Tag Archives: Spain

Seeking the Real Holy Grail

The news media has been a-buzz this week over a new book claiming that the Holy Grail, the cup used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, is in a museum in the city of Leon, Spain.  Both the research and speculation have been interesting, albeit in a Dan Brown sort of way.  Less interesting has been the criticism from those who dispute the existence of this object.

No serious historian disputes that Jesus Christ lived in Judea in the 1st Century A.D.  The events of the Last Supper which He celebrated with His disciples are recalled not only by the Gospel writers, but even earlier by St. Paul, in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians, where he describes what he has been told about the Last Supper by the Apostles in Jerusalem.  Some sort of drinking vessel was passed around the table by Jesus, and all present were invited to drink from it.

The form that vessel took is entirely open to debate, because there are no descriptions of it in the Bible, nor are we told what happened to it after the meal was over.  Perhaps it was unremarkable to look at, and was just cleared away with the rest of the dirty dishes that evening.  There is a famous scene in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” where Indy has to pick from a range of different styles of cups and chalices.  Choosing the most simple version, he comments, “This looks like the cup of a carpenter,” as the basis for making his (correct) selection.

However while that assumption seems logical at first, further consideration reveals that Indy has no real basis for that assertion.  Jesus and the Apostles were not at home in Galilee when they celebrated the Last Supper during Passover.  Instead, they were in the upper room of someone else’s home in the city of Jerusalem.  We have no way of knowing how plain or fancy the cup that He passed around was.

Admittedly, there are all kinds of fairy tales surrounding what happened to this object.  In the French and English-speaking world, such stories usually involve King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.  However the fact that the object became cloaked in legend, does not mean that the object itself did not exist.  Nor for that matter does it mean that the object does not exist today.

There are many claimants to the title of “The” Holy Grail.  My money is still on the cup currently housed in the Cathedral of Valencia, and not just because I’m half-Catalan.  The central drinking cup of that chalice is an agate drinking bowl probably from Egypt, now surrounded by later, medieval mountings, and which has been dated to around 50 B.C.  That seems a reasonably plausible choice for a special-occasion drinking vessel, used on Passover in the 1st century A.D., in a Near Eastern city like Jerusalem.

Of course, there’s no way to know for sure whether any one of the extant vessels claiming the title of “Holy Grail” was used by Jesus.  This latest theory about the cup in Leon is simply a theory, as interesting a theory as it may be.  What we do know for certain is that every time a chalice is used for the celebration of Mass, it becomes, in effect, the Holy Grail.  Jesus’ gift of Himself through the institution of the Eucharist that night is far more important than the existence of any one, historical object, no matter how closely associated with Jesus that object may be.

"The Last Supper" by Jaume Huguet (c. 1450) Museu Nacional D'art de Catalunya, Barcelona

“The Last Supper” by Jaume Huguet (c. 1450)
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona


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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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Adiós, Paco de Lucía

I was very saddened this morning to learn of the untimely death of Paco de Lucía, the great Spanish flamenco guitarist.

Born in the port city of Algeciras in Andalucía, on the far southern tip of Spain, Paco de Lucía came from a long line of flamenco guitarists and singers, and grew up performing in the streets of his home town along with his family. Because of his extraordinary talent as a musician, he was able to study and work with all of the great flamenco musicians of Spain beginning at an early age, and even began touring in America in his teens.  He is perhaps most famous for his collaborations with singer Camarón de la Isla, with whom he had a tremendous influence on the history and development of the flamenco genre through their many albums together in the 1960′s and 1970′s.

Paco de Lucía helped shift flamenco into a world music influence and phenomenon, in ways that did not exist previously.  Prior to him, flamenco music was essentially split between popular and traditional.  The former was cleaned up and made palatable for tourists and Spanish radio under General Franco; the traditional could best be heard at local celebrations, or in private performances.  To make an American analogy, even if not an entirely accurate one, we might describe it as the difference between the rhinestone-bedecked country music of the Grand Old Opry, and a jam at the back-country whiskey joint.

One of my favorite albums of de Lucía’s is an example of the type of innovative way he had of looking at music.  In his 1967 release “Dos guitarras flamencas en América Latina”, with his older brother and fellow guitarist Ramón de Algeciras, with whom he collaborated many times over the years until the latter’s death, de Lucía took a number of popular, traditional songs from places like Mexico and Peru, and composed adaptations of them in a flamenco style.  These source material songs themselves were, to some degree, the descendants of earlier Spanish musical influences, that had mixed with local traditions in the various regions of Latin America.

