A Glimmer of Christmas in Europe

Three weeks from today I shall be strolling about downtown Barcelona, at the beginning of my holidays there. Because I have been to the ancient capital of Catalonia many times, I will need to see little as a tourist, but at Christmastime there are certain special sights and experiences one must certainly take in. Among these is the city’s official Nativity scene, and this year’s installation has me wondering whether we are seeing a glimmer of hope from an otherwise rapidly secularizing Europe.

Each year the official Barcelona city Nativity scene is set up in the Plaça Sant Jaume (St. James’ Square), where city hall and the provincial government face each other. This site was once the old Roman forum, back when Barcelona was a Roman provincial town, and nearby one can see vestiges of this, such as Roman watchtowers and walls, part of a temple dedicated to Caesar Augustus, and whole sections of Roman streets and building foundations preserved below the present-day street level. Over the years I have seen some good, and some awful, examples of Nativity scenes set up in the square, but this year’s display is going to be something quite different.

According to news reports and video, this year’s Nativity scene looks back at Romanesque art, which is among Catalonia’s most significant contributions to world culture. The Romanesque period in art and architecture occurred from about 950-1100 A.D., after which it was supplanted by the Gothic style. While reducing matters to a rather basic level, Romanesque art can be distinguished by some of its details such as the use of rounded arches, bright colors, and fairly simple shapes. Catalonia is one of the few places in the world that has managed to preserve a great wealth of not only Romanesque architecture, but painted sculpture and wall murals as well.

City officials, taking advantage of this legacy, asked designer Rosa Ros Pijoan from the Barcelona Cultural Institute to incorporate various elements of Romanesque art into this year’s city Nativity scene. She did so by including reproductions of architectural elements, such as the interior and exterior of a Romanesque-style church, with a brightly colored wall painting depicting the Birth of Jesus; a section of a typical Romanesque cloister planted with a garden; and three-dimensional figures in Romanesque style from the Biblical telling of Christ’s birth as well as from popular Catalan Christmas carols, including the angels appearing to the shepherds, the Magi, men and women in traditional Catalan dress, etc. All of this is surrounded by a garden of living plants native to Catalonia, including local types of olive and pine trees, herbs, and wild flowers. Those strolling through this temporary garden will hear piped-in audio of some of the sounds of the Catalan countryside as well, from the Tramuntanya (the wind that rushes down from France and into Catalonia through the Pyrenees), local birds, church bells, and the waves of the Mediterranean.

And this is not all. For the first time, the city government has decided to extend the Christmas display into its own territory. In the 15th century Gothic interior courtyard of city hall, display cases have been set up containing typical, smaller-scale but highly elaborate Nativity scenes from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, taken from the holdings of the Barcelona Ethnographic Museum. The assembling of such scenes is a particular favorite of the Catalan people, and it is wonderful to see that this tradition will be celebrated in an official way by the local government.

I suspect that this shift is at least in part due to the fact that the new city official in charge of Barcelona’s cultural affairs, Counselor Jaume Ciurana, is from the more centrist regional political party, rather than from the leftist socialist party that had kept a stranglehold over the city government for the past couple of decades. During that period of time many things improved in the city with respect to transportation, re-development of brownfield sites, and so on, but at the same time many things went downhill, particularly with respect to the safety and preservation of historic, older parts of town such as the Gothic Quarter. Tradition was often sacrificed in the name of trying to appear hip and cosmopolitan, and in the process, one got the impression that Catalonia was forgetting what it made it unique and special.

In an interview he gave this summer to La Vanguardia, the largest-selling Barcelona daily, Ciruana noted that things had to change in his office based on a realistic appreciation of what Barcelona is, and what it is not; his assessment ought to be read by local leaders all over Europe:

I have to say that in the debate over multiculturalism and interculturalism, I am more for the latter. Among other things, because the former has failed in Europe. Barcelona is not a federation of ethnic groups. The concept of Catalan culture is changing. Barcelona has had a major demographic change, but the thread that binds together this group of citizens is Catalan culture.

For a European from a center-left party in charge of cultural affairs in a major city with a long history of leftist politics, these are fairly bold statements. Yet Ciruana goes even further in chastising his city for playing the copycat game under the socialists:

Sometimes there is a risk of confusing cosmopolitanism and provincialism. Thinking that anything foreign is better is provincialism. And cosmopolitan culture is often a franchise, it is exactly the same in Berlin, New York, Madrid and Buenos Aires. I want what’s happening here to be as interesting as what happens in these cities, but not the same.

This observation strikes a particular chord with me, because over the past twenty years I have seen many things which made Barcelona unique and special vanish, to be replaced by a kind of cookie-cutter, plastic culture that could be found in any of the aforementioned cities, or many others.

