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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Galician Romanesque, or Santiago and His Pilgrimage in La Coruña

The Church of Santiago under a typically cloudy La Coruña sky
All photos in this post 2018 Jessica Knauss 
I recently had the opportunity to visit La Coruña. I faced wind and rain (What did you expect? It's the coast of Galicia.) to investigate the Romanesque style at what was, in the European Middle Ages, the edge of the known world.

While in this seaworthy and fascinating corner of Spain, I learned about a Renaissance episode that drastically affected how we can appreciate La Coruña's medieval art. In 1589, the English besieged the city as a revenge for the Invincible Armada's attack in 1588. (Sore feelings even after soundly trouncing the Spanish navy and starting a long period of historical decline? How much reinforcement do you need, England?) The soldiers of La Coruña and its local citizens turned the English away, but before the siege, the city boasted five Romanesque churches and a monastery; when it was over, only two Romanesque churches remained in the city proper. (You can guess how I feel about his instance of history obliterating history.)

Santiago (Saint James the Apostle) is the oldest of the surviving church buildings, having been first constructed in the second half of the twelfth century in the same "Mateo" style as the Romanesque Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The ground on which it stands has been hallowed for a very long time, perhaps as early as the tenth century.

This church was established as the beginning of the walking Camino (Santiago pilgrimage) for English pilgrims arriving in Galicia by sea. It was restored multiple times in the medieval era because of fire damage, which makes the structure a historical record in itself. Fortunately, the original apse area, as we see here, survived to display the particularities of Galician Romanesque for visitors today.

The outside of the apse has many delightful corbels. Here, a bearded man and a man pulling at his mouth. 

Here, many different realistic animals, a miniature bestiary.

This building embodied the bond between the medieval Church and State. As late as 1521, this church had two towers: the surviving one here (this version constructed in 1607) with the bells and clock, and a second one that held munitions, archives, and other city government items the town hall didn't have room for. For more than one hundred years from the fourteenth century, the temple also served as the city council's meeting place.

The shortest street in La Coruña is found between Santiago's tower and the old consulate building, which has a Renaissance coat of arms and interesting Romanesque Resurrection, both taken from other, unknown sites. 

The first thing I noticed about this lovely north doorway is that the door itself is square, as in other churches, but the door jamb has extra symmetrical decorative elements, giving the top an indented look I found repeated in the other two Romanesque churches I saw in La Coruña. The indentations are oxen heads, which in close proximity to the Lamb of God in the archway, represent the triumph of Good over Evil. The archway is better preserved than most other areas of this church and features many attractive flowers as well as the Lamb, both much in the "Mateo" style.

The front entrance displays features from different medieval styles, as well as evidence of where the other tower used to be. The pointed main arch and rose window are from the end of the fourteenth century, but still copy the much venerated "Mateo" style. Christ shows his wounds at the arch's apex, and the interior of the arch and the rain ledge are resplendent with seated angels.

It's only natural that the church of Santiago should sport an image of that saint at its entrance. However, the vast empty space around the horseman and the modern look of his boots are sure signs that something else originally occupied the space where Santiago now gallops in search of Moors to slay. This figure is indeed later than anything else we've seen so far, from the sixteenth century. His metal sword has had time to turn green in the Galician weather, giving him a lightsaber-y pizzazz.

A Gothic-style tomb has been cut out of the front wall.

On this side, the magnificent although eroded column capitals show twisting dragons (the Devil), an angel, and a scene that was popular in Romanesque times, Daniel in the lions' den. Although Daniel himself is mostly missing, four lions and the figure of Habakkuk accompanied by an angel make it unmistakable.

The plant-themed column capitals on the other side are finished off with a story that's not often seen in Galicia, but this blog's readers have seen before, also closely associated with Daniel in the lions' den: the sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham wields a sword, which an angel takes hold of to stop him turning toward Isaac, crouched and tied up behind him. Between the angel and Abraham, the sacrificial lamb ready to replace Isaac on the altar saves his life. 

