Sant Joan de Boí

Sant Joan de Boí is the church that preserves the most architectural elements from the first phase of construction that took place in the Vall de Boí in the 11th century.

Basilica-shaped (like Sant Climent and Santa Maria de Taüll), Sant Joan de Boí boasts mural paintings decorating the interior of the naves, with scenes such as the Stoning of Saint Stephen, the Minstrels and the Bestiary.

During the latest restoration the aim was to give the church an appearance as similar as possible to what it would have looked like in the early 12th century; the interior was therefore plastered and copies were made of all the fragments of mural paintings currently preserved at the National Museum of Art of Catalonia.

In Sant Joan de Boí you’ll learn more about what role the Romanesque wall paintings played and the original appearance of these churches.


11th century
First building work.

12th century
Bell-tower reformed.

16th-19th century
Several reforms affecting the original appearance.

First painting removed.

Second paintings removed and restoration work.

Restoration work and frescoes copied.

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The municipality of the Vall de Boí takes its name from the town of Boí, one of the most important settlements in the valley in mediaeval times. It’s the only one that has been proven to have been fortified, given that the remains of the wall and the watchtowers have been preserved.

La primera referència escrita del poble de Boí data del 1064 , es menciona com “ipsa illa de Bogin” junt amb altres pobles de la vall en pactes de venda i bescanvi de diverses possessions entre els comtes del Pallars Jussà i els comtes del Pallars Sobirà.

From the Middle Ages until well into the 18th century the parishes of the Vall de Boí had an autonomous ecclesiastical organisation based on co-rectories. This autonomy was facilitated by the remoteness of the episcopal see and based on the distribution of tasks and the income of each parish among several co-rectors who had to come from the valley. Their meetings were held at the sanctuary of Caldes de Boí.

The architectural forms

Sant Joan de Boí is a basilica-style building with three naves separated by semi-circular arches that rest on solid low columns and pillars. The naves are covered by double-sided wooden joisting and were originally topped by three semi-circular apses. The central apse was demolished during the architectural changes to the church that were made in the 17th and 18th centuries and currently only the presbyteral arches remain.

The bell tower is square in shape, three floors high and attached to the south wall near the chancel.

Let’s take a look at the outside

The walls of the church and the base of the bell tower are built with irregular ashlar stones and they correspond to the first construction period of the Romanesque era in the 11th century.

The bell tower displays the constructive evolution of the church: the base corresponds to the first Romanesque period, the next two floors date back to the 12th century and the last floor is modern. On the first two floors you’ll see the Lombard decoration with the blind arches and sawtooth friezes.

The Lombard decoration can also be found in the lateral secondary apses. The south apse was rebuilt during the restoration work in the 1970s. The original had been demolished between the 17th and 18th centuries, just like the main apse.

Exterior mural paintings

Exceptional remains of exterior mural paintings were preserved in the Church of Sant Joan de Boí, copies of which you can currently see, as the originals are housed at the National Museum of Art of Catalonia.

Located on the north façade of the church around the semi-circular arch of the door, the paintings depicted a Theophany. In the central part you can see a circular shape supported by four angels which would have contained the image of a Chrismon. A saint with a book in his hand is depicted on one side of this scene, while three characters gaze towards the central vision on the other. A cornice with geometric motifs frames the ensemble.

The paintings and plastering were protected by a porch that was demolished in modern times. It was at this time that the side entrance ceased to be used and the current door at the end of the church was opened up.

On the north wall the decoration with the lime mortar plastering and exposed white joints tracing the edges of the ashlar stones is still preserved.

Some mediaeval graffiti have also been preserved on each side of the door, beneath the wall paintings, on which different scenes of a military nature can be distinguished, with towers, characters playing trumpets, horses and stars.

Let’s take a look at the inside

Sant Joan de Boí has plastered and painted interior walls, as would have been the case in most Romanesque church interiors in the Vall de Boí. The current plastering and paintings are reproductions and the originals are preserved at the National Museum of Art of Catalonia.

