Friday, 19 June 2009

Jewel Boxes, Now Open for Inspection

I zapped the last blog/rant. When I read it the next morning it seemed mean-spirited, and that is not my purpose here.

As for Moratinos Life: The day we came home from France, Mayor Esteban called a powwow of all eight households in Moratinos, and gave us a proposition. The Junta de Castilla y Leon, our state government, promised a grant to every little town for upkeep on its church... IF. If the people in the town can manage to keep the church doors open and the place attended for six hours every day, so visitors can see inside. Starting Saturday, and continuing every day through mid-September. Everyone signed on. Each house sends someone over to the church every eighth day. (We also contributed a rubber-stamp Moratinos "sello" for pilgrim credentials, and we´re working out a way to get some Gregorian background music going...)

This is a fabulous idea on several levels. As a tourist keen on old church buildings and local history, I join thousands of pilgrims in bitching about Spain´s locked-up churches. Spain had a church-building and religious-art frenzy going on for a good 400 years, and a lot of that glory is still inside the (often crumbling) churches that dominate the skyline of even the tiniest village. It´s in there, but it is locked up tight and rarely seen by anyone from outside the parish. All kinds of good reasons are cited, but it´s still a damned shame.

But this initiative opens the doors through the heaviest tourist season. It gets the residents out of the house and mixing with visitors from who-knows-where, and it gives them a stake in their church´s survival. And they get to show off, too.

Paddy and I did our first volunteer stint on Wednesday. We had 13 visitors, all of them pilgrims. And we also had the neighbors drop by to see how we were getting on. It occurred to me, sitting there, that in all the towns all ´round us there were other neighbors taking their turns at their long-closed churches. And this, my friend, is an Opportunity!

And so the following day I set out for the quarterly Camino Cleanup out beyond Calzadilla de la Cueza. On the way home I stopped at churches in two dusty, non-Camino villages I´d never stopped at before. And I discovered two gems!

The bright-white and lemon-yellow church at Cervatos de la Cueza was built by the Republic of Argentina, in Argentine Colonial style! Turns out that this little pueblo is the origin of General Jose de San Martín, liberator of Argentina, Chile and Peru in what appears to be the 1810´s. (No mention of what he liberated them from, but they were grateful enough to come to this backwater a century later and build a church!) So there´s a little taste of South America about 20 km. from here.

And the next town from there is Quintanilla de la Cueza, best known around here for having the remains of a Roman villa out in a field beyond the dovecotes. Judging by the enthusiastic reception we get whenever we go there, I think very few people actually visit the villa, even though they brag about it.) Still, I think the church up on the hill is just as much a treasure. Because evidently it wasn´t always a church. It started out as a mosque.

It´s got mudejar wooden ceilings, a unique vault over the apse, wide-open and airy like no other church I´ve seen ´round here. The retablo (main alterpiece up front) is a 16th-century wedding-cake of Flemish paintings and homemade baroque woodwork. And there´s a 13th century Madonna and baby that are heartbreakingly beautiful. It´s all proudly showed-off by Maricarmen, a lady with eight kids. Her household of ten comprises half the population of Quintanilla, she said, but the place really fills up in August, when all the locals come "home" to the pueblo from their jobs in Bilbao and Asturias.

I loved it. It made my day. And this morning (after we patched-up a pilgrim from New York), Paddy came with me, and we visited Maricarmen again in Quintanilla, and moved on to see inside the churches in Calzadilla de la Cueza (the oxen on their San Isidro statue have tiny fly-whisks over their eyes, expertly tatted by some local lady lacemaker) and Ledigos, where they have a Santiago statue with a nose like Michael Jackson´s!

We got to meet more of our extended neighbors, and we got to marvel at their treasures. (when we said we were from Moratinos, one lady assured us "our church is nicer than yours!")

Riches, riches. All in forgotten towns in a nowhere province, reminders of better, more powerful and populated and faithful times. Seeing the neighbors´treasures made us realize how stripped-down is our little Parrochia de San Tomás. There´s nothing baroque or rococo in there. There are a couple of 16th century statues, but everything worth stealing or carting off to antiques dealers was taken away ages ago... by crooked curates, the neighbors say. That´s what happened to the 12th century Virgin they used to have over in St. Nicholas, a treasure still cited in guide books. According to Modesto, a few Philistines on the church board quietly sold her a few years ago, to pay for building repairs they didn´t want to pay out of their own pockets. When they couldn´t find a buyer for some bundles of old documents, they threw the church archives in the dumpster.

So now, if other towns have taken seriously this directive, we have a shipload of treasure-chests open for our inspection: Castilla y Leon is the biggest province in the country of Spain, and every little town has a church at its heart... and churches, because they were built of better materials, are what have lasted the centuries in this world made of mud brick.

We start the Summer Solstice with an architectural pilgrimage that can continue through the season.
Are we not the luckiest people in the world?


Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

That is a wonderful wooden ceiling in Quintanilla de la Cueza. I remember the Moorish church in Sahugun that you took me to. I never would have found it just walking through on my own, as the Camino route avoided all the interesting parts of town!! But I also remember reading (on here maybe?) about how part of the roof in that Sahagun church has since collapsed. Is the church still useable at all? Or is it closed entirely at present?

Gary White said...

They have in under repairs. Someday it will be good as old!

Anonymous said...

Martin was also a pupil of Fernando Sor, the finest Spanish composer for the guitar in the early 19th century, which explains why the guitar is the national instrument of Argentina.

Find me one of those churches to work in, I'll watch it all year!


Patrick O'Gara said...

margaret: San Lorenzo in Sahagun is still closed; the chapel you heard about did not collapse entirely, just a piece of the roof came down. God knows when they´ll bother to actually fix up the place and reopen it. All the focus right now is on La Peregrina, the 10-million Euro Franciscan place that´s moldered on the hill for centuries and is now becoming a "camino documents center."

claire bangasser said...

Yes, you're the luckiest people in the world. Thank you for sharing the experience of your luck with us.

Too bad the churches will be open only till mid-September. Maybe there could be a way to ask for the key afterwards?

Rita said...

Thank you for sharing this good news. I had heard so many complaints about not being able to get into the lovely churches while on the camino. I will walk in September and hopefully will be able to get in at least some of them.