All EOS blogs All Spain blogs  Start your own blog Start your own blog 

Spanish history in art and literature

A blog for ex-pats and others to share their love of art and books with others.

Can't sleep in the heat...try it in chain mail pyjamas.
18 June 2021

For 400 years the walled fortress of Calatrava la Vieja stood on the frontier between Muslim and Christian lands. Its name was derived from the name of the Arab nobleman, Qalʿat Rabāḥ who founded it sometime after 785. Towering over the Guadiana River valley, the fortress held great strategic importance by controlling the roads to the rival taifas of Córdoba and Toledo who fought each other and the taifa of Seville for its control. During these internal battles it was partially destroyed and rebuilt again by al-Hakam, son of Abd ar-Rahman II.

Calatrava la Vieja.

It was the Umayyad Caliphs of Córdoba who were in control of the fortress when it was attacked and captured by King Alfonso VII (el Emperador) in 1147, but it was at the extreme southern edge of the Christian kingdoms and it was inevitable that its ownership would be hotly contested. There is an old saying; you can have what you can take, but you can only keep what you can hold. This was true for the fortress of Calatrava. In those days there was no such thing as a standing army of troops who would defend the Christian kingdoms. Armies were raised on the offer of plunder and possible land gain for the dukes who were obliged to provide the king with men for a fixed term and to feed them. This was an onerous financial burden if you were only providing a garrison. However, the need for a unified force of soldiers during the reqonquista was obvious, and there was a precedent that had proved its worth and grown rich and powerful in the process..

When the First Crusade had captured Jerusalem from the Muslims in 1099 Christians flocked to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Jerusalem. Higwaymen and bandits attacked these pious but wealthy pilgrims sometimes robbing and killing them by the hundreds.  The point came when something had to be done to protect these innocent people, and it was a French knight who came up with the idea of creating a monastic order to protect the pilgrims. In 1119 Hugues de Payens approached King Baldwin II of Jerusalem and explained his idea. Early the following year at the Council of Nablus, Warmund, Patriarch of Jerusalem, granted the Frenchman his wish.

Initially the order was founded with just nine knights including Godfrey de Saint-Omer and André de Montbard. For a headquarters they were given a wing of the royal palace on the Temple Mount in the captured Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Temple Mount was believed to have been the site of the Temple of Solomon, and the new order became known as the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, which was shortened to just the “Templars.” They had no financial backing and relied upon donations to survive. Their emblem was of two knights riding on a single horse, emphasizing the order's poverty.

Fifty years later, the Order of the Knights Templar had grown to a sizable army with quite impressive assets and funding, and it was they who were given the task of defending the captured fortress of Calatrava. For reasons unknown, the Templars did not stay long, and King Sancho III of Castile made a public offer to give the castle and surrounding land to any group who would defend it for him. This prompted a retired soldier called Diego Velásquez who had become a monk at the monastery of Fitero to speak to his abbot, Raymond. Cistercian monks were not warriors, so Diego proposed forming an army of defenders from the lay-brothers of the order. Lay-brothers were a recent addition to Cistercian monasteries which had found the need to allow tradesmen into their monasteries. Whilst the monks performed more pious duties, the lay-brothers looked after the cattle and sheep and maintained the buildings. They did not wear habits and had taken no religious vows, and must have been very happy that they had landed a plum job for life. Monasteries then were oases of sanity and safety whilst the hatred and brutality of the requonquista raged around them. When Diego suggested that they become Soldiers of the Cross they must have been overjoyed. However, the lay-brother loophole allowed Raymond to hire another kind of tradesmen, those who lived by the sword. Raymond went to his superior, Juan II of Toledo, the Archbishop of Toledo, who backed him to the hilt, creating the new Order of Calatrava in 1157. As it turned out, the first test for the order of would arrive the very next year.

The winds of change were blowing from Africa, and ten years earlier a new wave of Moors had subdued all of the Maghreb and crossed the straits into Iberia. The Almohads were a more orthodox Muslim sect who were determined to impose a stricter interpretation of the Koran on the Almoravids. In 1158 they made an attempt to take the fortress of Calatrava, but were beaten back by the Calatravans under the command of the Archbishop. The fortress remained under the control of the Calatravans for the next 36 years, but Raymond died in 1163 and was succeeded by a man whose history is unknown. Known only as Don Garcia, he must have been highly thought of by the king, who installed him as the first grand master of the order, forcing Velasquez into a secondary role. Garcia transformed the order into a private army. Under his rule, the monks were moved (under protest) to the monastery of Cirvelos, leaving just the knights under the command of Velasquez and a few other clerics to defend the fortress. The order attracted more mercenary knights and pious nobles willing to fund and fight the reqonquista. To give the order legitimacy with the church, and a formal code of conduct, a general chapter in 1187agreed upon the code for the Knights of Calatrava  which was approved by Pope Gregory VIII. They were to be lay brothers following the Cistercian rules of silence in certain areas of the monastery, abstinence four days of the week, and to have several fast days during the year. More pertinent to their military role, they were to sleep in their armour and to wear the Cistercian white mantle with a black cross called the Flordelisada, which would later be changed to red.

 A knight of the Order of Calatrava. Painting: A Pearson.

Meanwhile, the power and forces of the Almohads had grown, and in 1195 they attacked the principle Christian town of town of Alarcos on the river Guadiana. King Alfonso VIII brought an army to the defence of the town, but he was defeated by Caliph Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, who immediately began to occupy the surrounding territory. The first fortress to fall was Calatrava, and for the next seventeen years the frontier lay in the hills to the south of Toledo.

In 1212 Pope Innocent III called for a crusade against the Almohads, and the kingdoms rallied around his flag. The Catalans and Aroganese led by Peter II, the Franks led by the Archbishop of Narbonne and the Navarrese led by Sancho VII. The military orders also gave their support, including the Calatravans and Templars. The citadel of Calatrava was the first major objective to be recaptured followed by Alarcos and Benavente before the final battle at las Navas de Tolosa near Santa Elena, which broke the power of Muhammad al-Nasir and the Almohads.

But the story of Calatrava was not over. When the pope called for the crusade, he assembled the troops of his coalition in Toledo, where they immediately began to fall out with each other. The French and other Europeans were unused to the heat of the Iberian summer, but whilst they were camped around Toledo they were responsible for assaults and murders in the Jewish quarter of the town. When they took Calatrava, they wanted to slaughter the Jews and Moors who had lived in and defended the fortress and take their wives and children as slaves. Alfonso VIII had ordered the humane treatment of all the defenders and their families, as was common during the requonquista. This was not the kind of crusade the mercenary troops had signed up for, and more than 30,000 men broke camp and deserted to cross back over the Pyrenees.

The final part of the story of the fortress of Calatrava came in 1217 when the frontier had been pushed back and the order moved 60 km to the south to the castle of Dueñas, which became known as Calatrava la Nueva, and the old Calatrava became known as Calatrava la Vieja.

Calatrava la Nueva

It’s one thing to read about history from dusty old books and piece together events from disjointed records, and another to be able hold the past in your hands.

In 1960 a farmer uncovered a buried stash of over 100 coins from the ninth century at what would then have been the eastern edge of Calatrava la Vieja. Archaeologists arrived on the scene too late to stop the farmer selling all but five coins, which he donated to the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid.

A second find came in 1995 during construction work close the first site, but this time the finder informed the Department of Pre-History, Archeology and Ancient History at Madrid’s Complutense University. The stash contained 400 grams of silver coins from the reigns of “all of the Umayyad Emirs of al-Andalus from Abd al-Rahman I to Abd Allah, plus a few fragments of Frankish coins, two coins from other Islamic dynasties and two small pieces of silver jewellery.” The chronology of the coins covers more than 100 years, from the late 700’s to 891 or 892 and they are now displayed Provincial Museum of Ciudad Real. A third find by archaeologists came in 2004 near to the alcázar fortress at Old Calatrava. 71 coins were uncovered by wrapped in fragments of cloth and had probably been hidden in the roof timbers of a house which collapsed sometime after 1217. The value of the coins is believed to have been around a month’s wages when they were hidden. A final find came in 2010 just eight meters from the previous one and contained 29 coins. These were minted between 1200 and 1264 and had also been hidden in the roof of a house.

