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Monday, February 26, 2018

Segovia's Medieval Treasures: Frescoes and Dusk in Maderuelo

Santa María and the new bridge at Maderuelo, Segovia
All photos in this post 2017 Jessica Knauss 
Maderuelo has been around since time immemorial, but got its final start in the tenth century under a "repopulation" order from Fernán González, the first Count of Castile and the father of Count García in my Seven Noble Knights.

The day I visited Maderuelo with our knowledgeable and entertaining guide, David, I was suffering with the first full day of a common cold, i.e., the day when you think it's not really common and you might just be dying, so I was unable to appreciate the fact that this is a site my characters could recognize! This is one of the things I love about Spain: you can't avoid stumbling onto some piece of interesting history, anywhere you go.

Maderuelo's city limits are defined by the rocky outcrop on which it sits, commanding views over the majestic plains of the province of Segovia.

You enter via Entrance to the Village Street...

... and if you make it past the town guardians...

... you go through a ruggedly lovely door in the Romanesque town wall.

You turn around to find buildings just as ancient leaning together to make you feel as if you were one of the inhabitants during the town's heyday.

Turning back around, you're confronted immediately with San Miguel, which has seen better days. Although it's been restored and is currently in use as a church, most of its Romanesque aspects are deteriorated or were austere to begin with.

San Miguel's plain chapel has a delightful
late Romanesque Virgin and Child. 
David points out the contrast between what most restorations
look like and what they ought to look like. 
Our guide, David, took the opportunity to explain his views on restoring medieval buildings. A lot of times, he said, restorers leave the stone exposed so people can feel like that's what it looked like way back when. But, David said, of course they didn't leave the stones exposed, indoors or out. They wanted smooth surfaces for painting or otherwise decorating indoors and to give a finished look and protect the stones outdoors. The buildings lasted this long because of the protective layers of stucco or other materials that impeded weather getting into the mortar and cracking the stones into rubble. David's central question in Maderuelo was why don't they restore that most lovely and useful part? It would be even more beautiful for visitors to gaze upon and would prevent further weatherization.

Baroque facade of Santa María 
The Church of Santa María, farther inside the town, has the most Romanesque traces within the wall. It's a fascinating combination of building materials, put together with a utilitarian chaos that makes its history hard to interpret. It has a lovely, understated Romanesque portal with geometric motifs.

Mysterious archways in Santa María 
David tries to illuminate the chaos into order with his green laser pointer. 
However, we spent the most time puzzling over some blind arches on the opposite side of the building. The use of the arches is unknown. Made of red brick, they immediately suggest mudéjar craftsmanship, and the horseshoe shape of the arches indicates this may be the earliest part of the building. Did Romanesque architects take over a mosque for use as a church? We may never be certain. I strongly felt that if I hadn't been suffering with that cold, I could've come up with a plausible answer no one else had brought up before. Maybe the cold medicine was giving me delusions of grandeur.

Santa María's large, light-filled interior has been carefully restored to Baroque splendor. Here, David also showed us a lovely transitional Romanesque-Gothic crucifixion, pointing out all the details to watch for and unforgettably talking about Christ wearing G-strings in some Baroque depictions. Since then, I've been fascinated with the sculptural transition between the Romanesque and Gothic styles and look for the clues on every old crucifix I come across.

Ermita de la Vera Cruz with San Miguel on the rocky outcrop behind 
The undoubted star attraction of Maderuelo is actually outside of it: the Ermita (Hermitage) de la Vera Cruz. Here they told us we'd see some Romanesque murals. What we saw defied such an easy summary.

The paintings survived since the twelfth century in remarkable condition, albeit in artistic obscurity, until they became appreciated again in the early twentieth century. Then, in 1947, engineers wanted to put a dam in place that threatened the hermitage with flooding. (Is this story familiar?) Rather than move the entire building, however, the engineers removed the top layers of the paintings--because they're frescoes--and transferred them to the Prado in Madrid, where you can still visit them today.

Illustrating the thickness of the fresco layer removed to Madrid 
More recently, they've opened the hermitage as a sort of museum. Visitors can now see an exhibit about the transfer of the paintings and a very special added bonus. Both sides of the hermitage are architecturally identical, but there were only paintings on one side. For this reason, we were able to observe the faint traces where the original frescoes were, and on the other side, we took in a glorious replica of the paintings.

