The Rain in Spain

Tom Sutcliffe writes about the joys and perils of touring churches in Spain

he Great Mosque in Cordoba is unlike any building I have ever visited. I have seen large and ancient mosques in Morocco but, as an infidel, have been barred from visiting them. The Mezquita in Cordoba is now a Cathedral which encapsulates the irreconcilable gulf between the world’s two most successful and adaptable religions, Islam and Christianity. Veritatis Splendor could be the motto of Andalusia and its bloody reconquista with its forced conversions and wholesale expulsions or burnings of Jews and Muslims. Ferdinand and Isabella are constantly being referred to here as “the Catholic monarchs” since it was they who completed the re-Christianisation of Iberia.

All the guidebooks labour to remind one that the Visigoths who replaced the Romans were Christian, so that being beastly to Muslims was merely a cultural restoration of the earlier religion. But, in addition to the assertion of Christian power represented by the vast cathedrals of Jaen, Granada, and Sevilla, there are also the poignant beautifulmemorials ofa Muslim culture that was considerably less barbaric and vulgar than the Christianity which overtook it – such as the Alhambra in Granada with its fabulous Nasrid Palace, and the Seville Alcazar. Seville’s cathedral is actually a larger building in volume than St Peter’s, Rome and St Paul’s, London, including a massive brick belltower, La Giralda, converted from a minaret.

Touring in Spain is expensive because to look at even the least important open church means paying a serious entry charge, pounds not pence. I love and feel that I have a right as a Christian to enjoy cathedrals and churches as stimulating and wondrously imaginative aspirational monuments, buildings designed to make me think of other dimensions. I know that they exist as stages for the potent philosophical drama of worship, in which we contemplate and focus on our being as humans and on the scale in which our life is set. But in Spain both buildings and contents, evoking power and confidence, often feel to me like alienating forms of assertiveness. The Spanish churches show us our God using the best of human skills available at the time:

creation indeed and in need. Over and over again on the vast Plateresque altar-pieces of Christian Andalusia one sees God incarnated in explanatory sculpture. It is amazing that one continent, Europe, produced two such diametrically opposed versions of the same religion as the intense pietism of J S Bach’s Protestant Lutheran Passions or the beauty and charm of South German baroque and rococo churches on the one hand, while not so far away Spanish Catholicism red in tooth and claw, intolerant to its fingertips of any alternative version of truth offers the theological equivalent of football mania.

To make money the Spanish catholic authorities turn their buildings into secular destinations, money machines, which may suggest a religious message but which have almost no religious ideas promoted or sacred things happening when the tourists are present – something I find really offensive. In Úbeda in northeast Andalusia, in the middle of the Olive monoculture that earns Spanish landowners their billions and that they describe as “natural forest,” though it is entirely manmade and blatantly ignores other forms of animal and plant life, there is an extraordinary unmissable Sacred Chapel of the Saviour built by the Emperor Charles V’s private secretary, Francisco de los Cobos between 1536 and 1559. This building, unlike almost all the other Christian monuments of Andalusia, is a monument not to catholic triumphalism but to perceptions of 16th-century humanism that would have mightily appealed to Erasmus had he ever travelled so far south.

The altarpiece, recently remarkably restored after having been severely damaged in the Civil War in the 1930s, shows an immense golden sculpture of the Transfiguration – I have never seen anything comparable. The point of the Transfiguration was to assert the continuity between the Messiah and the Jewish past: it is an idea of how followers of Jesus can perceive him that might even have been able to be shared by Mohammed. How bizarre to find this extraordinary and beautiful act of the imagination in this important and historical Andalusian centre. But even more extraordinary is the architecture of the doorway into the Sacristy, which plays much the same trick on our senses as Admiralty Arch in London, managing an unconventional transition between the two spaces. And once one is inside the Sacristy one finds an assembly of carving, including women with naked breasts, the object of which is to remind the clergy that their religion is part of a greater human wisdom in which the Indo-European semi-Hindu religions of the ancient Greeks and Roman played a foundational part. I had not done any homework, and the accidental discovery of this treasure was the highlight of my week in Andalusia. ND