The people who hid this money were hoping to return and collect it again, but in the uncertain and often brutal times in which they lived they often did not survive the frequent attacks and changes of ownership that plagued old Calatrava. Whole families would either be killed or sold into slavery as one warring faction replaced another.

The last part, including the photos of coins, is taken from an article in El Pais entitled Calatrava la Vieja’s hidden coins, and was authored by the archaeologist Manuel Retuerce Velasco and others.

Like 0        Published at 09:00   Comments (0)

The tunnel of spies.
04 June 2021

After the end of the First World War, during the euphoria following one of the most awful periods of world history, the Pau-Somport rail tunnel had been driven beneath the Pyrenees to link France with Spain by rail. It was to be a hope for the future prosperity of both countries. The Spanish spared no expense to create a welcome for visitors to their country and built a Beaux-art station concourse 240 meters long with 365 window and 156 doors. It was to be a hub for rail traffic, both passenger and freight arriving from the north of Europe. However, Estación Internacional de Canfranc, as it became known, was not a through station. It was a dead end from both sides.

The station had been built with extensive facilities for transferring the passengers and freight from one set of lines to another adjacent set of lines. This was because the 1,435 millimetres (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in) French gauge was incompatible with the Spanish gauge of 1,668 millimetres (5 ft 5 21⁄32 in). Despite this setback, hopes were high that traffic would flow quickly and freely from one country to the other.  Canfranc International was opened in July 1928, but events were already darkening the skies on both sides of the Pyrenees.  In August 1934, Adolf Hitler became dictator of Germany and two years later the Spanish Civil war began. Franco ordered the tunnel entrance on the Spanish side to be walled up to stop the loyalists bringing reinforcements through it. The dream of easy travel and friendly relations with the rest of Europe looked to be doomed; and so they were until the end of the Civil War in Spain.

The derelict station of Canfrank in the 90's. Photo: Jean-Pierre Bazard.

With the Civil War over, the tunnel was opened once again, but Canfranc became the hub for some very different activities to tourism. On the French side was Vichy France, ruled by a puppet government under German control. On the Spanish side was a country under the heel of a dictator with its population near to starvation and bankruptcy.

Germany was rounding up Jews for extermination camps, and many organisations were rescuing Jewish families by giving them false papers and sending them to neutral Spain where they could claim asylum. In Budapest, the Spanish Ambassador, Angel Brits, had discovered a legal loophole that allowed him to issue Jewish families with papers that entitled them to move to Spain as residents. The old law of 1924 applied to the Sephardic Jews expelled during the reign of Isabel and Ferdinand and had been repealed in 1930, but the Germans didn’t know that. Many of these refugees arrived on the platform at Canfranc and were met by Albert Le Lay, the head of the French Customs, and a member of the French Resistance, who passed them on to sympathetic Spanish consulate staff. Something like 14,000 fugitives from the Nazis passed safely through Canfranc. Surviving station workers still boast that not one refugee was ever handed over to the Germans.

There were other kinds of escapees, too. Allied airmen who had been shot down over France were sometimes smuggled aboard the trains and they too were spirited away from the platforms as they arrived. Perhaps the least dangerous, but most rewarding for the families who lived around Canfranc was in the memories of the children of the village who recall their father arriving home from work at the railway goods yard with pockets stuffed with tinned sardines or fruit which, according to their fathers, had been found lying at the side of the track. The Canfranc men earned a local reputation of being able to steal the shoes from a running horse.

However, it was the movement of mining ore trucks that filled the long platform of Canfranc with some of the most sinister and evil people of that awful time. The movement of refugees and airmen would be enough to bring the German SS here, but the freight was several magnitudes higher in importance, and the area around Canfranc was watched by dozens of German officers, who in turn were watched by Allied spies, and on occasion, representatives of neutral Switzerland. In in the corridors of MI6 and the American intelligence agencies tasked with depriving the Nazis of essential war materials, Canfranc had been dubbed “The Casablanca of the Pyrenees.”  

The reason for this espionage was because a vital element was needed by Germany that could only be found in quantity in isolated mines in Portugal and Spain. The Germans first discovered the ore and called it wolfram, but the refined element within the ore is known as tungsten. Tungsten is used as an alloy in steel for cutting tools that were essential for German war production.  Large shipments of wolfram began passing through the tunnel on their way to Germany, whilst coming in the opposite direction, shipments of German gold looted from all Europe arrived in Spain to pay for the wolfram.

Throughout the Second World War, Spain was subject to economic sanctions by the Allies to stop the supposedly neutral country aiding the Axis countries with the shipment of war materials. The US stopped the supply oil to Spain, and the Royal Navy enforced the blockade at sea. During the Battle of Britain, when it looked likely that England would fall, Franco was tempted to come into the war on Germany’s side.  In Spanish history this is called “the great temptation,” and Britain and America increased their sanctions against Spain to persuade Franco not to. When Roosevelt sold Britain 50 destroyers (old and out of date) under the lend lease scheme Franco was swayed and considered the heavy penalties that his starving and bankrupt country would pay if he joined the Axis powers. At the same time, America offered Franco some very attractive loans. The carrot and stick policy worked and Franco stayed out of the war.

Meanwhile, both America and Britain, who also wanted wolfram, began a bidding war for the vital ore. Spain was only the second largest producer of wolfram during the war, and most of the production came from the Panasqueira mine in Portugal. Ironically, the mine had been British owned before the war. The long-serving dictator of Portugal, António de Oliveira Salazar, began a dangerous game of trying to please to Allies and Nazis at the same time, as both sides made threats and offers for the control of the vital ore. It was too dangerous to send the wolfram by sea, so the ore from both countries was sent by rail through the Estación Canfranc

When the Spanish Civil war ended in 1939, exports of wolfram earned Spain £73,000 a year, but as the world superpowers began to bid against each other the price ballooned, and by 1943, exports of wolfram were bringing Spain a staggering £15.7 million a year, which accounted for 20% of Spain’s total export revenue. Franco was happy to play both sides off against each other until 1943, when the American ambassador ordered the unconditional halt of wolfram exports to Germany otherwise it would stop all oil supplies to Spain, and also stop all other exports from leaving Spain. Franco grudgingly complied, but continued to supply Nazi Germany with limited amounts of wolfram in great secrecy. Knowing full well of the double-cross, Winston Churchill was obliged to commend Spain for its “services” in the House of Commons.

It was only in 2000 when a French citizen found documents that recorded the passage of 86 tons of Nazi gold through Canfranc between 1942 and 1943 that the true scale of the operations that went on at Canfranc became known. Pensioners who live in Canfranc now remember their parents telling them how the French and Spanish border guards worked together, but the Germans made no friends and kept themselves to themselves. Some of the guards at Canfranc were often ordered to escort the gold shipments as far as Portugal.

After the war, the rail service was resumed until 1970 when the tunnel was closed on the French side after a derailment destroyed a bridge, and the tracks were declared unsafe for use. There was by now not enough traffic to justify the repairs, and the line to Canfranc was closed. Nowadays the Estación Canfranc is still home to people dealing with dark matters, but they are scientists studying the dark matter in intergalactic space. The 850m of rock of Monte Tobazo above the Pau-Somport tunnel filters out many of the particles that would otherwise ruin a search for the mysterious substance. The Laboratorio Subterráneo de Canfranc is open to the public, and in 2018 it received 2,400 visitors.

The newly refurbished Canfranc Station. Photo: Antonio Orga

However, the idea of re-opening the tunnel to rail traffic again has gained the approval of the EU, who several years ago allocated funds for the restoration of the station for its “enormous historical and monumental value,” with the ultimate aim of opening the tunnel and re-establishing rail services bringing tourism and allowing the passage of trade goods once again. The effects on the local economy and the economy of Aragon could be very beneficial. To this end, on April15, 2021, a RENFE DMU carrying invited guests from Zaragoza became the first train to arrive at the remodelled and relocated station in Canfranc.

Who knows, perhaps this beautiful station could finally become the iconic Estación Internacional that it was meant to be.   



