Saturday, September 12, 2015


Sonder (n.): The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. (English)

As may have delicately hinted before, I found the Grail.

Or did the Grail find me? *Ironside theme plays in the background*

I had to beat back my on-point Sean Connery impressions when I visited the Basilica of San Isidro (because somehow I thought they might not appreciate them) and because honestly it is. So. Cool. Apart from the Grail (which I will wax poetic about in a bit,) the Basilica houses what is known as the Sistine Chapel of Romanesque Art. Now I don't know if you're a geek for Romanesque Art, but I AM. And trust me when I say, this place is the top. And so well preserved!

This leads me to a point of delicate terminology that I have been running up against repeatedly here in Spain, and I bet will continue to be a source of frustration throughout my trip. There is a difference between what I'll call "spatial" conservation and object conservation; that is, the difference between the restoration of architectural spaces and of independent/autonomous objects. This is the difference between conserving in situ wall paintings and conserving a chalice, or between the treatment of a cathedral's triclinium and the treatment of vestments. It's a twisting, thin grey line to walk, and something I struggled to define even in the earliest stages of designing this project. The line between object and space is especially blurred when considering liminally autonomous "objects," like stained glass windows, or lifted mosaics, or orphaned cornices, or even altarpieces, and it's a definition that I'm continuously refining as I visit each new place. Right now my definition of what makes an object independent is that its significance is not dependent on its inclusion within an architectural scheme. But that will develop, I'm sure.

However, what I find infinitely frustrating about separating spaces and objects within my project is that spaces are just so cool. Everyone (I hope) has had at least one moment when they have entered a building and feel their stomach drop a few feet as they experience the majesty of space. It happens for me almost every time I enter a cathedral, but I've gotten it in museums, monuments, opera houses, and out in the mountains; the environment (built or not) is inherently experiential, and very visceral because it tilts our perception and touches each of our senses. Don't believe me? Let me share my experience of the Basilica of San Isidro:

It was stupidly bright that morning, and I had forgotten my sunglasses. The heat of the day was already creeping up the back of my neck, and I could tell that the slight breeze was going to be just as ineffective that day as it had been the day before. I had to walk up a ridiculously sloped set of stairs to reach the Basilica's plaza, and I made a beeline for the main doors of the building, bursting through the outer doors and then slowly creeping through the inner doors with a bit more decorum. The first thing that hit was the scent: the slightly musty, wet smell of cool stone and unswept corners. Then my eyes began to adjust to the low lighting from votive candles and iron chandeliers, and I was alone except for an older couple praying in the nave and an awkward huddle of tourists near the door trying to read their plastic guidebooks as reverently as possible. The temperature was noticeably cooler, and the air was still like the stones were holding their breath. I inhaled, and it tasted of dust and iron. Someone, the sexton probably, had put a quiet CD of classical music to play over the speakers, but it barely echoed within the expanse of the church. I sent my gaze upward, to where the windows of the apse sent colored light to stain the floor with images of saints and apostles. The bench where I settled to pray protested weakly as I sat, groaning with the memory of countless masses.

So. Let's call it a "spatial experience." Being in the Basilica targeted each of my senses, and I was transported mentally and physically from the minute I entered. If you think that my description was melodramatic, I challenge you to make a catalog of your senses the next time your stomach drops. See how far it takes you--I'd love to get  more people to fall in love with their surroundings. Space is far from empty, and never boring; our environment has more power over our emotions and experiences than we realize.

How, then, do I transfer all this spatial sensory delight to objects? Let's return to the Grail.

The Grail of Leon is comprised of two black stone cups that have been wrought together with gold and precious stones in the form of a chalice. It looks like this:

(image from here, since I wasn't allowed to take pictures)

Is it like what you thought? Whenever I tell people that the Basilica of San Isidro advertises that they have the Holy Grail in their possession, they get a look on their faces like they just bit into a lemon.

There are a lot of things that tickle my fancy about the Leon Grail. First tickle: advertising and merchandise. There are posters and signs EVERYWHERE advertising the Grail. Come see our museum! Archaeologist-approved! And then, when you get to the museum where it is held, there is an enormous amount of Grail merchandise you can purchase. Who doesn't want a solid gold Grail necklace?

Secondly, there's the question of security. The Grail is hidden up in this tower in the museum with a bajillion motion sensors and cameras pointed at it. Seriously. I counted. I felt nervous just breathing in that room.

Thirdly: isolation. The Grail is all alone, in the center of a room down a little hallway, behind thick glass. And, fascinatingly, the Grail proper isn't actually this whole chalice, but rather the top half. It's a shallow stone bowl that has been covered in gold, expressly so that no one can ever touch the place that Christ's lips touched. When I asked why it's hidden away, I was told this is because it's too holy to use. Hmm. Even if somehow I could touch the Grail, I wouldn't actually be touching the real thing. Which brings me to my last point of interest.

Finally, and perhaps most compellingly, is the question of legitimacy. I'm sure everyone who walks through that museum wonders, Is it the Real Thing? We were told the story by our tour guide (since no one is allowed near the Grail without supervision.) Apparently a Moorish monarch in the south of Spain gave the cup to Ferdinand I of Leon, whose daughter Doña Urraca had it encrusted to look like it does today. The chalice was traced back to traders in Egypt, where it was believed to have been brought after a raid in the holy land. The museum can quote and site professionals out their ears who say that this is the real Grail, and my tour guide looked pretty convinced herself.

My counter-question, however, is: Does it matter if the grail is The Grail? While this may seem irreverent, the fact of the matter is that my fascination with the Grail of Leon derives from its effect on people, not its hotly contested legitimacy. Think back to the spatial experience in the Basilica--what made it special was not that one stone was chosen for the building over another, but rather the collection of experiences and feelings that the Basilica drew out of me. Material culture has the power to draw out and capture visceral emotions, and that is why places like the Basilica and objects like the Grail survive. This amalgamation of stone and metal has made it through the ages because people believe in it, plain and simple.

What is it about the material evidence of our beliefs that makes them so worth protecting? A cup, whether it is The Grail or not, is now sitting behind bullet proof glass, a symbol of faith and obsession. It hasn't stopped being relevant for centuries! And that is SO NEAT! And why I'm here, incidentally.

Speaking of obsession, I'm hyperventilating a bit. I think that's enough on Leon, although I'd be more than happy to go into it again if my opinions or terminologies are too vague. Next stop, Lugo!

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