Barcelona Through Jewish Eyes

One of the more memorable experiences I had while in Barcelona was a tweep-up with New Yorkers Seth and Bethany Mandel, who were in the city at the start of their honeymoon.  For those of my readers who do not use Twitter, I should explain that, loosely speaking, a “tweep-up” is when people who follow each other on Twitter, where members often use the term “tweep” to refer to a Twitter friend, actually meet up in real life.  In the case of the Mandels, we had been friends on Twitter for some months, but had never actually met in person until last week, when we all happened to be in Barcelona at the same time.

The Mandels are an orthodox Jewish couple who keep kosher, and because of this they were going to have a very difficult time eating in Spain, where even sweets like almond cookies are often cooked in pork lard rather than vegetable shortening.  So I wanted to make an effort to show them not only some of the Roman and Gothic monuments that dominate the old district or “Gothic Quarter” of Barcelona, but also the remains of the “Call”, or Jewish ghetto, which existed in this ancient part of the city until the 14th century.  As someone who has always been aware of the importance of the Jewish community in Barcelona historically, it was an eye-opener for me to actually come to understand things a little bit more by seeing them first-hand.

The Jewish portion of our tour started at a shop in the old Jewish Quarter called, appropriately enough El Call, which carries a wide selection of books, kosher wines and chocolates from Catalonia and elsewhere, as well as travel information, souvenirs, etc.  The young man running the shop that morning on behalf of his father had just returned a day or so earlier from studying in Atlanta.  He noted that it was far easier to find kosher food there than in Barcelona, where there were few Jewish families who kept kosher.

After some wandering around we were eventually able to enter what remains of the ancient Sinagoga Major, or Main Synagogue, located about a block away and housed in a building subsequently built on top of it.  One got a real sense of the strata of history here, since the original foundation stones of the building, far below the present-day street level, were of Roman imperial vintage.  Things were then built up in layers over time, and one could see how each passing century added more and more stones on top of what came before, so that the original topography of the area was obscured by later construction.

The small rooms maintained by the Associació Call de Barcelona, or Jewish Quarter Association of the city, include a main room used for more intimate services, such as weddings, and a collection of Judaica donated by various patrons.  There is a massive menorah created by a Catalan sculptor from the island of Minorca, display cabinets containing various silver pieces and artefacts, and reproductions of documents held in the archives of the association.  It is remarkable that the place was re-discovered and renovated beginning only about 15 years ago, thanks to the efforts of local historians and the Jewish community.

The group gave a brief presentation to us and others who had come to the synagogue about the history of the place and the residents of the area. Afterwards, the Mandels had the chance to chat a bit with the ladies from the association who run the place, as well as pick up a few souvenirs. I was particularly amused by the sight of yarmulkes in the red and blue colors of F.C. Barcelona or “Barça”, the legendary and hugely popular Barcelona football (soccer) club.

Afterwards we popped in to Caelum, a tea room and pastry shop built on top of the old mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath. Unfortunately the bath was only open to visitors in the afternoon, and I did not get to see it with the Mandels themselves, but at least they could see a bit of it through the floor grating at the entrance. Again, Barcelona is such an ancient city that everything is built up in layers, and the present-day street level is well above where things originally stood.

While perhaps the best thing I did during our morning runaround was to introduce Mr. Mandel to the pleasures of the “tallat” or “cortado” – espresso “cut” with hot milk, which he thoroughly enjoyed – I came away from the experience more aware of the Jewish heritage of my favorite place in the world. It was something I had always been aware of in the abstract, and even from having wandered around El Call many times in the past. Yet to see a place through the eyes of others, who are seeing it for the first time, forces you re-examine the familiar.

I could make the analogy, for example, of a Catholic taking a non-Catholic to see a famous church or an art museum containing Renaissance altarpieces. The discussion about the meaning and significance of what one is seeing leads to both parties becoming more aware of the connections to the past which they may have either not been aware of, or simply taken for granted as being commonly known. That was certainly true in this case, or at least I hope it was as much for the Mandels as it was for this scrivener.

The experience is also a testament to the power of social media to connect us. I would certainly never have met the Mandels, or known they were going to be in Barcelona at the same time I was there, had it not been through the connections we made on Twitter.  There is much that can be said of such networking sites that is negative, but in this case I believe it to be a positive example of the good that can come out of the outreach capable through such venues.  When used in the right way, even an old hand around Barcelona like yours truly can come to learn even more about something he already knows and loves well.