Loving the medieval paint traces 
I've seen the originals in Madrid, and these paintings are some of the most impressive Romanesque artwork anywhere, in any context. But there was something undeniably magical about seeing the replica practically in situ. The composition made so much sense! I could imagine the way the art got its messages across to its medieval audience much more clearly here. While more people can appreciate the paintings in the museum setting in Madrid, I would like to point out that the waters never reached the hermitage and have now receded to nothing after a couple of years of drought.

You can see how the reds and yellows made the deepest impressions in the fresco. 
And here's what it used to look like.
Creation of Adam and the fall from grace (replica) 
Lamb of God flanked by angels 
Christ in Majesty on the ceiling overhead 
Seraph, archangel, and St Peter 
The dove represents the Holy Spirit, which
the artist associated with the formless light
coming in through the window. 
Mary Magdalene washes Jesus' feet. 
Mary, Jesus (his feet, anyway), and one Magi 
We couldn't get enough of the replica! 
It's not only the vibrant colors and excellent state of preservation that make these paintings so special. They display a medieval brand of creativity. Although the decorators of a religious building had a limited repertoire of images they could work with, the artists of Vera Cruz made brilliant decisions in every part of the process that resulted in a place where we all wanted to linger. They made use of the architecture to increase their didactic intent, as seen in the original rendering of the Holy Spirit in the window and their placement of Christ in Majesty unusually on the ceiling. Their appreciation of form is especially evident in the creation of Adam and fall from grace scenes, where nude bodies are compartmentalized into their constituent limbs and muscles. The expressiveness of the faces and gestures comes through loud and clear in spite of the lack of depth and the overwhelming solemnity of the tiny space. 

Early nightfall on the Maderuelo wall echoed my virus-induced exhaustion. 
As evening fell, my cold was taking over and I only wanted to go home and sleep for days. But even so, there was a part of me that was sorry I couldn't enjoy the day with a clear head and airways. As I hope you can see, a mere virus couldn't stop the province of Segovia from being unforgettable.

Thanks to Arteguías and our intrepid guide, David. I'll find a way to take many more of these tours that seem like they were made just for me. See a chronicle of the day on the Arteguías website.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Most Romantic City

Boston from Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge
Photo 2009 Jessica Knauss 
In 2008, my future husband, Stanley, was living in Boise, Idaho. The Universe arranged it so that his job required him to fly in and stay in a hotel in Boston four days a week. I was living in a Boston suburb and offering guided tours of my favorite American city.

2009 Jessica Knauss 
On February 13, 2008, ten years ago today, under a cold rain, Boston became the most romantic city in the world when I met the man who would quickly reveal himself as the love of my life. 

The photo includes some of the Fenway, Fenway Park, Comm Ave with
the Citgo Sign and Boston University, and some of the Charles.
2008 Jessica Knauss 
Here's to you, Boston, city of history, city of heavy accents, city of terrible drivers, city of true love. 

The Green Line is the United States' first subway.
2009 Jessica Knauss 

The teapot at Government Center really steams!
2009 Jessica Knauss 

The 'aba (Boston Harbor)
2009 Jessica Knauss 

At the De Cordova Sculpture Park
2009 Jessica Knauss 

On our wedding day with Boston Common, the Hancock Tower, and
Boston Harbor visible from the Top of the Hub. 
Stanley is gone. He left the physical world a year and a half ago. That's nothing in Boston, founded in 1630, 388 years ago. And 388 years can't hope to compare to how long our love will last. Even though only one of us is left, our love remains unbounded. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

Zamora's Medieval Treasures: San Claudio de Olivares

Zamora Cathedral overlooks the Duero. The aceñas (medieval hydraulic
plants) and San Claudio's red brick bell gable are visible below.
All photos in this post 2018 Jessica Knauss. 
San Claudio de Olivares is, as the name indicates, in the Olivares neighborhood of Zamora. Named for the olive grove that must've once graced this area in the shadow of the castle and the cathedral, the tanners and potters lived and worked here in the Middle Ages, outside the city walls, where people wouldn't have to deal with the odors of their trades.

