The Gothic Cathedral of Saint Antolín in Palencia is sometimes known as “the unknown beauty.” It is the third-largest in Spain and also the one with the longest central nave. The cathedral’s exterior is lined with a number of striking gargoyles. Among the skeletons and mythical beasts, there is one that seems to be out of place: A curious character in a buttoned cassock juts out from one of the cornices, wearing a camera around his neck.
The story of the photographer gargoyle begins in 1755, when a powerful earthquake hit the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa. The earthquake and subsequent tsunami nearly claimed the city of Lisbon, and caused destruction across Andalusia. Palencia suffered extensive damage from the quake, including the roof and cornices of the cathedral.
Between 1908 and 1910, the distinguished Palencian architect Jerónimo Arroyo led a restoration of the Palencia Cathedral. An urban legend holds that the camera-toting gargoyle was made to honor a photographer who was killed by a falling stone during the restoration. For a long time, it was believed that gargoyle was Arroyo’s way of paying tribute to a dear friend and photographer José Sanabria, who often accompanied the architect and documented his work.
However, a 2017 investigation by journalist and historian Julián García Torrellas offered another explanation. According to his research, the photographer represents Luis Rodríguez Alonso, another friend of Arroyo who authored one of the first graphic reports on the Palencia cathedral. The Rodríguez Alonso brothers, Luis and Albino, were two important Palencian photographers. Luis later became a film director, although most of his his films were destroyed during a fire at the production company. However, his documentary Un viaje por Galicia (A Trip Through Galicia) was preserved and exhibited at the Ibero-American Exposition in Seville in 1929. His brother Albino also chronicled the city of Palencia in the 1920s, though he was ruled out as gargoyle’s inspiration because he was too young when the cathedral was being renovated.
The unusual details of the cathedral are not limited to its gargoyles. In the exterior archivolt of the Gate of the Kings, two curious figures face each other. They are not demons, but rather extraterrestrials. The aliens of Palencia were carved in 1995, during a restoration by the architect Fernando Díaz-Pinés. The third installment of the Alien saga starring Sigourney Weaver had been released, and Díaz-Pinés wanted to reflect the time with a figure from the contemporary bestiary.