On both sides of the door, angels with scrolls create that signature Coruñan shape. Below them, we have additional figures, elongating the indentations. These have both been carved in a Gothic style that harks back to "Mateo" to beautiful effect. The figure on the left is Santiago, bearded and with a pilgrim's walking stick. The younger beardless man on the right is probably Saint John, pointing to the gospel he wrote. A closer look reveals that his head has been replaced, as the angle is slightly uncomfortable and the stone a different color. As it still successfully copies the "Mateo" style, albeit with Gothic waves in his hair, it was probably replaced no later than the fifteenth century. 

From the inside, Santiago and John appear to float over the street even as they guard the entrance. 

Gazing toward the main altar, Santiago reminded me of San Cipriano in my Zamora. Like that temple, it used to have three parallel naves that were turned into a single large nave in Gothic times to create the sense of spaciousness so favored in that artistic period. 

The church features many seventeenth-century burials, of which this is the most striking example. This noble lady and her husband are portrayed as praying figures, both with their heads turned drastically to face the altar of their devotion. 

This life-sized Saint James survived the medieval fires in the apse and has been moved to the foot of the church, where I stand for perspective. I'd seen a photo of this image before I arrived, and was pleasantly surprised by the presence it exuded because of its size. 

The stained glass in the rose windows was placed at the turn of the twentieth century but blends in harmoniously with the medieval architecture.

In the well-preserved side chapel, a figure of the Virgin Mary, pregnant with the Son of God, is venerated. Such figures are often called Our Lady of the O, because of the surprised reaction they illicit. 

Lest we forget the whole point of this building, these column capitals remind us of Santiago and his pilgrimage with the symbolic shell.

Santiago is a well-lit place to hang out in the evening. 

The blogs Galicia Pueblo a Pueblo and Aquivoltas.com were essential resources for this post.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Seven Noble Knights in Search of a Home, Again

Seven Noble Knights will always belong in Salas de los Infantes... 
The steps between completing an excellent novel and becoming a published author can be painful and confusing, and frankly, most authors would rather skip them and get to "the good parts." The ones I'm thinking of include researching and querying agents and publishers, receiving multitudes of unhelpful rejections or brushoffs, wading through contracts, and waiting, waiting, waiting.

In the case of my Seven Noble Knights, I experienced all of the above plus an evisceration that ended up vastly helpful to the complete rewrite of the beginning of the novel.

When Seven Noble Knights was accepted for publication, it felt like my writerly dream come true--with all of the trepidation something like that can cause. (I read somewhere that writing long fiction is the most cognitively complex task known to brain researchers. Input from all directions! Is it any wonder that every moment of a writer's life is fraught with mixed feelings? This is not a profession for wimps.)

It turned out to be a long journey from acceptance to publication. I'm thinking about this now because this week, my contract with Bagwyn Books has been terminated and I've received the publishing rights back. Which is to say, Seven Noble Knights is again an unpublished manuscript.

The contract came to an amicable end based on mutually recognized issues at Bagwyn that have nothing to do with my novel. I'm pleased to have the rights back under auspicious circumstances. All the options are open, which is ideal and also scary.

It also feels like starting over, but it's really not. Seven Noble Knights has already debuted to critical praise from the Historical Novel Review and thrilled at least two book clubs. I fulfilled my dream of giving a reading and doing a signing at the Harvard Book Store. Seven Noble Knights has rubbed elbows with the Book Doctors, countless luminaries at the Historical Novel Society Conference and the Tin House Summer Workshop, and was the focal point of a lightning-fast radio interview.

My options include researching and approaching more agents and/or publishers, or redoing the launch and publishing myself, or letting it rest for a while until the time is right. I'll definitely consult with a few of my writer friends who have gone through something similar (rights reversion is not uncommon in the volatile publishing industry) before I make a final decision.

So there you have it. Seven Noble Knights will soon be unavailable for purchase. It's an end that promises an even brighter beginning.