The result was that de Lucía began to build a musical bridge between Spain and its former colonies.  As time went on and he began experimenting more, both as a composer and as a performer, he was able to change flamenco from being purely a traditional musical style to something that could be mixed with and appreciated in many musical genres.  He would collaborate not only with Latin musicians, but also jazz, rock, soul, funk, and even other ethnic influences, particularly from the Middle East, Africa, and India.  The birth of what is now called “nuevo flamenco” in the 1970′s, which continues to evolve both on a popular and specialist level today, must be credited in large part to the work and influence of de Lucía over many decades.

Arguably de Lucía’s most famous original composition “Entre dos aguas”, from the eponymous 1976 album, is something which the reader has probably heard, perhaps in a restaurant or bar, without even realizing who wrote it.  One can hear how it mixes traditional flamenco with elements from rock, jazz, and soul in an engaging way.  While today it would not find strange to hear this in a shop, hotel lobby, or dinner party, at the time this was truly revolutionary music, taking flamenco out of the bullring or the gypsy cave, and blending it with other sounds.

However I must confess, as much as I love the somewhat highbrow music which he could compose and perform, my favorite work by de Lucía just happens to be his collaboration on a movie theme song.  “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman” from the soundtrack of the film “Don Juan de Marco” starring Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando, was written by Canadian pop-rock star Bryan Adams, but features de Lucía playing in his fluid, expressive, and innovative way along with Adams’ straight-ahead rock-and-roll chords.  I love the song not only because the music itself is beautiful, and the idealistic lyrics can make me choke up just thinking about them, but because it speaks to me as someone from two different cultures, both American and Iberian.

Deep down, I love both the jangle of something like honky-tonk AND the passionate staccato and drama of flamenco.  They speak to me in different ways, but when they can come together, in a strange way I actually recognize myself in them.  For I myself am a result of a collaboration between two people from opposite sides of the Atlantic, and in this particular song, the marriage between the two creates something good, a balance between the Old World and the New, and by aspiring to tell men what it means to be a good man, when in a relationship with a good woman.  Naturally, that is something which I hope to achieve, as do all men and women of good will.

Unfortunately I never got to see Paco de Lucía perform live, even though thanks to his prodigious output we all have decades of recordings and films featuring him to enjoy.  Yet in a way, he will be there if and when the right woman comes along.  I’m saving up that song for when she does, you see.

Paco de Lucía (1947-2014)

R.I.P. Paco de Lucía


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New Life for an Old Beverage: The Reemergence of Sherry

With a nod to my friend Neal Dewing, who writes great stuff about cocktails over at this place, I wanted to share with you a bit about my love for a particular type of tipple: the Spanish fortified wine known as “jerez”, or “sherry”, named for the town in Andalucia from whence most sherry originates.  For those of you who are aware of sherry at all, you probably think of it as something incredibly salty and foul which you buy in the supermarket to cook with, or as a sickeningly sweet drink which your great-aunt liked to have after Christmas dinner.  Yet the former has nothing to do with the real thing, and the latter is only one type of sherry among many.

An article in today’s Torygraph pointed out that sherry is becoming increasingly popular among the hipsteratti, particularly because of the significant influence of Spain in the food and restaurant world at present.  This is something which, as a (half) Catalan, seems a bit odd, since when I was growing up it was just part of the expected cultural equipment around the house, like gin in an English home or sake in a Japanese home.  My parents cooked with sherry for special occasions, but never used the kind you would get in an American grocery store. Instead, they would use one of the varieties from Spain which they liked to drink, so that some would go into what they were cooking, and some would go into themselves.  And when we would visit family in Barcelona or Madrid, sherry was often offered as a matter of course: it was simply what one did.

The fact that now more restaurants and bars are increasing their listings of sherry, after many years of declining sales and availability, is both surprising and gratifying.  Just last week I had dinner at a new tapas restaurant here in D.C., which is so popular at the moment that they do not take reservations, despite it being quite a large space.  As my dining companion and I were ordering drinks before mulling over the menu, I was very pleased to notice that they had my favorite sherry – Tio Pepe Extra Dry  - on their drinks menu, along with several other good sherries I was already familiar with, as well as a few I had never heard of.  Sherry is exactly the right accompaniment to tapas, because neither the food portion nor the alcohol portion is very large; moreover a dry sherry helps with the appetite, particularly with savory, strongly flavored foods like one finds in Spain.

Even more widely, sherry used to be used as a base for a wide variety of cocktails back in our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ day, and a number of these are starting to make a return to bar menus.  Because there are so many types one can find, from dessert-like sweetness to mouth-puckering dryness, many different flavor combinations are possible.  This summer for example, for a party I threw at the manse, I made up a large pitcher of “rebujitos”, a Spanish warm weather cocktail made of sherry, soda, lemons, limes, and mint, poured over lots of ice. I had made it as a sort of back-up to two pitchers of sangria, in case someone did not want red wine, but I assumed that I would probably be the only one drinking the sherry concoction.  In the end I should have made more of it, because the sherry cocktail began disappearing almost immediately.

