Category Archives: Catalonia

>A Monument Restored

>Today the city of Barcelona dedicated a monument whose original, by one of Catalonia’s most important architects, was destroyed by a Spanish dictator 82 years ago, marking one of the last elements of recovery of its urban heritage following decades of cultural repression by Madrid. As a 50% Catalan and an 100% architecture fan, it is great to see that the people of Barcelona can still find ways to recover some of what they have lost architecturally over the years. At the same time however, the rebuilding of this monument raises certain architectural issues with respect to landscape and planning, that are worth the reader’s general consideration.

The “Four Columns” monument was designed by architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch, and erected in 1919. Puig i Cadafalch was one of what we might call the “big three” of Catalan Modernist architecture, alongside Antoni Gaudí i Cornet and Lluís Domènech i Montaner. Puig i Cadafalch is perhaps most famous for the Casa Martí, a building whose ground floor contains “Els Quatre Gats”, the exuberantly decorated tavern near the city’s Cathedral where the young Picasso and other artists would gather, and for the Casa Amatller, an equally elaborate structure on the luxurious Passeig de Gracia which stands alongside buildings by these other two legendary architects. The resulting juxtaposition is often referred to as the “Block of Discord” because of the way each building competes with the other to be the most over-the-top structure.

The “Four Columns” memorial refers in stone to the Catalan flag, which features four vertical stripes on a gold background; in this case, each pillar stands for one of the stripes. The monument was originally constructed not with stone, but brickwork coated with plaster, reflective of the love of Barcelona’s innovative architects of the late 19th and early 20th centuries for taking humble materials and using them in unexpected ways. See for example Barcelona’s Arch of Triumph located on the Passeig de Sant Joan, constructed in 1888, which is built of complicated brick, iron, and stone patterns and sculptural elements, rather than the usual marble; Domènech i Montaner’s 1905 Palace of Catalan Music, which employs similar methods; or Gaudí’s beloved serpentine park bench at the Park Güell, made of concrete and broken glass, tiles and porcelain.

Originally the “Four Columns” monument stood in a central location on the slopes of the mountain of Montjuïc, in the SW corner of the city, which my readers may know was the site of the Olympic Games in 1992. Puig i Caldfach envisioned a great hall on the top of the hill, with esplanades and boulevards leading down to a central plaza at the bottom. At the time the pillars were erected however, these structures had not yet been built, and the end result of the urbanization of the area was not exactly what the architect had intended.

The location for the monument was just below the site of the National Palace, the large domed exhibition hall which is now the National Museum of Catalan Art, and close to the site of Mies van der Rohe’s highly influential Barcelona Pavilion, both of which were built for the World’s Fair held in Barcelona in 1929. In the lead-up to the fair, the then-dictator of Spain, General Miguel Primo de Rivera, thought that the columns were too incendiary in encouraging Catalan nationalism, and had them dynamited and torn down. On the spot where they used to stand, a huge fountain basin was built, which is now a favorite excursion spot for tourists in the evenings; the “Magic Fountains”, as they are known, dance and change colors while classical music is played.

Debate began a number of years ago on the reconstruction of this monument, and early this year new columns to Puig i Caldafach’s original design – but made of more stable concrete rather than brick and plaster – were erected just above their original location. The hope of both the city government and the Catalan government is that the newly rebuilt monument will allow the vast open area around them to serve as a public gathering point for Catalan celebrations, particularly “La Diada”, Catalonia’s National Day, and provide better access and facilities for those who wish to attend such events than the more cramped location further up the hill where these events have been marked up to now. It was disappointing to read that the Spanish national conservative party, the Partido Popular, which originally voiced its support for the rebuilding of this monument, has now come out against it; as anyone familiar with the history of Catalan politics knows however, this kind of two-faced reaction is not to be wondered at.

