Category Archives: Spain

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

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Filed under anti-Catholicism, Barcelona, Burgos, Catholic, Church, Madrid, Sagrada Familia, Spain, 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


Filed under art, Bosch, Holy Week, Pontius Pilate, relativism, Spain, St. Matthew

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

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Filed under art, Britain, Dave Brubeck, El Greco, Goya, jazz, Life Guards, music, Nancy Wilson, Spain

>Anti-Culture in Spain

>Near the beginning of his thought-provoking presentation yesterday at the Family Research Council, Ignacio Arsuaga, President of, noted that one of the problems faced by conservatives in Spain was the unavoidable fact that their country suffers from a “culturally weak Right”. Having allowed themselves to be defined, as S. Arsuaga puts it, as the “representatives of a Contra-Culture”, many have adopted a defeatist attitude that the culture wars are over, and they have lost. HazteOir and other groups are trying to combat that defeatism and foster greater participation in politics and society by those who have, until now, thrown up their hands in frustration and resignation at the path which Spain has been taking over the past several years.

The Spanish Left has, in an astonishingly short period of time, made good use of parliamentary party discipline to pass a number of outrageous laws, such as that allowing teen-aged girls to obtain the so-called “Morning After Pill” without either a prescription or parental notification, and mandated the teaching in public schools of deliberate lies as part of an “Education for Citizenship” about world history. One very pertinent example of the latter given by S. Arsuaga from one of the approved texts was a real whopper: a claim that in 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution succeeded in overthrowing the Tsar in order to give freedom and democracy to the Russian people. [N.B.: Presumably the millions of people whom Lenin, Stalin and the rest executed for disagreeing with them accepted their own executions as a necessary aspect of their new "democracy".]

As is often the case in Spanish history, there is a tendency towards exaggeration and magnification, and this often crops up when things go awry. During a convivial dinner discussion about yesterday’s presentation with friends Gonzalo Castañeira and Thomas Peters, the former pointed out that when Spain tries to do something evil, it usually succeeds in spectacular fashion. This is part of the Spanish character which I touched on recently in my post on the great Spanish painter Francisco de Goya’s “A Fight to the Death with Clubs”, and which was in fact repeated in a quote given during S. Arsuaga’s talk yesterday – i.e., the conventional wisdom is that the Spaniard only understands the cudgel.

Yet historically speaking, even if the forgoing character assessment is true, people from outside of Spain have always found much to admire in the more conservative aspects of the Spanish character. Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog, not only spent a great deal of time in Spain but also, in “The Book of the Courtier”, extolled many of its virtues to his fellow Italians. In lauding their conservative but elegant appearance, Castiglione reflected that the way Spaniards look is a reflection of their character: “Things external often bear witness to the things within.” Similarly, when visiting Spain in the 19th century, the English writer and art critic Richard Ford (1796-1858) found much to admire in the seriousness of the Spaniard and what we would perceive as a preference for small-government conservatism.

Ford’s seminal book, “A Handbook For Travelers in Spain”, has long been considered one of the best travel books ever written. Indeed, in his obituary The Times stated that “so great a literary achievement had never before been performed under so humble a title.” Following many years traveling throughout the country, Ford observed that a great deal of power was held by local governments in Spain, in order to better address local problems. He felt that the strength of these local governments was that, seemingly paradoxically, “they kept Spain Spanish, because such institutions were congenial to national character, which, essentially local, abhors a foreign centralising system. They again have grown with the country’s growth, and have become part and parcel of the constitution.”

Spain was very much admired in the past for its seriousness and straightforwardness, as well as its ability to let its hair down when appropriate. The juxtaposition of the serious and the joyful, like the dark, deeply spiritual men and women who appear in the portraits of El Greco with the unadulterated, passionate joy of flamenco, is something which has attracted discerning American visitors from Washington Irving to John Singer Sargent to Ernest Hemingway. Today, those who try to espouse the dignified, conservative aspects of traditional Spanish character are considered to be, as S. Arsuaga points out, intentionally fighting what leftists consider the “culture” of today’s Spain.

