Religion Transmuted into Art (La religión convertida en arte)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana

Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

There are paintings, statues, retables, altarpieces, from small, forsaken churches scattered all over the provincial and diocesan museums in Spain. How can something that was originally in a sense utilitarian turn into a work of art? Utilitarian: an image that served to instruct people about their faith. The frescoes recounted the Bible to the faithful who came to the church and who could not read, the statues were there to be adored, to be invoked in prayer. So now they have been pu ton display in art galleries, side by side with comparable specimens. The content of the story told by the paintings has evaporated for most visitors, only the form counts now. Few people, except students of art history, can still distinguish the symbols of the evangelists, still know about the Old Men of the Apocalypse, are still familiar with the attributes of the martyrs. Religion is transmuted into art, because stories become images that signify only themselves. The twentieth-century viewer observes a narrative that he can no longer interpret, to which he has grown blind.

Por todas partes, en museos provinciales y diocesanos hay pinturas, esculturas, retablos, cuadros de altares de iglesias pequeñas y abandonadas. ¿Cómo puede cambiar algo que seguramente fue un objeto de uso corriente y convertirse en un objeto artístico? Objeto de uso corriente: una imagen para explicar algo a los hombres sobre su fe. Estos cuadros contaban una historia a los hombres que venían a la iglesia y no podían leer, las imágenes estaban allí para ser adoradas, para suplicar algo. Ahora están en salas, acompañadas por otras imágenes del mismo estilo y colocadas en fila. La historia en los cuadros ha perdido ya para la mayoría de los visitantes su significado, ahora cuenta sólo la forma. Únicamente el estudiante de arte conoce aún los símbolos de los cuatro evangelistas, aún sabe algo de los Antiguos, del Final de los Tiempos, aún conoce lost atributos de los mártires. La religión se convierte en arte, el significado se convierte en forma, las historias se convierten en imágenes que sólo se significan a sí mismas. El observador del siglo XX ve una historia que ya no puede leer, porque está ciego para ella.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago / El desvío a Santiago)

Update to Mondays’ Weekly Quote / Noticia sobre la cita de la semana de los lunes:

These will continue to go ahead as usual but… for the rest of this month you can expect additional quotes on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays as well. This is because I’m very busy with Christmas and other things (as I’m sure you all are), and as a consequence I’m making very slow progress on some longer posts I’m currently working on. I’ll fit them in between the quotes as and when they get ready but in the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy the quotes!

Las citas de la semana seguirán adelante como de costumbre los lunes, pero … durante el resto de diciembre, también publicaré citas adicionales los miércoles, viernes y domingos. Eso porque estoy muy ocupada con la Navidad y otras cosas (cómo todos) y, en consecuencia, hago un progreso muy lento con algunas posts larguísimos en los que estoy trabajando en el momento. Los publicaré entre las citas a medida que estén listos, pero mientras tanto, ¡espero que disfrutéis de las citas!

The Archives of the Indies (El archivo de las Indias)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana

Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

Scholars from all over the world come here [the Archivo de las Indias in Seville] to sniff around, to browse, to conduct secret investigations, because these portfolios contain everything to do with the colonies – per geographical region, per historical period, everything. EVERYTHING: cadastres, letters of supplication, custodial sentences, decrees, financial accounts, reports of military campaigns, letters from governors overseas, negotiations, plans for the layout of new cities, maps. That must be what God’s memory looks like: every centimetre, every second of every man and every spot on the face of the earth, described and recorded.

Eruditos de todo el mundo vienen aquí [el Archivo de las Indias en Sevilla] a buscar, a rastrear, a realizar el trabajo de detective secreto, porque en estos carpetones está, por épocas, por colonias, todo, TODO: catastros, súplicas, sentencias, órdenes, proyectos, informes de campañas, cartas de gobernadores, partes de navegación, censos o como se llamaran entonces, negociaciones, planos de ciudad, mapas. A algo así debe de parecerse la memoria de Dios, cada centímetro y cada minuto de cada lugar y cada hombre descrito y conservado.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago / El desvío a Santiago)

One Century a Minute (Un siglo por minuto)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana

Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

Zaragoza. Apart from two nuns and an old lady, I am the only visitor in the Bellas Artes Museum, which has a section devoted to archaeology. The nuns overtake me at the rate of one century a minute and then I am truly alone in the prehistory of Spain.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

Zaragoza. Junto a dos monjas y una anciana, soy el único visitante en el museo de Bellas Artes, que albergaba también un departamento de arqueología. Las monjas me adelantan a una velocidad de un siglo por minuto y entonces es cuando estoy realmente sólo en la prehistoria española.