Close up on the aceñas and San Claudio's gable 
San Claudio stands out in the Olivares neighborhood, seen from the city wall 
I didn't expect there to be any medieval architecture in this neighborhood, low as it is and vulnerable to floods. But one day I checked it out to find that Olivares has not one but two of the most astounding of Zamora's hidden medieval treasures. I'll show you only San Claudio in this post and it's still liable to overwhelm your medieval-culture-loving senses.

San Claudio appears to have a Romanesque cathedral bell tower popping
 out of it, but is otherwise missable from the south.  
The first documentary evidence of San Claudio is from 1176, but it was built and decorated during the first half of the twelfth century. "Decorated?" you ask. "There's nothing much to see here."

The plot thickens on the north side. 
On the north side, facing the rocky outcrop and Zamora's hefty cathedral, it's clear that San Claudio's architects were no slouches. Here we have some of the most interesting corbels in the city.

A close look under those characteristic checkerboard eaves reveals that the corbels depict people in typical twelfth-century activities such as harvesting grapes, handfighting, and defecating. (We all do it, but it doesn't usually show up as a decoration on an important building!) A person could look all day and still be finding new surprising details at sundown. And that's not all this open-air museum had to offer.

Although heavily weathered, the entrance archway is one of the most richly decorated in Zamora. The paschal lamb in the innermost arch and probably also the blue paint were placed in the thirteenth century, but the rest was carved by the same masters who made the corbels and the column capitals we'll see in the interior.

The outermost archway has stylized leaves, creating a lacy frill around the edges of the masterpiece. The second arch contains what were once sensitively carved depictions of animals from the medieval bestiary, a sort of field guide to animals of the world and of the imagination. Slightly to the right here, I think I see a human trying to tame a standing ape or a bear as well as a large fishy serpent. Separated by paradisaical leaves and a smaller floral band of blue, the innermost arch is thought to be a calendar of sorts. It shows the emblematic human activity of each month of year, such as warming themselves by the fire, sowing, reaping, hunting with a falcon, and going off to war. The archway in total represents all three levels of life: infernal (animals), terrestrial, and celestial. Having passed under so much symbolism, are you ready for the interior?

The first time I visited San Claudio, I walked in and started snapping away at everything inside such a unique space. I took five or six pictures of the more modern parts of the church before the caretaker approached me to say that I was only allowed to take three photos. (Three? Not zero, one, or two, but three? A holy trinity of photos?) I was left with the impression that I would have to return every week for years, taking three pictures at a time, to get all the shots I wanted. 

Portable altar, c. 1600 
Only a little later, I came into some of my signature Zamoran luck and found out that the priest at San Claudio also teaches religion at the high school where I teach English. (Religion here means Catholicism for Catholics, not the comparative courses I'm used to in the United States.) The priest was flattered I was interested in his special church, and told the caretakers about me.

Flemish paintings on copper, 1600s
Epiphany and St. Peter released from prison 
The next time I showed up at San Claudio, the caretaker tried to tell me again about the three-photo rule, but I gave my name, said the priest was expecting me and that he'd said I could take all the pictures I wanted. I never knew name-dropping was so much fun! 

Medieval geometric painting in a tomb archway 
The caretaker recognized my name from when the priest had told her about me, and from that moment on, we had a grand time, chatting, appreciating art, and taking a million photos. 

The large Baroque (early seventeenth century)
Cristo del Amparo is taken out
in procession during Holy Week. 
Here we're at the right side of the apse, and you can get a sense of one of the things that makes San Claudio's column capitals so special: the unique play of its Asturias-inspired blind arches puts most of them at eye-level! You hardly have to crane your neck at all to see the sculptural wonders. 

What we've all come to see: the twelfth-century
Romanesque apse 
The semicircular arches that face the congregation are harmonious to the eye and figuratively heavenly. Two elaborate capitals, one on each side, await our gaze, and at the same height, two corbels finish the second arch.

The truly deluxe elements here are the double blind archways on each side of the apse. Each side has two regular columns and one double column that finish nice and low so anyone can contemplate the details of their capitals.

And yes, the double columns have double capitals! The images in these capitals have been described as "disconcerting," which is probably why I think they're awesome.