The problem from a purely architectural perspective, however, is that the site has changed since the monument was originally put up. The surrounding buildings, completed in the 1920s, are now at least somewhat dependent visually on the fountain as a sort of wheel around which they rotate. Some architectural critics have pointed out – not entirely without cause – that the placement of these columns as close to their old position as possible has had a negative impact on the sweeping vistas of the place; the eye seems to halt at the columns rather than naturally following the stairs and terraces up to the museum on the top of the hill.

This raises the question of whether everything that is torn down should be rebuilt, even if it is possible to do so. There is obviously a very big difference between rebuilding four columns to look as they were and, say, rebuilding Canterbury Cathedral to look as it was. Cost is certainly one factor, but in this particular case the landscape has changed considerably since the monument was built, as well as since it was torn down.

That being said, taking into account the fact that I appreciate the landscape design of the present assemblage of buildings, fountains, terraces, and so on, I do think that the restoration of the monument does more good than harm. The “Magic Fountain” is little more than a giant concrete saucer, rather than a confection of statuary and architectural elements, and the fact that the surrounding landscape architecture features classical statuary, balustrades, and grand spaces for promenading leads to the conclusion that we do need some sort of a vanishing point for the space, rather than simply staring into the side of a hill.

What would be infinitely better, in my opinion, would be if the city would tear down the ridiculous pair of towers which stand at the entrance to this esplanade area, which are copies of the campanile of San Marco in Venice. They serve no purpose whatsoever, and the fact that they are such blatant copies of an existing structure, when Catalonia has never been at a loss for creative and talented architects, makes them seem a bit tawdry and more redolent of Las Vegas than the Veneto. But we shall leave that question for other armchair architects to consider.

The demolition of the original “Four Columns” monument,
on orders from Primo de Rivera, in 1928.

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Filed under architecture, Barcelona, Catalonia, Domenech i Montaner, Gaudi, landscape, Puig i Caldafach

>A Black and White Day

>This morning I was awakened by a little black and white paw tapping my nose; it was the cat, apparently wondering why I had decided to “sleep in” until 7:00 am instead of my normal rising at 6:00. And in all truthfulness, on seeing that little blotch of black and white my first thought was, “It’s the Feast of St. Raymond of Penyafort!” I imagine that most of my readers will think me a nerd for admitting this, but that is as may be.

Ramon de Penyafort, as he is known in his native Catalan, was born to a noble Catalan family in 1175 in the Castle of Penyafort near Vilafranca del Penedès, one of the important wine-making towns outside of Barcelona; if you are drinking a bottle of red or white wine with the denomination “Penedès” on the label, you are sampling a vintage from the terroir where he grew up. He entered the Dominican Order in 1222, and died in Barcelona on the Feast of the Epiphany in 1275 – quite a long life span for our own day, let alone in the Middle Ages. What he managed to accomplish during that life span is quite extraordinary.

His significance to the wider Church as a great Dominican scholar, preacher, and jurist, particularly with respect to the codification of Canon Law, led to his being named as the Patron Saint of Lawyers, and particularly for Canon Lawyers, as he is primarily known for this aspect of his life. However, not only was he a holder of doctorates in both civil and canon law, but he also was one of the founders of the Mercedarian Order, chaplain to several popes, and confessor to James I, the great conqueror-king of Aragon and Catalonia (who rested back control of the Balearic Islands and Valencia from the Moors.) He was also a friend, among many other notables, to St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order, and St. Thomas Aquinas, whose writing he encouraged.

At the age of 60 he was named Metropolitan Archbishop of Tarragona, the most ancient of the Catalan sees. In combination with everything else he was doing, he found the task too much for him and became rather ill, so he was given permission by Pope Gregory IX to resign the position; he returned to Barcelona to recuperate. However the Holy Spirit was not finished with him yet, and a year later in 1238, he was elected Master General of the Dominican Order. He used his talents and understanding of the law to spend the next two years re-drafting the Dominican Constitutions, resigning his position once they were accepted and promulgated, and being given permission to retire to Barcelona. He died in the Dominican convent of St. Catherine which, sadly, no longer stands.

