Saturday, September 15, 2012

Barcelona, Day 2: Seeing God, Etc.

Okay, I lied. This is two days later, and I'm back in The Slum, where it's bit easier to write this stuff. No temptation to go exploring or seek out padrón peppers.

I had one thing I just had to do first, before any of the other stuff Barcelona offers: I had to go see Jesus.  Not just any Jesus, though: one from my distant past. In the waning months of 1966, I'd worked in the Christmas card stockroom of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and of course that was near the stockroom for the bookstore, which in those days sold mostly books and postcards, believe it or not. I was pretty fixated on medieval art back then, and my girlfriend's father encouraged that. He himself had a large collection of art books, mostly from that era and a few personal favorites like Ingres, and when I'd find something I liked he'd tell me where I could go read about it. At any rate, whether because I saw it in his library or because I saw it at the Met, I bought a very expensive ($35 at least) book that may have been called Romanesque Art of Catalonia because I liked the pictures. I had a little idea of what Romanesque meant, although I'd only seen the term applied to architecture, and I had no idea where Catalonia was, except that it was somewhere in Spain. I loved this book and kept it near so I could look at the art during various, um, excursions of the sort I was taking frequently back then.

So imagine my surprise when, reading Robert Hughes' book about Barcelona, I came upon an old friend, a fresco of Christ in majesty, which had been on the cover of this book, and learned that it, along with lots of other stuff, had been removed from the tiny churches in which it had been painted to prevent any further deterioration of the images. It was carefully taken off the wall and moved to the Museu Nacional d'art de Catalunya. Which was in Barcelona. I asked Jeff, and he told me to take the metro to the Espanya stop and "it's just up the hill."

Boy, was it ever.

There are outdoor escalators to get you most of the way up the hill from where those columns are, but the last bit has to be hiked on foot, since the museum is in a building erected for the 1929 World's Fair and saved from destruction at the last moment. The view is spectacular, and cut out of this picture is Sagrada Familia, the still-under-construction cathedral, which is a bit to the right. When I first got to the museum, a black cloud of smoke was erupting a little to the left of the cathedral, and although I wasn't sure of the exact coordinates, I hoped it wasn't my hotel. (It wasn't.)

The museum visit got off to a great start, as I approached the desk to pay my admission and the nice old lady selling tickets said "Excuse me for asking, sir, but are you a senior?" Takes one to know one,  I thought, and said yes. Seniors get in free. After that, it was just a hop and a skip to the sign pointing to the Romanesque collection. With typical Catalan modesty, the museum says its Romanesque collection is unparallelled in the entire world. Without having seen all of them, I'm inclined to agree.

There are two things I like about this period. One is the fact that nobody had yet learned how to do faces "right," which lends a certain comic-book flavor to portraits that I think has a lot of charm. Witness Thaddeus and Jacob here.

The other is that painters were being asked to render stuff from the Bible that the priest commissioning them likely didn't really understand himself. Thus, there's a certain species of angel whose description must have been pretty baffling, and these painters solved the problem by showing them with a bunch of wings covered with eyeballs.

These frescoes, as I've said, came from little country churches, no doubt funded by the local lord, and attended by the various illiterate locals who listened to a priest who basically knew the New Testament, or at least its greatest hits, explain the basics of Christianity as it was in those days: live a good life, pray to a saint to try to clear your troubles away, take communion each Sunday, and give some of your produce to the church as an offering. At the top of the list was Jesus, who'd died to help you get into heaven.

I love the "tah-dah!" posture of the angels here!

It didn't take long to get to the museum's most famous fresco, the one which had been on the book cover, taken from the apse of St. Climent de Taüll. The faces here are both comic-booky and expressive, and the colors and composition are outstanding for this era.

You thought I was kidding about seeing god? Well, whose hand is that up there, huh? 

After that there was a different kind of primitiveness, as some capitals from columns and other sculpture was displayed.

I have no idea why all these people look so nervous, except for the last one, which appears to be Adam, Eve, the tree and the serpent (serpent to left, Adam center, apparently with glowing genitals, which may explain his facial expression, and Eve far right: she, at least, got a leaf).