Even in the first capital on the left, at traditional height, we can see there's something unusual going on. Mythic beasts in a Christian church? This may well be an inheritance from Classical tradition. These two griffons face each other and drink from the same cup. In such an attitude, scholars think they represent the guardians of the soul. I haven't found any information (so far) about the curious face above them.

On the side, there's an interesting crouching figure I haven't found an explanation for, either.

The first lower column capital on the left, which we can revel in, eye to eye, also seems a little odd: a lion biting grapevines. He's behaving in an unusual way for a lion because he's metaphorical. Christ is often represented by a lion in these early medieval works, and as we've seen in San Pedro de la Nave, the grapevines refer to Christ's blood, the Eucharist, and redemption for humanity. The lion guards the precious vines in the tight grip of his powerful jaws. No one is taking human redemption away from this lion!

The first double column capital respects the division into two spaces with two themes. On the left side, sirens (birds with female human heads) may represent the temptations of the flesh and pernicious doctrines, but since it shows up in the holiest part of the temple, it's likely to portray the human soul. The curlicues, as well as eliminating empty space, could show that the human soul is making a choice about which spiritual path to follow.

On the front, the siren has a distinctly Byzantine look about her face. Maybe it's the headdress, or perhaps her large eyes with pinpoint pupils. On the right, lions protect all that is sacred.

The lions meet at the corner by their heads and looking at the right side, it becomes clear that the lions are protecting what's sacred from some vicious wolves who bite the lions' tails. Wolves attacking lions? Remember that the lions are Christ, who is also the Lamb, and it makes a little more sense.

Sending our gaze upward, each double column in the center has directly above it a corbel at the end of the central half-circle arch. The characters are very similar, but the one on the left adopts a "thinker" type of pose while the one on the right is concentrating on supporting the arch with what appear to be hands specially adapted for the purpose. This one, or both, may or may not be Atlas.

Coming back down to eye level and following the apse, we find what appears to be a normal column capital with acanthus leaves, especially common in Zamora, where such leaves were as flamboyant as the Cistercian order ever got. But no. Here, too, the leaves have strange bulbs popping out of them, and a comely female figure on this side.

The other side features what appears to be a monkey, also with a bulb. The bulbs are likely the fruit of the tree. Could the woman be Eve? If this is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, then the monkey represents Satan. Monkeys, as degraded versions of humans, are a typical way to represent the devil.

Across the apse, parallel with the unique Tree of Knowledge, we have a more expected representation of the Tree of Life, with leaves and birds very similar to the Eucharistic iconography of San Pedro de la Nave in the sima.

Farther toward the front, the other eye-level single column capital is also a tamer representation of Paradise. It's just as well, because the double capital on the right side gives us plenty to think about!

On the sides, fantastic creatures defy interpretation. On the right: a winged merman, or a flying dragon with a man's head, with a pointy elfin headdress.

On the left, a mermaid with luxurious locks of hair. 

On the front of this double column, we don't see the division of themes as in the other one. Here the sculptor took advantage of the space to have his enigmatic figures interact with each other. This is the single most surprising sculpture in San Claudio: female and male centaurs aiming a lance and a bow and arrow at each other. The most sophisticated question that comes to mind is "Huh?" Astute observations include that the lady centaur is missing her nose and that the horse parts of both are decorated as if they were outfitted with saddles or war banners.

Some scholars have said that the male centaur is Christ, but I haven't been able to make the connection, myself. With his headdress, beard, and beady eyes, he shares the Byzantine look we saw across the way in the siren.

Maybe the last column capital, the high-up one on the right across from the griffons, which now seem perfectly normal, will pull these images together and send the visitor on her way with a clear head and a settled soul. We start well: on both sides, a majestic eagle spreads its wings. While their pairing makes it unlikely these represent John the Evangelist, eagles are a common sight in medieval Christian churches.

In front, we've returned to mythic themes. A man appears to me to be riding a beast that would not normally permit such activity. Most scholars interpret this finely detailed sculpture as Heracles (or Samson, in church lingo) wrestling with the Nemean lion. Note how his strong hands are forcing the jaws open. Here's one place where the lion is definitely not Christ.

San Claudio de Olivares is outside the city wall, and its artists brought some outré ideas to life. I thank them and the current clerical and lay staff of San Claudio for this unforgettable explosion of truly unique medievalness.