Church Vandalism in Spain: Credit Where It’s Due

Who would have thought that, in the 21st century, one would be able to regularly blog about or even tweet regarding acts of church vandalism in Spain? From Madrid to Barcelona and beyond, it seems that every week there is a new story of uncivilized, sometimes politically motivated, acts of violence against the fabric of the Church. As appalling as these events are however, it is extremely important to stress that cooler heads must prevail when reporting on these events. Not every physical attack on a church building comes about as a result of political action.

Recently for example, I learnt of a new act of vandalism in the historically important city of Burgos, located in central Spain. Two 13th century statues on the main entrance portal of the church of San Esteban (i.e. St. Stephen) were decapitated sometime late on Holy Thursday or early in the morning of Good Friday by an unknown person or persons. San Esteban was built between the 13th and 14th centuries, and is considered by some architectural historians to be the most important example of Gothic church architecture in the city after the Cathedral of Santa Maria La Mayor. It was declared a National Monument of Spain in 1931, and at the present time it serves as the Altarpiece Museum for the Archdiocese of Burgos.

This morning Spanish authorities announced the capture and charging of an individual in connection with the case. The heads of the statues of St. Peter and St. Lawrence were recovered by the National Police from the individual, and these have been returned to the church for restoration. The defendant is a local man, who had been arrested and charged recently with antiquities theft in another matter, but was out on bond at the time of the San Esteban incident.

From the beginning the Archdiocese of Burgos has been very careful not to jump to the conclusion that this was an anticlerical act, and expressed its belief that this was probably an act of theft. Vandalism of ancient churches to feed the black market in looted antiquities is a problem throughout Europe, and Spain is no exception. When the incident was first reported, a spokesman for the Archdiocese noted the important detail that the heads were taken away, rather than left at the scene, as would normally be expected from leftist vandals. Nor was there any accompanying graffiti or other indications to suggest that the vandalism was a politically motivated act.

A similar, commendable restraint was shown by the Archdiocese of Barcelona and local authorities last week, when the sacristy of the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia was torched by a mentally ill man. Neither the Archdiocese nor the police alleged that there was any connection between the individual and leftist anti-Catholic actions. By taking this cautionary approach in Burgos, Barcelona, and elsewhere, the Church is doing exactly what it needs to do, even if authorities are often powerless to prevent vandalism – politically motivated or not – against its property.

There is a trait in the Spanish character at all points along the socio-political spectrum to jump to conclusions about the cause or motivations behind an act, which at the moment the Church appears to be avoiding institutionally, unless there is undeniable proof of an anti-Catholic motivation. Perhaps the most famous example in recent years of the Spanish tendency to form an opinion with insufficient evidence occurred on March 11, 2004, when the Madrid subway system was bombed three days before national elections were scheduled. The conservative government and some elements of the media immediately blamed ETA, the Basque separatist group, which denied all involvement – and admittedly the charge against them seemed rather bizarre to outside observers at the time, including this writer, since attacks like these are not the usual m.o. for ETA.

Through subsequent investigation it quickly came to light that the Madrid subway attacks were carried out not by Basque separatists, but rather by Muslim terrorists. The public reaction against the conservatives for making ETA the scapegoat for 3/11, as the subway bombing has come to be known, was harsh and swift; the small lead which the conservatives had enjoyed as the election was drawing to a close completely evaporated. This catapulted Mr. Rodriguez Zapatero and the Spanish Socialist Party into office, where they remain at the present time.

There is without question a rising sentiment of anticlerical fervor in Spain, and this needs to be addressed both through engaging those who seek to harm the Church, and by insisting that civil authorities do their job to maintain law and order. However, the bishops, the media, and the laity need to act with restraint when assigning blame to acts of Church vandalism. Tarring with too a wide brush will only hurt the perception of the Church in the court of public opinion, creating a “boy who cried wolf” situation. And it is among the members of the law-abiding public, Catholic or not, where the real power to combat deliberate acts of anticlericalism resides.

The 13th century statues of St. Peter (L) and St. Lawrence (R)
on the entrance portal of San Esteban in Burgos, prior to last week’s vandalism

Tuesday of Holy Week: Who’s the Victim Here?

