Tag Archives: Madrid

Catalonia and the Splintering of Europe

Secession is something of a dirty word in these parts.

My readers know that the United States dealt rather dramatically and thoroughly with the question of secession during the Civil War in the 19th century, meaning that the issue of whether a country could break apart is something which does not often cross our minds on this side of the Atlantic.  True, our media has done a great deal of reporting on the occupation of Crimea by Russia, but mainly because that action raises a number of strategic concerns for this country.  Somewhat less attention has been paid to the question of independence for Scotland, although it is reported on from time to time for the two-fold reason that the people there speak English, and Americans are fascinated by just about anything that goes on in Britain.

However in other parts of Europe, the possibility of break-up is being actively considered, yet remains outside the common knowledge of most Americans.  Consider the recent referendum in Venice for example, on whether to leave Italy and become an independent republic again, as it was before Italian unification in the 19th century.  The story received scant attention on these shores, but the referendum passed with a staggering 89% of the vote, accompanied by a huge turn-out: of the 3.7 million eligible voters, approximately 2.4 million voters took part, and of those over 2.1 million people voted in favor of declaring independence from Italy. Another example is the question of independence for Catalonia, an issue which is now starting to come to a head, but which is not being analyzed very much in American news outlets either.

As the reader may know, if he is a regular visitor to these pages, Catalonia is the northeastern region of Spain along the Mediterranean, of which Barcelona is the capital.  The Catalan people have their own separate language, flag, and culture, distinct from the rest of Spain, a fact which, at various points over the past few centuries, has caused them to try to gain independence.  Economically speaking, Catalonia is one of the most powerful of Spain’s 17 component regions, producing between 1/4 and 1/5 of the entire output of the Spanish national economy, depending on whose figures you believe.

Because of this, Catalan yearning for international cultural recognition has, in recent years, been joined with something resembling economic libertarianism.  The perception, rightly or wrongly, among the Catalans that they are paying far more into the central Spanish economy than they are getting out of it, has fostered a widespread call for less centralized control by Madrid.  This development of a greater desire for self-determination based on economic policy, not just cultural preservation, has appealed to a broad swath of Catalan voters, and led to an upcoming referendum which could lead to Catalonia declaring independence from Spain…or maybe not.

Back in January of 2013, the Catalan Parliament adopted a resolution that Catalonia had a right to hold a vote on whether to declare independence from Spain, as a sovereign legal and political entity.  This was temporarily suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court in Madrid in May 2013, pending judicial ruling on the matter.  The resolution was rejected yesterday by the court, declaring that “within the framework of the constitution, a region cannot unilaterally convoke a referendum on self-determination to decide on its integration with Spain.”

While this was making its way through the legal system last year, the major Catalan political parties did not wait to see what Madrid would decide.  In December 2013, the Catalan government announced that a referendum would be held on November 9, 2014, in which two questions would be placed before the electorate.  First, voters would be asked whether they wanted to declare Catalonia a state; if so, the voters would then be asked whether that state should be independent of Spain.  The central government in Madrid has already declared that any such vote would be illegal under the Spanish Constitution, a position strengthened by yesterday’s court ruling.

Keep in mind, there are two very important differences with respect to the way the Scottish and the Catalan independence referenda are proceeding.  In the case of Scotland, the vote will only ask one question: whether Scotland should be an independent country.  In Catalonia, the two-part question means that, in theory, a majority of voters could declare that Catalonia is a state, rather than simply a province or a region, and yet those voters could also decide that they do not want to be independent of Spain.  Additionally, while the Scottish vote is taking place with the blessing – if not the approval – of the British government, the Catalan vote, if it happens at all, clearly will have no such approval nor be recognized, whatever the outcome.

Yet interestingly enough, Tuesday’s ruling may not prove to be a defeat for the Catalan referendum after all.  Not only was this court result expected, but it may actually galvanize Catalan voters to go ahead with their vote anyway, in defiance of Madrid.  If it does, Catalonia may be betting on the fact that the current Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, and the conservative Partido Popular which he heads, are now unpopular.  The Spanish economy remains something of a basket case, with around 26% of Spaniards still unemployed, and economic growth this year predicted to be only around 1.2%, according to figures released today by the Bank of Spain.

Given that Spain has been in the economic doldrums for several years, this growth rate is actually comparatively good news, but it is not winning Sr. Rajoy or his party many votes.  Recent polls suggest that in the upcoming EU Parliamentary elections in May, the Partido Popular is likely to lose to the Socialists and other leftist groups.  And since national elections must take place in Spain in 2015, Catalonia may be betting that Sr. Rajoy will not want to risk being seen ordering the police or armed forces to arrest and prosecute those trying to organize the referendum.