Giant menorah in the ancient Sinagoga Major in Barcelona

After You, Sir

Today gives me a fitting opportunity, being the great Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, to draw attention to one of my favorite images of the two great apostles. The Catalan Romanesque-transitioning-to Gothic painting on panel, reproduced below, is a wing of a bi-panel altarpiece dating somewhere between 1250-1300. The second panel features St. Michael the Archangel and the Devil weighing souls in a balance. There is something about both pieces which makes me laugh, as I shall endeavor to explain.

The altarpiece in question, now housed in the Episcopal Museum of Vic (a city about an hour or so from Barcelona), was created for a church in the Vall de Ribes, in the Catalan Pyrenees. The artist is known to us only as the Master of Soriguerola. Whoever he was, this painter clearly had a particularly lively imagination, most obviously seen in his portrayal of devilish behavior. And if we are honest, we must admit the demons in his pictures look somewhat comical, even if what they are doing is not.

In this piece we see St. Peter on the left, holding his giant keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, and St. Paul on the right, holding the sword with which he was martyred. Both are wearing gold and blue robes in opposing colors. We should notice how St. Peter has a full head of hair while St. Paul is portrayed bald, as both men have been depicted by the majority of Christian artists since the earliest days of religious art.

There is another detail however which is very interesting: notice the line running around St. Paul’s head, with the mark right in the center of his forehead. The obvious explanation is that the artist is portraying St. Paul’s wounds from his martyrdom. However, St. Peter is not shown with any stigmata from his crucifixion, and we already know from our Christian iconography as 13th century mass goers that if we see the image of two older men standing together, one with keys and one with a sword, that the image represents Sts. Peter and Paul – no wounds necessary.

My armchair theory is that this marking around St. Paul’s head with the small central object on the forehead might not be the wound of his martyrdom, since tradition holds that his entire head was struck off rather than just the top – indeed, one Italian tradition says that the head bounced three times when it was struck off. Instead, I suspect that this marking could be the artist’s portrayal of a tefillin, i.e. the cube worn strapped around the forehead by orthodox Jews when performing morning prayers. Before his conversion of course, St. Paul was a Jewish scholar; in fact St. Paul was a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee, as we learn in the Acts of the Apostles.

At the time this panel was painted the Jews were, despite being victims of periodic persecutions, very much a part of the social and commercial make-up of Catalonia, particularly in the capital city on Barcelona and in the region of Girona from whence this panel and the other known works by the Master of Soriguerola hail. In fact the city of Girona, capital of the eponymous region, has an expansive and very well-preserved ghetto, and was the location where many of the writings which today form the kabbala were written. The first great pogrom to forcibly exile or convert the Catalan Jews did not take place until about 1390-91, long after this panel was completed, and so one can reasonably assume that the Master of Soriguerola would have been familiar with the appearance of the Catalan Jews he saw in the marketplaces and elsewhere as he made his way through the city and the province of Girona.

Theory aside however, the real reason I love this piece is because it is a lot of fun. The Apostles – so often portrayed as such dour, intimidating men in Western Art – here seem to be having a lively, gesticulating debate. I have always thought that they are each deferring to the other because they are walking in opposite directions along a narrow pathway, with St. Peter saying, “After you, sir,” to which St. Paul responds, “No, no – after YOU, sir.” Admittedly, this is (like the preceding) my own interpretation, and its validity is completely unreliable.

Nevertheless, the work of the Master of Soriguerola is a very vibrant example of how Catalonia took its Catholicism seriously, but at the same time managed to bring an element of playfulness into its art. As this particular painter was working with ecclesiastical approval, the local bishop must not have found theological fault with his work. I suspect this is further evidence of the fact that Catalans from the hierarchy on down did not see a problem with bringing a somewhat unusual sense of humor into their culture from the earliest centuries of the formation of their national identity.

For example, the night before the Feast of St. John the Baptist, it has been a long-standing Catalan custom since the Middle Ages for people to dress like devils and go out in search of mischief. At dawn of course, all of the imps must run away and be vanquished by the arrival of Christ’s messenger. And as I have written about previously, Catalans have some unusual customs at Christmastime which may to outsiders seem somewhat impious. One can even argue that the Sagrada Familia – built by the Catalan of Catalans – is in fact such a stunning building in part because it such a fun building to explore. It is not hard to see how Catalan painters, working in such a culture, would have had a bit of play in their painting.

In any event, this is a great piece of very old art, for a very great feast day.