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Monday, October 30, 2017

Zamora's Medieval Treasures: San Pedro de la Nave, Part I - The Legend of the Saintly Ferryman and Woman

Photos in this post by Jessica Knauss 2017 
San Pedro de la Nave is a singular building in the unassuming town of El Campillo.

If you can think of something that would make a building unique, San Pedro de la Nave has it in spades. It's permitted to hold ceremonies according to the ancient Mozarabic ritual, it preserves rare pre-Romanesque Visigothic sculpture, it was threatened with being swallowed up by a reservoir, and it was moved brick by brick to a safe location. We'll delve into all that in future posts. Now, let's start with the harrowing story people have told over the centuries to explain the presence of a simple sarcophagus that became mysterious with time.

Written in the seventeenth century, at least several centuries after the events would've taken place, the story goes: Long, long ago, a young man—let’s call him Julián—lived in a town that would later be called San Pedro de la Nave on the River Esla with his beloved mother and father. Julián was a great hunter, providing all the game his family needed and then some, and things were just dandy. One day, Julián was tracking a deer. As he closed in, the deer abruptly turned around to look at him and spoke.

“Young Julián, you lead a good life in this fertile valley. But beware: one day, you will murder both of your beloved parents.”

Julián was shocked that the deer could speak at all. Given the extraordinary messenger, he had to believe the message. He laid down his bow and arrow right there and fled to Portugal (known as Lusitania at the time), thinking to evade the awful prophecy.

In Portugal, Julián made his fortune as a warrior. (The legend doesn’t specify what side he fought for. Whoever wrote the legend down probably had no idea who was fighting whom when Julián would’ve lived. The only thing he could be sure of was that it was on the Iberian Peninsula, so of course there was some kind of war.) 

Julián was rewarded for his valor with marriage to the lovely Castilian noblewoman Basilisa. (Castile wouldn’t really have existed when Julián and Basilisa were alive, but to the seventeenth-century writer, Castile probably seemed eternal.)

Basilisa and Julián made a lovely home together, but there was another couple who wasn’t happy: Julián’s parents had been wondering where their son went and why for many years at this point. They went in search of him, and happened to find his home and bride when he was away doing important Lusitanian things. 

Basilisa was a good daughter-in-law and gave Julián’s parents an unforgettable welcome. When they admitted to being exhausted from their long and worried journey, Basilisa offered them her own nuptial bed to rest in.

While her guests took their siesta, Basilisa went to church to pray. Of course that was the moment Julián came home to find two people in a bed where at most he would expect to find one: his wife, waiting for him. Julián believed Basilisa was dallying with another man, and slew both sleepers.


Basilisa walked in the door to find the horrifying sight of her mother- and father-in-law dead and explained the guests to her husband. Julián was devastated—I could’ve told him he couldn’t escape the prophecy so easily—and decided to do penance for his (totally unintended and studiously avoided) crime back in his hometown of San Pedro.

He and Basilisa set up a free service ferrying pilgrims across the River Esla so they could safely arrive at the holy sites they were aiming for. The couple did this successfully for years and earned quite the holy reputation. Finally one day, when Julián was an old man, he glimpsed someone on the opposite side of the river who needed a ferry during a severe storm.

When he made it across the dangerous river, Julián found that the pilgrim was a leper. Nonetheless, he offered the pilgrim his own bed in which to warm up and wait out the storm. Suddenly, the leper became a beautiful angel.

“Julián, your penance is complete. Your sin is redeemed. You will enjoy the rewards of Heaven. Go in peace.”
  
Julián and Basilisa lived out their final days feeling very blessed. That’s who’s supposed to be at rest in this tomb.

Nevermind that it’s not a tomb, but a sarcophagus, where bodies were placed until such time as only bones remained. A sarcophagus is no one’s final resting place. Just try to tell that to someone writing a thousand years after this building came into being, though.

If you think this story is remarkable, just wait for the real saga of San Pedro de la Nave, in the next posts. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Zamora's Medieval Treasures: San Cipriano

All photos in this post by Jessica Knauss 
Zamora has more than twenty Romanesque churches. This is extraordinary because, although the Romanesque style was vastly popular all over Europe in its heyday, over time people tended to dismantle the buildings from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries in favor of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and even more modern ways of building.

In contrast to the Gothic style, the Romanesque might seem a little heavy, clumsy, or stiff. I'm here to say that, particularly in Zamora, the Romanesque style permitted a lot of fun artistic expression. Each of its surviving Romanesque churches has its own personality. I plan to visit them all and share the best with you here.

We'll start with San Cipriano because there's something mysteriously appealing about this church. When you come up on it from the public library or the parador nearby, it exerts a pull on you. Even the locals must feel it, because San Cipriano's plaza is a popular hangout among people of all ages. I wonder if they appreciate that this church shows up in the historical record for the first time in 1159.