Of course, if Catalonia decides that it is a state within a state, this may prove almost more confusing within Spain’s patchwork system of government than if it simply declared independence.  Unlike the United States or Germany, Spain does not have a federal system of government, with a clear division of powers between the various state governments and the national government.  Rather, individual relationships were negotiated between the central government in Madrid, and the component regions of the country, which over the years have occasionally been re-visited and renegotiated.

Thus, even if full-on independence does not pass in Catalonia, Spain could be looking at a major constitutional crisis.  Other wealthy, culturally and linguistically separatist regions in the north of Spain, such as the Basques or Galicia, could decide that they, too, want to hold such referenda.  Some might want to stay within Spain; others might go for full-on independence.  The end result could be an evisceration of the Spanish Constitution, something which Madrid absolutely does not want.

In a wider European context, Brussels is clearly concerned about what the fracturing of nation-states means for the future of the European Union.  Paradoxically, it is the greater degree of self-determination brought about by membership in the EU which has helped to bring about these resurgent independence movements, but there is no guarantee that a newly independent Catalonia, Venice, or Scotland would be permitted to join the EU.  Their “parent” states could indefinitely prevent their accession, for example.  These would not be friendly annulments, as occurred in the breakup of Czechoslovakia, nor bloody, drawn-out divorces, as occurred in Yugoslavia, but something altogether new, which Brussels will have a very difficult time dealing with.

Stay tuned.

Pro-Independence Rally in Downtown Barcelona September 11, 2012

Pro-Independence Rally in Downtown Barcelona
September 11, 2012

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A Golden Age in Two New Exhibitions

Having specialized in Spanish art of the 17th century when I was studying at Sotheby’s in London, I have continued to keep my eye on the art market and news from the museum world about art produced in Spain during that Golden Age of culture on the Iberian Peninsula.  Thus, some news caught my eye this morning which involves two of the most important painters working in Spain during the 17th century.  One is a major rediscovery for art historians, which has been announced in Barcelona, while the other is an exhibition on the work of a well-known Spanish Old Master painter that has recently opened in Madrid.

Juan Bautista Maíno (1581–1649) is not a household name in the history of art, partially because we know of very few of his paintings to survive – only about 40 or so are known or believed to be by his hand – and partially because he became a Dominican friar when he was in his 30′s. However his influence on the development of Spanish art was tremendously important. Maíno left his native Castile and studied painting in Rome, soaking up the influence of painters like Caravaggio and Reni, and then brought this more theatrical style back with him to Spain. He became a popular, if not prolific painter, and helped the careers of many up-and-coming young painters, including Velázquez, the greatest of all Spanish artists.

Now the National Museum of Catalan Art (“MNAC”) in Barcelona is exhibiting, after a lengthy restoration process, a very large painting depicting “The Conversion of St. Paul” on the road to Damascus, which after careful study has been definitely attributed to Maíno. It had been in the collections of the MNAC for many decades, but incorrectly attributed to another artist, until it was damaged in a fire and had to undergo restoration. Given the scarcity of paintings by Maíno, this is a major find for art historians. The newly restored work will be on display as part of a special exhibition from July 5 to September 30th, along with a short documentary film, a contemporary sketch of the painting on a smaller scale, x-rays from the research process, and other information detailing the giant painting’s restoration.

Meantime at The Prado in Madrid, a new exhibition has opened on works by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), whose name or at least whose art is well-known to most students of art history. The stark realism of Velázquez was later supplanted by the softer, more dreamy qualities of Murillo’s style of painting, which often reflects a kind of golden, mellow light. Murillo was one of the greatest painters of children, in all of their innocent beauty, and his work has a sentimental quality that later influenced many French, English, and American salon/society painters of the 19th century.

The show “The Art of Friendship” which opened at The Prado a few weeks ago and runs until September, features paintings by Murillo which he created for or as a result of commissions obtained through the artist’s good friend, Justino de Neve.  Father de Neve was one of canons of Seville Cathedral, and a great friend of Murillo, who helped the artist to obtain a number of his most important artistic commissions. This included paintings Murillo produced for the hospital of elderly and disabled priests in the Andalusian city, which de Neve himself founded, several of which are in this exhibition. The show will later move to the former hospital founded by Father de Neve in Seville, before continuing on to The Dulwich in London.

If you happen to find yourself in Barcelona or Madrid this summer, and can avoid the rioting leftists, then both of these exhibitions would be well-worth paying a visit.