The Catholic in me, of course, also wonders whether the Papal Visit to Barcelona a year ago, to dedicate the new Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, may not have had a residual impact on the people of the city as well. All of the naysayers in the press said that no one but the elderly and a few right-wingers would be interested in seeing the Pope, and that his visit would be overshadowed by massive protests against him. As it turned out, all of the news outlets were completely dumbfounded by the enormous outpouring of affection for the Holy Father from all age groups, but particularly among the youth of the city.  And the protests that did take place were so tiny that they could have been completely ignored, were not the members of the press more interested in pressing a leftist agenda than in reporting the truth.

In any case, making sure that Christ stays in Christmas, particularly in a place so often hostile to Him as Barcelona is, is something worth celebrating.  Whether the change of heart has to do with a change of political party, the Pope, or simply happenstance, I am pleased to see that the city I love most in the world seems to be taking its Christian past more seriously than it has for many years.  And I look forward to seeing this Nativity scene in person very soon.


Dr. Xavier Trias, the present Mayor of Barcelona,
tours the City’s Romanesque-style Nativity scene last evening

Your Boring Old Church, and What You Can Do About It

Being a young country, at least as compared to European countries, the United States does not have many layers of artistic strata through which creative types may dig.  For Catholics, the vast majority of our pre-modernist churches are revivals of earlier styles, drawing on certain tried-and-tested formulae, particularly as regards art such as painting and sculpture.  As a result, the observant eye will often pick up a kind of cookie-cutter quality to the interior of historic parish churches.  I have seen the exact same crucifixion group for example, in different color combinations, in historic parish churches in my home town, on Capitol Hill, in New York City, and in Chicago.

The standard explanation as to why these churches have a boring sameness to their interiors is that they were often built by poor immigrants, and mass-produced art from factories in places like Philadelphia and Baltimore was generally the cheap and safe way to go.  To my mind this is not, however, a valid justification as to why they are still boring on the inside, many decades or more after they were built.   Just because a building is historic, and perhaps even architecturally beautiful, does not mean that one is therefore prevented from criticizing its interior decoration for fear of being branded some sort of po-mo Catholic, who wants felt banners and “Risen Christs” popping out all over the place.  What history does tell us is that European parish communities made a point of decorating the interiors of their churches with the same care and attention to detail that they paid to its architecture.

Take, for example, the popularity of Romanesque art in church design in Catalonia.  Today the Arts sections of the major Spanish and Catalan newspapers are reporting on the re-opening of the Romanesque galleries at the National Museum of Catalan Art (“MNAC”) in Barcelona, which display what is considered by many to be the finest collection of Romanesque art in the world. What is interesting to note is that in many cases, these works of art came not from cathedrals or palaces, but rather from parish churches, oftentimes in rather poor, remote areas.   While there are thematic similarities in what these churches placed on their walls, the diversity of the results proves to be endlessly fascinating to the viewer.

The Romanesque is something of a red-headed stepchild in the world of art and architecture. It is not as popular as the Gothic style which followed it, in part because there is a kind of bulky crudeness to the Romanesque which puts many people off.  Romanesque interior spaces could be vast or tiny, but they were usually rather dark, given the limitations of contemporary engineering methods to allow the use of anything more than small windows to admit natural light.  Yet the painting and sculpture which survives from this period gives us at least some idea of a magnificent, lost world, closer in feeling to what those of us in the Latin Rite might perceive as vaguely reminiscent of the Eastern Rite or Orthodox churches, rather than what we have come to think of as a standard Latin Rite church.

The experience of being in a Catalan parish church of about 1100, with walls covered in brightly colored frescoes and altars adorned with carved statues of Christ, the saints and angels, all painted in equally vibrant tones and illuminated almost exclusively by candles, must have been overwhelming.  For those who stepped into a church in the Romanesque period, there was no question that they were entering the house of God.  The kind of hyper-spiritual, indeed mystical style adopted by Western architects and artists during this era reflected a very deep understanding that God is God, and we most certainly are not.  And this is the experience which the parish priest and his parishioners wanted, when they came to worship God and receive the Sacraments – that they were in a kind of local branch office of Heaven on Earth.

This brings us back to where we began, and the question of why there are still so many things like mass-produced statues of Our Lady of Grace cluttering our churches, instead of original sculptures of the Blessed Mother.  While as an initial matter, I can sympathize with the fact that a parish purchases these sorts of things because it wants to beautify the interior of its church building and may not at first be able to afford an original work of art.  However the fact is that in most cases these factory-molded, plaster figures are simply boring, at best, rather than beautiful.