Truthfully, what the Spanish left describes as the “culture” is really a non-entity lacking any culture whatsoever. It is in fact an anti-culture, in which there are no universal standards or ideals other than those arbitrarily adopted and rejected as whim or cult of personality dictates. And ironically enough, the proverbial cudgel is the preferred tool for promoting the so-called diversity of the left: disagree with me, and I will bash your brains in rather than allow you to retain your own thoughts.

It is high time for the Spanish people to wake up, to reassert themselves, and to put aside the monstrous anti-culture which seems to have infected every element of their visible society. It is extremely encouraging that S. Arsuaga and others – including, albeit somewhat belatedly, the Spanish Episcopal Conference – are trying to do that awakening, but there is much more that remains to be done. The impression from this side of the Atlantic that Spain is slipping irretrievably into anarchy is not going to be overcome otherwise.

Lady in a Fur Wrap by El Greco (c. 1577-1580)
Pollok House Collection, Glasgow

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Filed under conservatism, culture, society, Spain

Catalan Independence: Come Together, Now

Over the weekend a non-binding referendum held in the Catalan capital of Barcelona resulted in almost 90% of those participating supporting the idea that Catalonia declare independence from Spain. The results of this poll are essentially the same as polls taken in the other counties of Catalonia over the last two years, in which over 90% of participants also voted in favor of Catalan independence. While a full declaration of independence or secession is nowhere near a reality, there are some very significant developments in this area which ought to give naysayers some pause. Before we can get to that, however, some disclosures are necessary.

The regular reader of these pages is in no doubt as regards my general political leanings – though I put the tenets of my Catholic faith first, ahead of any political considerations. Thus although my posts often have a certain point of view, I do not in general blog at any length on overtly political issues. In this case, being half-Catalan, I need to make an exception.

With regard to the issue of bias, I freely admit that I am very much in favor of Catalonia regaining its independence from Spain, or at the very least engaging in the creation of a federal system within Spain similar to that which we enjoy in the United States, or that of Germany. If independence proves impossible but the latter path of federalism could be equitably applied, it would allow the individual states to retain a significant amount of control over their own finances, public policies, and so on. It would concentrate the power to govern in local hands, in order to better address local issues, while demarcating the powers of a national, centralized government to address large issues, such as defense, which are better-handled collectively.

Apart from the suspicious leanings of The Courtier in the eyes of some on the issue of Catalan independence we must also, when considering the poll result, drill down into the numbers of the poll results themselves; percentages only tell us part of the story. The number of voters in yesterday’s referendum was a bit north of a quarter of a million people. This figure represents a little over 21% of the estimated population of the city of Barcelona.

While I believe this does not detract from the fact that there are a large number of people in favor of Catalan independence – nearly one out of every five eligible Catalans and Catalanistas in Barcelona and throughout Catalonia voted in favor of it, after all – I think it reasonable to assume that those who went out to vote in this non-binding poll were the “true believers”, for lack of a better term. They are people who took the opportunity to make sure their voices were heard, even though they knew that there would be no direct result; the rest either were indifferent and thought the poll was not worth their time, or were opposed to the poll even taking place.