(Cees Nooteboom: El desvío a Santiago)


España: Europa y no Europa (Spain: Europe & Yet Not Europe)

La cita del día / Quote of the Day

Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

España es brutal, anárquica, egocéntrica, cruel; España está dispuesta a ponerse la soga al cuello por disparates, es caótica, sueña, es irracional. Conquistó el mundo y no supo qué hacer con él, está enganchada a su pasado medieval, árabe, judío y cristiano, y está allí con sus caprichosas ciudades acostadas en esos infinitos paisajes vacíos como un continente que está unido a Europa y no es Europa. Quien haya hecho sólo los itinerarios obligados no conoce España. Quien no haya intentado perderse en la complejidad laberíntica de su historia no sabe por dónde viaja.

(Cees Nooteboom: El desvíó a Santiago)

Spain is brutish, anarchic, egocentric, cruel. Spain is prepared to face disaster on a whim, she is chaotic, dreamy, irrational. Spain conquered the world and then did not know what to do with it, she harks back to her Medieval, Arab, Jewish and Christian past and sits there impassively like a continent that is appended to Europe and yet is not Europe, with her obdurate towns studding those limitless empty landscapes. Those who know only the beaten track do not know Spain. Those who have not roamed the labyrinthine complexity of her history do not know what they are travelling through.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

El carácter español (The Spanish Character)

La cita de la semana / Quote of the Week

Cees Nooteboom bw
Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

El carácter español tiene algo monacal, incluso en sus grandes reyes hay un dejo de anacoreta: Felipe y Carlos construyeron monasterios para ellos mismos y vivie- ron durante mucho tiempo de espaldas al mundo que debían dirigir. Quien ha viajado mucho por España está acostumbrado y espera en medio de la nada un enclave, un oasis, un sitio vuelto hacia dentro, amurallado, a modo de fortaleza, en el que el silencio y la ausencia de los demás causa estragos en las almas.

(Cees Nooteboom: El desvío a Santiago)

The Spanish character has something monastic about it, even in their great monarchs there is a touch of the anchorite: both Philip and Charles built monasteries for themselves and spent much time in seclusion, turning their backs to the world they were required to govern. Anyone who has travelled widely through Spain is accustomed to such surprise encounters, and indeed anticipates them: in the middle of nowhere an enclave, an oasis, a walled , fortress-like, introverted spot, where silence and the absence of others wreak havoc in the souls of men.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

Soria (Spain)

Today’s quote is much longer than usual but it gives you a flavour of Cees Nooteboom’s style of travel writing – and a feel for the Spanish town of Soria. Enjoy!

Quote of the Week:

Cees Nooteboom bw
Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

Génie de lieu is the phrase used by the French when a particular site emanates something very special and remarkable.

There are no Knights Hospitallers of of Saint John of Jerusalem in Soria today, but a vestige of the cloister they built in 1100 still stands, a sketch, a hint of what was once the arcade around the inner courtyard. It is early in the morning, wisps of mist float over the river, which is narrow here and courses swiftly and darkly along the banks lined with reeds and tall greenery. The pointed arches are interlaced and look like arabesques suspended in a void. It is a truly secluded courtyard, a tangle of roses against the walls of the little church, gladioli and man-high daisies sway under the poplar trees, but the square space between the four walls is unoccupied. That is what makes thecourtyard so enigmatic: it is open to all sides, wind and air and voices blow through the apertures, it is free-standing, it is out of doors, and yet I am inside a Moorish courtyard. The shape of the ruins indicates what it must have been like, the walls of that long-vanished cloister still surround me. I enter the small church. I see several tombstones with Hebrew lettering, the arch over the apse is Arabic. There are two curious canopy-like structures, one domed, the other conical, next to and in front of the spot where the main altar must have stood; the canopies are Christian, and so in this small deathly-quiet space the three worlds of Judaism, Christianity and Islam come together in a symbiosis that is unique in the world today.

