The church of Sant Joan in Boí has the largest number of architectural elements from the early building work that took place in the Vall de Boí in the 11th century.
Of particular note in the church of Sant Joan, with its basilical layout (like Sant Climent and Santa Maria) are the mural paintings decorating the interior of the naves with scenes such as The Stoning of Saint Stephen, The Minstrels and The Bestiary.
The last restoration aimed, as far as possible, to restore the church to what it must have looked like in the 12th century. With this aim in mind, the interior was darkened and copies were made of all the fragments of frescoes currently conserved at the MNAC.
This is where we can best understand the function of these paintings and the original appearance of the churches.
The municipality of La Vall de Boí takes the name of the village of Boí, this village was one of the most important in the valley in medieval times. It is the only one we know of that was fortified, since remains of the wall and the watchtowers have been preserved.
The first written reference of the village of Boí dates from 1064, it is mentioned as "ipsa illa de Bogin" with other villages of the valley in pacts of sale and exchange of various possessions between the counts of Pallars Jussà and the counts of Pallars Sobirà.
From the Middle Ages to the late 18th century, the parishes of the la Vall de Boí had an autonomous ecclesiastical organization based on "conrectories". This autonomy was favored by the remoteness of the episcopal see, and was based on the distribution of the tasks and revenues of each parish among several "conrectors" that always had to be native to the valley. Their meetings were held in the sanctuary of Caldes de Boí.
Sant Joan de Boí is a basilical building with three naves separated by semicircular arches resting on columns and solid pillars of low height. The naves are covered by a gable roof of wood and slate and were originally crowned by three semicircular apses. The central apse was demolished during the process of architectural reforms that the church suffered during S. XVII and XVIII, currently only presbyterian arches are conserved.
The bell tower has a square plan, is three stories high and is attached to the south wall, near the est end of the church.
Let’s look on the outside
The walls of the church and the base of the bell tower are built with irregular ashlars, they belong to the first period of the Romanesque construction, the XI century.
In the north wall lime mortar and white-coloured joints are conserved following the ashlars.
The door that opens on the northern façade was originally protected by a portico that protected the mortar and external murals (it was demolished in the Modern Age).
The bell tower shows us the construction of the church: the base, corresponding to the first Romanesque period, the two following floors are from the 12th century, and the top floor is of modern work.
The Lombard decoration is found in the apses and the bell tower: blind arches and saw tooth friezes.
The southern apse was rebuilt in the restoration of the 1970’s. The original had been overthrown between the 17th and 18th century.
In the church of San Juan de Boí exceptional remains of external mural painting were preserved, currently we can see a copy, the originals are the MNAC.
Located on the north façade of the church, around the semicircular arch of the door, the paintings represented a Theophany. In the central part we can see a circular shape, supported by four angels, that would have contained the image of a Chrismon. On one side of this scene there is a saint with a book in his hand, on the other three characters who contemplate the central vision. A border with geometric motifs frames the whole set.
On each side of the door, under the mural paintings, there were also some graffiti from the medieval period, where several scenes of a military character are distinguished, with towers, characters playing horns and horses.
We look inside
Sant Joan de Boí has the interior walls covered with lime mortar and painted, this is how most of the interiors of the Romanesque churches in the Boí Valley should be. These paintings are a reproduction, the originals are in the MNAC.
From the scenes preserved in Sant Joan de Boí, it can be deduced that the iconographic programme of the church’s naves was divided into two levels of representation: the saints or blessed who occupy most of the walls and represent the heavenly universe; and the animals of the bestiary, creatures that populate the earthly world, that are represented in scenes significantly located below the previous ones, as the lower part of the walls or the intradoses of the arches. By closing the repertoire, on the western wall, he would have represented the Last Judgment.
The mural paintings of the churches served the function of transmitting the Christian morality of the time through examples.
Some of the most significant scenes:
The Stoning of St Stephen:
St Stephen kneels down and raises his hands in prayer, above is the hand of God that illuminates the saint with a ray of light while three characters throw stones at him. The three executioners are in different positions to simulate the movement: the last one gains momentum, the middle one gets ready and the first one is throwing the stone.
This scene represents the strength of the martyr, as an example to follow, the trials and difficulties that the good faithful must overcome.
This scene depicted on the north wall depicts three male characters: a musician playing a harp, a juggler and an equilibrist face down who seems to want to pick up some swords with his mouth (doing the cartwheel).
His clothes correspond to those of the minstrels of the time. The three figures dressed in short robes and with flared-shaped pants tied with crossed ribbons.
This scene is a representation of the feast and celebration in the heavenly universe, of the music and joy of which the sacred characters, the blessed, are partakers.
In the intradoses of the arches and in the lower parts of the walls some animals of the bestiary are represented: the lion, the dromedary, "the carcoliti", "the osne".
The medieval bestiaries were the books that collected the animals known at the time, whether real or fantastic; they had a clear moralizing function, the animals were personifications of vices and virtues. In some Romanesque churches they used the images of the bestiary to decorate the walls and transmit to the faithful the instructive character of the animals.
Rooster: on tympanum of the north door is the representation of a rooster.
The crowing of the cock at dawn tells us of the birth of a new day, a symbol of resurrection.
The sinner: In the intrados of one of the arches a human figure appears depicting a crutch in the left leg and is touching the sex.
Because of his situation this character is part of the register where earthly creatures are represented, and presents a clear moralizing function: his obscene attitude and physical problems represent his moral defects.
Apocalyptic beast: in the west wall of the church is the dragon of the seven heads, the Apocalyptic Beast, image that was part of the Final Judgment that had to occupy the whole western wall.
The Last Judgment, with the representation of Hell and Paradise, acted before the faithful as a reminder of what awaited them in the hereafter depending on their behavior on earth.
11th century : First building work
12th century : Bell-tower reformed
16th - 19th century: Several reforms affecting the original appearance
1920/1923 : First painting removed
1976/1978 : Second paintings removed and restoration work
1997/1998 : Restoration work and frescoes copied
Open: Daily open except 25th December and 1st January.
Opening hours: From 10.00 to 14.00 and 16.00 to 19.00 h. (until 20:00 from 24 to 26 June and from 3 July to 29 August)