When I was in graduate school at Bryn Mawr, I had to do written exams for my Ph.D. finals. We had to choose a topic in 4 fields: Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and Modern. I had never taken any medieval classes, because I worried that having no Latin, I wouldn’t be able to read the primary sources. For this reason and because I could read Spanish (which I now realize was not the right reason), I chose as my medieval topic the Beatus manuscripts–those very early Spanish illuminated manuscripts based on the Commentaries of the Apocalypse by the monk Beatus of Liébana. I was fascinated by these illustrations of the Book of Revelations, so unlike any other medieval manuscripts I had seen, with bold colors and primitively expressive imagery. (The images above of the Beauts manuscripts are not in any Barcelona libraries or museums; some are still in the original churches, others in Madrid and one at the Morgan Library in New York.) As I began to research them, I kept thinking of the great art historian Erwin Panofsky’s assertion that “In Spain, anything is possible,” meaning that Spanish art in this early time followed no rules but its own, that one saw here a merging of traditions outside the predictable ones of Western imagery. The more deeply I studied, the more entranced I became with the whole subject of Spanish Romanesque. All these tiny 10th and 11th-century churches in isolated Pyrenees villages, painted brightly with elaborate Biblical scenes! These were the first images that made me understand Walter Benjamin’s statements about the aura of art and its beginnings in cult.
I knew that the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya has an extraordinary collection of Romanesque frescoes and paintings, but I had no idea how extensive it was and I knew nothing of the tremendous story concerning their rescue and retrieval. When we entered
the galleries of the frescoes and saw the first rooms, I literally got tingles up my spine. I don’t know what it is about the Romanesque, but these images, and displayed the way they are–as if still in the tiny stone churches where they were found–simply move me to the core. I can imagine how powerfully they would affect simple pious peasants seeing them for the first time–and probably some of the only images they would ever see in their lives!
The story of their retrieval and detachment from the walls in their churches is a moving and fascinating one. In the late 19th century, when scholars began to notice that many of these isolated churches were being plundered and their treasures sold overseas, a campaign began at this Museum to rescue their Catalan patrimony before it was all lost. As early as the 1910s, teams went to places such as the remote Vall de Boi and carefully detached the remaining frescoes. Unbelievably delicate work, but thankfully, these have now been retrieved.
I just can’t get enough of these paintings, with their bizarre figures, complex (to us) iconography, and–for me the most pleasing–their fantastic decorative ornamentation. I took a gillion photos of details:
And then there are the delightful carved capitals, also removed before they were stolen. Such creativity and imagination!
I was thrilled to spot the mermaid on such an early column. George and I once wrote an article about mermaids in Mexican folk creches, tracing their appearance in The New World back to such archetypal representations (and then suggesting that a mermaid’s inclusion in a nativity scene was an act of syncretism, meshing an Old World symbol with the Aztec water goddess Chalchiutlicue. Here’s the paper: http://www.esauboeck.com/index/The_Mermaid_in_Mexican_Folk_Creches).
I could go on. The Museum, which is located at Parc Montjuic in the Palace built for the 1929 International Exposition (where Mies created the famous Pavilion), is enormous, and also has an extensive collection of modern Catalonian art, which is nice enough–as Robert Hughes writes in Barcelona The Great Enchantress, painting of the Modernista period is pleasant and of a type: what struck him ”when I first saw some examples of it in the Museu d’Art Modern in Barcelona back in the late 1960s, was how much it resembled the kind of impressionism that filled the museums of Sydney and Melbourne.” But the real treasure, the overwhelming draw of this place, is the wing of the Romanesque. We will go back!