If we leave behind the customary hustle and bustle of the city centre and head southeast, after just over a kilometre we will come to the traditional neighbourhood of Sar, which is named after the renowned stream that crosses it from north to south. On its banks, a few metres from the old Romanesque bridge, where pilgrims cross after following the so-called “Vía de la Plata” route and southeast itineraries, there is the magnificent Collegiate Church of Santa María la Mayor y Real de Sar.
Construction of this building began in the early 12th c., in harmony with the desire of the cathedral canon and treasurer, Munio Alfonso, who enjoyed the decisive support of his friend and superior, the powerful Archbishop Diego Gelmírez, for this venture. After 22 years as the bishop of Mondoñedo, Munio decided to retire voluntarily in the year 1134, and he did so precisely in the quarters of this small coenobium, although he died a couple of years later before its construction was completed.
Although the building work was not officially finalised until the 13th c., it was consecrated by Diego Gelmírez in the year 1140; he signed the foundational diploma of this small monastery, which housed the first community of Augustinians in Galicia.
During the following centuries, the community experienced a period of splendour thanks to numerous donations and exemptions from the Crown. However, in the 16th c., coinciding with the priorate’s transformation into a collegiate church, and the Augustinian Community’s subsequent replacement by members of the secular clergy, it started to decline, and by the end of the 17th c., both the church and its cloister were in a poor condition.
In the 18th c., during the boom of Compostela’s baroque style, and thanks to aid provided by the Monastery of San Martiño Pinario, a great amount of conservation and restoration work was carried out, in harmony with recommendations and reports from some of the most important architects of that time, such as Domingo de Andrade or Fernando de Casas. However, in the 19th c., the building once again experienced a period of abandonment, ending up as just another parish belonging to the Archdiocese of Santiago de Compostela.
The magnificent church still features a large part of its original Romanesque structure. On the outside, it is worth highlighting the robust flying buttresses that were built between the 17th and 18th centuries to protect the north walls and prevent them from collapsing: due to a technical design flaw, to the daring height of the side naves, to subsidence of the unstable land on which it was erected or simply to the wish of those that worked on their construction, the walls lean visibly towards the exterior, which was why the barrel vault had to be completely rebuilt in the 16th c.
Its inside, featuring a basilican ground plan and beautiful proportions, impresses all its visitors due to the lean of its columns towards the side naves, which gives you a strong sense of instability. The 12th-century font, at the right of the main entrance, is of great archaeological interest.
The interior of the church is connected to a magnificent cloister via the sacristy; it is the only cloister in the city still featuring traces of its original Romanesque style. Only one of its wings remain, while the rest of it belongs to the 17th and 18th centuries. The fountain in the centre, which is very similar to the one we can see inside the cathedral’s cloister, dates from the 13th c. and was carved from a single piece of granite.
Inside the small museum founded in 1975, we can admire several important historical and documentary items, such as the aforementioned foundational document of the church, from 1136, bearing Archbishop Diego Gelmírez’s seal. In the section devoted to precious metalwork, you can see liturgical objects made in Compostela’s workshops during the 18th century. The archaeological collection is made up of a series of items from the old Romanesque cloister, stylistically linked to Master Mateo and his school. These objects also feature remains from the original Romanesque rose windows, which dominated the church’s west façade and were removed in the 18th c.
We can round off our visit to this singular setting by strolling along the “Brañas de Sar” trails. Throughout the 4-km-long itinerary, we will discover Santiago de Compostela’s rural atmosphere, featuring fields of crops, waterwheels, irrigation channels, vegetable gardens and riverside woodland. In fact, the word “braña” refers to a partially flooded area, on the banks of a river, that remains green throughout the year. In the past, small-scale farmers used such areas as pastureland for their cattle.
Throughout the itinerary we will come across numerous species of flora, such as willows, oaks, birches or laurels, as well as numerous herbs. “Brañas” are also refuges for a variety of animals, such as amphibians, reptiles, birds and small mammals. In short, this is a very rich, but also very fragile, ecosystem that plays a vital role in regulating the flow of water; in the case of heavy rains, it soaks up water, thereby preventing sudden rises in the river level and flooding.