Our ancestors in places like the Catalan Pyrenees – not the most hospitable or wealthy place on the planet circa 1100 A.D. – were mostly poor, illiterate herders and agricultural workers.  Yet at the same time, they were deeply devout Catholics who wanted to build a beautiful house for God.  They thought it was important to come up with beautiful, original art for the interiors of their churches: surely they were not possessed of better material resources than we are today.

I would challenge those of you who have some influence with your parish to consider the possibility of commissioning original art to replace some of the mass-produced things currently hanging on the walls or standing around the nave in your church.  No doubt this will meet with some hefty resistance from certain quarters.  Yet we have matured enough as a country, and Catholics have become wealthy enough as a group, that we no longer require cookie-cutter religious art to decorate our sanctuaries.  There is no reason why Catholics in America today should not be able to commission beautiful art for their parish churches just as our Catholic forbearers did in Catalonia a thousand years ago.


A visitor in one of the new Romanesque galleries at the
National Museum of Catalan Art, Barcelona

The Hand of God: Paint and Parchment

Pope St. Clement I, whose Feast Day is today, is one of those saints who, at least in the English-speaking world, has a name one rarely hears anymore. I often bring up in discussion with Catholic friends that there are many great old saints’ names on the calendar that for whatever reason have fallen by the wayside with respect to popularity. As it happens my goddaughter is named Clementina, and so in the fullness of time, when she makes her First Communion, my intent is to get her a statue of St. Clement from Barcelona. Though they are difficult to come by anymore, it is still possible to get one complete with the attention to decorative detail and the inset glass eyes one expects from traditional makers of religious items on the Iberian Peninsula.

In an earlier time period St. Clement was much more popular as a patron saint, and a very important example of this in Catalonia is the 12th century church of Sant Climent de Taüll in the Catalan Pyrenees. I have written previously about the magnificent Romanesque fresco of the Christ Pantocrator from the apse of Sant Climent, which is now housed in the National Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona. It is a glorious, beautifully colored image, in a remarkable state of preservation, and I have a reproduction of it on wood hanging atop my makeshift oratory at home.

However another image from this church dedicated to St. Clement that is perhaps less well-known but just as interesting is that of the Hand of God the Father, which appears in the arched vaulting above the figure of God the Son. This disembodied hand, with its suggestion of a white robe, appears from within a sort of white disc surrounded by a stripped-down, patterned halo. It seems incredibly modern in design for something painted over 800 years ago. The simplicity of line and form would allow the casual observer, if taking the image out of context, to assume that the image was painted in the 20th century, perhaps in the Art Moderne period at the end of the Art Deco era.

This Divine Hand is a blessing one of course, and not condemnatory. It does not point to Hell, or write out “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin” for the congregation to shudder over. Nor can it be mistaken for some sort of hippie-sixties peace sign. In fact it has a languid, regal grace to it: it is the hand of a ruler who is very much aware of the order of things and who is happy to dispense graces to all who ask Him. Personifying this understanding of what is ultimately an abstract concept in such a simple, yet effective design, is a mark of true genius on the part of the unknown artist who painted this fresco.

Pope St. Clement himself, disciple of St. Peter, wrote about the power of the Hand of God in his Epistle to the Corinthian church of his day. Some of my Protestant readers may not be familiar with this letter, as it is not contained in either the Catholic or Protestant Bible. Rather, it is one of the earliest non-Biblical writings we have from the early fathers of the Church.

In his letter, St. Clement writes that we should

forsake those wicked works which proceed from evil desires; so that, through His mercy, we may be protected from the Judgment to come. For where can any of us flee from His mighty hand? Or what place will receive any of those who run away from Him? For the Scripture says in a certain place, Where shall I go, and where shall I be hid from Your presence?

If I ascend into heaven, You are there. If I go away even to the uttermost parts of the earth, there is Your Right Hand. If I make my place in the abyss, there is Your Spirit. Where then, shall anyone go, or where shall he escape from Him who understands all things?

Therefore, let us draw near to Him with a holiness of spirit, lifting up pure and undefiled hands to Him, loving our gracious and merciful Father, who has made us partakers in the blessings of His elect.

St. Clement I: 28-29

This seems a fitting passage to reflect upon, as we admire the work of the Romanesque artist who painted the gracious Hand of God in the apse of this church of St. Clement, so long ago. The original parchment or papyrus on which St. Clement wrote has, of course, long since vanished, and this beautiful painting is no longer in situ at the ancient church dedicated to him. Yet both St. Clement’s words and this image are reminders to us of God’s Grace, so much in the minds of my American readers this week as we head towards Thanksgiving, and for the Church universal as we prepare to enter the Season of Advent.

The Hand of God the Father from the
Church of Saint Clement in Taüll, Artist Unknown (ca. 1123)
National Museum of Catalan Art, Barcelona