Hold onto your bloody cucumbers! Great things are on their way!



Monday, September 3, 2018

Burgos's Medieval Mystery: Quintanilla de las Viñas

Santa Maria de Lara and the rocky outcrop I tried to evoke in Seven Noble Knights
All photos in this post 2018 Jessica Knauss unless otherwise specified 
In the wild green rolling lands of Lara, southeast of Burgos, a lone traveler may come upon Santa Maria de Lara and feel as if she's discovering it for the first time. This Visigothic temple has been set against a dramatic rocky backdrop that now gives the region its name for more than 1300 years.

Quintanilla de las Viñas seen from Santa Maria de Lara.
Most writers discussing the church use the town's name to refer to the temple. 
I first discovered this rare evidence of Visigothic activity in 2015 during my second adventure in Spain with my beloved, now departed, husband. We were on our way to see Salas de los Infantes and other Seven Noble Knights locations for the first time, so when I saw the diminutive pink sign on the highway that indicated "Visigothic temple, seventh century" this way, we didn't feel we could spare the time that morning.

Santa Maria de Lara with the Castle of Lara de los Infantes behind
Photo 2015 Jessica Knauss 
Returning to Burgos after the day's rainy adventures, we drove past a patch of fossilized sauropod tracks and the village of Quintanilla de las Viñas and got the full impact of where the temple sits. The barest indications of civilization, Lara Rock looming with its fascinating caves, and the evocative ruins of the Castle of Lara de los Infantes (where the first Count of Castile was born, I found out later!) off in the distance set the weight of the centuries firmly upon these stones.

It was closed. I mean really closed, as if we were the first people to whom it had occurred to go inside. There was an informative sign with photos of the interior, but no indication that it ever opened. I would have to live through many more experiences over the following three years before this site divulged its secrets to me.

This year, after delving into the fascinating story and fantastic art of San Pedro de la Nave, I was raving to return to Quintanilla de las Viñas to see the inside and slipped it into an epic journey this summer with my adventurous-for-history mother.

When you come upon the site from town, it's not impressive. The wall that faces you is unadorned and has a bricked-up door. It turns out that even this unsightliness tells us an important part of Quintanilla's story. When it was first built, near the end of Egica's reign, and for a few hundred years thereafter, the church was decorated all around and occupied three times the space it does now. In the ninth or tenth century, a major restoration project was undertaken. Some time after it was donated to the monastery at San Pedro de Arlanza in 1038, Quintanilla entered a long, slow period of decline, and two thirds of the structure caved in and/or was harvested for the stones to be used in other buildings long since vanished.

The space at the front of the building when you approach from the village marks out the temple's original footprint, which was defined during archaeological digs at the site. The wall that greets visitors today was not in the original plans at all. Only a little more than the apse of the original structure now survives. It's when you come around the side that you get a sense that this is more than a hasty pile of rocks.

Photo 2015 Stanley Coombs 
I remember coming around to "the back" in 2015 and being mystified by the multitude of friezes. Now I would recognize these abstruse symbols even out of context as the themes of the most richly decorated exterior of a Visigothic building in all of Spain. Notice also the crosses scratched repeatedly into the less decorated stones. This year, I was able to verify that these are medieval graffiti.

Photo 2018 Kay Holt (my lovely mum!) 
This time, as we approached the open door (visible on the left here), a man popped out of the ranger building (also on the left here). We exchanged greetings and he ended by saying he would be with us momentarily.

My mother and I explored for a few minutes by ourselves, and when a Spanish couple arrived, the ranger came back out to give us his grand tour. The elegant vines (Are these the viñas in the town's name?), grape bunches, palm leaves, and birds recall San Pedro de la Nave and have much the same symbolic interpretations attached to them. The birds are the human soul, the palms represent divinity, and the vines and grapes represent the sacramental blood of Christ that gives life to the soul-birds. I've seen similar patterns on modern buildings in Zamora. They may be trying to evoke a time long past, but they mainly imitate these friezes because they're so lovely.

