Hidden portrait by cheeky mason found in Spain 900 years on

A British art historian’s painstaking study of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela uncovered a medieval prank

The 12th-century Santiago de Compostela cathedral in Galicia attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims a year. Photograph: Andres Lebedev/Alamy

He is a medieval in-joke, a male figure carved in the early 12th century for one of the world’s greatest cathedrals, but no one has known of his existence until now. The figure has gone unnoticed by millions of worshippers who have made the long pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, north-western Spain over the centuries. He has looked down on them from the top of one of the many pillars that soar upwards, each decorated with carved foliage, among which he is concealed.

Now he has been discovered by a British art scholar who believes that he was actually never meant to be seen because he is a self-portrait of a stonemason who worked on the cathedral in the 12th century.

“You find this in medieval buildings,” Dr Jennifer Alexander told the Observer. “They’re usually in dark corners where only another stonemason would find them. This one is in a bit of the building where you’d have to be a stonemason to be up there to see it. It’s tucked away in among a whole set of capitals [the top of a column] that are otherwise plain.

Only the masons creating the building could see the figure. Photograph: Courtesy of Jennifer Alexander

“It’s just such a charming connection between us and the person that carved it. 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.”

Despite the supreme talent of such craftsmen, they were completely anonymous, their names lost to history. This is the closest the mason got to signing his work.

Alexander, a reader in art history at the University of Warwick, is a specialist in the architectural history of the great churches and cathedrals of the medieval period.

She discovered the figure in conducting an intricate survey of Santiago de Compostela cathedral, a Unesco world heritage site.

Its significance lies in its association with the Camino, the pilgrimage across hundreds of miles to reach the shrine of the apostle St James, which is within the cathedral. Such is its draw that. in 2019 alone, the official number of pilgrims reaching the city was some 350,000.

The current building was begun in the late 11th-century and is a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture, with later additions.

Alexander was conducting a stone-by-stone analysis to work out its construction sequence, in a project funded by the Galician regional government. It was when she was studying the capitals, about 13 metres above the pavement, that “this little figure popped out”, she recalled.

Dr Jennifer Alexander conducted a stone-by-stone analysis in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Photograph: Rose Adamson.

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