Well, I didn’t have a blog when I wrote these little commentaries in 2001 but I did write about each place or work of art in my hand-bound travel journal (which I still have collecting dust somewhere). I spent six weeks travelling in England, Scotland and Spain with stop-overs in Montreal and San Francisco.
Monasterio de Santo Toribio (10 September 2001)
The story says that contained within the ornamental reliquiary is a fragment of the very cross Jesus Christ was impaled upon. As a consequence, the monastery was – and is to a lesser degree – a place of pilgrimage for the faithful. Nowdays this means people arriving by bus for which a large carpark is provided, and a shop selling souvenirs and artifacts, including a lot of stuff made from plastic.
Regardless of the impact of modernity, it is still profoundly humbling/ awe inspiring to witness the symbols of a faith which generated such extreme devotion. Whatever my beliefs (which remain strongly agnostic, tending towards atheist) I cannot help but be impressed by some of the the outward manifestations of christianity which demonstrate its effectiveness at social organisation.
Catedral Santiago del Compostela (14 September 2001)
This is one the early views pilgrims approaching the Catedral would have seen. Rounding that final bend, the elation at completing the pligrimmage would have been extremely high…. it is hard to comprehend the sacrifice people would have made to embark on the pilgrimmage. Even today it looks like lots of hard work. I saw part of the route as we travelled to Leon by dual carriageway at 130kmph. The hills were undulating, the plateau was barren and offered very little shade or shelter from the elements. Some of the distances suggested ranged up to 35km per day. Through arid, featureless countryside this would have been a test of ones faith. Nowdays pilgrims can fly home once they’ve reached Santiago. 800-1000 years ago no such luxury existed. But on reaching the Catedral it must have been worth it. Clearly word would have soon spread that tackling the Camino de Santiago was not worth the effort. Redemption aye.
[You can find history and photos of the Catedral at the offical church website, La Iglesia Metropolitana de Santiago de Compostela.]
Caliz de dona Urraca (16 September 2001)
This challice belonged to one of the Spanish queens. You can tells it’s hers by the wry, smiling physiotnomy facing out. The craftperson-ship is exquisite: not exactly perfect, symmetrical but wonky and clearly handcrafted, ie it’s unique, not made from a mould, kinda quirky. Stones are from many different sources: from whom and where did they come? What was the occasion that prompted creation of this vessel? Old things hold many secrets, never to be revealed but the mystery is compelling.
[The challice, dated 11th Century is housed in the San Isidoro monastery, Leon, Spain. More information online: Romanico en la ciudad de Leon, San Isidoro.]
El 3 de Mayo en Madrid – Goya (20 September 2001)
So artists in the 19th Century were as disgusted by war and violence as latter day artists. Anonymous soldiers, backs turned on society, massacre seemingly innocent people. No trial, no way of establishing the justice of their cause. Goya must have been a humanist: he was capable of painting portraits of royalty one day, and defending the usurporous masses the next. Talk about living with/ in contradiction.
But, with such talent opposing violence, why do we let it continue??
[There is a massive colletion of works by Goya at the Museo del Prado in Madrid. It’s a big museum: truly, it would take a week to look at all the artwork contained within.]
Guernica – Pablo Picasso (20 September 2001)
Hellishly angry. Full of rage, tragedy, horrow. It’s raw, unfinished. The starknes of the print – its strong clarity and definition – is overstated, it doesn’t reflect the atwork itself. The original is contingent, even confused. It’s not pure black, white, grey as pictured, but is infused with purple hues. The lines are shaky, uncertain. It’s rough, unfinished. It looks like it has been hurriedly produced so as to make a quick statement. The painting raises many questions: what can we rely on this time of human barbarity? what can be in this time of darkness?
[This painting is housed in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid.]
Skeleton of a Saxon Woman, Burial from Ewell, Surrey, 6th Century AD (3 October 2001)
This wasn’t the oldest skeleton either. There was a Roman female skeleton from 100 AD (approx.) in an even more complete form this this: it was been found with an arm folded across her ribcage, still intact, even a delicate bone in her tounge was still sitting in her mouth.
These words are ill-fitting – it wasn’t really a mouth as the flesh, muscles and blood tha
t create mouthes had long gone. Perhaps best to call it the cavity where the mouth once was. Language can be terribly imprecise.
The body was buried with a pendant which shows the sacredness of the rites of death. It was a beautifully, ornate object – the equal to any jewellery produced now. That such a valuable object was buried somehow highlights that the rites of death were really important (unless pendants were dime a dozen). The saxon woman skeleton raises many questions about what life was like in the 6th century.
[Skeleton on display in the Museum of London – 500,000 years of London’s history.]
The Tangled Garden (1916) – J E H MacDonald (10 October 2001)
In the 1910s and 1920s the Group of Seven devised a manifesto to guide the creation of a distinctively Canadian art movement. It was an effort to deliberately break with European style and Eurocentric concerns, to create a new tradition. The preoccupation was with nature and the environment – principally an unpeopled environment (maybe in an attempt to avoid the delicate issue of colonisation and disposition of first nations peoples). In “The Tangled Garden” it is barely possible to see the only human presence, a building. The entrance to this is difficult to locate, and only partially open.
Upsetting the apple cart was a contemporary of the Group, Emily Carr, who sought to reflect her view of indigenous people in a colonised environment (… there was some resonance with McCahon’s art). Absent from her art was any reference thru rosy tinted spectacles of the noble savage: she was providing a raw portrayal of what she saw. The next generation of artists rebelled against their teachers and their works were dominated by people. Nevertheless the art they produced seemed to be a distinctively ‘Canadian’, as much as any art can live independent of wider art trends.
[The collections at the National Gallery of Canada/ Musee des Beuax-Arts du Canada are housed in a very modern purpose built gallery. Internal gardens, a 18th century chapel, a water pond, and gracious promendades are housed within a glass shell. Impressive!!]