Like 5        Published at 09:00   Comments (2)

This really gets your goat
21 May 2021

In the Naval Museum in, Barcelona is a full size replica of the El Real, flagship of the Christian Holy League, which fought the Ottoman Empire’s navy of the at the battle of Lepanto. The Holy League was a desperate coalition of the Republic of Genoa, the Republic of Venice, the Spanish Empire, Sicily, Sardinia and Malta, and was led by the Pope against the mightiest Muslim navy ever assembled. The original El Real had been built and launched in Barcelona, and it was one of the largest galeasses ever constructed.

The El Real: drawing: Alan Pearson.

Philip II of Spain provided most of the funds for the campaign, as well as the El Real, but Venice provided half of the ships that fought in the battle. The crusades were over, and the Moors had been driven from Spain, but they had only crossed to North Africa, from where they continued the war at sea. All of Europe learned to fear the Barbary Corsairs as they became known.

In 1453 the Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople and firmly closed all the overland trade routes to the far-east. Over decades, they had been slowly choking the sea trade with repeated attacks on Christian trading ships. They controlled all the eastern end of the Mediterranean and ports along the north coast of Africa as far as the Atlantic, and their galleys prowled the vital seaways with impunity, capturing ships and enslaving their crews for oarsmen on their galleys. Genoa, Sardinia, Corsica, the Balearic Islands and even Rome itself were attacked

The Mediterranean, or the Sea of the Moors, as it was now being called, became the most hotly contested piece of water in the world. The Ottomans began to island hop in the Aegean, forcing Venetians to abandon their ports and flee.  One of their most successful captains, Kheir el Din, (protector of the faith), but better known as Barbarossa, (Red Beard) was summoned by the Sultan of Constantinople and ordered to reorganise and enlarge the Turkish navy. The outcome was an immense fleet of over a hundred galleys and many more support ships. Venice was suffering from these repeated attacks and becoming alarmed with the growing strength of the Ottoman fleet.  The Doge pleaded with the other nations around the Mediterranean to form the Holy League to confront the Moors once and for all.

Venice at that time owned one of the largest commercial navies in the world. It was made up of two distinct kinds of trading ships. The tall sailing ships which had large holds and were broad in the beam were the most numerous and popular. Venice had around three hundred of these.  Of these three hundred, 30 could be considered superships weighing over 250 tons. These large vessels plied the routes to the eastern Mediterranean ports bringing Syrian cotton and Cretan wine.

The other kind of ship was the galley, or if it had a sail a galeass, which normally carried around 150 oarsmen. These oarsmen were not slaves and were armed, and so the galleys that carried precious cargoes were also well defended. Many also had a rams built into the prow, which could sink or severely disable another ship. Galleys were slower than the sailing ships and required huge crews serving as oarsmen, but they were much harder to rob. A direct descendant of Greek triremes, they were the elite of the Venetian navy, and often made quite long voyages through the Straits of Gibraltar and up the coast of Portugal, calling at Lisbon and Flanders in France before stopping in England to trade.

Over the centuries, it had been the Venetian shipyards that had built the best and biggest galleys, but by the late 1400’s they were struggling to find the timber that they needed to build ships. When traders first began using the Mediterranean as a super-highway, the forests around Venice began at the shore and climbed all the way to the Alps. They contained spruce, fir, larch and beech well as other timber which had more specialised uses aboard a ship. But the most important timbers for shipbuilding was the mighty oak, whose curved boughs made the ribs, and whose straight trunks were laid and joined for the keels. But by the time of Lepanto, the abundance of forests within the Republic of Venice had been depleted to critical levels for shipbuilding. The Venetians shipwrights toured the forests marking trees that were to be used for shipbuilding and imposed strict laws about felling trees. They provided armed guards for the woodlands, which effectively made them property of the state. It was at this crucial time when timber for new ships was scarce that the Turks reached the peak of their power.

Formation of the two fleets before the battle.

The two fleets met on 7 October 1571 in the Gulf of Patras and immediately decided to engage. The Christian fleet consisted of 206 galleys and six galleasses. Ali Pasha, the Ottoman admiral, supported by the corsairs Mehmed Sirocco of Alexandria commanded an Ottoman force of 222 war galleys, 56 galliots, and some smaller vessels. An advantage for the Christians was the numerical superiority in guns and cannon aboard their ships, as well as the superior quality of the Spanish infantry. It is estimated that the Christians had 1,815 guns, while the Turks had only 750 with insufficient ammunition. The Christians embarked with their much improved arquebusier and musketeer forces, while the Ottomans trusted in their greatly feared composite bowmen. Within the first hour, the flagship of the Turkish fleet had rammed the Real and boarded her.  It was only the intervention of the League ship, the Colonna that saved the day. The crew of the Colonna drove off the Turks and captured the Ottoman flagship killing all the crew including their admiral, Ali Pasha. The banner of the Holy League was hoisted on the captured ship and the morale of the Turks plummeted. Isolated battles raged for hours more, but it was obvious that the Turks were defeated. By the end of the day, the Christians had taken 117 galleys along with 20 galliots and sunk or destroyed another 50 ships. Around 10,000 Turks were taken prisoner and 20,000 Christian slaves freed, and if we can believe the figures the, Christians lost 7,500 men, whilst the Turks lost 30,000.

When stock was taken after the battle it was soon realised that nothing decisive had been achieved. None of the territories captured by the Turks had been recaptured. If the Holy League (which was already falling apart) had pressed on they could have inflicted real damage to the Turks. In effect, all that had been achieved was to draw a line down the Mediterranean that said Christendom to the left, Ottoman Empire to the right.

Six months later, with the forests of Greece and Turkey at their disposal, the Ottomans had replaced more than 150 galleys, 8 galleasses, and in total 250 ships had been built, including eight of the largest capital ships ever seen in the Mediterranean. That same year (1572) the Turks took Cyprus. The Holy League was reformed to counter the new threat, but internal divisions made it ineffective and opportunities that could have been decisive were squandered. By 1573, Venice was forced to accept loser’s terms. Cyprus was ceded to the Ottoman Empire and Venice agreed to pay an indemnity of 300,000 ducats. The Republic of Venice was still very rich, and could afford to pay the high price for the foreign timber, but her traders would have to work very hard to counter the loss of her eastern trading empire to the Turks. Fortunately, Columbus’ discovery had literally opened up a whole New World of trade opportunities which was denied to the Turks. Venice and Genoa went on to even greater riches and glory, which is evident in its art and sculpture.

However, unnoticed until the need for shipbuilding timber became acute, the whole region had undergone one of the greatest ecological disasters since the stone-age. This was not about species extinction, but the proliferation of a single species encouraged by man. The unexpected villain of this story was the hardy little goat. Let me explain.

When the replica of El Real was built it required 50 beech trees for her oars, 300 pine and fir trees for her planks and spars, and over 300 mature oaks for the timbers of her hull. To build the ships of both fleets at the Battle of Lepanto required the felling of a quarter of a million mature trees. A forest that could provide trees of the size needed for shipbuilding could easily take 300 years to grow, and in the case of oak, a figure of 500 years is more reasonable. So, over the centuries of trading, why had the forests not grown back?

Around 9,000 BC, goats and sheep were first domesticated by early farmers somewhere around Syria or southeast Turkey. Both animals are highly socially hierarchical and will follow the biggest male, making it easy to imprint them with a human master. This was an immensely successful symbiosis and was quick to be adopted by early humans. Our ancestors were discovering grain crops at about the same time, meaning that settlements became villages and the first walled towns appeared. We know this because the abundance of animal bones at the sites where these early farmers lived suddenly changed from gazelle to goat. (Domestication of the dog precedes this by at least 5,000 years.) As the idea of farming grew, both animals followed their masters and populated the shores of the Mediterranean.