[N.B.: A big change is coming to the Blog of the Courtier next week, stay tuned for details.]

Continuing with our series of reflections from the St. Matthew Passion as depicted in art, let us turn to the moment where Pontius Pilate washes his hands. We are all familiar with the event and its symbolism, and using the phrase “I wash my hands” in metaphor reminds us of that moment. Indeed, when speaking in Spanish and describing an event as being a cut-off point or that I am finished dealing with a certain individual or topic, I often make the gesture of wiping my hands and say, “Poncio Pilato.”

St. Matthew tells us that the washing of hands came after several unsuccessful attempts by Pilate to mediate the situation, and after he ignored the warnings of his wife not to condemn Jesus to death. The supporters of Annas and Caiphas, and the crowds, will have none of it. “When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves.'” (St. Matthew, 27:24)

Ever since this public, highly symbolic act, there has been endless debate as to Pilate’s intentions, and as to what sort of man he was. The moment has been considered and portrayed from the imagination of numerous artists since the earliest days of Christian art. I would like to draw the attention of the gentle reader to a rather unusual vision of it, created under the influence of an equally unusual late-Gothic genius, which portrays Pilate in a way which today is considered rather unpopular and unsympathetic.

The wonderfully weird Flemish painter Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1450-1516) created paintings that are often filled with absolutely bizarre details, from grotesque figures to wicked imps, making much of his oeuvre a kind of theological “Where’s Waldo?” Because of his huge inventiveness but small output, he was copied and imitated by a number of artists working in his shadow. Such is the case of the “Christ Before Pilate” panel painting presently in the collection of the Princeton University Art Museum, which at the time of its acquisition was thought to be by Bosch himself; it is now generally believed to be by a follower.

Whoever the author of the panel, it is a powerful, disturbing image. Christ is at the center of the picture, in a dirtied, but resigned pose. He is surrounded by guards with hideous, exaggerated features who look something like characters out of “Star Wars” or “The Fifth Element”. To the right, a servant is about to pour the water for Pilate to wash his hands.

This is not a Pilate that most of us would recognize today, thanks to films and more recent artistic interpretations. Here, the painter has portrayed the governor of Judea not as a tough, military man with a stoic bent, dressed in a toga or clad in armor, but rather a reptilian, nearly hairless aesthete, wearing a pretentiously vain, veiled cap. This is a Pilate who has spent his life indoors, trying to slither his way up the social ladder. He is so detached that he does not even dare to look Jesus in the face: instead, Pilate slides his gaze over to his corpulent servant without turning his head and, with a limp gesture, indicates that it is time to pour the water from the great brass pitcher into the matching basin.

In recent years Pilate has become the subject of a kind of ongoing “Apologia pro Vita Sua” among many in the West. Of course, in some of the Eastern Churches he has always been viewed as a saint, but this estimation is questionable at best. In the West, there is an increasingly commonly-held view that Pilate did his best, but was a victim of circumstances, prevented from doing the right thing by political concerns.

How very modern, and how very relativist, this thinking is. It ignores external evidence of Pilate’s deeds from the first-century historians Philo and Josephus, who wrote about Pilate’s cruelty and persecution of the Jews and Samarians. Indeed, Pilate’s heavy-handedness got to the point that he was recalled to Rome to explain himself to the Emperor Tiberias. Some historians believe that, like many a Roman official who fell out of favor, he subsequently went into forced retirement in Gaul, and later committed suicide.

Contemporary thinking about the newly-virtuous Pontius Pilate reverses the ancient military maxim of “Death Before Dishonor”. Pilate participates in ordering the murder of an innocent victim, and yet he is excused in some corners for being a kind of victim himself. It is reminiscent of those who tried to convince fence-sitting Catholics in the last U.S. Presidential election cycle that a vote for Mr. Obama is in fact a Pro-Life vote, rather than a vote for someone so strongly committed to preserving legalized infanticide at any cost, that he would rather shut down the entire government than compromise on funding one of the most evil organizations on the planet.

