Whether in Christianity or in secular life, iconography is of extreme importance. Symbols, be they textual or plastic, are shorthand for concepts, events, people and places. Some are so obvious that we forget about them most of the time, unless we are in need of them.
When one is in need of prayer for example, spying a cross may help frame the mind for reflection and supplication. One of the great failings of the more iconoclastic branches of Protestantism in my opinion was their rejection of religious imagery as being tantamount to idolatry, which is a reflection of a poor understanding of human nature. The symbolic object is ultimately nothing more than a tool or an aide, very much needed by a species which relies primarily on the senses for understanding the world around it; said object is not an end unto itself.
To use a secular example, when walking the streets of the Nation’s Capital, one does not necessarily notice Old Glory flying from many of the buildings, in part because such things are so ubiquitous here. However, should the reader find himself in a foreign land and suddenly come across the American flag on display, chances are his heart will leap and his mind turn to thoughts of home. The flag itself is – or ought to be – honored, but it is not worshiped. It is a symbol, and as such what it symbolizes is honored when the flag itself is cared for properly. Human hands cannot grasp the theoretical underpinnings of this country – such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – but they can respectfully handle the country’s flag.
In conversation recently with an extremely accomplished architect whom I have the honor of knowing, and who graciously allows me to indulge my practice of armchair architectural criticism, we discussed some aspects of 19th century architectural design in Barcelona. Two of the structures under consideration were market halls designed by relations of mine. Both feature the coat of arms of the city of Barcelona over the entrance. Atop the crown which, well, crowns the shield on both structures, one can see the figure of a bat, prominently displayed with wings outstretched.
The representation of this animal on Barcelona’s government buildings, publications, etc., let alone on commercial venues, is not something one sees much of in the present day. I had come across it before, on such things as older buildings, or in vintage engravings, book covers, and posters, but not with any great frequency. As a result the need to research its significance always slipped my mind, until the aforementioned conversation when my friend noted how the bat reminded him of the era of Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” and the Belle Époque.
As it turns out, the “ratpenat” or “crest of the bat” was part of the arms of the Count-Kings of Catalonia (later the Kings of Aragon, of which Barcelona served as capital during the later Middle Ages.) Speculation among some modern historians is that the bat was a corruption of the winged dragon which used to appear on the crown, representing the dragon slain by St. George, patron saint of both Barcelona and Catalonia. However, modern historians as usual often believe our ancestors to be stupid oafs, and so we can discount such ideas. The bat is more likely to represent when King Jaume I conquered the Moors at Valencia in 1238, when a bat got into his tent on the morning of the battle to rouse him from slumber.
Whatever its origin, by the turn of the 20th century the bat virtually disappeared from new buildings, signage, or publications; no one seems to know exactly why. Admittedly this is purely speculation, but perhaps in the wake of the publication of Bram Stokers’ “Dracula” in 1897, the city fathers wanted to distance themselves from the negative image of vampires, particularly with their largest customers for their milled textile products, the English. As a result, if you were to stop an average resident of Barcelona on the street today, he is probably unaware of the bat having held centuries of symbolic importance for his city.
While admittedly I am often a one-man advocate for such things, I hope that this will serve as a clarion call for the Catalan-speaking peoples to bring back the bat. He served them well in liberating them from the Moors, and frankly having a bat as your mascot is very, very cool, for lack of a better word. Regular readers of these pages will note that back in 2009, I noted that DC comics came out with a special issue called “Batman in Barcelona”, which was brilliantly conceived and executed. At the very least, the people of Barcelona who have, despite their increasing secularization, continued to embrace the dragon of St. George as one of their city’s symbols, should also remember to add the bat to their symbolic repertoire.
Mercat de Sant Josep de La Boqueria