Stories carved on stones
Remains of sculpted stone artefacts and tools from the New Stone Age (about 10,000 BCE to 2,000 BCE) show that the craft of stone carving can be traced back to ancient civilisations and found in many regions of the world.
The fundamental techniques of stone carving have changed little from ancient to medieval periods. Throughout the different eras of sculpture, trends and tastes popularised specific artistic styles and the use of certain tools and marks distinctive to that age. The rise of medieval guilds and masons advanced stone carving into the modern era. Today, we know that ancient Greeks and Egyptians used stone carvings and sculptures made of stone as a way of recording their history and also to venerate their gods and ancestors. Much closer to home in Jamaica, the Spanish have also left their mark in stone at Seville La Nueva, what is known today as New Seville, in the parish of St Ann.
New Seville saw the rise and fall of Spanish settlement in Jamaica. According to Cotter (1948), the city of Seville was founded by the son of Christopher Columbus, Diego, in 1510. Cotter goes on to state that the city was never a success and and was finally abandoned by order of the king of Spain in the year 1534 when they founded a new town, Villa de la Vega (Spanish Town). Even though the city was abandoned, all was not lost as some of the great remnants of this period that have withstood the test of time are the stones that were used in the construction and decoration of the most important buildings in the settlement.
The Seville stones, as they are known, were created by an unknown Spanish craftsman, who, according to records, was bought specifically to the island to work on decorative stonework.
Many of these stones were rediscovered by accident in 1937 near to an old well inside the walls of a stone castle, one of the largest buildings erected by the Spaniards.
Records show that a fort, a castle, and a church were probably the only stone buildings of considerable size erected by the Spaniards, and of these, it is certain that the church was never finished.
A great deal about what we know about the church we owe to Sir Hans Sloane who made great notations about the church on his visit to the island in his book A voyage to the islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, where he noted that the church was 20 paces broad and 30 paces long. Sloane also noted that there were two rows of pillars within the body of the church. He also noted that there were stone carvings under the arches where the altar would have been.
An interesting fact is that the stones that were used in construction were made out of local limestone. Both Porter, and Sloane agree that the Spaniards used white limestone in the construction of their first town in Jamaica, Seville Nueva.
Sloane describes the stones used to construct the buildings in Seville as a mix between free stone and marble. Porter, in his book Bricks And Stones From The Past Jamaica's Geographical Heritage describes limestone as a moderately hard, sometimes compact, frequently fossil-rich sedimentary rock that can be easily cut and shaped with modern tools but can also be fashioned with primitive stone tools that have a greater hardness. Porter goes on to add that approximately 60 per cent of Jamaica's surface geology is covered by a variable white limestone sequence of rocks. This meant that the Spaniards had a great deal of free and good-quality material at their disposal.
The carvings on the stones were identified by noted art historian and professor Diego Iniguez Angulo in the 1940s and were found by him to be sculpted in high relief, following the artistic style of the Renaissance Grotesque period, which according to him, was the latest fashion brought from Italy in the 16th century. The artistic style known as 'Grotesque' has been found in architecture and decorative art. The main characteristics of this art movement are most prominent in fanciful mural or sculptural decoration, which always involve mixed animal, human, and plant forms.
The word grotesque is derived from the Italian grotteschi, referring to the grottoes in which these decorations were found c. 1500 during the excavation of Roman houses such as the Golden House of Nero. First revived in the Renaissance by the school of Raphael in Rome, grotesque quickly came into fashion in 16th-century Italy and became popular throughout Europe. It remained so until the 19th century, being used most frequently in fresco decoration. Although the animal heads and other motifs sometimes have heraldic or symbolic significance, Grotesque ornaments were, in general, purely decorative.
It is also interesting to note that even though these stones were decorated using a European artistic style, local motifs such as Taino women and birds also appeared in the decoration of the stones. In keeping with the artistic style of the Grotesque, the Seville stones feature a great deal of foliage, foliar scrolls, as well as real but stylised animals such as dogs and mythical creatures such as dragons. Iniguez Angulo also noted that the crests and coat of arms that were found on some of the stones most likely belonged to important families such as Columbus'.
These stones are considered to be the most significant artefacts of the Spanish period in Jamaica. They are important not only because they represent the earliest and most striking examples of early Hispanic artistry, for what was Spain's third capital, founded on Jamaica's north coast. They are also important because they are a testament to Spain's ambitions of conquest, settlement, and the spread of her culture throughout the New World.
The stones also illustrate the collision of Taino and European cultures iconography and technique. As Aarons (1983) noted, the remains of Seville la Neuva represent the roots from whence came the Jamaican culture, with the initial blending of the cultures of the Indigenous population and those of Spain and Africa.
Aarons, G. A. (1983). Seville La Nueva: A Microcosm of Spain in Jamaica Part I. The Historical Background. Jamaica Journal Vol 16, No (4). Pp. 37-46.
Buisseret, D.J. & Osborne, F.J. The Stones of New Seville (St Ann's Bay).
Cotter, C.S. (1948). The Discovery of the Spanish Carvings at Seville. Jamaican Historical Review. Vol 1, No (3). Pp. 227-233.
Edwards, J. & Grauland, R. (2013). Grotesque. Routledge. New York.
Osborne, F.J. (1974) Spanish Church St Ann's Bay. Jamaica Journal Vol 8, No 2&3.
Porter, A. (2006). Bricks and stones from the past Jamaica's geographical heritage. Kingston University of the West Indies Press.
Slone, H. (1707-1725). A voyage to the islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica. London: Printed by B.M. for the author.
Spanish Stones from New Seville (Jamaica). (1979). Jamaica Journal (43). Pp 104-106.
Stone Carving History. Duke University. WordPress 2018.
Special Thanks to National Library Jamaica
- Information compiled by Sharifa Balfour, assistant curator, National Museum Jamaica