Saturday, August 1, 2015


Duende (n.): The power or spirit within a work of art that has the ability to move the soul of its viewer to feel awe, fear and beauty. (Spanish)

I arrived in Burgos late on Wednesday, just in time for supper. A quick note on Spanish meals--breakfast is late and almost non-existent, with a cup of cafe con leche and a piece of toast being the standard fare (sometimes you can get some cheese or a piece of fruit, but don't bet on it.) Lunch is the big meal of the day, and is eaten around 1:00 or 2:00 pm, with at least two or three courses. Then dinner, which is often tapas or a bread/cheese/meat combo, around 8:00 in the evening. It's taken a bit of adjusting to the timing, and my stomach is very displeased most of the time (I'm a snacker at heart) but I am slowly becoming a pro. The trick is hitting the sweet spot for the dinner rush. And not thinking of Cheetos.

Once I got to Burgos I had the privilege of staying in the Monasterio de Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas, a Cistercian monastery that's been around since the twelfth century. It. Was. Awesome. There was a gargoyle right outside my window! Several Spanish kings have been born or buried there, and as such it is a historical site controlled by the Spanish government. The nuns no longer worship in the old monastery, since it is (as it was described to me) "overrun by tourists." My window opened onto the main courtyard of the nunnery, where the ticket office is, and I can attest to just how overrun the monastery can become. Throngs of people come through every day, queuing up for the guided tour. I went on the tour myself, and the monastery and all its treasures are spectacular. However, since they have been appropriated by the Spanish government and for tourism, they can no longer be used for their original purposes. True, they have been conserved beautifully--some much better than they would have been if they were not destined to be behind glass--but it makes me think about how objects change as their associations develop.

This brings me to a theme that I came across first in Montserrat, but has developed as I travel and talk to more people. I'm hearing from a lot of people, those I encounter in monasteries and cathedrals in particular, of a growing apathy among the younger generation of Spanish citizens towards the spiritual heritage of Spanish material culture. Sometimes it is described as a kind of "cultural Catholicism," one where a person may grow up going through the motions of being a Catholic, but he or she never inherits the spirituality that accompanies the traditions. Other times I have been told of a general apathy towards all aspects of organized religion--sometimes associated with the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath--that is increasingly common among Spanish youth and even some adults. This is leading to Spanish spiritual heritage being used increasingly for tourism and its material manifestations for cultural patrimony. And, in some cases, the spiritual heritage and significance of objects is being abandoned in favor of pursuing artistic or historical investigation. Whether this apathy is identifiable because of the older generations' fear of the younger generation's disinterest, or from shifting cultural focuses, it is nonetheless present and apparent.

Some of this I understand. I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, and there are few things that I am less excited about than American colonial and revolutionary history. From the tender age of seven or so, every child schooled in Lexington is marinated yearly in field trips to battle sites, visits to colonial house museums, and costume days consisting of sitting on the Battle Green eating apples and listening to stories about Paul Revere. My summer camp at the rec center was Revolution-themed; my church ran one of the most popular Patriot's Day pancake breakfasts in the town; and it was pretty common to run into reenactments on the bike path. As I grew older, I grew tired of the town's history, a history that I had heard repeated over and over. I smirked at the tourists pulling up in their coach buses, rolled my eyes at the endless parades of tricorn hats, and thought that The Minuteman was possibly the dumbest mascot on the planet, all because after fifteen years or so of growing up with the stuff, it just wasn't interesting anymore. Honestly, (and I hope the Saint of Material Culture doesn't strike me down for this) to me the Minuteman statue on the Battle Green is just a statue, and a rather unimpressive one at that.

So. Is it the same here? If I had grown up with an eleventh-century monastery down the street instead of a monument to Paul Revere, would I have gotten over it eventually? Would the gargoyle outside my window become humdrum and boring? I come from a country where we make a big deal about a building being a hundred years old--that's nothing here. Is it overexposure that makes spirituality easier to overlook? I have no idea. And I don't know if spiritual apathy is a problem, either--at least where objects are concerned. I've come across many ongoing restoration and conservation projects in the places I've visited; the Burgos Cathedral alone had three. So does spiritual apathy equate material disinterest? It doesn't seem like it. However, does material interest equate spiritual awareness or respect? That is unclear.

Suffice it to say that my stay in Burgos was thought-provoking. It was possibly my favorite city I've been to so far, and it's hard to put my finger on why. Maybe it was the parks, or the flea markets, the stunning cathedral, or the wonderful women I met while staying in the monastery. But I have to keep going, and now I'm in León, exactly a month after I left home. Who knows what else is in store?

I saw the Holy Grail on Thursday. But I'll tell you about that next time.