For the people of Barcelona, his influence remains very visible down to the present day. There is first of all, his magnificent tomb in the Cathedral of Barcelona, which should be visited by all Catholic lawyers traveling to the city. There is also a beautifully rebuilt and reconstructed ancient church, originally the church of a Dominican convent, on one of the smarter avenues of Barcelona dedicated to him. And there are the annual city holiday and celebrations in honor of Our Lady of Mercy on September 24th, in part commemorating the appearance of the Blessed Virgin to St. Raymond and St. Peter Nolasco, asking them to found an order to help Christians who had been captured and forcibly converted to Islam by the Moors. Unfortunately, stop most Barcelonans on the street and they will have no idea who he is.

Sant Ramon is unquestionably one of the great Dominican saints and intellects of the Church. He is also one of the great Catalan saints who, sadly, today’s overly-secularized Catalonia does not seem to celebrate as it ought. For my part, as I have a party to attend this evening given by some very gracious young Catholic ladies, I shall be wearing black and white and bringing some of the fruits of Catalonia (in fermented form) to the festivities.

The Tomb and Shrine of St. Raymond of Penyafort,
in the Cathedral of Barcelona

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Filed under Barcelona, Catalonia, Church, Dominicans, St. Ramon de Penyafort

Fair St. Lucy’s Fair: An Example We Should Take

Today is the Feast Day of the early Christian martyr St. Lucy, known for her beauty and devotion to the Faith. She is a very important saint in Barcelona, should you happen to find yourself there during the Advent season, but she is also a point of challenge for all of us. Yet before we get to her specifically, I hope the reader will allow me to wander down what I hope is an interesting side topic regarding Church history.

Someone once observed that you could make a reasonable guess as to the age of a European diocese by the name of the patron saint of its cathedral. Of course, this does not always hold true: for example, the Cathedral of St. Mark in Venice was first built in the 9th century, long after the time of the Evangelist. Still, in many cases one can come up with an approximation that is fairly accurate.

In the case of Barcelona, legend says that the diocese was founded by St. Aetherius, disciple of St. James the Apostle, in about 37 A.D., who was later martyred and succeeded by St. Theodosius. That being said, the first true documentary evidence of an episcopal see in Barcelona comes from about 290 A.D., with the important pastorate of its bishop St. Severus. St. Severus was martyred under the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian in 303 A.D., as was a local girl by the name of St. Eulalia. Just 10 years later, the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan granting religious tolerance to Christians, and 10 years after that his mother, the Empress St. Helena found the True Cross in Jerusalem and brought it back to Rome. Needless to say, times changed very quickly for the Christians.

Thus, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and St. Eulalia of Barcelona celebrates in stone two important 4th century events: the discovery of the True Cross, and the martyrdom of St. Eulalia. As the late 3rd-early 4th century is also the beginning of the first documentary evidence for the bishopric of Barcelona in the person of St. Severus, it would not be unreasonable to assume that the true founding of the diocese proper dates from no later than the 3rd century. Indeed, St. Severus is buried in a magnificent little church just across from the Cathedral cloister. Moreover, the Royal Chapel of Saint Agatha, in the Old Royal Palace behind the Cathedral, houses relics of that 3rd century saint. And the original churchyard chapel of the Cathedral was dedicated to the Virgin Martyrs under the Romans, among whom St. Lucy (martyred the year after St. Severus and St. Eulalia, in 304 A.D.) is one of the most prominent; subsequently it was renamed for her alone.

However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, St. Lucy has a special connection to the Catalan people beyond simply having a building dedicated to her as part of the Barcelona Cathedral complex. Should you find yourself in Barcelona or in many cities throughout Catalonia right now, head down to the square in front of the local cathedral or major churches, and you will find the “Fira de Santa Llúcia” or “Fair of St. Lucy”. Like the Christkindlmarkt in Germany, these open-air markets sell Christmas decorations, handicrafts, special seasonal treats, and so on.

