Located 6 km away from Tarragona, Centcelles is one of the earliest example of christian art on the Iberian peninsula and is of immense importance.
Yet Centcelles it’s not the easiest place to find. I went to a wild-goose chase for 4 km via the busy motorway, missed several invisible turns until my navigator directed me down a rickety lane, into the adjoining fields.
It felt like a time jump: parallel to the lane thunders the A27, an unstoppable highway spanning between Tarragona and Montblanc, and below, sandwiched between the fume belching refinery (which we call Mordor) and a hard industrial estate, is a parcel of land made of orchards, olive groves, small holds and fields. One last turn of the rickety road and there is was, Centcelles, a large building set in an oasis of peace and tranquillity where, back in 1877, something exceptional was uncovered when pieces of plaster began falling off the great volt of what was then a farmhouse.
Centcelles had already been documented back in the 16th century by the prolific local historian and improvised archaeologist Lluís Pons d’Icart who described the existence of a very old building set between Tarragona, Constantí and the river Francoli, of “undoubtedly of Roman origin”. Previous incarnations of the farmhouse include a conversion to a chapel dedicated to Saint Bartholomew and earlier it served as the parish church of Centcelles, a town abandoned in medieval times. At one unspecified point the ceiling was plastered over obliterating its historic information for hundreds of years. It was only when the the dilapidated building was bought by a local landowner in 1849 that its history came to light.
A comprehensive excavation and restoration by the German Archaeology Institute in 1959 shed light to one of the earliest examples of christian art on the Iberian peninsula and is of immense importance. The perfectly preserved monumental structure of the domed room, dating to the 4th century, is unique with its cupola decorated with mosaics showing biblical scenes, the four seasons and, best preserved of all, an extraordinary hunting scene. Yet, nothing indicates the precise intention of the building: was it a villa, a mausoleum built in memory to Constant, son of the Emperor Constantine the Great, a hunting lodge for a general, an ecclesiastical seat? The excavations also unearthed the foundations of annexed thermal baths and of what is believed to be a mosaic workshop and an unfinished building of an earlier period.
If you are a fan of antiquities, visiting Centelles makes for an absorbing experience especially if you take with you a small pair of binoculars to view the stunning details of the cupola.
For more details and how to visit Centcelles see: Villa romana de Centcelles (MNAT)