The scenes preserved in Sant Joan de Boí allow us to deduce that the iconographic programme of the naves of the church was divided into two forms of representation: the saints or blessed ones occupying most of the walls and representing the heavenly universe, and the animals of the bestiary, creatures that populate the earthly world, depicted in scenes significantly located below the above ones, such as the bottom of the walls and the intradoses of the arches. The Final Judgement would have been depicted on the west wall to complete the repertoire (only a few scenes have been preserved, but they aren’t reproduced in the church).

The wall paintings of the churches fulfilled the function of transmitting the Christian morality of the time through behaviours to be abided by. The bestiaries served to convey these ideas.

The Bestiary

Animals were often depicted with a moralizing meaning in capitals, books or, as in Sant Joan de Boí, mural paintings.
The main source of information were books known as bestiaries which compiled news about known (real or fantastic) animals with descriptions of their physical characteristics and a moralising interpretation of their habits and customs to personify human vices and virtues.

The origin of the bestiaries was the Physiologus, a 2nd-century text that exemplified Christian norms with animals. For over a thousand years it served as an inspiration to theologians and painters and copies of it were written all over Europe.

The elephant

It was depicted with horns and very small ears, probably because the painter had never seen an elephant, and it wasn’t based on scientific knowledge but rather the repetition of models or descriptions in previous bestiaries. In the bestiaries the elephant is described as an animal with positive virtues, symbolizing chastity and strength.

The lion

This is the king of the animal kingdom and it personifies Christ. The bestiaries explain that when the lioness’s cubs are born, they remain lifeless for three days and it’s thanks to the lion’s breath that they come back to life. The symbolism of the lion refers to the resurrection of Christ.

The panther

Depicted as a quadruped with a fleur-de-lys, the panther is characterised by its black and white spots symbolising the eyes of God in the bestiaries. It is explained that, after eating, the panther sleeps for three days in a cave and that, when it wakes up, it gives out a great cry that releases a perfume that attracts the other animals. The perfumed breath symbolises the voice of Christ that ensures that his word reaches everywhere.

The cock

A cock is depicted on the tympanum of the north door. The cock crowing at dawn warns us of the birth of a new day as a symbol of resurrection.

The camel

This symbolises humility and obedience. The camel is an animal that was used during the Middle Ages to transport goods and, due to the fact that it kneels to be loaded, it is identified as accommodating.

The other animals that are depicted, such as the bear, the carcoliti and the Magr, don’t have any meanings that have survived until today.

More significant scenes

The Stoning of Saint Stephen

Saint Stephen kneels and raises his hands in prayer and the hand of God is depicted above him, illuminating the saint with a ray of light while three figures throw stones at him. The three executioners stand in different postures to depict movement: the last one gathers momentum, the one in the middle gets ready and the first one throws the stone. As usual, we can identify the negative characters because they are depicted in profile, while the saint is shown from the front, facing the viewer, looking calm, despite the martyrdom he endures thanks to divine illumination. This scene represents the fortitude of the martyr as an example to follow in view of the trials and difficulties that the faithful have to overcome.

The minstrels

This scene on the north wall depicts three male figures: an upside-down balancer who seems to want to pick up some swords with his mouth, a juggler and a musician playing the harp. Their clothing corresponds to that of the minstrels of the age. The three figures are dressed in short tunics and flared trousers tied with crossed ribbons. This scene is a depiction of feasting and celebration in the heavenly universe and the music and joy shared by the holy characters, the blessed ones.

The sinner

In the intrados of one of the arches a human figure is depicted with a prosthesis on his left leg while he makes a gesture of touching his genitals. Because of his situation within the church, this character forms part of the section in which earthly creatures are depicted and reveals a clear moralizing function; his obscene attitude and physical problems represent his moral flaws.

Apocalyptic beast

On the church’s west wall you can see the seven-headed dragon, the apocalyptic beast, an image that formed part of the Final Judgement that would have occupied the entire wall. The representation of Hell and Paradise served as a reminder to the faithful of what awaited them in the afterlife, depending on their behaviour on earth.

The Romanesque fonts

In front of the painting of the apocalyptic beast you’ll find the Romanesque baptismal font. Its location shows how painting and architecture can go hand in hand to convey the same message: the salvation of the soul through baptism in the face of the warning of hell.

The other Romanesque font preserved in the church is buried in the middle of the south lateral nave Its function was to store the oil that was used to light the church. The oil fonts used to have a wooden cover that has not been preserved.

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