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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.


Monday, August 20, 2018

A Saint and His Legend in Zamora Today

All photos in this post 2017, 2018 Jessica Knauss 
I live in a place enchanted by long years of people creating, destroying, and most of all, telling stories.

A particularly delightful legend surrounds the first Bishop of Zamora, Saint Atilano. Atilano was a humble man, so humble that he didn't feel worthy of the position of bishop that had been granted him by the king. He decided to perform a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and as he was leaving Zamora, he threw his episcopal ring into the Duero, Zamora's majestic river and the whole reason the city was founded. To finish off the symbolic act, Atilano declared that if he ever came upon the ring again, he would resume the solemn duties of tending to the Zamoran flock of faithful.

In no version of the legend are his travels interesting enough to talk about. This is a story of Zamora, and for that reason, no one knows whether Atilano even made it to the Holy Land or how long he was gone. When he had completed his pilgrimage, or was simply tired of traveling (tenth-century travel was rather more harrowing than our worst tales of airline abuse today), he stopped outside Zamora at an inn to have his midday meal, rest, and clean up from his travels. Digging into the fresh fish on offer that day, what did he find but his very own episcopal ring!

Notice the hefty ring in the fish's mouth. 
Atilano's humility didn't make him a fool, and he understood a sign when he saw one. He accepted his holy duty to be Bishop of Zamora once again. When he slipped the ring onto his finger, all the bells of Zamora tolled without the influence of bell ringers, and Atilano's ragged travel clothes became the delicately embroidered robes of the highest ecclesiastical office (read: highest office) in the land.

This miracle is the main reason the first Bishop of Zamora is considered a saint, and everyone who grew up in Zamora (and avid new residents like yours truly) have a sense of its significance to the city. Zamoran artist Gregorio Fagúndez created this sculpture commemorating the story in 2013, using materials left over from the restoration of the Iron Bridge and calling it "The Legend of the Tenth Century." Calling the miracle story a legend emphasizes the differences in the way Zamorans thought more than a thousand years ago (Did they accept the story at face value?) and our all-too-modern skepticism.

Of course they're right to be skeptical. The story has all the trappings of a folktale, and its legendary character was dramatized for me in a surprising manner this week. I went to the castle for an evening program by El Za-Moro de Zamora, a modern Muslim who loves Zamora's legends, but wanted to give his own take on them. Among jolly audience participation, one of the first themes he came upon was the story of Saint Atilano.

"Who knows the story of Saint Atilano?" he asked a relaxed and knowledgeable audience. I almost raised my hand, but in this case, I'm glad I didn't. If I'd recited my perfect outsider's version of the tale, I would've missed the way the performer had to cajole long-forgotten facts out of several audience members, which made for absurd hilarity and a sense of what it must've been like to grow up with the legend. The first people weren't sure why Atilano didn't want to be bishop, and no one could come up with the idea that he was going to the Holy Land. Things got a little more specific when it came to his return, when he ordered the fish dish at a restaurant over there near that church across the river. The performer used the idea of a restaurant (not exactly the same thing as an inn, but it'll do) to bridge the story with what he wanted to share.

"That's got to be a health code violation," said the performer (I'm translating loosely). "They didn't even clean the fish before they served it!" Then he launched into an even more ancient tale that takes place in "a city in Arabia," which doesn't tell of a bishop, but of a devout jeweler, who is prosperous and appropriately grateful, giving thanks to God with every transaction. One day, however, he lets his guard down and a jealous neighbor sneaks into the shop and steals earrings meant for the princess, throwing them into any nearby body of water. The jeweler was shocked to discover that the earrings were missing and wasn't sure what to do. When his wife was cleaning the fish (unlike the "restaurant" in Zamora) for that evening's meal, what did she find?

"The bishop's ring!" someone in the audience responded lustily.

"The bishop's ring? How did the bishop's ring get to Arabia? This story takes place long before Atilano threw his ring away! I've never heard anything more surreal," said the performer amiably. But he ended by saying, "Everything's connected."

And in this fish/jewelry story, everything really is. The performer was pointing out that Atilano wouldn't have found his ring in a fish if the jeweler's wife hadn't found earrings in a fish first. The legend is clearly traceable from Zamora to the Middle East (and then farther?) via Andalusia.

The performer said if he had been there, he would've caught the ring and told Atilano not to bother with the travels, because he was clearly going to find the ring again (since his story is based on another, much older one), and he might as well get on with it.

Was the story ever true? It hardly matters, as long as the listeners perceive the emotional truth in their own version of the legend.