All that being said, what is significant about this most recent polling is that, unlike on previous occasions, the Catalan Center-Right participated more actively in the discussion. The current President of the Catalan Government, Artur Mas, is a member of the largest Catalan conservative party, and voted in favor of independence, as did Jordi Pujol, the previous Catalan conservative head of government in the 1990′s. The strongest voices for Catalan independence have, in recent years, been those on the far Left, but the fact that the middle-class party is taking the question more seriously than it has in years is an indicator that perceptions may be shifting, given the disastrous governing of Spain’s present Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Because of its association with the Left during the 1930′s, many commentators outside of Catalonia and even many Catalans themselves forget that the rebirth of a desire for independence in Catalonia began in the mid-19th century, with the “gent de be”, i.e. the Catalan version of the UHB or “Urban Haute-Bourgeoisie” [with apologies to Whit Stillman.] This powerful group of aristocrats, gentry, industrialists, professionals and intellectuals, were proud of their Catalan heritage, outward looking at what the rest of Europe and the world had to offer, and yet remained deeply devout Catholics. They fundamentally changed not only the look of Barcelona, commissioning the work of legendary architects such as Gaudi, but also altered the future of Catalonia. Through their efforts, Catalonia emerged from being a cultural and economic backwater in the 17th and 18th centuries, after years of repeatedly being stomped on by Madrid and losing their empire, which once stretched from Barcelona to Palermo to Athens.

That we have a situation today, not seen since the transition after the death of Franco, in which both the Left and the Right among the Catalanist parties are willing to talk to each other but also to find common ground, is a very remarkable state of affairs. Even a low level of participation, but participation nonetheless among Catalan conservatives is noteworthy, and it should give pause to members of both the national conservative party, the Partido Popular (“PP”), and the national Socialist Party (“PSOE”). For ironically enough, Catalan independence is an issue which both the national Left and the national Right in Spain will put down their weapons over, and link up arm-in-arm to prevent from happening.

The press seems to focus on what the PP has to do and say because it is, in the eyes of many journalists, too Right-wing. This is because most Spanish journalists worship the philosophical quicksand that Mr. Zapatero walks on. Be that as it may, Catalan independence is, for the PP, first and foremost a philosophical issue. They do not see the Catalans as a nation-within-a-nation, even though the majority of Catalans see themselves that way – including those who would not vote for full independence from Spain for political or practical reasons.

Yet for all the press about the Right, the Socialists as currently headed by Mr. Zapatero, could not govern Spain if the Catalans were to leave. The national Left has always needed Catalan money and political support in order to remain in power. During the Civil War, when they were chased out of Madrid, Barcelona became the capital of Spain for the Leftist, Republican side. Today as then, take Catalonia out of the equation and Spain as a whole not only becomes significantly poorer, but also significantly more conservative politically. Thus, both the national Left and the national Right in Spain can, in fact, agree on one thing: that it is in neither of their interests for Catalonia to declare independence.

The idea of full independence through secession, or simply a larger degree of de-centralization, is one which gets knocked around in this country from time to time (e.g. in Texas and Hawaii), but which rarely gets any practical traction. In Europe however, there have been many examples in recent years of groups gaining either full independence or increased separation from the centralized state which had historically came to dominate it, often as a result of the absolute monarchies and empire builders of the 18th and 19th centuries. Critics call this “Balkanization”, based on how poorly this process was handled in the former Yugoslavia.

Yet as terrible as that was there are other examples – Scotland, Slovakia, etc. – where it was not necessary to shed blood in order to either gain greater autonomy or separate completely. In disintegrating Belgium over the last several months we have been witnessing the birth pains of what is probably going to be at least two new countries. Catalonia, if it eventually chooses to go its own way, does not have to be the next Kosovo or Bosnia.

This afternoon I will be attending a conference on the evils Mr. Zapatero and the Socialists have wrought in Spain over the past few years. The speaker will, I am sure, not favor Catalan independence, and so there is little point in my raising the issue with him. However, my hope is that the Catalans themselves will continue to actively engage in this issue, and not simply relegate it to the bar, cafe, or living room following yesterday’s referendum. Those are the places where this discussion needs to take place, of course, for it was in the homes and clubs, over a good coffee or brandy, that such talk began back in the 19th century among Barcelona’s UHB. Yet those discussions will need to move beyond the comfy chair or the tottering stool if they are ever going to be seriously considered by the Catalan people as a whole.

Giant Catalan flag unfurled at the legendary
Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona

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Filed under Barcelona, Catalan, Catalonia, politics, Spain