Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Lessons From Catalonia - Miraculous Lies

The Virgin of Montserrat (Mare de Déu de Montserrat)
The Virgin of Montserrat (Catalan: Mare de Déu de Montserrat), or the Black Madonna of Montserrat, is co-patron saint of Catalonia with St. George.

She is also an example of how legends are created out of whole cloth and then transmuted into sacred truths by the church and fed to the people to keep them in awe and in thrall to the church, its wondrous powers and its oneness with God.

Having just spent a few days in the beautiful city of Barcelona, in my humble opinion, one of the loveliest places in Europe, we decided to spend €35 each on a train ride to the sacred mountain of Montserrat for the pleasure of the ride up a steep mountain railway, the spectacle of the views and the interest of the geology - of which more later in another post. What we were least interested in was the monastery itself, which was fortunate because we arrived hungry and thirsty at about 3.45 pm with everything closing at 4 o'clock, with barely time for a snack and a drink at the cafe.

The story of how carved effigy came to be in the monastery atop Montserrat, north-west of Barcelona is interesting. According to legend, she was carved in Jerusalem by St Luke, who gave it to St. Peter to bring to Catalonia. In 718 she was moved to the site of an old Roman temple to Venus on Montserrat to be hidden from the invading 'Saracens' who were moving north from their stronghold in Andalucia up into south-west France.

The Iberian peninsula was then the point of contact between an expanding Islamic empire beginning to encircle the Mediterranean, and Western Christendom. However, the occupation of Catalonia by the Moors lasted only a few years when they were driven out of southern France and Catalonia by Charlemagne less than 100 years after capturing it.

In the 11th Century, Benedictine monks decided to build a monastery on the site where there was already a chapel. However, Mare de Déu refused to be moved and no amount of effort could make her. The monks had no option but to build their monastery around her.

Mare de Déu de Montserrat is also known as La Moreneta or "the little dark-skinned one" because she is one of the black Madonnas of Europe and until recently bore the legend, "Negra Sum Sed Formosa" (Latin: I am Black, but Beautiful) as though that was something exceptional. Quite why the hands and face, like those of Baby Jesus on her lap, should have black hands and face is unknown.

But, as so often with these venerated Catholic objects, the 'official' story and the truth have few points of contact.

Radiocarbon dating and artistic style show the carving to be a work to be 12th Century Romanesque, strongly influenced by Eastern, Byzantine styles and idioms. For example, Baby Jesus has his right hand raised in a traditional, formalized Eastern greeting. The pose of sitting on a 'Throne of Wisdom' holding an orb in the right hand to represent the world, is also Byzantine. The carving certainly never made acquaintance with any 1st Century Palestinian saints and was not in existence when the 'Saracens' occupied Catalonia some 400 years before she was carved.

Examination prior to restoration in 2001 revealed under x-ray that the faces and hands had not originally been black, but a light brown, darkening gradually due to candle smoke and chemical changes in the coating of varnish. Successive 'restorations' had darkened it further, giving it its final ebony black tone at the turn of the 18th Century. Originally, the statue would have had the complexion of a typical inhabitant of the Eastern Mediterranean, making much more sense than black skin on decidedly non-African features.

The statue draws some of its veneration from the story that Ignatius Loyola, after supposedly re-converting to Christianity and recovering from battle wounds in 1522, laid his sword before it and kept an all-night vigil in front of it. This inspired him to go off and found the Society of Jesus or Jesuits, the shock-troops of late Medieval Catholicism. This is proclaimed by the Catholic Church as a miracle attributed to the statue.

But Loyola was being inspired by the legend, not the truth because the veneration of the statue came not from the knowledge that it was an admittedly very skilled and beautiful example of 12th Century Byzantine craftsmanship whose skin tones had been darkened by candle smoke and chemical reactions in varnish, but from the belief that it had been made by St. Luke, given to St. Peter who brought it to Catalonia, hid from the 'Saracens' and then refused to be moved, so making monks build a monastery around her.

In other words, what inspired Loyola - the proclaimed miracle - was falling for a deliberately concocted and promulgated lie; the same thing that induces millions of pilgrims to come to the wonderful Montserrat with its spectacular natural rock sculptures, amazing views across the north Catalonian coastal plain and beautiful clean air like wine. Not the natural wonders in abundance but a lie.

La Moreneta is the work of medieval artist whose name no-one thought worth recording, but which the Catholic Church has plagiarized and tells lies about to mislead people and fool them into believing in magic. And of course to pay for the privilege.

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