Josep Serra, Director of The MNAC, examines the newly-restored
“The Conversion of St. Paul” by Juan Bautista Maíno

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Beating Them At Their Own Game

For many years much of the news out of Spain, at least as reported by the allegedly “mainstream” media, has been rather bad.  The most recent evidence of this was last summer, in the laughably awful media coverage of World Youth Day in Madrid.  Yet rather than throw up our hands and ask, “What can we do?”, a new story out today from Spain should give us not only cause to hope that all is not lost in that country, but also provide us with a good lesson on how to use new media to our advantage.

It was a real pleasure this morning to read that, for the second year in a row, city authorities in Madrid have denied a group of atheists, anarchists, and other leftists a permit to march in protest of the Church on Holy Thursday. In rendering their decision the authorities issued a press release which states, in part [translation mine]:

The date, time, and place chosen by the organizers, although in principle having a legitimate purpose, in reality is being sought for a demonstration on a day of special significance for Catholics, in the same place and time when many religious ceremonies will be held, and which indicates, at the very least, a clear intent of provocation.

For those of my readers who are not Catholic, or who have not been in Spain during Holy Week, a little explanation is in order. It is a very ancient tradition in Spain for the major towns and cities to hold religious processions during Holy Week, i.e. the period from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. This is the holiest time of the year for Christians, as we remember the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

However these processions are not simply parades, like one might have for a sporting event or secular holiday. Most of these very special processions feature gigantic parade floats decorated with hundreds of flowers and candles, and bearing life-sized crucifixes, tableaux showing scenes from the Bible, or figures of the Virgin Mary and other Christian saints. The processional groups accompanying these floats, which are usually the property of individual churches across each city, are huge, and include such people as clerics, musicians, local dignitaries, and so on. For example, Spanish actor Antonio Banderas has, for many years, participated in the Holy Week processions in his home city of Málaga, in southern Spain. Thousands of people attend these processions, or watch them on television, and those on Holy Thursday, when Catholics commemorate the Last Supper and the institution of the Holy Eucharist, take place on one of the most important days of this very important week.

As the authorities correctly held, the only reason why a group of leftists would want to hold an anti-Catholic protest march in downtown Madrid on Holy Thursday, in the middle of the sort of atmosphere I have just described, would be to try to pick a fight with those participating in or watching the religious processions. I am obviously very pleased that the local government had the sense to see sense on this point. However it should come as no surprise to anyone that the “mainstream” media in Spain has been wringing its hands and whinging about this decision all morning.

In tone, the reporting on this has been similar to Pope Benedict’s recent visits to Spain, when the media deliberately ignored or under-reported on the tremendous numbers of people who came to cheer the head of the Catholic Church. In 2010 such gatherings happened in Santiago de Compostela, home of one of the most important historical religious sites in Christendom, as might have been expected. However it happened again in ultra-hip Barcelona, which has a long history of anti-clericism, when the Pope came to dedicate the famous Sagrada Familia basilica, and it happened again the following year in the supposedly swinging capital of Madrid during World Youth Day. The result was reporting that so downplayed the numbers supporting the Pope, and so played up the tiny number of those protesting his visit, that the media frankly covered themselves in shame by being unable to hide their bias against Catholicism.

Of course, Catholics in Spain are not alone in experiencing this kind of biased reporting: it happens to any group which large news organizations do not like. For example, apparently the presence of around half a million people at the March for Life in Washington earlier this year, peacefully protesting against legalized infanticide, did not deserve mainstream media coverage. We can complain about it, as I certainly did, but the reality is that this type of reporting is not going to change, at least not anytime soon. So how we do we beat them at their own game?

The answer, it seems to me, is in fact what you are doing right now: making use of new media. If the role of the so-called mainstream media is to question authority, then I would suggest that one important role for new media content providers is to question the mainstream media. Where needed, it is now possible to produce media content that dismisses mainstream media coverage of events and issues that matter to us, as being biased and fundamentally untrustworthy.  Through the use of blogging for example, in both macro and micro format, anyone can be a reporter or commentator.

Yet that reporting via new media platforms will not have any real impact if those who read it do not take on the task of sharing that content with others. Therefore if you care about an issue, and feel as though the mainstream media is misreporting, burying, or otherwise ignoring that issue, even if you yourself are not a new media content producer, you have an important role to play. By sharing that content with others, you can help to get the word out that, among other things, maybe The New York Times or The BBC is not the best place to get your news on the Catholic Church.