The goat had evolved in an arid climate and could live on plants that were usually inedible because of thorns or because they were high up on the tree. Goats will climb trees to get at the greenery, and they are voracious feeders. If goats remain in an arid climate then this ability is an asset, but if they are introduced to mixed woodlands their appetite soon becomes a problem. They will eat saplings, thus stopping new growth. Unchecked, they will strip a forest of its undergrowth up to a height of 3 meters. As old trees are cut or die, the forest is not able to regenerate. Topsoil is washed away, and the ecosystem that is left is one that can only support the goat. Once the goat is established, the land stands little chance of recovery and the forests recede. The goat herders can hardly be blamed for allowing the expansion of an animal that provides so much and requires so little. But after 2,000 years, the rich forests around the Mediterranean had all but disappeared. Only the maquis and garrigue which had grown in the rockiest and poorest soil could survive along with the goat, and they were a worthless replacement for the forests that provided timber for shipbuilding.

Of course shipbuilding did not stop, but the timber that the shipyards needed was to come from the Baltic, where the goat had never been introduced and the forests were pristine. Spain had also welcomed the goat, and large areas of Andalucia had been stripped of forest cover. But worse was to come when Philip II ordered the decimation of whatever forests were left to enlarge his navy in order to exploit the New World and eliminate his other maritime threat, the English Corsairs. His final solution for the “English ulcer” as he called them and their virgin queen would cost him dearly in timber, in lives, and the glory of Spain. But we can’t blame the goats for that.  



Like 3        Published at 09:00   Comments (5)

Faith or fable
07 May 2021

Following the crucifixion of Jesus, his disciple, James, (according to legend) made a pilgrimage to the Iberian Peninsula to spread the gospel, and when he returned to Judea he was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa I in the year 44AD. His death is detailed in the New Testament. What followed next is not so believable, though seemingly well documented.

Again, according to legend, his body, along with his followers, were brought to the Iberian Peninsula on a rudderless ship made of stone with no sail. Arriving on the northwest coast, they proceeded up the River Ulla to land at Iria Flavia, (modern-day Padron).

The Celtic Queen Lupia ruled these lands, and when asked by James’ followers if they could bury his body she refused and sent troops after them. The followers of James carried his body across a bridge, but when Lupia's  troops tried to cross the bridge it collapsed killing her men.

Queen Lupia then and there decided to convert to Christianity and provided an ox and cart for the followers of James to transport the body. Unsure of where they should bury the sacred remains, his followers prayed and decided to let the ox continue until it chose a place to rest. After pausing at a stream, the ox finally came to rest under an oak tree at the top of a hill, and it is here that they buried the body of James.

James remained undisturbed for the next 760 years until 820 when a group of devotees at a hermitage called Peleo in the forest of Libradón saw miraculous lights in the sky which seemed to fall to earth over a hillock in nearby woods. When the abbot of the hermitage reported this to his bishop, Iria Flavia, the bishop told his superior, Teodomira, who came with an entourage of clerics to witness the events for himself. Over a number of nights, they all watched the stellar display. They cleared the forest over the hillock and began excavating and soon found a stone sepulchre containing three bodies. Teodomira immediately rushed away to tell King Alfonso II about the miracle that he had seen and the bodies that he had found.

Falling stars apart, the area of Santiago de Compostela was known to have been a Roman cemetery around 400, just before the empire began to collapse. It was also used as a cemetery by the Visigoth Suebi tribe when they replaced the Romans in the area, so finding a stone sepulchre there should not have been too surprising. Nevertheless, a new settlement and centre of pilgrimage emerged around the place of the discovery, which had become widely known by 865, and was simply called Compostela from the vulgar Latin for burial ground, compostia tella.

King Alfonso II, whose kingdom was surrounded by the Moors, realised the significance immediately. He needed an icon for his people to rally around, and the discovery of the burial place of St James fitted the bill exactly. The shrewd king ordered the clerics to build a chapel on the site, and legend has it that the king was the first pilgrim to visit the shrine. King Alfonso II had just begun a 23 year campaign against the Caliphate of Córdoba, and though Alfonso died in 842, his successor, Ramiros I, continued the reconquista. He won several battles against the Moors and claimed that it was the spirit of St. James that gave him victory.

This is where myth becomes entangled with the truth again.  According to several sources, when Alfonso died, Emir Abd al-Rahman II reinstated an old jizya (a tribute) and demanded that the new king give him 100 virgins, which Ramiros refused to do.  This resulted in the two armies supposedly meeting at Clavijo on 23 May 844 where the Christians were outnumbered, but fought valiantly.


St James at the battle of Clavijo, painted bu Giovanni Batistta Tiepolo.

Depending on which account you read, the year and date of the battle varies, and in truth, neither Christian nor Moorish records of the time contain any mention of the battle. The legend was first written down about 300 years after the supposed event, but the most important part of this fable was that at the peak of the battle, when defeat seemed imminent, some of the soldiers reported seeing a vision of St. James on a white horse brandishing a raised sword leading them to victory.  The battle resulted in the death of 500 Moors and earned St James the title of Matamoros; but this invented story is still in the future.

The first church was built at Compostela in AD 829, and by 865 it had become widely known as the resting place of James.  But it was the pilgrims who first started to arrive in steady numbers after 899 that changed the fortunes of Compostela. Its growing fame throughout Christendom brought floods of people eager to seek redemption for their sins by suffering the penance of walking all the way to the shrine. The route that they took became well known as the camino and well-worn by the feet of the faithful. To accommodate these religious tourists the camino sprouted hostelries, sanctuaries, shrines and a plethora of priests willing to give absolution – for a price. Compostela became rich on the donations of the fervent and their need for accomodation for the night. Along with its fame as a shrine, the political organisation of the area changed, and several kings of Galicia and León were crowned and anointed by the local bishop at the church, among them King Ordoño IV in 958.

This elevation in importance had not gone unnoticed, and the thought of devotees with money to spend spawned a series of copycat Compostelas; Saint Eulalia in Ovied, and Saint Aemilian in Castile began to compete with Compostela as rulers encouraged their own region-specific cults.

Compostela also attracted a more hostile kind of tourist. Towards the end of the tenth century, Viking raiders frequently attacked Galicia, which was recorded in Nordic sagas as Jackobsland or Gallizaland, and in 968 Bishop Sisenand II was killed by the Vikings whilst defending the town after he had begun the construction of a walled fortress around the sacred tomb and church.

These were lawless times, and the normal way for a king or caliph to increase his wealth or respect was to raid a neighbouring country to rob, pillage and take slaves. With its wealth and fame growing every year, Compostela became a target. In 997 the early church was reduced to ashes by Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Aamir, army commander of the caliph of Córdoba. The al-Andalus commander was accompanied on his raid by his vassal Christian lords, who received a share of the loot, but St James’ tomb and relics were left undisturbed. It was not a vendetta against Christians, but more a series of raids (fifty-seven in total) to enrich his rule and pay for the building of the Shining City near Córdoba. However, the religious significance of Compostela had raised it above all other shrines and construction of the present cathedral began in 1075 in the reign of Alfonso VI of Castile and the patronage of Bishop Diego Peláez. By this time, Compostela had become capital of the Kingdom of Galicia.

 The Cathedral of Compostela

The copycat Compostelas began to multiply and vie each other for recognition. St James’ whole body was allegedly found at Compostela, but the city of Doui in Northern France claimed that his head was there. So did Arras, Samur and Amiens. His hair, meanwhile, was on display at Troyes and Vezelay. Not to be outdone, and prepared to go all the way, Tolouse, Anger and Lorraine all claimed that they had the entire body of St James. But their claims were in vain, because the peregrinos walking along the camino were arriving in ever greater numbers.

The peregrinos were mostly single minded in that they wanted to reach Compostela. They were not interested in spending time (or money) in any of the towns on the camino, so the wily traders decided that a few miracles along the way might distract them.

One of the first miracles concerned a young German boy travelling with his parents along the camino when they stopped at Santo Domingo de la Calzada for the night. A waitress in the inn fancied the boy who ignored her, and for revenge, she hid a silver cup in his pack then claimed that he stole it.  This crime carried the death penalty, and the boy was duly hung. His parents heard a voice saying that their son had been resurrected by Saint Dominic, and they went to the magistrate at Sanitago de Compostela to ask for his body. The magistrate was eating his dinner of roast chicken and rooster at the time, and told the couple that their son was as alive as the chicken that he was eating. The two birds on his plate immediately sprouted feathers, legs and heads and jumped of the plate crowing and clucking.