Its bell tower, which used to form part of the defenses in the town wall, is pleasingly proportioned and visible from many prime spots in the city. Look for the stork nest in the corner. The stones that make up the church exterior have exquisite reddish accents, and the windows and doors display iconography worthy of any museum--and that's just the outside!

In this window, between two columns with floral capitals, two of the three Marys are portrayed next to the holy sepulcher with an angel and a sleeping solider. On the right, Abraham sacrifices Isaac. How do these themes go together? God's sparing of Isaac was interpreted during this time period as foretelling Jesus' sacrifice and resurrection. Both were placed upon a literal or metaphorical sacrificial altar, and both rose up from it again.

Three of the church's architects had the sculptors make portraits of them so everyone would know who made this: Ildefonso, Sancho, and Raimundo. An inscription inside indicates they also made the church of San Andrés in 1093.

These weathered fellows have been identified as the apostles James, Thomas, Peter, and Philip.


The southern entry has a lovely triple Romanesque archway that would be treasured anywhere else, but here is easily overlooked. Around the arch are many unique carvings from the original structure which were placed here during the 1975 retoration: an ironworker named Bermudo with memorial inscription on the left, St. Peter with his keys, a monogram of Christ, and on the right, the apocalyptic beast with seven heads.

A more customary theme in this region shows up on the other side of the door: Daniel in the lions' den. Daniel's story was interpreted as a parallel to the Resurrection in Visigothic times, and this is surely a carryover.

The eaves have many lovely corbels, some geometric, some abstractly floral, some monstrous, and here in the center, I think we can see a primitive Adam and Eve. Any of these could be restorations from 1975. As weathered as it is, I admire the checkerboard effect above them. It was a favorite pattern in the Zamoran Romanesque aesthetic.

In the interior, San Cipriano gives an impression of vastness, which was unusual for the Romanesque in general, but fairly common in the outsized style of Zamora. You can easily appreciate how it started out with three parallel apses and was cleared out to form one unified space in the thirteenth century.

Every time I see a baptismal font this old, I think of Mudarra in Seven Noble Knights. Can you imagine having to sit in one of these as an adult? And in winter? Brrr!!!

In this window, we stumble upon gorgeous remains of Gothic paint showing Christ in majesty. The theme was popular in Romanesque churches, but we can tell this painting is Gothic by the curves of its lines and the warmth of its facial expressions. It's rare to find even trace remnants of painting on stone sculpture, but when it's there, it reminds us that medieval tastes tended toward vibrant colors.

Even more amazingly, the column capitals in the chapels to the sides of the main altar also have evidence of paint. Starting on the left, we see the torments of Hell with bright red flames, a brown head, and the black limbs of scary hellhounds.

Opposite Hell, these abstract plant designs may well represent Paradise.

To the right of the main altar, one column is crowned with the death of Samson at the temple with warm paint colors in the background, complemented with a circular design on the column itself.

Facing Samson are a warrior, a bishop, and a man with a book. Some say this represents Solomon's judgment.

Behind the main altar, this Gothic painting looks as if it once represented the Annunciation, and the regal name "Alfonso" is clearly legible in the corner. The image venerated here is San Cipriano, created by Juan Ruiz de Zumeta in 1596 and painted in 1600 by the elder Alonso de Remesal, though records show the sculpture was freshened by sculptor José Cifuentes and painter José González in 1779.

Apparently, St. Cipriano was a magician in Classical times who converted to Christianity when he couldn't win the affections of a devout Christian lady for his client.

Four column capitals grace the main chapel. They've lost their paint, but still show vivid scenes. Here's Epiphany, when the Magi visited the newborn Jesus. Notice them carrying their gold, frankincense, and myrrh.


As in the side chapels, the main altar is framed by columns with opposite stories, as if to create a thematic balance between them. What's the opposite of the Epiphany? According to the medieval sculptors, it was Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise.

Behind the main archway, this mermaid represents sin, which is to be avoided because it's just as unnatural as a mermaid.

Across from the mermaid is a human figure. It's hard to tell whether it represents anyone in particular, but given its evil twin, this human probably represents purity or redemption from sin.

Call me crazy, but this is giving me interior design ideas. I'm never happier than when my surroundings are highly symbolic and full of medieval artistic effort.

Having inspected the details, the next thing you should do in San Cipriano is sit down on one of the pews and imagine the last 858 years never happened. What could these stones tell us about the people who lived, loved, and died here over the course of those centuries? Many a historical novel could start this way.

Leaving San Cipriano, you face the newest parts: nothing in this photo (other than the pews) was originally built later than the fourteenth century. At the left, you can see the opening to Cristóbal González de Fermosel's funerary chapel from the sixteenth century. I didn't go in there because the caretaker had just yelled at some other visitors for using flash photography and retreated in there to fume. Even with that modern disturbance, I was wistful about walking back outside into the real world. San Cipriano is a break from reality, and it's an exciting break full of stories.


