The Tree of Gernika and the Casa de Juntas (Assembly House)
The Tree of Gernika and the Casa de Juntas (Assembly House)
An exquisitely beautiful neoclassical building imbued with the living history of the Basque People.
For centuries, Gernika has been a meeting place for the people of Vizcaya.
Documents attest to meetings taking place under the now famous tree as far back as the 14th century. Their purpose was to draw up a set of laws based on a system of citizen representation. A visit to the Casa de Juntas and the Tree of Gernika is therefore an absolute must, given that they are living symbols of the history of the Basque People.
The Assembly House stands next to the so-called ‘foral’ (charter) oak tree, a meeting point for all the territories of Euskal Herria, united in a single cultural and ethnographic tradition that transcends any manner of political division. Today it is the venue for such important ceremonies as the swearing-in of the Lehendakari or the Governor of the Regional Government.
The history of the Tree of Gernika
Centuries before the town of Gernika was founded in 1366, within the ancient Parish of Lumo, there was a place called Gernikazarra (Gernika the Old) which gave its name to the present-day Foral or Chartered Town. We have known for centuries that there was an oak grove and a hermitage in this area. Many centuries later, all that remains of that oak grove is the Tree of Gernika. The hermitage eventually became the Oath Church of Our Lady of Santa María la Antigua, which is now the Casa de Juntas (Assembly House).
For years after the rule of the Lord of Vizcaya was established, the people of Vizcaya would gather in assemblies under the shade of other oak trees in different parts of Vizcaya, but gradually they became accustomed to meeting in a single place and under a single tree: The Tree of Gernika. Each town in the Lordship would send a representative to these assemblies to discuss the different problems affecting each locality. Based on the decisions taken in these assemblies, a body of laws was created by which the people of Vizcaya were governed, the so-called fueros, legal codes that applied throughout the entire Lordship of Vizcaya.
Originally, prior to the political ceremony, a religious ceremony was held inside the hermitage of Santa María La Antigua, which is where the Oath of the Fueros was also taken. The fueros remained in force until 1876, when they were abolished. The ancient assemblies were not reinstated until 1979.
Virtually all of Gernika was devastated during the bombing of the town, but not the Assembly House and the Tree, which managed to survive well-nigh unscathed. The fact that it survived the bombing helped to turn this oak tree into an even greater symbol of the Basque people.
How many trees are there and what type of tree is the Tree of Gernika?
The Tree of Gernika is an oak tree. Two trees stand in the Assembly House gardens:
- The old tree trunk is contained within a colonnaded pavilion in the garden. Although it was not the first such tree - there are records of earlier specimens - it is the most ancient remnant to have survived to the present day.
- Its successor was planted in 1860 and stood in front of the Oath Stand until 2004. In 2005, it gave way to another oak tree that only managed to survive for 10 years in this illustrious spot. The current tree was planted in 2015, thereby serving to perpetuate its symbolic significance, just as the soul of Euskal Herria continues to be passed down from generation to generation.
What will I see inside the Assembly House?
The Guernica Assembly House is in fact a Church and a Parliament. Although the building’s ecclesiastical facet takes second place to its political facet today, it retains both the altar and the holy water fonts as silent witnesses to days gone by.
La Sala de Juntas (The Assembly Room)
A series of canvases grace the inner walls of the Plenary Hall:
- On the one hand, there is a gallery of portraits of the Lords of Vizcaya, painted by Sebastián de Galbarriartu and the Bustrín brothers in the 17th century. Each portrait is crowned by a panel bearing the dates on which certain Lords of Vizcaya swore to uphold the Fueros.
- On the other, two paintings depicting the swearing-in of the Lord of Vizcaya in Gernika:
- “The Citizens of Vizcaya Line up to Kiss the Hand of Ferdinand V in 1476”, painted in 1609 by Francisco de Mendieta. It illustrates the setting in which the Assemblies originally took place. It is also a valuable ethnographic testimony of the clothing worn by the people of Vizcaya at that time.
- “The Swearing-in of a Lord of Vizcaya”, painted in 1882 by Anselmo de Guinea.
All these elements reflect both the fact that the Lord of Vizcaya did indeed wield authority and that he was under an obligation to swear an oath to uphold and abide by the set of laws that the community had drawn up on the basis of custom and usage (the Fueros).
The Stained-Glass Room
In 1964, this space, which the architect originally designed as an uncovered courtyard, was transformed into a museum dedicated to the history of Vizcaya. Following the restoration of the General Assemblies, the House regained its significance, and the hall was once again reserved for the institution’s own uses.
The most spectacular feature of this room is the spectacular stained glass window that also serves as the roof. Installed in 1985, it was made by hand by Vidrieras de Arte S.A., a company based in Bilbao. It is the largest such work that they have undertaken to date. It offers a graphic illustration of the symbolism of the tree as a meeting point for the different municipalities of Vizcaya.
An interpretation of the stained glass window
- In the centre, the Oath Stand and the tree refer directly to the early assemblies; next to them, an inscription, “Lege Zaharra”, bears reference to the ancient laws that the Lord had to swear to uphold.
- References to the economic activities of the Territory.
- The central section is encircled by a border containing the most representative monuments of the different towns in Vizcaya.
Other historical objects
Hollow silver ballot boxes used in the voting for the assemblies (17th c.), the staffs of office of the Governor Generals (18th c.), a model of the Assembly House, etc.,
Visit the interior of the Assembly House
Is the Assembly House still in use today? What is it used for?
Such important events as the swearing-in of the Lehendakari (President of the Basque Government) and of the Governor of the Regional Government of Vizcaya are held in the Assembly Hall and in front of the Tree. In this respect, on a nearby monolith, a plaque commemorates the words spoken in 1936 by José Antonio Aguirre to formalise his oath as the first Lehendakari, words that have become part of the protocol for his successors.
It is also used several times a month as the venue for the extraordinary plenary sessions of the General Assemblies of Vizcaya.
Location: Allende Salazar Kalea, 1
Every day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 4 to 6 p.m. (except when a plenary session is in progress).
From June to September the building remains open until 7 p.m.
Telphone: 94 625 11 38
Admission: Admission is free, but you must BOOK IN ADVANCE