To this day, in memory of St. Dominic’s miracle, a rooster and chicken with white feathers are kept at the cathedral and are allegedly direct descendants of the original pair. A different rooster and chicken are exchanged each month, and when they are not at the cathedral, are kept in a chicken coop called the Gallinero de Santo Domingo de la Calzada, which the Cofradía de Santo Domingo (Confraternity of Santo Domingo) maintains with the help of donations. There is even a wayside shrine (hornacina) built in 1445 which holds a piece of wood from the gallows from which the boy was hanged.

 A second miracle occurred at the church of O Cebreiro, when on one particularly cold and windy day, a parishioner from a nearby town came to take mass. The priest, not expecting anybody to turn up, berated the man for risking his health by coming so far on such a day for a little bread and wine. Instantly the bread held by the priest was transformed into the Body of Christ and the wine into his blood.  Now called the Miracle of the Holy Grail, the story was spread throughout Europe in the Middle-Ages by the minstrels and the pilgrims of that time. The miraculous chalice and paten are preserved in the church of O Cebreiro, where the remains of both the priest and the peasant rest side by side. The miracle was reinforced in 1486 when Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand, who were in pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela donated a reliquary to keep and protect the Body and Blood of Christ. Nowadays, you can see the vitrines that preserve the chalice and the paten in the chapel of Santo Milagro de Santa María.

 O Cebreiro

In the middle of the 14th century the plague stopped the pilgrimages to Santiago; and also the supply of money. This was followed by the reformation, and the power of the Catholic Church began to wane in Europe. But eventually, the pilgrims returned. Very much later, a young Franco watched the arrival of the pilgrims at El Ferrol, his hometown, to walk the 70km. to Compostela. He was not religious, but he realised the enormous power wielded by the church. During the civil war, he tried to control it by choosing his own bishops, but the Vatican overruled him. Not to be outdone, he imprisoned unruly priests in a special priest-only prison in Zamora. During the latter part of his tyranny, Franco tried to unite his country by promoting St. James as Spain’s Patron saint, and for the filming the of El Cid in 1961, he lent several thousand of his soldiers as extras, but the power of St James had waned.

With the death of Franco, and the opening up of Spain, the peregrenos flooded back to the camino in ever greater numbers, giving the north of Spain a much needed economic boost. Covid 19 stopped the influx of tourists for a year, but once again the route is open to people who perhaps want to give thanks for surviving the epidemic.


Like 3        Published at 09:31   Comments (2)

It's tourism Jim, but not as we know it.
23 April 2021

Many tourists take the train from San Roque to Ronda because it climbs through some of the most beautiful scenery in Andalucia. Ronda itself is a beautiful city steeped in the rich history of Spain, and the frequent service makes the trip a relaxed and worthwhile day out. There is another rail journey from Málaga, which passes through the Desfiladero de las Gaitanes, better known as El Chorro, where the famous King’s Walk was opened in 2015 and tourists can visit the ruins of Bobastro where Ibn Hafsun the Islamic rebel had his base. Both are well worth a day trip for those who are on holiday or live on the coast.

But once you have reached these destinations, there is little incentive to stay on the train, and most people catch the train back to the coast after their day out. In the case of the trains that pass through Ronda, there are only the pig farms of Almargen and Teba to see, (or rather smell) and the agricultural town of Campillos. The tourism ends at Ronda, and the train becomes a rural service for farmers and small villages. The same is true of the line that passes through El Chorro, and both lines come together at a small station called Bobadilla. This is where the slow domestic links meet the mainline TGV routes to Madrid and Córdoba.   

Bobadilla is a place that doesn’t really exist except on a railway timetable. There is no village as such; it’s just a place where you can change from one rail system to another. You may have to wait half an hour between trains, but there is a café across the tracks where you can pass some time waiting for your connection. This is typical of inland Spain, where life is never rushed, and there is always tomorrow.

Thousands of people pass by Bobadilla each week by high speed train and never give their surroundings a second glance. The trains to Madrid stop at the modern Estación Santa Anna, but only briefly. Most passengers on the trains will be looking to the east where the broad, flat, cultivated valley of Antequera is dominated by the huge Peñon de los Enamoradas, where two star crossed lovers, one Christian, the other Islamic threw, themselves from the mountain, to be united in another world where their different religions did not matter. There is nothing to see to the west but rough scrubland and olive groves. Bobadilla is a place you pass by without a thought whilst going somewhere else.

But Bobadilla has a secret.

If you disembark at Estación Bobadilla and walk down the road to the west you will pass a disused cement works, and two kilometres further on, just before you cross the rail line over a bridge, you will see signs saying “Area Militar. Acceso prohibido.”

I have been there and you can see little from the road. There is a hill surmounted by a watchtower and surrounded by two high fences separated by a clear space between them which is devoid of vegetation. Only when you look from above with Google Earth do you see the true nature of the base. Four tunnels have been bored into the hill, and the access roads to the tunnels are guarded by round, concrete, blockhouses.

When I first went to see the base, it was not obscured on Google Earth, but now it is.

The base was first constructed in the 30’s with wooden bunkers, storing Italian and German supplied explosives to be used in the Spanish Civil war. Bobadilla is at the nexus of several rail systems, and if you wanted to store weapons that could be shipped anywhere in Andalucia within a day, you would put them at Bobadilla. In 1943 a Madrid based construction company was awarded the task of digging a tunnel into the hillside for the storage of shells, incendiaries and ammunition. More than a thousand people worked on the project using a hundred mules to carry the excavated rock to a huge dump to the north of the base. A military camp was then constructed by the railway lines, and the explosives began to arrive by road and rail to be stored in the tunnels. Eventually, the subterranean part of the base was enlarged with four tunnel entrances and a network of interconnected chambers deep inside the hill. 

Today it is a storage area for the high tech munitions used by the Ejército del Aire (Spanish Air Force) and manned by a garrison that have at their disposal the most sophisticated, state of the art, surveillance cameras, as would be expected in this modern world of terrorist threats. The watchtower atop the hill above the tunnels has a 360 degree view of the entire base and surrounding countryside. Vigilance is the order of the day, but 24 hour surveillance can be very boring. Long shifts watching the fences through cameras, when there is nothing more interesting to see than rabbits can be soul destroying. Apart from the odd weekend leave, the only other entertainment is the camp bar and a tennis court. To be stationed at Bobadilla could make a posting there seem more like a punishment rather than a career move.

On the night of the 9 May 2010 everything changed for the base at Bobadilla. Early in the morning the duty personnel were startled when all their camera screens went white. At the same time, the phones linking the watchtowers burst into life as the soldiers manning them shouted their reports. A bright, hovering light that changed shape as it moved began to systematically inspect the base area. The officer in charge scrambled the duty watch, who armed themselves with assault rifles and drove out in all-terrain vehicles to follow the light. Finally, after twenty minutes, the bright object expanded and disappeared.

Everything was hushed up, and within hours, the camp commander gathered all the eyewitness accounts and videotapes of the object. Everybody was warned to say nothing about the event. When he reported the night's events to his superiors, the base commander was summoned to Madrid to present his report.

However, somebody had used their mobile phone to record the CCTV screens, recording the antics of the object. Two years later, the video found its way to Juan Fran Romero, a writer, who investigated further and asked questions in the village of Bobadilla, the Policia National and at the nearby cement works, where they also have CCTV. Nobody else saw anything that night. He is convinced that the object in the video was a genuine UFO and not Venus out of focus or a low flying aircraft. This one incident might be passed off as a prank, but this is not the only UFO sighting at the Bobadilla base. eventally the video was shown on Spanish television and I include the utube link here                      9th Feb 2012

Seemingly in the70’s somebody took photographs of a group of lights in the sky over the base. Eyewitness reports came in from soldiers who had served on the base describing actual sightings of strange creatures inside the tunnels. The soldiers talk of seeing a human shaped creature just over a meter tall with red eyes, which confidently faced the armed troops down. When the soldiers released the safety catches on their weapons and took aim, the creatures disappeared. On reporting this encounter to their superior officer they were curtly told that they had seen nothing and never to speak of it again to anyone. Other reports speak of glowing diffuse green lights within the area of the base. On other occasions, whilst on patrol in the base area, soldiers have seen the same small figures furtively moving amongst the trees, but were too frightened to get out of their jeep and investigate, even though they were armed.

