermo, which was lost in a fire in 1707 when a tallow candle placed on it to commemorate the birth of the first son of King Philip V burned too low. A new weathervane was set up to take its place in 1717, and its support was repaired in 1756. However it was struck by lightning in 1831. A third weathervane was then erected, designed by Esteban Capelastegui and standing 5 m tall. It depicted a winged allegory of Fame carrying a trumpet and a pennant with the motto TOTA PULCRA EST MARIA. This was also struck by lightning, leaving it so badly tilted that it was eventually decided to dismantle it in 1847.
Other work done during the Baroque period included the South portico, the stone columns for which were carved by Antonio de Rementeria in 1679. The presbytery was reformed that same year: apparently the original stood some 4 m above the level of its replacement
In 1695 work began on the old sacristy (currently used as the weekday chapel).
All the altarpieces that currently stand in the Basilica are Baroque in style, though the building also contains earlier images including a late Gothic carving of the crucified Christ dating from around 1520 and a similar figure on a knotted wood cross with crossed bones at its feet that dates from the beginning of the Renaissance phase of building.
The most outstanding altarpieces are without doubt those in the presbytery, a large piece flanked by two smaller ones dedicated to Saint Michael and St Peter. They make up a truly spectacular group which is probably the most outstanding example of Rococo Baroque style in Bizkaia. The story of their construction is long and complex, but the result is a magnificent Rococo altarpiece with a shaped base that seems almost pressed into the apse, which it fills completely. It has three vertical sections and two horizontal sections.
Also worthy of mention is the display shrine surrounded by angels with vines and ears of corn, finished with the theological virtues (Charity on the left, Hope on the right and Faith at the top). The picture is completed with a half-dozen apostles and, on the cul-de-four, St John the Baptist with the lamb, St Joachim and St Anne, the archangel Gabriel, the Guardian Angel and the Eternal Father at the very top. These last figures (except the Baptist, which was carved by Ontañón) are the work of the sculptor Juan de Munar.
THE MAUSOLEUM ALTAR
The interior of the Basilica was enriched still further in the early 20th century with the addition of a unique element: the mausoleum altar of St Valentine Berrio-Otxoa, the joint patron saint (with St. Ignatius) of Bizkaia. He was born in Elorrio and his remains were brought back here in 1886.
On the occasion of his beatification in 1906 the Provincial Council of Bizkaia convened a contest for the design of an altar. The winning project was submitted by Manuel María de Smith Ibarra and Marcelino de Arrupe and the altar was made by Fachinna and Maumejean of Paris. The spectacular mosaic depicts the martyrdom of the saint in Tonkin in 1861. It is an exceptional piece in terms of both its size and its exotic architectural style with high golden canopies reminiscent of oriental temples, and decoration in the form of beautifully harnessed elephant heads.
The bones of the saint are contained in the metal urn at the top of the altarpiece. The recumbent figure was added later, in 1925.
TEXT BY Jesús Muñiz Petralanda