Monday, October 16, 2017

The Dead Angels by Rafael Alberti

As I mentioned in the previous post, I joined a writers group shortly after my arrival in Spain. The first meeting made me feel incredibly welcome. During the second meeting, we analyzed some of the poetic works of surrealist Rafael Alberti.

I love surrealism, but I'm not sure I could ever write it well. So I'll do the next best thing and translate one of the poems. When you think about the images, they become less surreal. They point to whatever reality you're living at the time you read them.

The Dead Angels

Look, look for them:
in the sleeplessness of forgotten pipework,
in the courses of rivers interrupted by the silence of garbage.
Not far from the puddles unable to hold a cloud,
some lost eyes,
a broken piece of jewelry,
or a star that's been stepped on.
Because I've seen them:
in the momentary debris that appears in the mist.
Because I've touched them
in the exile of a deceased brick,
come to nothing from a tower or a cart.
Never farther than the chimneys that fall to pieces
nor those tenacious leaves that get stuck to the bottom of a shoe.

In all this.
Even more in those vagabond wood chips that get consumed without fire,
in those sunken silences suffered by dilapidated furniture,
not far from the names and signs that grow cold on the walls.

Look, look for them:
under the drop of wax that buries the sense of a book
or the signature in the corners of a letter,
which it comes stirring up dust.
Near a lost bottle cap,
a shoe sole gone missing in the snow,
a shaving razor abandoned at the edge of a precipice.

Alberti wrote this poem during a crisis of faith. Everything they'd taught him about God, angels, heaven, hell... he just didn't buy it anymore. This is an unpleasant thing to have happen to you, but if you make it through, it can lead to more and better art in the future.

Here Alberti sees dead angels (lost innocence, our better natures, or faith) in things rotten, dead, or forgotten. He sees a world full of useless, cynical items, and not a single chance at redemption.

It's a pretty good description of someone going through deep, comsuming grief. None of it is pleasant. Without unpleasantness, would we appreciate the good around us?

It's been therapeutic to translate these images and I hope it's been therapeutic to read and think about them. Thanks for reading! With this out of the way, there's plenty of room for fun stuff in the weeks to come.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Buying Fruit in Spain

A selfie with the Romanesque Bridge in Zamora 
Everyone in the auxiliares de conversación program has had their first week of teaching now. In some online groups, there have been rumblings of homesickness and culture shock. It's a perfectly normal reaction to coming to a place where the language, culture, values, and even the time schedule are different.

With the cathedral 
To me, things are different in a good way. What's the opposite of culture shock? Culture cushion, perhaps? Definition: the feeling upon entering a country that everything at last makes sense, causing an intense sense of relief, like lying down on a cushion of the perfect softness; occurs only in people who suffer from nationality dysphoria.

As I mentioned in a previous post, when I was in the country of my birth, I always had a sense that something wasn't quite rightthat I should be somewhere else. I'm in Spain now, and that tragic feeling lifted some time after I landed, perhaps while I was on the train, looking out the window at a castle I'd visited twelve years earlier.

At the Duero with the cathedral atop the rocky outcrop 
For me, it's natural that I should skip over culture shock. Spain has been the site of my longing for 30 years, I've studied Spanish almost that long, and I've been to Spain ten times beforeten of the best times of my life. I met my personal hero in Spain and he was more present and kind than I imagined he could be. I've won a few people over to loving Spain, including my sweet Stanley, who I'm told was stubbornly against trying new things when I wasn't around.

At my new favorite place,
San Pedro de la Nave 
When I arrived this, the eleventh time I've been to Spain, I immediately got a great apartment, had fun, got complimented on my Spanish, and met some fascinating people. I was walking down the street one day, and a lady started talking to me, as you do. After a few minutes of chatting, she asked if I was a writer, because of course that's what you ask people on the street. It turns out, she's the presidenta of a writers group here and she invited me to join them! They've published tons of books, won prizes, and give readings throughout Castilla y León. I went to a meeting last week, and I've never felt more at home in my life. I told them I was going to try writing stories in Spanish. Quite the goal.

Thrilled at the Center for the Interpretation of Medieval Cities 
So now you know why I look a little crazy in these selfies. Sometimes, happiness looks like a psychotic break with reality. But the photos are evidence: I'm really here!

At the castle. Who doesn't
love a good castle? 
What does the title of this post have to do with anything? The one time I felt like a foreigner in the past three weeks was when I attempted to buy fruit at a large supermarket the way I'm used to in America. No! In Spain, you do not let the cashier weigh and price your fresh fruit! What were you thinking? You have to weigh it and get a price printed out at the scale. You must be a foreign idiot, rejected by your country for being so dumb. (No one said this, just my active imagination.) I abandoned those tangerines in a hurry, ready to never eat fresh fruit again.

With the tapestries at the cathedral. I remembered to take off my
glasses for this one. 
The next time I was at the store, I was less overwhelmed by all the exciting Spanish food for sale, and focused enough to see where I had to weigh my apples and grapes. It makes perfect sense.