Combining the tools available to us through new media with the wider outreach possible through social media can provide greater encouragement to those who find themselves questioning news reporting on issues that matter to them. And as bizarre as it might seem to state, the type of biased reporting which we are questioning – or at least I am – in fact provides a wonderful opportunity to draw attention to that bias. We live in an age where we are no longer bound to accept, due to a lack of alternatives and as a kind of secular gospel, what we are told to think about an event, or a subject, or a policy, by the mainstream media outlets. Therefore, let us use their content, as untrustworthy as it often is, to create our own.


Part of a Holy Week procession passing through central Madrid

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The Young and the Dangerous

I daresay like many of my readers, yesterday I was enthralled by news coverage of the events taking place in Libya; to the point that, I must confess, I did not follow up on World Youth Day news until this morning. Despite what news outlets describe as a combination of temperatures around 104F/40C and some terrible wind, rain, and lighting storms (which in fact pretty well describes Washington’s weather this weekend), the final mass of the celebration still managed to attract somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million people.  Now that people are returning home, or getting back to normal, I am looking forward to hearing tell of what my family and friends saw and experienced, and their reflections.

I am particularly looking forward to hearing about what sort of verbal oil of vitriol was thrown in their faces while they were in Madrid.  I have already complained in these pages about the exaggerated amount of press coverage given to the anti-Catholic protestors who gathered in the Plaza del Sol and elsewhere in the Spanish capital.  And Thom Peters over at American Papist has also reflected on some of the photographs of the viciousness which leftists turned on the pilgrims last week, one of which I reproduce below.  It is as dramatic an image as an altarpiece showing the early martyrs about to be condemned by the pagans.

What has been most impressive however, as is always the case with the World Youth Day events, is how it is the young who continue to surprise us, with their willingness to provide public testament to their belief in Christ and His Church, even in the face of a horrible, spitting viciousness. Let not the reader be convinced, however, that more than merely shouting at Christians is impossible in the modern world. To that end I draw your attention to the life of Barcelona native Mercè Diéguez i Foguet, who was the subject of a very interesting blog post I stumbled across today. As a teacher of young people, I am certain that those who learned of their teacher’s fate must have been deeply affected by what happened to her.

Mercè was the eldest of three, living with and caring for her brother and sister in her apartment near the monastic church of Sant Pere de les Puel.les; she was well-known in the neighborhood for teaching what today we would call CCD. In July 1936, when the left began actively persecuting the Church in Barcelona, the vicar of the famous Sagrada Familia had to flee, was taken in by the family, and kept hidden. About a month later, in August 1936, the family witnessed seven Benedictine monks from the Abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat, who had been hiding in the apartment of one of their neighbors down the street, being dragged away by the leftists; the monks were subsequently executed. Then in September 1936, it was Mercè’s turn.

The leftists arrived at the apartment to find Mercè, her sister, and the priest from the Sagrada Familia. They waited for Mercè’s brother to return home, arrested Mercè, her brother, and the priest, and took them off to jail, leaving their other sister behind. All three prisoners were executed about 2-3 days later. The priest was executed for being a priest; the brother, as the one who agreed to take in the priest and hide him; and Mercè for being a CCD teacher. Indeed, when their sister who was ultimately left behind offered herself in Mercè’s place, the leftists responded that they did not want her, they wanted the catechism teacher.

It is interesting to note that a middle-aged, parochial religion teacher was considered to be so dangerous by the leftist powers ruling Spain at the time as to warrant her death. Perhaps it was because, as an instructor of young people, she was seen as someone who was a threat to the future of their regime. Kill the teacher, and the flock of students who are as yet not fully-formed adults will no longer know what to do, and will therefore be more easily controlled.

One wonders what such forces as brought about Mercè’s death would have done to people like Catholic bloggers and podcasters. Fortunately, at the present time shouting is about all those opposed to the Church can do. Though with the passage of laws that chip away at the Church’s moral teachings and the freedom of Christians to practice their religion, it is not unreasonable to fear that more than mere discord will be confronted by the young people in this photograph when they themselves reach middle age.

How very easy it is to fall into a kind of atrophied Christianity in the modern world, where we do not have to worship in catacombs, or make secret symbols to one another in order to recognize our fellow Christians. When we do not have to suffer a bit for something, we tend to want and appreciate it less. And many Christians themselves have not been doing such a spectacular job in the past several decades to actually find themselves taking a stand for Christ’s teachings, in part because I fear there have not been enough good teachers of catechetics like Mercè.

This is one of the reasons why World Youth Day comes as such a shock not only to the news media, but also to many Christians themselves, whose spark of faith has either burned down very low, or even died out a long time ago. There are people out there – young people – who are quite literally willing to drop to their knees and witness publicly to their Faith, in the face of those who despise them. Let us hope that a little bit of their faith and courage will rub off on all of us, particularly for those who have adopted a lazy, fat, and conflict-free sort of Christianity.