The performer debunked more Zamoran legends that evening, and for me, the more the stories' hidden history was laid bare, the more wonderful they became. Every story is one aspect of the human experience. Let's all tell our stories to each other and find the common ground.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Valladolid's Medieval Treasures: San Cebrián de Mazote

The side of San Cebrián where you can best see the mozarabic contours
All photos in this post 2018 Jessica Knauss unless otherwise indicated. 
Another of the places I passed by many times in the province of Valladolid this winter was San Cebrián de Mazote. The name fascinated me, being a version of San Cipriano, the third-century Bishop of Carthage who loans his name to one of the most interesting churches in Zamora. On one of the drive-bys, I spotted a sign that indicated it was the site of a tenth-century mozarabic church. Sign me up!

No amount of camouflage can hide this building's ancientness! 
Like many such ancient buildings, you have to catch it at exactly the right moment so that there will be someone willing to open the door for you, especially in winter. Finally, my travel partner and I checked the schedule and made a special trip. It was worth the wait and the effort.

Beautifully restored ceiling
Photo 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón 
In the tenth century, the town of San Cebrián was on the border between Muslim territory and the Christian push from north to south known as the Reconquest. People came from Asturias to live in the area, and apparently some Christian monks from Córdoba joined them. They built the church in about 916 on the foundations of a former Visigothic building. It's this fusion of Roman-Visigothic tradition and Arabic sensibilities via Córdoba that gives us the enduring mozarabic style.

San Cebrián is the largest and best preserved church of this style and time period.

Although the seventeenth-century bell gable as you head toward the church is not promising, when the man comes with the keys to let you, your companion, and more weekend medievalists than you expected inside, all your hopes for a tenth-century experience are immediately satisfied.

You're surrounded by horseshoe arches that divide the space into three naves.

Each column and its capital (most Corinthian in design) was culled from former Roman buildings to be recycled here. All the capitals are unique, with no repeats. While the tenth-century arches are flawlessly uniform, the capitals and columns come up to slightly different heights, punctuating their uniqueness.

Photos 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón 

Other tenth-century delights include a separate horseshoe arch obviously inspired by Córdoba...

and a lintel found during archaeological excavations. Again, I love the alien feel of pre-Romanesque carving.

The right side chapel has an original mozarabic ceiling, but like
the left side chapel, its shape doesn't quite achieve a horseshoe. 
The arches over the central colonnades, as I mentioned, are strikingly uniform, but all of us on the tour wondered why the arches that frame the main altar and the chapels to its sides have a drawn-out, warped look to them. Enraptured with what the guide was telling us, it wasn't until near the end of the visit that someone got up the nerve to ask what the funny shapes were all about. 

The left side chapel archway 
Yes, the guide said. The architects and artisans were obviously capable of creating perfection on command. What probably happened was that tastes changed.

The mozarabic aesthetic, like the Visigothic one, called for secretive ceremonies cut off from the congregation. It didn't matter, in fact it was preferable, if the opening to the altar was too small for anyone in the peanut gallery to get a view. In just a few hundred years, this policy was reviewed, and probably by the twelfth century--that universal medieval style, Romanesque--new architects and craftsmen with new ideas wanted to widen the arches that opened onto the main altar and chapels. They inserted a few more bricks into the horseshoe arches and moved the columns, a process that made it impossible to preserve the integrity of the original design.

I think the same process happened in Wamba.

Outside, this filled-in horseshoe arch is more evidence of changes in the way the building was used over time.

This sixteenth-century alabaster Virgin of the Assumption by Inocencio Burruguete probably came from the nearby Monastery of the Holy Thorn, where they now have a replica. 

Photo 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón 
We spent a great deal of time appreciating this seventeenth-century recumbent Christ made by the school of Gregorio Fernández. The poor state of its painting actually allows us to see how the sculpture was assembled in puzzle-like pieces.

The foot of the church has a display about
the modern architectural discovery of the building. 
After many years of neglect, San Cebrián's rare value was rediscovered for the modern world by Agapito Revilla and Vicente Lamperez in 1902. A lovely 1932 restoration was supervised by Manuel Gómez Moreno, and for this reason alone, we can enjoy San Cebrián today.

Photo 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón 
The sixteenth-century bishop sculpture behind me is the man himself, San Cipriano. We visited this site in March, and I fondly remember (now that it's a sultry August) being so cold, I could hardly feel my hands, even inside the church.

Now I see the sense in wintertime tourism. At least you can warm up afterward, maybe have a tea or hot chocolate, while in the summer, it's hard to enjoy anything under pounding sunlight close to 100 degrees when you don't have air conditioning back home! Don't be surprised if I lie low and ride out the summer, writing blogs about all the amazing things I saw this winter.