In the case of Barcelona’s St. Lucy Fair, the stalls occupy the Plaça Nova, the main square in front of the Cathedral and Archbishop’s Palace, and wrap around the exterior side walls and apse of the Cathedral, where the stalls are tucked between the buttresses. The Plaça Nova itself is largely populated by stalls selling the accoutrement necessary for building a “pessebre”, the elaborate Catalan manger scenes where the Holy Family, shepherds, wise men and stable are only the beginning. Here you can buy all kinds of buildings, landscaping, animals, peasant folk, and the infamous necessity of every Catalan nativity scene, the legendary caganer. The creation of a pessebre of ever-increasing dimensions, replacing or adding elements as necessary, is an obsession among many Catalans, somewhat akin to model railroad building but with a spiritual dimension. The St. Lucy’s Fair in Barcelona and in other towns is usually the best time to see what is new, and continues up until December 23rd.

While certain ethnic communities have managed to bring the tradition of these Christmas markets to the United States, the question has to be asked: why do our dioceses not sponsor such things themselves? We have Christmas bazaars in many parishes, of course, but experience indicates that these often take place as early as November, and usually inside the parish hall, where they are often rather sad and staid affairs. They are often boring, and they do not take us out of our comfort zone. And they are, quite frankly, a shameful loss of an opportunity for evangelization.

I think the example of St. Lucy, as well as St. Eulalia, St. Severus, and St. Helena, and so on, is lost on us. We eschew public displays of our faith to the extent where, today, even Eucharistic processions (when they take place, which is seldom) take place around the INSIDE of the church. Seriously, ladies and gentlemen: how is that bringing Christ to the people? Indeed, I cannot recall the last time I saw a procession of anything, whether the Blessed Sacrament itself, or a statue or painting of one of the saints, take place in this country.

How difficult would it be to set a Christmas market or bazaar outside? An excuse of course, is that in certain parts of the United States, it is too cold to be outside, which is nonsense. We are hardly a poor country lacking in resources or know-how. If the Germans and the Austrians freezing to death in tiny towns up in the Alps can set up outdoor markets with space heaters, hot foods, and so on, are we going to claim that we are bigger wimps than they?

Being a Christian, as St. Lucy and our other 4th century forbearers in the faith understood, is not about being comfortable and beige, like an old cardigan. Sometimes it can be (quite literally) a bloody mess. It is a wonderful thing to be Catholic, but not if we lack the spirit of conviction behind what we claim to believe. St. Lucy, as you may know, plucked out her own eyes rather than marry a pagan and give up her faith; one hopes that the Lord is not calling us to do the same, even if we must be prepared for that possibility. Yet by witnessing to her faith by preferring to die rather than give up the Church, she sets a very high example and, in the example of these markets named in honor of her Feast Day, I believe she sets a challenge to us all.

Could we not, as a Catholic community, use the squares, covered entrances, or even parking lots of our cathedrals, shrines and churches, at least in urban areas, to host Christmas markets like hers? Imagine the opportunities to engage with the public about the faith, and to challenge the attempts at neo-atheism and secular humanism that are infiltrating their way into urban culture via advertisements on city buses, billboards, and the like. Are we so very comfortable and beige like that old cardigan that we only pay lip service to what we claim we believe?

I would ask, gentle reader, that you consider this in whatever capacity you are able, and see whether one cannot use the example of the Fair held in honor of the fair St. Lucy as an inspiration to do more to proclaim the faith in your own community: not just preaching to the choir, as it were, but rather bringing the choir and everything else out onto the street.

The St. Lucy Fair in front of the Cathedral of Barcelona


Filed under Advent, Barcelona, Catalonia, Catholic, Christmas, Church, market, St. Lucy

>Frozen December Warmth

>Gentle reader, chances are wherever you happen to be reading this in the Northern Hemisphere, it is pretty darn cold. In Europe for example, there has been early and crippling snow in many places, shutting down airports and causing all sorts of accidents. Here in the Nation’s Capital, we have been stuck around the freezing mark for several days now, sometimes with terrible winds out of the northwest from Canada that sweep across the plains and over the Appalachians. Fortunately the mountains keep the snow from getting here, but the winds continue down into the valley of the Potomac nonetheless.

