Pedestals & Halos

Old St. Stanislaus - Detroit

Today in Spain we had the day off. I was told at school not to come in today, because it is, according to the succinct explanation of a coworker, “la fiesta de España – como tu fiesta del 4 de julio, ¿vale?”

The Spanish version of our Independence Day? I was a little intrigued, since this coincides with the celebration with a well-known and controversial explorer with ties to the Spanish crown, who bumbled his way onto my native continent some 500 years ago. My curiosity was temporarily trumped by my relief at a day off. (My two American friends here in Alicante and I have been feeling a little wistful for big American breakfasts, so we cooked up a feast – without the elusive maple syrup, but with real American versions of bacon, ketchup, and coffee.) However, after spending most of this Spanish holiday reclaiming my belly for the United States of America, and lots of English conversation about politics around the globe, I was ready to educate myself a little more about the holiday. As it turns out, today is the Día de la Hispanidad, as well as being the feast day of Nuestra Señora del Pilar (Our Lady of the Pillar.) This coincides with the commemoration of Columbus’ voyage and the celebration of the first mass in the “New World” – an obviously significant moment for Spain, since he was supported by the Spanish monarchs at the time.

The First Mass in the Americas, by Pharamond Blanchard

However, this was predated by the celebration of Nuestra Señora del Pilar, at least a thousand years earlier. According to legend, this was the first of many Marian apparitions, which took place while Mary was still alive. James the Apostle was in what is now Zaragoza, Spain, preaching the gospel. Although she was still in Jerusalem, Mary used the handy Catholic power of bilocation and showed up to gave him pep talk and a pillar – supposedly that which holds the statue of Our Lady in Zaragoza today, and the focal point of today’s celebration.

At this point I should admit that I have no idea what actually happened back in 40 A.D. Most of the information about the feast day is from sites with names like miraclehunter.com. Churches in Spain are full of artifacts and histories that are verified only by ancient texts (often written centuries after the actual events), through inscriptions beneath shriveled body parts in reliquaries, and fragmented explanations by local devotees. It’s one of the fascinating things about living in a country full of Really Old Stuff.

I was very interested to find out that this is a feast day with connections to St. James the Greater, or Santiago as he as called here in Spain. I first learned about Santiago four years ago when I spent a weekend in the city with his name, where pilgrims have been visiting for centuries. That was the seed that turned into my more concrete plans for next July, when I am going to spend at least a month walking across the Northern part of Spain on the Camino de Santiago – a pilgrimage that has retained its importance despite the dubious nature of the legends surrounding St. James’ presence in Spain. I have been reading about the pilgrimage a lot, and I was a little disconcerted during my trip to Valencia recently, where I found out St. James’ other identity here in Spain: Santiago Matamoros. (St. James the Moor-killer.)

Kill enough infidels and someone will paint your portrait (and put it in a church.)

It makes me very uncomfortable to see images like these, when I have associated Santiago and his emblematic red cross with the Camino de Santiago, where people from all over the world walk on foot together toward a common destination. I am also a little skeptical of how much Santiago got around – hanging out with Jesus? Working with the early church? Running around Spain? Building more churches? Swinging a sword around? Coming back to Jerusalem in time to be beheaded? Taking a postmortem (& miraculous) trip back to the Iberian peninsula for burial? However, I’ve decided that the poor guy can’t quite be blamed for the Matamoros thing, since that didn’t even take place during his lifetime: A legend says that Santiago showed up at the Battle of Clavijo to aid the Christians in a battle against the Muslims, approximately 800 years after his death.

(Am I boring you yet? If so, maybe you want to take a break from all these words to check out this rockin’ tune about Santiago Matamoros – complete with images?)

As someone who grew up in the Catholic Church, I am familiar with the church’s devotion to saints – both the more recent and the obscure folks, whose realities often have long been lost to legend. So when I happen upon shriveled body parts in glass cases, I may be just as weirded out as my non-Catholic colleagues, but I am not surprised.

In the cathedral in Valencia, the audio tour said that "the most interesting feature of this chapel is the alabaster blah blah blah" - which was disappointing, because it would seem that the shriveled arm in a glass case is worth mentioning, too.

Recently, however, I have been very interested by the ways that the saints and their legends are interwoven with the history and politics of Spain – which includes some truly horrific events on several continents, that modern Christianity would almost unanimously condemn. Whether or not Santiago actually came to Spain, and whether or not his remains are here, he was used to boost morale and to justify the slaughter and expulsion of many of the Muslims in Spain. And somewhere along the line, the celebration of Nuestra Señora del Pilar stretched beyond the small wooden image nearly obscured in gold and jasper and arched ceilings, to the first footholds of Catholicism in India? Uh, New Spain? the Americas. Although she was quiet in documented history, Mary has been prolific in legends. After arriving with Columbus, she would later appear as Our Lady of Guadalupe – a name invoked in Spain to defeat more Muslims in the 1300’s, and in Mexico as a rallying battle cry against the Spanish colonists in the 1800’s.

Crushing the devil - or other cultures - even in her indigenous clothing.

Here in Spain in particular, religion has always been tightly connected to politics. (Even now, public schools include Catholic religion classes, though parents can opt out of their child’s participation.) Although post-Franco Spain has made a lot of dramatic changes to government, religion, and where the two connect, there are still a lot of things that are a stark contrast from what I am used to in the United States, where the majority has a (perhaps justified) near-phobia of mixing church and state. It is uncommon to find relics of warfare in churches where I come from, for example.

More from the Valencian cathedral - some kind of medieval bashing mechanism. Let's put it up next to the pipe organ!

It’s only fair to fast forward to the present day – to October 12th, 2011, when during my luxurious mid-week free day I took a stroll down the Esplanada of Alicante, which was crowded by a Diversity Festival. Traditional dancers performed in the bandshell and a long row of booths offered traditional handicrafts, foods, and information about organizations fighting poverty across the globe. I passed booths representing the countries in South America where Spanish culture has been interwoven with that of the indigenous peoples (sometimes more peacefully than others) for centuries, and others with information about efforts to improve educational opportunities for the gitano people in Spain – a culture that is still suffering from vicious cycles of poverty and racism. In many Spanish churches, there are still plaster homages to haloed saints bashing brown people… but these are not the people who are being canonized by the Catholic church today.

I am looking forward to more chances to talk to Spaniards about their takes on history and current celebrations of that history, and finding out whether Spain’s national attitude toward him is any more positive than ours. For now, seeing celebrations of diversity and efforts to combat poverty and racism is refreshing to me, especially on a day that has such a difficult history attached to it.

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3 Responses to Pedestals & Halos

  1. Andrew says:

    I just got educated! Very informative, sounds like you’re having an awesome and immersive time there.

  2. Chelsea says:

    very informative. vale! i forgot how to make the upside down exclamation. reading that made me smile, and think of my spanish teacher, and how you had to watch a sleeping grace while i took that placement exam at washtenaw. 🙂

    i’m glad you had a day off to do this. and eat american breakfast. hooray! i made a spanish breakfast sort of, though. i made my own butter, and we got bread, and oh – i had some cheese with garlic (kind of like cream cheese but it had herbs) and tomatoes on my bread. okay, not very spanish, but you said bread and tomatoes instead of jam, right? 🙂

    on a more somber note, i wish that these parts of history were more attainable. i realize that there are a billion websites, and classes, but there’s such a divide between history and “history,” or what sweetly done up story we’re taught.

  3. Pingback: 3/365 « Me importa. Me importas. Me importan.

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