The further I went, the better it got, with lots of pieces I hadn't seen before, like this amazing fragment of a Deposition (a sculpture group showing Christ being taken off the cross).

The crazy thing was how modern some of this old stuff looked.

Ah, but I hadn't seen anything yet. As I staggered out, I realized I could do with some lunch and some time sitting down, so I found the cafeteria and ordered a tasteless wedge of alleged pizza which was redeemed by a granita of fresh lime juice: a slushy, as it were, which lowered my body temperature just fine, thanks. Then I got up and tackled the next part of the joint: the Gothic hall.

Again, I'd always considered Gothic to be an architectural term, and, as with Romanesque, it once was, but the MNAC draws a line around 1200, with art coming after that tending towards their definition of Gothic. And there's no doubting that the ideas of what you could do with depicting the human figure was changing. Take the decorations of the coffin of a knight, Sancho Sanchez Carillo, whose departure from the world not only seems to have upset a lot of people, but caused an artist to invent Art Nouveau about 600 years early:

It would seem that a lot of people, the women in particular, are very unhappy that Sancho is no longer among them. They're tearing their hair out, crying...but it's an amazing leap forward for the faces. The elongated gowns and colors are just icing on the cake, but very tasty icing. I stared at this for a while because I've never seen anything like it, and would be willing to be there isn't anything like it.

Not long after this, a bunch of local boys went to Italy and saw Giotto's stuff and came back all inspired. The ecclesiastical art in Catalonia changed markedly, but not all at once.

I don't know what's more remarkable here, the psychedelic sky, the big cat trying to get into the grave, or the fact that the living saint is able to hold the dead saint out there with no support for his feet.

Realism began creeping in, and the stories became more complex. Realism made it possible for a lovely picture of St. Stephen debating with the Jews to truly get its point across: a couple of the Jews are debating, one has his hands over his ears, but my favorites are the ones sitting on the floor with a Hebrew book open, their expressions clearly saying "Aw crap! He's right! It's right here!" With Jews playing a prominent role in Catalonia at this point, St. Stephen was a popular saint.

But the many, many retables and altarpieces, painted wooden scenes that went behind the altar in the churches, suddenly moved Jesus into the background, and, my mind already blown just by the visual aspect of this, I had another revelation about the changing role of the church in daily life. In the pre-1200 days, the parish priests would see a bishop now and again, and that was about as far up the ladder as it went. Nobody was making trouble, and Rome was probably only vaguely aware that these churches existed. As communications and travel became easier, though, the church was becoming richer as the number of communicants grew and the bureaucracy in Rome grew even more. Various saints were promoted as worthy of worship because of the political aspects of their life stories, and the paintings in Catalonia started emphasizing, in comic-book-style panels ("Bible manga," as a Japanese woman I was showing a cathedral to once exclaimed, looking at the stained-glass windows with their stories on them), the miracles of the saint, and the gory martyrdom ("Look what this saint went through for you!"), if any. The Spanish Catholic church really emphasized blood and gore, and the message to the average church-goer changed from an emphasis on Jesus to an emphasis on saints with powerful patrons in Rome who needed money to promote their causes -- the church militant in the case of the Archangel Michael, or conversion of the Jews in the case of St. Stephen, for instance. The Crusades were underway, draining the coffers of the Papacy, which itself was in crisis, with one set of Popes hanging out in Avignon, another in Rome, allegiances to various power structures in Italy and France causing friction and outright warfare. The naïveté of the art -- and, to a large extent, its charm for me -- was a victim of all of this.

I kind of hurried through the end of the Gothic section having had my mind blown by realizing this, and my visual cortext having been overloaded well before some second-rate Dutch stuff floated into the mix. I had to go back to the hotel and process this stuff. And by then, it was time for the art opening I had come to write about, and dinner.

Some final observations -- and more food! -- in the next post.


  1. Went to the Menil with friends in the mid-90s, and one of them pointed out that several of the Russian Orthodox icons displayed there, dating from the 11th-12th century, had characteristics similar to Mannerism. Hard to imagine many Italians of the 16th century traveling to Russia to see these.

  2. "I have no idea why all these people look so nervous".

    This is really wonderful.



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