An Art Historian Discovered a Cheeky Self-Portrait That a Stonemason Left as an Easter Egg Inside a Famous Spanish Cathedral 800 Years Ago

Jennifer Alexander found the 11-inch-tall carving in a corner of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, over 40 feet off the ground.

A carving discovered at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. Courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Alexander.

Some people carve their initials into the surface of a table to leave their mark. But 800 years ago, a stonemason went a bit further: he carved a full-fledged self-portrait into a column while hard at work building one of Spain’s most famous churches. And it only took a few centuries for someone to find it.

British art historian Jennifer Alexander, a scholar at the University of Warwick and an expert of medieval religious architecture, was conducting a stone-by-stone analysis of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in northwest Spain when she came across the secret figure—a charming, if goofy, portrait of a stonemason who helped erect the building in the 12th century.

The 11-inch-tall carving, Alexander says, is a kind of easter egg laid by stonemasons in places where only other stonemasons would find them. What makes this example particularly noteworthy is that it went undiscovered for more than eight centuries inside one of Europe’s best-known cathedrals. 

“It’s just such a charming connection between us and the person that carved it,” Alexander told The Guardian, which first reported the finding. “It’s almost as if it was designed just for us to see it by those people working on the building. Of course, this stonemason probably had no idea that he’d have to wait so long to be spotted.”

The Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. Couryesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. Couryesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Alexander found the carving amongst a set of otherwise plain columns in a corner of the church over 40 feet off the ground. She described it as a “lovely image of a chap hanging on to the middle of the capital as if his life depended on it.”

“He’s got a nice little smile,” the scholar added. “He’s pleased with himself. He’s splendidly carved, with a strongly characterized face.”

Unfortunately, the name of the sculptor responsible for the addition is likely lost to history. Stonemasons, who would act both as engineers and contractors in the construction of buildings like the cathedral, often went uncredited in historical architectural documents. 

The carving at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. Courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Alexander.

The carving at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. Courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Alexander.

“The carving brings us face to face with one of the people whose work we’ve been studying, and it was delightful to meet him,” Alexander added in an email to Artnet News. While important stonemasons were allowed to carve images of themselves into their work, the creator of this visage was a lower-level craftsman who would have been expected to remain in the background. But, as Alexander explained, “he clearly had other ideas and placed himself where someone working on the building would find him, but the clergy would never notice what he’d done.”

Erected in 1211, the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is believed to have been built above the tomb of Jesus’ apostle, Saint James the Great. Today, it’s regarded as one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in the world, and attracts hundreds of thousands of spiritual pilgrims each year. 

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