The pièce de resistance of the exterior is found in the middle frieze, behind the main altar, on the left. Among palm leaves, we find three sets of monograms, which scholars have read as FLNA, DNLA, and FCRN(T). These letters are likely the names of two individuals who gave the money to build or restore the church or the stonemasons themselves, variously interpreted as Flammola and Danila or Flainus and Dilanus, and the Latin fecerunt, "made (this)."

I love a good building with a mysterious signature!

Photo 2018 Kay Holt 
Walking inside, it's obvious that the building is much smaller now than it was originally because it's hard to contemplate the glorious main archway without backing into the current wall. It's clearly seen better days, and you come to appreciate that the wall was necessary to prevent further deterioration. Even so, what's left takes away the breath of anyone who likes old stuff.

Above the arch, barely visible in the photo, rests what is likely the oldest Christ in Majesty in Spain. It, and all the reliefs in the church, have a strong Byzantine vibe that could have been imported to Spain any time between the sixth and tenth centuries, causing some scholars to doubt that the temple is in fact Visigothic.

This snarky blog in Spanish offers a clearer photo of the Christ in Majesty (item 7) and also reveals that in 2004, two panels depicting probable evangelists were stolen from the site. All we saw of the panels this summer were these photos of them in a niche, so I assume their whereabouts are still unknown.

The magnificent arch continues the signature vines-and-birds theme, but the unique part comes with the brackets under the arch, to the sides, resting on columns probably repurposed from a Roman site.  With their symbolism and another signature, they tell tremendous stories about the people who built the temple, if only we knew how to read them.

On the left, clearly missing another angel, we have a portrait of a humanoid in a double circle wearing a crescent moon as if it were horns. On either side of its head, the Latin letters LUNA permit no doubt that this is a carryover from pre-Christian worship of celestial bodies. What is it doing in a Christian temple? Some scholars have looked at the frieze on the right bracket and deduced that the Moon here must represent the Virgin Mary or the Church (feminine Ecclesia). Many doubt this because the Moon clearly has a short, thoroughly unfeminine beard, in keeping with the Germanic origin of Moon worship. So its placement here remains a fascinating headscratcher.

The interpretations of the SOL (Sun) frieze on the right as Christ illuminating the world feels more likely. It has a similar problem, though. This Sun looks rather more feminine than we usually think of Jesus. Another shoulder shrug, for sure, even as we admire the strange wings and nimbuses of the angels framing the portrait.

This bracket is doubly wonderful because there was room at the top for a little medieval humility bragging. The letters translate to "Humble Flammola offers this modest gift to God." This gives credence to the "Flammola" reading of the exterior frieze. Many scholars believe this signature is from the ninth or tenth century, which puts me on Seven Noble Knights alert. The name "Flammola" had morphed into "Lambra" by the thirteenth century, when the seven noble knights' legend was first written down. Lambra, the name of the villainess of Seven Noble Knights! As unusual at it seems today, this name was common in the early Middle Ages, so the Flammola/Lambra who founded or restored this extraordinary church was probably not also the scourge of the heroes in my book. In spite of how close this temple is to Salas and Barbadillo, where the bloody cucumber incident set everything in motion...

Behind all this excitement, we find the area that would've housed the main altar and been the site of the most sacred and secret ceremonies. The wooden roof is completely modern, but it's hard to fathom the age of the stones in the floor.

This column and capital supporting the rudimentary altar is Roman in origin and was placed here in the twentieth century.

The most interesting pieces in the altar space provoke yet more questions. They're two friezes that may have served as brackets or column capitals in a no-longer-extant archway. They're similar in layout and style to the Sun and Moon friezes, and if possible, their subjects are even more puzzling. This one, on the left, appears to depict a male figure holding a cross. One angel frames the person and the other holds a smaller cross. All the figures have hair that could be mistaken for halos. The informative leaflet I purchased from the ranger at the end of the tour proposes that the central figure here could be the husband of the Flammola who donated the money to build the church. Essentially, that guess is as good as any.