Why are some places famous and not others? Why does everyone talk of Autun and Poitiers and you never hear a word about Soria, while it has one of the loveliest and most moving Romanesque portals of medieval Christianity? Every true lover of Romanesque art should see the façade of the Santo Domingo and the cloister of San Pedro. They are, with the San Juan de Rabanera and the San Gil, treasuries with the most wondrous details. Florid capitals crown pillars with plant motifs, to which such subtle irregularities have been introduced as to make the stone come alive, Arab influences, the artful manner of showing nudity (by depicting vices), winged lions with birds’ heads which remind me of Persepolis – all those stories and admonitions and decorations that were carved a thousand years ago by master craftsmen and that survive here in the dry, harsh climate of Soria, they are truly worthy of pilgrimage. You find yourself wishing you had an outsize magnifying glass through which to study the carvings: a capital-scope. The decorations oare often miniatures in stone, and if you want to read what the images have to say, you must come armed with a dictionary of Biblical and Christian icons and symbols. I confess to a heartfelt irritation when I cannot interpret precisely what the pictures are trying to tell me.  What used to be common knowledge is now the reserve of experts and scholars.

What, I wonder, is so attractive about all this? I am standing in front of the Santo Domingo. Not famous, so there is no tourism, a quiet corner in a quiet town. Is it the simplicity, if that word is at all justifiable? The piety? The unshakeable totality of a world view? The idea that it was made by people and for people to whom this was not “art” but reality? That a story was being told in stone which everyone already knew by heart but wanted to see and hear again and again – just as Greeks (and Japanese) still flock to see their ancient tragedies? I don tknow. What I do know is that this low, almost squat façade, in which the tympanum takes up relatively little space, exudes great force and emotion. The idea that this was ever new. New! Just finished, hewn out of those almost golden blocks of hard stone! How proud the makers were, how everyone in the province crowded to see the sight!

The figures in the tympanum are so small that you have to get up close to see them. Even then you must crane your neck, because the four rows into which they are crammed are straight up above you, not in front of you. With the four ascending registers on the archivolt securely fixed in your gaze, each made up of a variety of scenes, you find that they lack that rigid and hieratic quality which, for the sake of convenience, we tend to label “primitive”. Indeed, they are both lavish and droll, with their oversize, pious gnomes’ heads protruding from richly pleated garments. And everything happens the way it is described in the Good Book and has been preserved in countless surviving images and no doubt in countless others long since lost: the head of teh Baptist is severed, God fashions the body of Adam from clay, the Annunciation, the adoration of the Magi, the same old stories, only this time not in paint, not in silver, not by Rembrandt, not by Manzú or Rouault, but carved, unsigned, by vanished hands in the hard stone of a barren Spanish province, where serenely they await the end of time.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

Rivers of Gold

  • Columbus nailing a gold coin to the mast for the first man to glimpse land…
  • Diego de Ordaz climbing the erupting Popocatépetl to become the first European to see Tenochtitlán…
  • Cortés burning his ships on the beach of Veracruz…
  • Vasco Núñez de Balboa hacking his way through the jungle of Panama to claim the legendary South Sea for his king…
  • Pizarro offering the Bible to the Inca on the great plaza of Cajamarca…

These are just some of the stories from the era of the Spanish discovery and conquest of America. Stories that are capable to fire the imagination: stories about a handful men daring to sail into the unknown, of a handful of men having the nerve to show up on some distant shore and take on entire empires.

And win.

Even if you despise the conquistadors for their greed, cruelty and ignorance, you have to appreciate their audacity and their supreme belief in themselves and in their God; the story of the Spanish conquest of America is one hell of a good story. A story that you want to know more about.

This is why I picked up Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire by Hugh Thomas, a history on the Spanish conquest of America. I was looking for the facts behind the legends, I wanted to understand who the conquistadors were and what motivated them. I hoped to learn more about the lands they conquered, the cultures they came into conflict with. And finally, I expected to read about how all this changed Spain and the world.