I noticed on my way into work this morning, it seems that the winds have finally died down. It is still much colder than usual in Washington this time of year, but sunny, making things not seem so bleak. And so I began singing one of my favorite Catalan Christmas carols to myself, “El Desembre Congelat” or “Frozen December”, as I walked to the office.

A Christmas carol is known as a “nadala” in Catalan – “Nadal” being the Catalan term for “Nativity”, and the expression for “Merry Christmas” in Catalan being “Bon Nadal”. Most of the best Christmas carols of Catalonia were written between the 15th and 17th centuries, and have been making a slow but steady impact over the past twenty years or so into the repertoires of singers outside of the Hispanic countries, where they have always been popular albeit with lyrics translated into Spanish. Until comparatively recently, if you were to find any Catalan carols at all in a program of Christmas music in the U.S., you would most likely get “Fum, fum, fum,”, always a favorite of children’s choirs, and possibly “El Cant dels Ocells” or “The Song of the Birds”.

The latter was the great cellist Pau Casals’ signature tune, which he always played at the conclusion of his concerts. In fact, he played it for The Kennedys in his legendary White House concert of November 13, 1961. The subsequent Columbia Records album of the concert was purchased not only by classical music aficionados, but by just about every JFK and Jackie fan in this country and around the world. The result was that this was probably the first and largest single distribution of a specifically Catalan musical composition to a general world audience.

Today it is becoming more common to see English translations of Catalan carols appearing in newer church hymnals, something I always check on whenever I come across a Catholic hymnal which I have not seen previously. The song “El Noi de la Mare” or “The Boy of the Mother” is one example of an increasingly popular Catalan carol for American singers. As a matter of fact, when I was still a tenor, I had to sing this piece solo in front of the entire school for an after-communion meditation. (Subsequently my voice cracked down to a baritone, where it has remained since, and I quit the choir.)

However, for sheer cheerfulness it is hard to beat “Frozen December” for lifting your spirits on a cold wintry day. The music for this particular carol started out in the late 16th century as a popular tavern song in Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Pyrenees, the northern provinces of Catalonia (most of which were subsequently made part of France after the sacking of Barcelona by the French in 1714.) By the beginning of the 18th century, the tune was given new lyrics and had morphed into a Christmas carol.

Those interested can listen to a lovely recording of Kathleen Battle – my favorite soprano bar none – with guitarist Christopher Parkening. Here is the first verse in Catalan:

El desembre congelat
confús es retira.
Abril, de flors coronat,
tot el món admira.
Quan en un jardí d’amor
neix una divina flor,
d’una ro, ro, ro,
d’una sa, sa, sa,
d’una ro, d’una sa,
d’una rosa bella,
fecunda i poncella.

Here follows a popular non-literal translation into English, which is necessary since obviously the Catalan text if translated literally would not fit with the notes and rhythm of the tune, due to the significant differences between Catalan and English linguistically:

Cold December’s winds were stilled
In the month of snowing.
As the world fell dark one night,
Springtime’s Hope was growing;
Then one rose-tree blossomed new,
One sweet Flower on it grew.
On the tree once bare,
Grew the Rose so fair,
Ah, the Rose, ah, the Rose,
Ah the Rose tree blooming,
Sweet the air perfuming.

Textually, the verse employs the symbolic imagery of the single rose growing unexpectedly in the garden, to theologically addresses the Old Testament prophecies of Advent, such as the root of Jesse and Mary’s perpetual virginity, and the event of Christmas itself, in much the same way as the great German carol “Es ist ein ros entsprungen” or “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming”. Unlike the German tune, however, this carol is not a meditation but rather a celebration. Perhaps this is because the Catalan peasant, so cold up in the mountains or with the Tramuntana wind blowing down from the Pyrenees, needed something to jump around and keep himself warm with as he tended his fields and sheep during a frozen December.

A true “Desembre Congelat” in a village in the Catalan Pyrenees.

