Saturday, 22 September 2007

Severely Fabulous Monastic Treasures!

There´s a nighthawk screaming outside in the dark. I don´t know where the dogs are hiding out, but they are not in here with me, which is why I am not sneezing. Paddy is very much enamored of Tim, but I think he´s making my allergies and asthma kick up, which is something up with which we cannot put. Poor ol´ Paddy. Poor ol´dogs. I think they are curled up in the house-shell somewhere, the only people who find it habitable. The most expensive and magnificent doghouse in the land, for sure!

The house adventure continues. We were going to Palencia to file the complaint there on Thursday afternoon, but a wisely-placed phone call told us they´re only open mornings, Monday to Thursday. We called their branch office in Saldaña, a town closer to us, and the people there demanded to know who was calling and what about before they´d tell us they don´t know the Consumer Office hours! Libby told them they suck, or some such thing. In Spanish.

So we can´t file any complaints before Monday morning, and we won´t know if any complaint will be justified if the Bozos actually show up then, as promised. So we had some time. So we went to Burgos.

Burgos is the big city a little more than an hour east of us. It´s got a huge and very frilly cathedral you could spend days in, mooning at the sculpture alone. What remains of El Cid is in a box high up on the wall, and they have a really cool sort of Spanish cuckoo-clock there at the church door, with wind-up figures and such. (So far Cid still rests in peace, even with all that racket and dancing going on the wall opposite.) Burgos also has a happenin´ cafe scene, and a river with lovely esplandes and parks all along both sides, and even a ruined castle up on top it all!

But seeing as Libby will be passing through Burgos soon on her pilgrimage, we didn´t want to spoil the cathedral for her. Instead we went to the monasteries.

There are two spectacular ones.

Las Huelgas is where the extra daughters of Castilian nobility were kept from about the 10th century on and where the royal families were crowned and married and laid to rest, and where the Knights of Santiago were ritually knighted by a life-size St. James doll with moveable arms. (He´s still there. He is a scream!)

They also have a museum of medieval textiles there... which is to say they have displays of the fabulous clothing and jewelry they found inside the royal tombs a few years ago when they re-did the place. Upstairs in a stone box is the body of Enrique, a prince who was heir to Alfonso II or some such...his uncle was Richard the Lion-Hearted. Enrique fell off a horse and hit his head when he was 11 years old. The Arab doctors were called in, and his skull was ´trepanned,´ or opened at the top, to help ease the swelling. (They still do that today with traumatic brain injuries, and this was back in about 1140!) Enrique got better, even regained consciousness. But infection set in, and he ended up dying anyway. There´s a picture of his skull there, with the big hole cut in the top. And in the display case is the heavily embroidered little cap he wore to his final rest. It tied under his chin.

Catholic feminists would love the history here. According to the Catholic Digest:

"The characteristic peculiarity, however, which made this monastery famous was its abbess's exercise, for some centuries, of the ´vere nullius´ ecclesiastical jurisdiction, until, in 1873, all exempt jurisdictions were abolished by the Bull "Quae diversa". The abbesses of Huelgas, in consequence of this privilege, issued faculties to hear confessions, to say Mass, and to preach; they nominated parish priests, appointed chaplains, granted letters dimissory, took cognizance of the first instance in all causes, ecclesiastical, criminal, and relating to benefices, imposed centuries through their ecclesiastical judges, confirmed the abbesses of their subject houses, drew up constitutions, visited monasteries -- in a word, they possessed a full ecclesiastical jurisdiction."

In other words, the abbess was an acting bishop! How cool is that?

The convent is supposedly Cistercian, which was once a rather extreme version of Benedictine, but got more lax and plush as the money rolled in. The Cistercians, the people who brought you Chartreuse liquor, have since got back on the severity track. Last year a French monastery starred in "The Great Silence," a documentary about a year of life inside. The members take vows of silence, so aside from the chanting in church this was pretty much a silent movie.

But back to Las Huelgas: There are about 30 nuns still there now, but we didn´t see any of them. I wonder what their living conditions are like? If you want to join up and live at Las Huelgas, do you still have to be a princess, or bring with you a hip bone from St. Felix?

When I think about it, Las Huelgas is FULL of bones... the boxes of abbesses and kings and princes, and altarpieces with visible fingers and thighbones and teeth from god-knows-whom or what. Back in the day, they were the next best thing to a piece of God Himself, and these great ladies had them by the dozen.

We then battled traffic to find the woodstove store, and spent a big ton of cash on a very charming and extremely heavy cast-iron stove. It is from Italy. It should heat the half of the house we hope to inhabit this winter. IF we have a room to put it in, and a chimney to vent it through. God knows we have firewood for it!

Then we headed up to Cartuja de Miraflores, another Carthusian place in a park up above the city. This one is a bit later vintage than Las Huelgas, as it dates to the 1400s. It´s a former hunting lodge for Queen Isabella´s grandad, handed over to the monks by her father, and turned into a masterpiece of over-the-topness by Isabel.

It´s not a huge place. Inside a single arch of stone are a series of chambers divided by iron railings, separating the laypeople from the lay brothers and from there the hardcore priests, in the ´holy of holies.´ All the light emanates from in there, and the effect is magical...In there is a star-shaped tomb of alabaster, shoulder-high, front and center. That´s where Isabel´s parents lie buried in a star-shaped tomb. The portrait sculptures are amazing. The draperies are beyond lifelike, and the gaggle of animals, figures, coats-of-arms, and botanical doodads that surrounds them is mind-boggling.

But that´s not all! Up on the wall behind them, above the church altar, is practically The Plan of Salvation carved in wood and painted in every kind of vibrant color, including plenty of gold leaf... Columbus brought lots of gold back from the New World, and Isabel had plenty of it used on this project. These giant altarpieces are called ´reredos´and just about every Spanish church has one or two. This one takes the cake.

It, and the tombs, and the memorial wall to Isabel´s brother, are the work of Gil de Siloe, a true master sculptor of the period. The walls and tombs and sculptures heave and swirl, but they´re somehow not overwhelming. I think it´s because the adjacent walls, arches, and domes are bare stone, and the building is, itself, built to a human scale. The overall effect is so delicious we had to leave and find someplace to eat lunch!

A storm was blasting through. We gave a German guy a ride down into town, and eventually made our way back to the Peaceable Kingdom. Anselmo helped us unload the stove from the back of the furgoneta..thank goodness he was here! He looks a bit like the angels on that altarpiece at Miraflores, really.

Who knows? There have been reports of angelic activity hereabouts, reaching back centuries.

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