Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Una Joia del Gòtic Català* - Part IV

The title of  the posts I've done recently on the Monestir de Pedrables in Barcelona have been entitled Una Joia del Gòtic Català - A Jewel of Catalan Gothic.  And indeed it is!  But within that glorious Catalan Gothic frame rests many jewels of the Catalan Renaissance and Baroque.  The dormitor is a treasure casket of paintings, etchings, sculptures, carvings, fabric and furnishings of the great periods of wealth for the Poor Clares.

The Monastery attracted woman from many of the noblest - and wealthiest - families of Catalonia.  The Roman Catholic tradition of an unmarried girl - or girls - from a family being sent to the cloister was strong in the society of the time.  And it should be recognized that the Monastery was founded by a widow and many of the first sisters were wealthy widows like its founder.  Families were bound to give gifts as part of the "dowry" as their daughters/sisters were "wedded" to Christ.  As well as money the dowry would often include religious objects worked in gems, gold and silver and paintings of a religious nature - often celebrating the patron saints and piety of the donating family.  Royal and wealthy patrons would give gifts as votive offerings and thanks for blessings received.  Over the centuries a religious house could amass a wealth of art and artifacts.

And if the museum of the cloister is any indication the treasury of Pedrables was overflowing.  A favoured way of displaying the wealth was to enclosed several paintings, ceramics or reliefs within an elaborately carved and gilded frame.  These retables or retablos could serve as the backdrop for a portable altar or were hung in sisters' cells as shrines and focuses for mediation.  The themes of the retablos are fairly common - patron saints, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, the Madonna - some with magnificent works of art will-you nil-you incorporated with what could be termed "religious schlock". In some cases they were given to the Monastery as a completed piece but many were created after the fact, at the behest of the Order, from objects donated individually.  There are often stylistic differences in the paintings, ceramics or carvings that would suggest the later.

Amongst the many on display there was one retablo in particular that caught my attention.  Unfortunately I didn't make note of the details and a request for information to the Museum at the Monastery has gone unanswered.

The format is fairly standard: a top piece (in this case the Crucifixion); two framing objects (St Anthony of Padua and, I believe, the Virgin - I can't make out the attributes) and a central portrait of a young Madonna holding a distaff and spindle.  The whole is encased in an intricately carved and gilded frame. 

It was that central portrait that struck me:  Mary, almost a child, dressed in traditional Catalan garb and spinning as legend tells us she did while being prepared in the Temple for her tremendous task.

The Gospel of St James relates that St Anne and St Joachim had given up all hope of having children but were given a heavenly message that Anne would conceive and bear a girl child.  In thanksgiving for this miracle they vowed to dedicate the child to God.  (Always a little cynical where these things are concerned I wonder at longing to have a child in the house and then vowing to give the child up almost immediately - something doesn't compute there!) At the age of three they presented her into the care of the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem and she was to remain there until she was twelve years old.   During that time she was prepared for her role as the Mother of God according to the both James and other pseudo-Gospels.  One of her duties in the temple was to make vestments for the priests which would account for the distaff and spindle in this lovely little painting and perhaps also serves as justification for the working of vestments that became the vocation of many of the sisters.

What I found marvelous about this, admittedly, minor oil painting is the way the subject is treated.  This could be any little girl from the countryside, freshly scrubbed and in her Sunday best - it is possible to see young girls dressed in exactly the same way at various religious and secular festival throughout Catalonia.  As was the tradition she has had her ears pierced and she wears a simple strand of coral beads.  At the time it was not uncommon for children to wear a coral necklace as it was thought to ward off illness and the evil eye.   But in Christian iconography coral has a deeper significance as it represents the blood and the sacrifice of Christ.  The painter was transferring what he no doubt saw in front of him to canvas but there was also an underlying message.  This simple little innocent peasant girl, serenely going about her work, was to become the crucible for the salvation of the world. 

Some how I find this more worthy of meditation and reference than all the bejewelled, velvet robed, silver crowned Queens of Heaven that populate the more revered shrines throughout Spain.

February 4 - 1936:  Radium becomes the first radioactive element to be made synthetically.
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