Friday, July 17, 2015

Montserrat and Zaragoza

Resfeber (n.): The restless beat of a traveler's heart before the journey begins, a mixture of anxiety and anticipation. (Swedish)

To be fair, I've already been travelling for over two weeks, so it's not quite resfeber I'm suffering from. Still, travelling place to place I feel a thrill of anticipation and nervousness when I set out. I hope I don't lose it as time goes on.

I left Barcelona on Monday and voyaged to Montserrat, a beautiful mountainous area that is incredibly popular with tourists. Bypassing the massive tourist magnet of a monastery that rests at the top of the hill, I made my way to the Monestir Sant Benet, an active Benedictine nunnery that is home to a community of incredibly welcoming women. I stayed there in descanso for four days, communing with my surroundings and reviewing my ideas of worship and spirituality in the context of cloistered nuns. Here's the view from my window:

The nuns of Sant Benet are known for the ceramics they make, both for sale at their own monastery and as commissions for other communities. I got to sit and talk with them and the other women passing through the hostatgeria about the importance of conservation and objects in spiritual pursuits. However, I must say the best part of living there was simply that: being part of a community, even briefly. I attended services, got teased by the nuns for being the slowest eater they'd ever seen, breathed mountain air, read books from the tiny library, and exchanged smiles with everyone I saw. Not bad at all. And some A+ calabasa soup, to boot.

On Thursday I traveled from Montserrat to Zaragoza, with a short stop in Barcelona to visit the Apple Store (buckets of soaking laundry and iPods do not mix, and I was not about to embark on the rest of this journey without my iTouch--but that's a conversation about object-dependency for another day) and then I caught a coach bus to Zaragoza. It was a beautiful trip, and I'm sad I don't have pictures--the guy next to me usurped my window seat ticket and honestly I was too tired to fight it out.

I'm staying now in a small hostel in Zaragoza (another third floor walk-up to match my digs in Barcelona) and using my own two feet to get around the city. Today I visited perhaps one of the most famous cathedrals in Catalonia, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar. I've been visiting mostly Romanesque buildings thus far, and Pilar is Romanesque and Gothic on the outside but Baroque on the inside. If Romanesque interiors seemed lavish to me before (they have a quiet, stately grace) Baroque interiors are out of control. I mean this in the best way possible, but it's a bit of a shock to the system. Nonetheless I had a fantastic if slightly overstimulating time, and I had an excellent collection of encounters that I shall share here.

The Importance of Touch and Treasure. One of the many chapels within Pilar is dedicated to the worship of Christ and Mary, housing a massive wooden figure of the crucified Christ and an accompanying statue of the Madonna and Child. The practice is to approach the Christ and kiss His feet in supplication and prayer, in addition to holding His feet and legs, and then proceeding to kiss the feet of the Madonna. These statues are very old, and touched by hundreds of people a day, and the paint and form of each is being rubbed away by each new supplicant.

In short, they're a conservator's nightmare.

But what would they be without touch? There's something very visceral about touching the feet of Christ as you pray--I did it myself in the chapel. One of the feet's toes are now barely recognizable, having been worn down by thousands of supplications. However, it would be devastating to remove the Christ and Madonna from public access, and directly in opposition to the statues' purpose. 

Likewise a very popular place for touch and prayer is the pillar left by the Virgin when she appeared to Saint James and asked him to build a church in her honor. It's low to the ground and can only be "used" by one person at a time, so I waited my turn. The line of worshipers leads to a small kneeler set into the wall, with a framed portion of the pillar at face height once you get into the kneeling position. You kiss the pillar and pray to the Virgin for her protection, leaving your mark in the ever-deepening grooves of the pillar. It's an incredibly sacred place that slowly works away at an incredibly sacred object. But as a conservator I have to step back, and allow these objects to be used as intended. It's not my job to do the saving in these chapels.

There's a treasury in Pilar too, kind of like what I encountered in Santa Maria de Pi. It's called The Virgin's Jewel Box. A curious name, I thought, but as it turns out The Virgin's Jewel Box is a display of the finery that supplicants of the Virgin of the Pillar have donated to the Virgin in supplication or in thanks. There are crowns, mantles, earrings, necklaces, pins, hairpieces and rings kept for the Virgin, as well as more personal items. A composer gave his bow, a writer a golden pen; generals have given badges of valor, homeowners gave candlesticks. Are these objects sacred now? As I understand it, these are the possessions of the Virgin of the Pillar, kept safe by the Basilica. I wonder about that pen, and the violin bow, and how their significances have evolved. Or have they? Were they sacred to start?

Seems like I've got a lot to think about.

I'll be in Zaragoza until Monday, and then I continue West. Keep cool weather in your thoughts for me--it's been hovering pretty consistently around 100 degrees in these parts, and I'd like to make it through July gently braised, rather than cooked straight through. Hasta pronto!

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