Tuesday, September 26

From the ruin to the stars: a church in Palencia revives as an astronomical center

The Church of San Pedro de Becerril de Campos (Palencia) has been a ‘mix’ of artistic styles for centuries: the façade is Romanesque, the vault was ribbed and the arches were Baroque. It had a Plateresque altarpiece that now houses a Malaga temple and an 18th-century organ. Now add a ‘false’ night sky and a trompe l’oeil of huge planets floating in infinity and you have San Pedro Cultural, the largest tourist attraction in the region.

The parish closed in the 1940s and began to have pagan uses: school, lodging for walkers, barn… The structure was weakened by the weight of the grain and in the 70s they had to demolish the bell tower for fear of to fall on nearby houses. The roof collapsed and it suffered total abandonment, helpless in the face of vandalism and the rains.

In 2011, the municipal team of Becerril de Campos decided to find a solution and in 2013 they managed to get the restoration of San Pedro included in the budget of the Ministry of 1% culture after the Bishopric ceded the temple to the City Council. The condition of the Church, which was used for educational projects. And boy has he done it. wrapped by a stellarium In summer, San Pedro now houses numerous scientific objects and serves as a venue for exhibitions and cultural events.

Becerril de Campos already had a Museum of Sacred Art, so San Pedro had to have another approach. “On a visit to Rome I was struck by the meridian line of the Basilica of the Angels”, explains Carlos del Olmo.

The project ended up in the hands of three architects from Palencia: Álvaro Gutiérrez, Carlos del Olmo and Juan del Olmo. “It was a total wreck, but it had that ‘found wreck’ charm. We fastened everything that could be fastened: the arches, the pieces of the vault, the west façade, the roof, and we recomposed the floor plan of the choir”, explains one of the project’s architects, Carlos del Olmo. “It was a very risky project, nobody thought it would have this impact,” recalls the mayor of Becerril, Fran Pérez, who was also the manager of San Pedro Cultural when the project began.

Today, the church of San Pedro is San Pedro Cultural. under a stellarium that transports you to a summer night, there is talk of science, exhibitions, concerts, film days, parades, presentations and even civil weddings. The City Council estimates that they receive up to 25,000 visits a year just in this cultural space that houses a meridian line, three pinholes that allow natural sunlight to enter, a meteorite, a black hole simulator and a Foucault pendulum.

The former mayor of Becerril Mario Granda recognizes the enormous work that has been done throughout the process. “San Pedro Cultural is the work of many people who have contributed ideas, resources and work. Here they have spent a few hours to regulate the pendulum… days and nights. And that is not paid for”, he extols, referring to the members of the Palencia Astronomical Association, which was involved in the project from the beginning.

Diffusion of science and astronomy

Carlos del Olmo was fond of astronomy before, although now he is on the board of the group. The architect recalls that they presented the project to the Europa Nostra Heritage competition, but it was not awarded. Despite this, the visits speak for themselves and the ovations of all those who visit Becerril de Campos are enough. “We console ourselves by saying that we have the public award,” he jokes.

“The fundamental task is to spread science and astronomy so that people have more scientific culture and awaken scientific vocations among children,” explains one of the members of the Palencia Astronomical Association, Óscar Díez Higuera, a lover of collecting who has also donated various scientific objects.

There are astrolabes, spectrographs, astronomy and navigation books, one of the solar panels of the solar-orbiter, an original flight case lent by the European Space Agency (ESA) and, among others, a meteorite that fell in 2004 near Villalbeto de La Peña, in Palencia, donated by one of the members of the Astronomical Association. Becerril also houses a scale solar system in its streets, reduced ten billion times.

Astronomy meets history and art in San Pedro Cultural. During the restoration of the building, the plaster and lime were removed from a niche —which was used to sanitize the walls of the churches— and medieval paintings appeared in the apse and a polychrome of red stars in a niche, which is filled with sunlight once a year: at the winter solstice.

In addition to the cost of rehabilitating the church and which was mainly paid by the Ministry, the Palencia Provincial Council has been contributing 30,000 euros per year to the project since 2016, funds whose value is recognized. “We have managed to change the cultural and economic dynamics a bit,” says Mario Granda. Both he and his successor in office agree on the financial support he has provided: a hotel and three rural houses, in addition to the impact he has on the town’s bars.

Alba Jiménez has been working with Alba Santamaría for nine months at San Pedro Cultural. Both carry out guided tours with explanations of the history of the church, the surroundings of the space and the interior. It also serves as a tourist information point and both organize exhibitions, concerts and other cultural events. Until November, San Pedro Cultural hosts the exhibition “Dos Miradas” with drawings of galaxies by Ana de Alvear, which they hope will also attract people from the United States.

San Pedro Cultural is about science, but not only. The cultural center is about space, dreams, music and also, why not, about philosophy: about how ridiculously small we are as a planet, even though we sometimes think we are the center of the universe.