Well, you won’t really learn any of that from Rivers of Gold.

Without doubt, Hugh Thomas has an encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject. Unfortunately, however, he is unable to rise above this encyclopaedic knowledge to give his readers the full picture, let alone an analysis. As for the cracking stories? Forget it. Rivers of Gold is a somewhat tedious litany of names, ships coming and going between the Caribbean and Spain, and minor skirmishes between the conquistadors and the local Indians.

We start of with the conquest of the Caribbean in great detail: we learn the  names of many Spaniards who took part in some form or other in the conquering and populating of the Caribbean islands and we are told what happened to their converso (converted Jew) grandfather thirty years ago; they all seemed to have had one. Every minor skirmish and every doomed Indian chief is listed, as are all the changes to the laws governing the islands. We get ship names and cargo lists; the number of Indian slaves brought back to Spain and the number of black slaves taken to the Caribbean. We learn about the disagreements between individual conquistadors or indeed the priests who accompanied them and follow Bartolomé de las Casas in his self appointed role as saviour of the Indians. Much of this (although not all) is of course perfectly valid and useful information. The problem is Thomas provides us with so many list like details that we get completely lost in them and never understand the full picture. The reader simply can’t see the forest for the trees.

Not content with getting his readers lost in details, in the second half of the book Thomas himself completely loses sight of what he set out to write about. His book becomes a narrative of what happened in Spain; we follow the Spanish court around in the wake of Isabella’s death, learn about Ferdinand’s concerns in the Mediterranean, learn about Queen Juana the Mad (although she never did anything with respect to America), become embroiled in Charles I’s efforts to become the Holy Roman Emperor…

What we don’t get? Well… to begin with, we don’t really get the rise of the Spanish Empire as advertised in the subtitle. The conquest of Mexico and Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world are dismissed in a few dozen pages at the end, and we never get to the Incas at all. Among others.

What a wasted opportunity.

The Decency of Human Beings (La decencia de los seres humanos)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana

George Orwell (1903-1950)

This war, in which I played so ineffectual a part, has left me with memories that are mostly evil, and yet I do not wish that I had missed it. When you have has a glimpse of such disaster as this – and however it ends the Spanish war will turn out to have been an appalling disaster, quite apart from the slaughter and physical suffering – the result is not necessarily disillusionment and cynicism.

Curiously enough, the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.

(George Orwell: Homage to Catalonia)

Esta guerra, en la que desempeñé un papel tan ineficaz, me ha dejado recuerdos en su mayoría funestos, pero aun así no hubiera querido perdérmela. Cuando se ha podido atisbar un desastre como éste -y, cualquiera que sea el resultado, la guerra española habrá sido un espantoso desastre, aun sin considerar las matanzas y el sufrimiento físico-, el saldo no es necesariamente desilusión y cinismo.

Por curioso que parezca; toda esta experiencia no ha socavado mi fe en la decencia de los seres humanos, sino que, por el contrario, la ha fortalecido.

(George Orwell: Homenaje a Cataluña)


A Moment of War

Quote of the Week:

Laurie Lee (1914-1997)

We gathered in the square, blowing in the ice-sharp wind, and were given long sticks for guns. We were going to attack a ‘strong point’ up the hill, an enemy machine-gun position; a frontal and flanking assault on bare rising ground. “The attack will be pushed home with surprise and determination,” said the Commandant. “It happens all the time.”

…Near the top of the hill, with the banging of the oil-drums much closer, our leaders cried, “Forward! Adelante! Charge!” We leapt to our feet and galloped the last few yards, shouting as horribly as we could, and cast ourselves on the men who had been beating the oil-drums, who then threw up their arms and surrendered, sniggering.
Twenty minutes’ crawling and sauntering up that bare open hill, and we had captured a machine-gun post, without loss. Our shouting died; it had been a famous victory. Real guns would have done for the lot of us.

We finished the day’s training with an elaborate anti-tank exercise. A man covered a pram with an oil-cloth and pushed it round and round the square, while we stood in doorways and threw bottles and bricks at it. The man pushing the pram was Danny, from London. He was cross when a bottle hit him.