Soldiers driving a wagon within the compound found a strange lizard, which they captured and put in a wooden box. The creature was about 40 cm. tall and stood on its hind legs. It had strong jaws and powerful claws and could make vocal sounds. When they showed their captive to the officer of the watch he confiscated it, and within a few hours an unmarked helicopter arrived and took the creature away.   

Similar eyewitness reports from American soldiers at the nearby airbase of Moron describe the same, small, human shaped creatures moving within the base area as teams of soldiers combed the dense brush trying to find them. Before morning, the area where the strange beings had been seen had mysteriously caught fire, and all trace of their existence obliterated.

The Bobadilla base has become the equivalent of Area 51 in the United States in eyes of Spanish conspiracy theorists. I don´t know whether to believe the stories or not, but I think that a posting to Bobadilla now would be a chance to be in on the front line of a totally different world, or to be part of a huge hoax. Either way, you would be guaranteed free beers for years to come.



Like 4        Published at 09:25   Comments (1)

Wooly thinking
09 April 2021

According to a news article in the Guardian, Pre-Covid Spain had been hit by a falling population and empty rural towns. Castilla, Galicia and Leon have more than 3,000 abandoned villages. The owners of the land have disappeared and records of ownership, which would have been patchy at best, are now gone forever. The old have moved to the towns to be nearer to hospitals and their children. The infrastructure of roads and transport that would have served the isolated villages is gone, and many of the roads are impassable. The population prediction for Spain is gloomy, with an expected 50% fall in population by 2100. Other countries in Europe are seeing the same fall in populations and overall an area of land the size of Italy will have been abandoned by 2030.

But there is an upside to this story. Forests that had been cut down for agriculture have grown back, and records for Galicia show that the 1900 forest cover of 8% has grown to 25%. As the villages empty, the farmland returns to nature. France, Italy and Romania have shown even greater reforestation in recent decades.

At the turn of the first century, the forest cover in Spain was much greater, and this re-wilding has reversed a centuries long war against the Spanish woodlands that was brought about by an inoffensive Moorish immigrant.

When Marin ibn Wartajan al-Zenati became leader of a nomadic tribe in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco he gave the tribe his name. From then on, they were called the Marinids. They were nomadic because of the unique breed of sheep that they kept required to be moved between the high summer pastures in the mountains and the winter pastures in the river valleys. With the arrival of the Arabs in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Marinids moved to the north-west of present-day Algeria, before migrating en-masse into Morocco at the beginning of the 13th century, where they began to challenge the ruling Almohads for dominance.

When the Marinids, now led by Abu Yusuf Yaqub, had subdued the last of the Almohad outpost of Marrakech, they turned their attention on al-Andaluz. Abu crossed the straits, took control of the isolated Almohad taifas in al-Andaluz, and formed an alliance with the Nazrids to defend and enlarge Muslim controlled parts of Iberia. When they invaded, the Merini farmers who followed the warriors brought their sheep with them and, of course, this novel animal to Spain was called the Merino.

 Photo: Shutterstock.

The reconquest raged back and forth, and eventually the Moors were driven out of most of Spain. But Christian farmers liked the Merino’s fine wool, so they adopted it, as well as the same nomadic existence as the Berbers had lived in Africa.

In 1273 King Alfonso X created the Mesta, which was an association for sheep farmers. At first sight this seems to be a trivial innovation, but it came at a time when the traditional dominance of the English woollen trade had slumped. By coordinating the efforts of the nomadic Castilian pastors, Alfonso rejuvenated exports of Castilian wool to all Europe, and this vital clothing commodity became his kingdom’s biggest export, earning it the name of “oro blanco.” Flax had been the commonest fibre for clothmaking until then, but wool proved to be a much warmer and more versatile replacement.  The long fibres could be spun into fine threads that, when woven, gave a closer weave, which to a certain extent, gave a more waterproof cloth. It was also much less coarse when worn against the skin. 

Alfonso was a very clever king, and he was well aware that for every bale of wool that was exported, he received a tax payment. Organising the shepherds into a co-op would ultimately be to his benefit. By 1476, Queen Isabel and her husband King Ferdinand were the owners of extensive flocks of their own Merinos, and Isabel was made Grand Master of the Mesta. Fifty years later, there were three and a half million Merinos in Spain.

Painting: Pastoral, Alan Pearson. 

The problem was that the highland summer pastures in Spain were 500 miles from the lowland pastures. This meant a twice yearly trek for the shepherds, and it was important that the huge flocks of sheep had good grass to graze on during their month-long journey. By 1500’s, the Moors were gone from Spain, and the southern pastures of Andalucia were opened to summer grazing for the Merinos . The bi-annual migrations now involved huge numbers of sheep, and they followed well-known tracks of cleared land called cañadas so that the sheep had enough to eat on their trek. As the flocks became bigger the cañadas s were widened and forests were cut back to clear more land. The cañadas s grew to be a hundred meters wide, and farms on either side of the tracks were forbidden to fence their lands so that the sheep could graze. The Mesta, now controlled by the crown, requisitioned more land for the cañadas and for the Merino’s summer pastures in the mountains. Any farmer who refused to give his land faced the death penalty. The forests were cleared and the cañadas ran like a ribbon down half the length of Spain. In the lowlands, the shepherds were given permission to cut the young shoots of the trees and feed them to the sheep, preventing further growth, and by the middle of the sixteenth century much of the forests that covered central Spain was gone.  Over large areas the land was treeless, and winter storm erosion removed the topsoil leaving rocky barren hillsides. The agriculture of Spain has not recovered to this day.

Modern Spain’s human populations may be falling, but wild animal populations are increasing. Populations of wild boar and roe deer have risen steeply, which means that the large carnivorous predators that feed on them are on the increase, too, and in Galicia’s case, the brown bear has been seen again after an absence of 150 years.

Brown Bear, Photo: Wiki.

Spain in general has seen the resurgence of the Iberian wolf, and although wolf hunting has been banned throughout southern Spain, the wolf population there is practically nonexistent. Recently, the ban has been extended to the north-west, where there is a significant population of between 2000 and 2500 wolves in 290 packs. This is the largest wolf population in Europe, but in the mid-nineteenth century it numbered as many as 9,000. 

Photo: Aturo de Frias Marques

A program of culling reduced the number to 400 and confined their population to Castilla and León, but the deliberate poisoning of wolves was banned in the 1970’s and since then their numbers have risen dramatically. When the ban was lifted, only Castilla and León, Asturias and Cantabria objected.  In these areas the annual loss of livestock to wolves is now around 15,000 animals at a cost of 5.5 million euros. At the moment there is unrest about lifting the ban, but not all the farmers are against it. 


The lynx and wolverine populations have shown similar rises.

Even though the Lynx rarely makes headlines, a mention in the television series “Seven Worlds, One Planet,” brought it to the attention of 7 million viewers. The Lynx is at the top of the food chain as a carnivore, and as such has no predators to worry about, but it has been suffering losses because of road traffic incidences, with 35 of the cats being killed in 2019. The region has an estimated population of 830 Lynx, and has a healthy growth rate to replace the losses, but conservation groups have organised the building of culverts and ecoducts which allow lynx to pass underneath busy highways that cross their territories with signs posted along the roadsides to alert drivers to their presence.

The Covid pandemic can only have increased the number of people abandoning the country as unemployment in general and the collapse of rural agriculture will accelerate the amount of land abandoned to nature again. What has been a bad year for humans could turn out to be a good year for Spain’s wild animals.





Like 5        Published at 09:22   Comments (2)

Waiting for a sign
25 March 2021

Chris Reed commented in a previous blog about the significance of hand positions in religious art. I didn't find anything much about hand positions, but I did find this.  