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Filed under Advent, Barcelona, carols, Catalan, Catalonia, Catholic, Christmas, Church, music

>Bring Back the Bat!

>Whether in Christianity or in secular life, iconography is of extreme importance. Symbols, be they textual or plastic, are shorthand for concepts, events, people and places. Some are so obvious that we forget about them most of the time, unless we are in need of them.

When one is in need of prayer for example, spying a cross may help frame the mind for reflection and supplication. One of the great failings of the more iconoclastic branches of Protestantism in my opinion was their rejection of religious imagery as being tantamount to idolatry, which is a reflection of a poor understanding of human nature. The symbolic object is ultimately nothing more than a tool or an aide, very much needed by a species which relies primarily on the senses for understanding the world around it; said object is not an end unto itself.

To use a secular example, when walking the streets of the Nation’s Capital, one does not necessarily notice Old Glory flying from many of the buildings, in part because such things are so ubiquitous here. However, should the reader find himself in a foreign land and suddenly come across the American flag on display, chances are his heart will leap and his mind turn to thoughts of home. The flag itself is – or ought to be – honored, but it is not worshiped. It is a symbol, and as such what it symbolizes is honored when the flag itself is cared for properly. Human hands cannot grasp the theoretical underpinnings of this country – such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – but they can respectfully handle the country’s flag.

In conversation recently with an extremely accomplished architect whom I have the honor of knowing, and who graciously allows me to indulge my practice of armchair architectural criticism, we discussed some aspects of 19th century architectural design in Barcelona. Two of the structures under consideration were market halls designed by relations of mine. Both feature the coat of arms of the city of Barcelona over the entrance. Atop the crown which, well, crowns the shield on both structures, one can see the figure of a bat, prominently displayed with wings outstretched.

The representation of this animal on Barcelona’s government buildings, publications, etc., let alone on commercial venues, is not something one sees much of in the present day. I had come across it before, on such things as older buildings, or in vintage engravings, book covers, and posters, but not with any great frequency. As a result the need to research its significance always slipped my mind, until the aforementioned conversation when my friend noted how the bat reminded him of the era of Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” and the Belle Époque.

As it turns out, the “ratpenat” or “crest of the bat” was part of the arms of the Count-Kings of Catalonia (later the Kings of Aragon, of which Barcelona served as capital during the later Middle Ages.) Speculation among some modern historians is that the bat was a corruption of the winged dragon which used to appear on the crown, representing the dragon slain by St. George, patron saint of both Barcelona and Catalonia. However, modern historians as usual often believe our ancestors to be stupid oafs, and so we can discount such ideas. The bat is more likely to represent when King Jaume I conquered the Moors at Valencia in 1238, when a bat got into his tent on the morning of the battle to rouse him from slumber.

Whatever its origin, by the turn of the 20th century the bat virtually disappeared from new buildings, signage, or publications; no one seems to know exactly why. Admittedly this is purely speculation, but perhaps in the wake of the publication of Bram Stokers’ “Dracula” in 1897, the city fathers wanted to distance themselves from the negative image of vampires, particularly with their largest customers for their milled textile products, the English. As a result, if you were to stop an average resident of Barcelona on the street today, he is probably unaware of the bat having held centuries of symbolic importance for his city.

While admittedly I am often a one-man advocate for such things, I hope that this will serve as a clarion call for the Catalan-speaking peoples to bring back the bat. He served them well in liberating them from the Moors, and frankly having a bat as your mascot is very, very cool, for lack of a better word. Regular readers of these pages will note that back in 2009, I noted that DC comics came out with a special issue called “Batman in Barcelona”, which was brilliantly conceived and executed. At the very least, the people of Barcelona who have, despite their increasing secularization, continued to embrace the dragon of St. George as one of their city’s symbols, should also remember to add the bat to their symbolic repertoire.

The bat of Barcelona, atop the city coat of arms at the
Mercat de Sant Josep de La Boqueria

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Filed under Aragon, architecture, Barcelona, Bat, Batman, Catalonia, iconography, symbolism