(Laurie Lee: A Moment of War)


Lockdown Diaries: Day 65 (The Cíes Islands)

Locked Down in London, Day 65:

I just remembered: yesterday, if it wasn’t for the coronavirus, we’d have flown out to Galicia.

This would have been the holiday that would have replaced the one that was cancelled in April. Is this depressing or what? At least now we finally grasped that there was no point in rescheduling; instead we’ve joined the ranks of those hopefuls who are expecting their money back from the airline…

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 65 (The Cíes Islands)”

The Partiality of the Eye-Witness (La parcialidad del testigo)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana

Today’s quote is a piece of advice from George Orwell regarding reading about the Spanish civil war. But the advice applies to reading all historical sources and eye-witness accounts – history students take note. 🙂

La cita de hoy es un consejo de George Orwell para quienes leen sobre la guerra civil española. Pero es un consejo que tenemos que seguir siempre cuando leemos obras históricas y informes de testigos – estudiantes de historia, toma nota. 🙂

George Orwell (1903-1950)

And I hope that the account I have given is not too misleading. I believe that on such an issue as this no one is or can be completely truthful. It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan.

In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish civil war.

(George Orwell: Homage to Catalonia)

Y espero que mi relato no haya sido demasiado confuso. Creo que, con respecto a un acontecimiento como éste, nadie es o puede ser completamente veraz. Sólo se puede estar seguro de lo que se ha visto con los propios ojos y, consciente o inconscientemente, todos escribimos con parcialidad.

Si no lo he dicho en alguna otra parte de este libro, lo diré ahora: cuidado con mi parcialidad, mis errores factuales y la deformación que inevitablemente produce el que yo sólo haya podido ver una parte de los hechos. Pero cuidado también con lo mismo al leer cualquier otro libro acerca de este período de la guerra española.

(George Orwell: Homage to Catalonia / Homenaje a Cataluña)


Lockdown Diaries: Day 46 (Hiking in the Picos de Europa)

Locked Down in London, Day 46: Beer Delivery Dogs

According to yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, somewhere in America a couple of handsome golden retrievers were enrolled by a brewery to deliver beer to their customers…

I quite fancy the sight of a couple of handsome golden retrievers delivering my shopping too.

Except… I guess I would only get the vegetables!

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 46 (Hiking in the Picos de Europa)”

Gredos lo eterno (The Eternal Gredos)

La cita de la semana / Quote of the Week:

Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936)

Porque Gredos es lo eterno; Gredos vio a los iberos llegar a España, y vio a los romanos, y a los godos, y a los árabes, y verá acaso pasar a otros bárbaros; Gredos vio morir, en uno de sus repliegues, al emperador Carlos V.

Because the Gredos is eternal; the Gredos saw the Iberians arrive to Spain and saw the Romans, and the Goths, and the Arabs, and perhaps will also see other Barbarians pass; the Gredos saw the Emperor Charles V die in one of its hollows.

(Miguel de Unamuno: ¡Montaña, desierto, mar!)

Lockdown Diaries: Day 21 (Hiking La Palma II)

Locked Down in Lancashire, Day 21: The Palm Trees of Lancashire

Went out on another local hike and noticed that every second garden boasts a palm tree! I mean this is Lancashire in the Northwest of England – wet, cloudy and miserable. Supposedly…

In point of fact, it’s 22 degrees and sunny today! 🙂

On our local hike, I paddled in a freezing cold local stream and pretended that I was paddling in the stream of the Barranco de las Angustias on our hike in La Palma…

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 21 (Hiking La Palma II)”

Lockdown Diaries: Day 19 (Hiking La Palma)

Locked Down in Lancashire, Day 19:

Glorious weather today in Lancashire (I got sunburnt).

Being in lockdown is definitely more bearable when

a) the weather is sunny

b) you’re somewhere where you can make use of it!

My late father-in-law lived in an old farm house. The farmland that went with the house was sold ages ago, but there is a lovely large garden around the house – with the occasional strutting pheasant, rabbits gambolling on the lawn and some stunning views.

So we went for a 10 km local hike and then sat in the garden, drinking wine…

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 19 (Hiking La Palma)”