Photo 2018 Kay Holt 
On the right, the same idea is carried out without the crosses. Could this be Flammola? Or are these Christ and the Virgin Mary? More evangelists? In my version of history, someone once wrote down the exact intentions of these bizarre pieces, and a lucky scholar (yours truly?) is destined to find that writing and resolve so many doubts once and for all.

On top of this frieze, the keepers of the site have placed models of the church as it is now and how it's thought to have started out. The contrast confronts the visitor with the ravages of time. When you realize how lucky we are to have even this much of the building to gaze upon, it's also an opportunity to make peace with not having all the answers.

The ranger kindly took our photo with the church and Lara Rock. It was almost laundry day, and my mother and I had ended up with only blue clothes to wear for this monumental visit. It was an honor to be at Quintanilla de las Viñas in such good company, both times.

A visitor in 2012 also had an enjoyable time.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Seeking Queen Violante

Lords of all we survey at the top of Allariz
All photos in this post 2018 Jessica Knauss unless otherwise specified. 
"I didn't even know Alfonso X had a wife," said a Spanish friend of mine the other day.

Of course he had a wife—he was the king and needed legitimate heirs. But while Alfonso X, one of the obsessions of my life, is known to everyone in modern Spain, you don't hear much about his bride, Violante.

While I was studying for my PhD, I heard of a famous scholar of Spanish history who thought of writing Violante's biography. He soon learned why none exists: there just isn't enough information about her to fill a book.

"The Castle," a rocky outcrop at the top of Allariz 
Violante (a modernized version of this name is Yolanda) was a princess of Aragón, daughter of Jaume the Conqueror and Violante of Hungary. Some sources claim that she married Alfonso when she was only ten years old. Papers were drawn up in 1246, and there may even have been a ceremony, but the marriage was probably not consummated until after she had her first menses.

The lack of information about Violante in a court where it seemed everything was written down, and the existence of two or three bastard-providing lovers of the king, have led some scholars to believe that the marriage was not happy. However, Violante and Alfonso had eleven children together, a number that seems above and beyond strict duty.

Violante in a thirteenth-century manuscript, Tumbo de Touxos Outos.
Another presumed portrait, from the Libro de ajedrez, is in this blog's banner.
Wikimedia Commons 
The most lovely evidence that the marriage had tenderness and strength appears in the Cantigas de Santa Maria. Cantiga 345 is full of politics and war, but in the pertinent lines, King Alfonso has a dream that wakes him up. He turns to Queen Violante, who is in the bed next to him, exactly where a beloved spouse should be. Would the Cantigas composers mention this detail if it were false? What reason could they have to make up something like that? What's more, when Alfonso describes his dream to his bedmate, she responds that she's had the same dream. The same dream! That kind of thing is soulmate territory. The king and queen stay together, taking necessary action and celebrating the happy results together, through to the end of the song.


I knew only two other facts about Queen Violante.

One, during the emotionally taxing confusion over who should inherit the kingdom when Alfonso's and Violante's firstborn son was killed in battle in 1275, the queen fled back to Aragón with her two young grandchildren, who stood to gain under Alfonso X's new laws. She eventually returned to court and must've made some kind of peace with her husband and second son, although nothing much more is said about her.

Typical Galician grain storage at the entrance to Allariz
Second, she survived Alfonso X by many years. He died in 1284 and Violante passed away in 1300. The main event recorded about her widowhood was that she founded a convent in the town of Allariz in what is now the province of Ourense in the region of Galicia.

I imagined Violante living out her days in the rainy gray weather of Celtic Galicia. For my birthday this year, I wanted to see the place where my fellow widow lived in constant sorrow after the love of her life left her all alone in the world.