When we talked about the Islamic conquest of Spain we dealt mostly with battles, but it was not all war, and we often forget the other things that were established or changed during this period. Just to give you some idea of where we are starting this story, we must go back to a period of turmoil in Spain’s history. Around the year 995, Sancho Garcia, was heavily embroiled in a conflict with his father, Count García Fernández, which led to the partition of Castile. As was typical of the times, he had allied himself with Al-Mansur of Córdoba in order to take his father’s title. He didn’t get the title then, but had to wait until his father died five years later. He illustrated the untrustworthiness of Christian kings by immediately renewing the Reconquista and turned against his ally Al-Mansur. He was defeated at the Battle of Cervera in July 1000. By September the same year, he had to fight against a, not unreasonable, Córdoban invasion of his county. Al-Mansur died in 1002, leaving the Caliphate of Córdoba in crisis, but this meant that the caliphate was no longer a threat to Castile. Sancho was now left with nobody to fall out with, so he turned on his own family and started trouble there. Castile was not at peace again until Count Sancho Garcia died in 1017.

However, King Sancho did do one good thing during his life that would be of benefit to mankind, even though it was unintentional. For his daughter, Tigridia, he founded the San Salvador Monastery in Oña. It was a double monastery combining a convent and a monastery. The nuns came from the convent of the Monastery of San Juan in Cillaperlata, while the monks were from the Monastery of San Salvador in Loberuela. The charter of the monastery lists a huge number of towns, churches, estates and other monasteries which Don Sancho granted to his foundation. Large portions of the present provinces of Burgos and Santander were placed under the jurisdiction of the monastery, and its wealth grew with the centuries as more and more kings and noblemen donated territories and extended privileges to it. Tigridia certainly benefited from her father’s benevolence; she became the abbess of the monastery and was canonized upon her death.


The Monastery of San Salvador: photo Spottinghistory.

In 1033, King Sancho III of Pamplona (a different Sancho) gave the monastery to the Abbey of Cluny, and it became part of the largest monastic group in the area. The group flourished during this period, later growing to have over 70 other monasteries and churches under its authority. This organisation continued for another 450 years throughout one of the most turbulent times in Spanish history. Personally, I can only applaud the nuns and monks who withdrew behind their monastic walls to live a life of peace whilst carnage, hatred and intolerance raged unchecked outside.

Aside from its material wealth, its library housed a very rich collection of classical and medieval manuscripts and was a centre of learning. In the fifteenth century, the reign of the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile brought about decisive changes in Spain and altered life in the Monastery of Ofia. The monastery lost much of its autonomy and some privileges when it was brought under the control of the Spanish Benedictine Congregation, whose centralizing policy was favoured by Isabella and Ferdinand.

In 1506 the San Salvador monastery joined the Benedictine Congregation of Valladolid, which had begun a program to reform the monastic life and follow a strict interpretation of the Rule of Saint Benedict, which requires that the monks take a vow of silence. Silence plays a salient role in Benedictine life. It is thought that by clearing the mind of distraction, one may listen more attentively to God.

But a vow of silence brings difficulties when it comes to the day to day running of a monastery, and the monks overcame this problem by developing a series of hand signals which they had used and developed over the centuries. The Trappist rubric, (meaning instructions, or a guide) for “Living in silence", has illustrations of centuries-old hand gestures which were developed to “convey basic communication of work and spirit”.

The changes gave rise to an increased exchange with other Benedictine monasteries and resulted in the transfer of Fray Pedro Ponce from a monastery at Sahagfin, León, to the Monastery of Ofia. Although he was a member of an illustrious Spanish family, not very much is known of Pedro Ponce de León. He was born in the town of Sahagfin, and took his monastic vows in the Benedictine monastery of his home town on November 3rd, 1526. A contemporary describes him as a reserved, humble devout man, a keen observer who devoted much time to the study of nature, collecting herbs and investigating their uses. The Monastery of Ofia was thus an ideal place for such a person.

It was also an ideal place for the Marquis of Berlanga, Juan Ferndndez de Velasco, to keep his two deaf sons out of the sight of society. The Velasco family had been one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Spain since the thirteenth century. One of its members, Don Bernardino de Velasco, who died in 1517, had been appointed by the Catholic monarchs first Condestable of Castile, i.e., Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. That title became in time a hereditary and honorific one.

In those times, the deaf, dumb, mentally disabled, disturbed or insane were all grouped together. There was no science to differentiate them, and the church excluded them all because they were considered to be too subnormal to be educated. If they were incapable of learning the sacraments they were outside of the church and ineligible for salvation. Some even believed that they were possessed by evil spirits.

This is where Girolamo Cardano joins the story. Girolamo was born in 1501 in Pavia, Lombardy, and if his mother had had her way he would have been aborted before birth. His father was Fazio Cardano, a mathematically gifted jurist, lawyer and close personal friend of Leonardo da Vinci. His mother was Chiara Micheri, and when she learned that she was pregnant she took "various abortive medicines” to end the pregnancy. Girolamo was illegitimate, and just before his birth his mother had to flee from Milan to Pavia to escape the plague which had taken her three other children. I am not religious, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that his survival was a miracle. 

Cardano grew to become a visionary thinker and published two encyclopaedias of natural science which contain a wide variety of inventions, facts, and occult superstitions. He is also credited with the invention of the Cardan suspension, or gimbal, which allows a ship’s compass to remain horizontal whatever the motion of the ship. But it is his comment on people who were deaf that is of interest to us. He wrote sometime around 1550 that "writing is associated with speech, and speech with thought, but written characters may be connected together without the intervention of sounds. The deaf can hear by reading, and speak by writing."

Significantly, in the history of education of the deaf, he said that deaf people were capable of using their minds, argued for the importance of teaching them, and was one of the first to state that deaf people could learn to read and write without learning how to speak first.

It is not known whether Pedro Ponce had read about Cardano’s theory, but what is recorded is that he gave lessons to Gaspard Burgos, a deaf man who had been refused membership of the Benedictine order because of his handicap. Under Ponce’s tutelage, Burgos learned to speak so that he could make his confession. It is not known if Pedro Ponce taught him the Benedictine hand signals, but it seems highly likely that such a ready-made method of communication would be used. Burgos went on to write a number of books, which unfortunately have been lost to time.

The Marquis of Berlanga heard about Pedro’s successes in teaching the deaf to read and write and he paid the friar to tutor his sons. They learned to read write and speak in a fashion, and were able to inherit the title of their father and join society again.

 Statue of Fray Pedro Ponce de León in the monastery grounds.

There are no drawings or documents in the archives to prove it, but Ponce is thought to have developed a manual alphabet which would allow a student who mastered it to spell out (letter by letter) any word. This alphabet was based, in whole or in part, on the simple hand gestures used by monks living in silence. He apparently traced letters and indicated pronunciation with lip movements to introduce and develop speech among his students. He first taught his pupils to write the names of objects and then to try to say them. Ponce de Leon's method proved that, although we learn first to speak and then to write, the reverse order worked for the deaf. This was a bold step for the times, and was not universally accepted.  Pedro Ponce died in 1584, but the recognition for his pioneering work did not spread much further than the area around the monastery.

This is where Juan Pablo Bonet, another Spanish priest, joins the story. Bonet was born in in 1573 at Torres de Berrellén in Aragon, and he eventually became secretary to Juan Fernández de Velasco, 5th Duke of Frías, Condestable of Castile.  The Duke’s second oldest son was deaf, and he had employed a tutor to teach him to read, write and use sign language. Bonet was intrigued and became friendly with the tutor who explained his teaching methods in detail.

 Juan Pablo Bonet

In 1620 Bonet published a treatise in Madrid entitled, "Reduccion de las Letras y arte para Enseñar a hablar los Mudos". He made use of a manual alphabet, invented a system of visible signs representing to the sight the sounds of words, and gave a description of the position of the vocal organs in the pronunciation of each letter. The book is considered the first modern treatise of phonetics. It also depicts the first documented manual alphabet for the purpose of deaf education. His intent was to further the oral and manual education of deaf people in Spain. Bonet's manual alphabet has influenced many sign languages, such as Spanish Sign Language, French Sign Language, and American Sign Language.

 Bonet's publication.