Anti-Catholic protestor screaming at praying pilgrims, Madrid

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The Wrong End of the Telescope

Although the first newspaper I read every morning is The Daily Telegraph, which will come as no surprise to many, the reader may be surprised to learn that, yes, I do read reports and commentary from news outlets whose editorial views are generally not sympathetic to my own: by which I mean, of course, The Manchester Guardian.  So it was a pleasant surprise today to read this opinion piece in The Guardian from commentator Andrew Brown, a man who is neither Catholic nor Spanish, and to find him asking himself the same question I was asking myself last evening.  To wit: why is it that the media are so focused on those tiny numbers of people protesting the Pope and World Youth Day, and not on the stunning success thus far of the event itself, which has attracted gigantic numbers of pilgrims in a way not even the most messianic of American presidents can do?

As regular readers know, an anti-Catholic protest march was planned for Wednesday, and news reports indicate that it attracted roughly 5,000 protestors.  Keep in mind that these same media outlets estimate that somewhere between 1 to 2 million pilgrims are gathering in Madrid for the World Youth Day festivities, which culminate on Sunday. While many people will be headed to Madrid for the Sunday mass, there are already many, many pilgrims in the city.

On Thursday evening the Pope arrived at the Plaza de Cibeles, in central Madrid, to enormous crowds; numbers varied, but all media outlets agreed that the supporters, who braved evening temperatures of 95 F/35 C,  were in the hundreds of thousands.  The same evening, a group of anti-Catholic protestors gathered once again, in the Plaza del Sol, and estimates of the protestors this time ranged from 150-300 people.  News, yes, but hardly news of any great significance.  More people protest the opening of a new Wal-Mart on any given Tuesday.

The efforts by the left to protest the Pope have not had much success in Madrid, which as it happens is also true of the tiny protests mounted during the previous visits this Pope made to Santiago and to Barcelona last year. Not that the media would have you believe this, of course, because no one at the news desks of the major newspapers or television news channels seems to have sat down and thought, “Let’s look at the ratio of supporters to opponents, here, and see how we should be reporting this.” The people of Spain, and the young in particular, have now turned out in what can only be described as droves, on three separate occasions, in three different parts of the country, to see an elderly, soft-spoken German priest and theologian. These undeniable facts defy belief, at least in the mainstream media.

The headline of Mr. Brown’s piece pretty much says it all: “The pope draws 1.5 million young people to Madrid – but that’s not news?” He notes that the BBC and other news outlets have focused on those protesting the Papal visit, but not on the infinitely larger numbers of people there to support it – and particularly the fact that there are so many hundreds of thousands of young people who are celebrating their Christianity together. Mr. Brown’s thesis is that reporters simply do not “get” these young people: the pilgrims are so different, so unlike the reporters themselves, that they cannot relate to them. The reporters can, however, relate to what we might call the “condom crowd”, because the opinions of those types of people, who usually just scream louder than everyone else, make up what is fashionable to report on in the media these days.

Not being a Catholic or a Spaniard of course, Mr. Brown has a slightly different perspective from that of journalist Charo Zarzalejos, who comes from the Basque Country. Sra. Zarzalejos, in a brilliant commentary published today in many news outlets in Spain, points out that the miniscule protests, which have been characterized by, as she puts it, “coarse and vulgar” acts, surprised her, because “the protestors do not raise deeper, more serious arguments.” The protestors Madrid has seen have made, not cogent arguments about religion in general or Catholicism in particular, but “a pathetic attempt to ridicule a religion and a Church that moves thousands and millions of men and women on all continents.” She notes, as does Mr. Brown,  how strikingly unexpected it was to see the well-organized, well-behaved, and happy young people from Spain and the rest of the world, gathered together in Madrid for the celebrations.

It is in this failure to understand Catholicism, I believe, that the media is doing both Spain and the world a great disservice, by ignoring the enthusiasm of these young people, and instead focusing on those who mock them. What Spain needs now, in a very desperate way, is hope for the future, not the childish and vitriolic ravings of diseased minds unable to form cogent arguments or behave civilly.  As Sra. Zarzalejos points out, the “hundreds of thousands of young people who have met in Madrid are hopeful youths, and hope has no price nor does it fall by the taunts of others. Madrid is serving as a good example of this.”  I only wish the mainstream media would stop looking through the wrong end of the telescope, and recognize the same thing.


World Youth Day Pilgrims gathered in the Plaza de Cibeles, Madrid

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