Allariz's Praza Maior features the Romanesque
Church of Santiago, which Violante probably visited. 
I've had help and company for many of my travels over the past year, for which I'm keenly grateful. But this trip had to be solo. All told, I spent more than two hours my first day in the capital of Ourense researching how to get to Allariz and back without my own car and what to see once I got there. I mention this because the character of any travel is influenced not by the destination, but by the journey.

I imagined Violante felt lonely even surrounded by a royal retinue when coming to settle in this green land. Although I was taking taxis, city buses, and intercity buses just as alone, I did it with a sense of accomplishment I could never have achieved from my shotgun position in a friend's car. Those bus rides were, in a way, the culmination of all my years of studying the Spanish language and the history of Spain.

The Galician flag blends in with the Galician sky at the top of Allariz 
I arrived in Allariz—a big spa town, as it happened—before the convent museum was open, so I headed to what the locals call "The Castle." It was a huge rocky mound with no man-made structures except for a white and blue flag of the region of Galicia that waved stiffly in the strong breezes.

I felt like a queen at the top of that rock, looking down at valleys, so many green trees, and roads and houses. Would this have been enough after thirty-two years as the queen of an entire dynamic country? I inhaled the clear air, cool the way August mornings can be with their powerful gusts, and thought that yes, it could be plenty. I recognized the influence of my departed husband in that assessment, and wondered if Violante would ever have agreed.

Convent of Santa Clara, Allariz 
That's why I made this trip: to learn more about Violante. The convent museum was just opening as I got there. It's enormous... and not very medieval.

Violante founded the convent in 1286 with her son, King Sancho IV, and decided to be buried here, but precisely because it was a royal convent, it had plenty of money to do complete overhauls with changing architectural tastes, and almost nothing of the original convent survives. A fire in the eighteenth century obliterated most of what would've been recognizably Gothic. This convent has the largest cloister in Galicia, but no visits are allowed.

Santa Clara with the Church of San Benito 
I scoured the convent museum in search of what I'd come looking for. Many reliquaries and liturgical items were of fine artistic quality, but Baroque. Even the Gothic artwork on display was from after Violante's time. Then, in a room all by itself, this:

The Virgen Abridera (opening Virgin) was made in the thirteenth century from a single elephant tusk (not okay to do today—don't even think about it), at the behest of Queen Violante. When closed, it looks like a finely carved ivory of a Virgin and Child in the cheerful Gothic style of the thirteenth century.

Opened, it becomes a triptych showing Jesus's birth, his Ascension to Heaven, and how Mary was made the Queen of Heaven by her son.

The Nativity scene is flanked by an Annunciation in two parts, with Gabriel on the left and the Virgin on the right. On the left of the Ascension, the angel announces Jesus's Resurrection at the tomb, and on the right, Jesus appears as the Holy Spirit to the Apostles. Mary's coronation is flanked by angels holding candles.

The fine details, the remains of medieval paint, and the craftsmanship in the hingework display the highest quality and remind me of my favorite Gothic art, the illustrations of the Cantigas de Santa Maria.

The back of the sculpture shows how Mary's body adjusts to the curve of the tusk out of which she was carved.

This closeup of the right side shows its 3-D, wedge shape.

This sculpture had incredible presence. It told all its stories with joy and loving care. Through the ages, anyone who really looked at this ivory has probably been moved in a positive way. In the absence of many facts about Violante's life, I got a visceral feeling for her personality by appreciating one of her possessions.

The opening Virgin also seemed to me an apt metaphor for where I am with widowhood: It rips you open. What you find inside determines the quality of the rest of your life.

Neoclassical fountain in the convent plaza, Allariz 
Most importantly, in Allariz I learned that the widowed queen did not stay at this convent for the rest of her life, the way I'd assumed. She lived where she was likely happiest, her home in Aragón. She was returning from a pilgrimage to Rome when she died in the Pyrenees mountain pass of Roncesvalles.

Good for her. Not shutting herself away, but going where she wanted and living in a way that brought her happiness? That's a widowhood example to follow.