While I realize that the “hipster” element may scare away some of my readers from trying it, I assure you that it is worth your time to explore this area of human horticultural endeavor.  Whether it is the characters on a television show looking to the past like Downtown Abbey, or mixologists reviving old cocktail recipes involving sherry and non-traditional ingredients, the spirit is in the air, as it were.  There is a reason one can look at old films, or read works of literature from the 18th to the early 20th centuries, and observe stylish people enjoying different types of sherry, not because it is being promoted by some celebrity or musician. Rather,  it is simply something both very civilized and very enjoyable to drink.

"The Grape Harvesters of Jerez" by Joaquin Sorolla (1914)  Casa Museo de Sorolla, Madrid

“The Grape Harvesters of Jerez” by Joaquin Sorolla (1914)
Casa Museo de Sorolla, Madrid

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On All Saints Day: How To Be A Man

There has been a great deal of talk in recent years about a crisis in masculinity in the Western world.  There are regular complaints that men are not living up to their responsibilities in their families, even as policy makers make it easier for men not to take any responsibility whatsoever.  It has long been argued by the more radical elements of the feminist movement that men are simply unnecessary, and in response to that philosophy the more demonically-influenced elements of the scientific community are attempting to remove the need for male DNA from the process of artificial conception.

We are often told that in the present day, most men are really little more than coddled adolescents, who need to be pushed out of the way in favor of men who think and behave more like women – or to be more precise, a certain type of woman.  We are little more than bumbling oafs incapable of doing anything other than making a mess, giving rise to unnecessary wars, exhibiting bad manners, and acting like misogynist pigs.  Governments seem increasingly bent on blurring the lines between the sexes, both domestically and militarily, in order to serve the false notion that there are no fundamental differences between men and women other than genitalia.

Last evening at the annual Vigil of All Saints at the priory of the Dominican House of Studies here in Washington, the student brothers selected four 20th century saints and blesseds for us to focus on in our meditations. One of these was Blessed Bartolomé Blanco Márquez of Spain, who was executed by the leftists in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War, for refusing to join their forces to fight General Franco.  His last letter to his girlfriend, written the day before his execution, was read out in the darkness of the chapel, a space illuminated only by candlelight, and the reading of these words seemed to touch a great many people – including, it must be said, this scrivener.  For when it was concluded, there were audible sniffles echoing around the nave.

I reproduce the text of that letter here, for your reflection.  It is not only a very modern window into what it means to give one’s life in faithfulness to Christ, but it is also an insight into true masculinity.  Bartolomé was just 21 years old when he wrote this letter, yet despite his youth this fellow clearly “got” what it means to be both a Christian and a man.


Provincial prison of Jaen, Oct. 1, 1936

My dearest Maruja:

Your memory will remain with me to the grave and, as long as the slightest throb stirs my heart, it will beat for love of you. God has deemed fit to sublimate these worldly affections, ennobling them when we love each other in him. Though in my final days, God is my light and what I long for, this does not mean that the recollection of the one dearest to me will not accompany me until the hour of my death.

I am assisted by many priests who — what a sweet comfort — pour out the treasures of grace into my soul, strengthening it. I look death in the eye and, believe my words, it does not daunt me or make me afraid.

My sentence before the court of mankind will be my soundest defense before God’s court; in their effort to revile me, they have ennobled me; in trying to sentence me, they have absolved me, and by attempting to lose me, they have saved me. Do you see what I mean? Why, of course! Because in killing me, they grant me true life and in condemning me for always upholding the highest ideals of religion, country and family, they swing open before me the doors of heaven.

My body will be buried in a grave in this cemetery of Jaen; while I am left with only a few hours before that definitive repose, allow me to ask but one thing of you: that in memory of the love we shared, which at this moment is enhanced, that you would take on as your primary objective the salvation of your soul. In that way, we will procure our reuniting in heaven for all eternity, where nothing will separate us.

Goodbye, until that moment, then, dearest Maruja! Do not forget that I am looking at you from heaven, and try to be a model Christian woman, since, in the end, worldly goods and delights are of no avail if we do not manage to save our souls.

My thoughts of gratitude to all your family and, for you, all my love, sublimated in the hours of death. Do not forget me, my Maruja, and let my memory always remind you there is a better life, and that attaining it should constitute our highest aspiration.

Be strong and make a new life; you are young and kind, and you will have God’s help, which I will implore upon you from his kingdom. Goodbye, until eternity, then, when we shall continue to love each other for life everlasting.



Blessed Bartolomé Blanco Márquez (1914-1936)


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