Rarely are we given the opportunity to directly confront the Devil, in all his naked power to draw us into sin, as he is normally a far more insidious fellow. The test of the good man is how he acts when that direct, confrontational moment comes. Pilate is given that opportunity, accepts an accommodation with evil, and kills a man whom he knows is innocent – supposedly so as to live to fight another day, rather than taking a stand and saying, “No, this is intrinsically evil and I will not do it.” He then washes his hands to try to take the blood away, but like Lady Macbeth, the stain remains.

Let us not be fooled by the rugged, stoic Pilate which has become more commonplace in art, literature, and film. That is a vision embraced by those who see only shades of gray, and no black and white. This 16th century image of him from Princeton, while not in the strictest sense an accurate portrayal of a 1st century Roman, is in fact a far more accurate a portrayal of the corrupted nature of Pilate himself.

“Christ Before Pilate” by a follower of Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1520)
Princeton University Art Museum

Parading Past Your Screen This Friday

>Next week being Holy Week, The Courtier intends to use each day to reflect on some aspect of Christ’s Passion through examining selected works of art, as he did last year in an effort which was well-received by the gracious readers of these pages. We often forget when we go to museums and galleries and view sacred images that they were intended for public/private devotion and meditation. They may be works of art, but they were created to point to something eternal; considering them individually may allow the reader to finally see them as something very different from something like a landscape or portrait painting.

That is for the week ahead. On this Friday however, when the work day often drags on interminably toward its close, oftentimes we need some extra reading material if there is little going on at the office. Here in the Nation’s Capital it is both a government holiday and furlough day, meaning that a number of people are not even at their desks today. For those of my readers who are, your attention is drawn to the following:

– TAKING A SPILL: I am neither a military man, nor a British subject. However as my English friends know, after many visits to the House Guards Parade I commonly remarked that had I born on the other side of the pond and been given the opportunity, I think I would have enjoyed the chance to serve in the Household Cavalry of the Life Guards. Part of this is the romantic, chivalric notion of wearing armor and riding a horse, but nevertheless there is something very majestic about this branch of the services. Therefore I had great pity for a jockey-sized young soldier in the Life Guards who happened to fall off his mount today, during rehearsals for the Royal Wedding on April 29th.

– DAVE BRUBECK IN GEORGETOWN: Every time the great jazz pianist Dave Brubeck comes to play at the Blues Alley jazz club in my neighborhood of Georgetown, I seem to find out about it too late to get tickets. Of course, when tickets go on sale they tend to sell out in a matter of minutes, partially because Mr. Brubeck is now 90 and we do not know how many more opportunities we will have to enjoy his genius, and partially because the intimate venue cannot possibly hope to hold all of the people who would give their right arm to be able to see and hear him up close, instead of in a large concert hall. Mr. Brubeck is giving four concerts this weekend, and as you might imagine they all sold out almost immediately. Those of you willing to resort to scalpers will probably find this your only option – no one who has tickets and is not on their deathbed will miss him, and possibly not even then.

Another jazz legend from the 1950’s and 60’s, Nancy Wilson is one of the few remaining singers from back in the day who is still touring, and showcasing her sassy, elegant, and smoky singing style for new generations of audiences. Her rendition of Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” off her 1963 album “Hollywood – My Way” is my favorite recording of this swinging classic. If you are interested in catching this legendary performer – who BTW during the Kennedy era sold as many albums as The Beatles – she will be at the Strathmore on April 23rd; as of this writing there are only a very few seats left.

So far details in the press have been few, but news outlets in Spain are reporting this morning that the Guardia Civil has recovered two important Old Master paintings stolen back in the 1990’s, after learning that they were about to be taken out of the country and brought up for sale on the black market. The works, an “Annunciation” by El Greco and “The Apparition of Our Lady of the Pillar” by Goya, had been lent out for international exhibitions, but after the shows had ended and the works shipped back to Spain, they disappeared before they could be returned to their rightful owners. The paintings were seized from a private residence in the city of Alicante. Nice job, Spanish police. Maybe we can borrow you to help us out on this side of the pond? We’ve got a little cache that’s now been missing for 21 years