His work contains many valuable suggestions useful to modern teachers of articulation and lip-reading. He became a pioneer of education for the deaf, but many historians believe that he had been told of Pedro Ponce’s work, read his notes, and used much of the material in his treatise. He never credited Pedro Ponce de León for any of the information and exercises in his book, but really it doesn’t matter.  The important thing is that he published the information to the world, which helped hundreds of thousands of deaf people to lead normal lives.


Like 2        Published at 11:35   Comments (0)

Last Supper: The Film
27 February 2021

The painter of our final Last Supper was born on 26 October 1935 in a small Italian village called Sant’Antonino just outside Treviso. Renato Casaro had a teacher in his local school who spotted his talent and encouraged it from an early age. The boy carried a notebook with him everywhere and made sketches and caricatures of the people that he saw.  His mother frequently scolded him for making drawings in all of his schoolbooks instead of practicing his writing and arithmetic.

But Renato’s greatest passion was the cinema.  He watched every new film that came to town, and usually its arrival was announced with a poster.  When the film moved on to another town, Renato asked for the poster that had advertised it. He would rush home to get out his pencils and paints to copy it in his bedroom.

As well as the cenema posters, Renato had another treat which arrived once a week. Somebody in Treviso had ordered the Saturday Evening Post at the newsagent, and Renato eagerly awaited the day when the magazine arrived.  Usually, the cover had been illustrated by Norman Rockwell, whose work he worshipped. He copied every piece of advertising artwork he saw, and as he grew and his talents developed, Renato realised that he had gone beyond the abilities of his schoolteachers to teach him and if he wanted to learn more he would have to leave Treviso and go to Rome.

He had become very proficient in technical drawing, and his father was a shipbuilder who understood the kind of drawings that engineers work with. He helped Renato hone his talents in that direction, and things would have gone differently if his father had anything to do with it.  Renato could have easily found work at one of the big car plants that were appearing in post-war Italy. His parents wanted him to have a “normal” career despite his yearning for the cinema. A poor compromise was struck, and he went to work for a publicity agency that supplied advertising posters for local producers. His first commission was a painting of a panettone, a kind of Italian Christmas cake.

Each morning, on his way to work, he passed Cinema Garibaldi. The building had an outside wall on which were painted advertisements for the week’s coming film.  Renato asked if he could have the job of painting the adverts, and after seeing his work, they told him to start immediately. This was more like it! Among some of his first paintings was Burt Lancaster in Apache, and Marilyn Monroe in River Without Return.

Renato faced his first crisis at the age of 20 when he told his family that he wanted to go to Rome and be a film poster artist. His mother was worried about him living alone in the big city, but he was adamant that this was what he wanted. He gathered all the photographs that he had taken of his cinema paintings and a portfolio of artwork and sent them to Studio Favalli, a famous design and art studio working for the Rome film industry. He was hired, and immediately left his family and set off to Rome. His new employers were pleasantly surprised to find that he was quick to complete projects that were given to him, and for this reason he was given the nickname ‘Renato fa presto’, which translates to ‘does quickly’.

There was a break when he had to do his compulsory 18 months national service, but the Air Force asked him to paint their recruitment posters and provided him with his own studio, so he painted for them during the day and carried on with film posters in the evening. His first big film poster commission came when he was only 25 and it was for The Magnificent Seven.

In 1966 he was asked by the Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis to paint the posters for The Bible and this was the first of a long list of posters that he produced for De Laurentiis.

Some of his artwork during this time include Waterloo, Flash Gordon, Dune, the German version of Dances With Wolves and Conan the Barbarian.

He established his Studio Casaro in Rome, and by the beginning of the 70’s he was taking on work from many different studios in Europe. Some of his older rivals were retiring, but Renato was still developing his techniques, and it was around this time that he began to use an airbrush for his artwork. He was singular in that he always had the say in how or what he painted for a poster, but the directors were always happy with the results.  Renato was soon working on worldwide marketing campaigns for numerous films in America, Germany, the UK, France, Japan and many other countries.

One of his most memorable trips was to Tabernas in Almeria, Spain, for the Dino De Laurentiis production of Conan the Barbarian. It was around 1979 when he met Arnold Schwarzenegger on the set of Conan in Almeria at a time when no one knew who he was. He was famous in weight training circles, but all they knew him for was that he had this very impressive powerful body. Of course, nobody working on the film had any idea how famous he would eventually become. Renato was also shown around the Western area of the set at Tabernas and he was very impressed by the faithful reproduction of the set. It was like a piece of old America had been reconstructed in Spain. He had just missed the start of another superstar’s career which began at Tabernas in 1965 when Clint Eastwood filmed A Fistfull of Dollars there. Sandro Symeoni had painted the original Italian poster for the film, but Eastwood was an unknown at the time and he was badly painted in the poster. When the film was re-released in Germany at the end of the 1970s, Leone asked Renato to make sure this poster had a good likeness of Clint. However, Rene did paint the poster for Bad Man’s River starring Lee Van Cleef in 1971.

The light and ambience at Tabernas fascinated him and he promised himself that he would return someday. Unfortunately, the next few years saw him working seven days a week producing artwork. The Studio Casaro in Rome was working flat out now, but the long punishing hours that he worked took a toll on his marriage, and he and his wife decided to divorce.

After marrying his second wife, Gabriele, they moved to Munich for a while and worked for the German film industry.  There was a dearth of good poster painters here during the 80’s, and for a while he had pick of the market. But times were changing, and he could see the end of his career as a film poster painter. Many of the new films were computer generated, and so were the posters. The last poster he did was for the film Asterix and Obelix vs Caesar in 1999.

That was when he started working on a new series of paintings depicting film stars, which he called Painted Movies. Renato explained, “It was a great feeling to be able to work on an image of these actors I admired without having the pressure of a delivery deadline. I was free to choose the way they were depicted, and I had a lot of fun doing it.” He decided that it was time to return to Spain. He had a house built in Málaga, and opened a studio and gallery at Puerto Banus. From then on, he and his wife decided to live and work in Spain.

It was no coincidence that he chose Puerto Banus to have his gallery. Sean Connery and many of the other film stars that he painted owned houses in the complex around the port, and some had their private yachts in the marina there, too. In the early years of Puerto Banus, the list of film stars who holidayed there was impressive. Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant and Laurence Olivier, all visited the Marbella Club, making it the Costa del Sol's first luxury hotel. The prospects of selling his paintings here were obvious.  Many of the Painted Movies are of films that he would have liked to work on, films that he saw as a young boy, or films that others painted the posters for. His main theme was cinema, and once he was free of production constraints he could let his imagination roam.

Renato has also painted a new range of pictures themed on the Islamic occupation of Andalucia, no doubt to woo some of the Saudi royal family who have built houses in Marbella.

 The Saudis are all keen falconers, and Renato painted a series of pictures for them. He has also begun a new series of wildlife paintings which are gaining in popularity.

But it is his cinematic Last Supper in the style of Da Vinci that has set the tone for Renato’s light hearted look at Hollywood.

He follows up this with A Break in Filming, a parody of the famous photograph of steelworkers taking their break above New York.

When the lockdown is over, and we can move about again, why not visit Renato’s gallery in Marbella. For most of you guys it is just a couple of hours down the AP7. The address is on the internet. I never got to see it when I lived in Spain because I simply did not know about Renato, but when things are safer, I am going there. 

I also want to visit Madrid again because I never got round to visiting the gallery of Joaquin Sorolla, one of Spain’s greatest painters (In my humble opinion). Also, I would like to visit Gaudi’s houses in Barcelona and see the Sagrada Familia again. In England, I am going to make the pilgrimage to see Giampietrino’s Last Supper in the Magdalen College, Oxford. For those of you who have moved to Spain, don’t waste the opportunity to see its amazing cultural heritage. In the wake of Coronavirus, promise me that you will go and see some of these Last Suppers.

Like 0        Published at 08:17   Comments (0)

From Coca Cola to the last supper!
20 February 2021

Joseph Harry Anderson was born on August 11, 1906. His family were devout Seventh-day Adventists and his father, Joseph, named all of his son’s Joseph, so each son went by his middle name, and this is the name that Harry used throughout his life. Harry had a sister and two brothers and all of them were outstanding students, with Harry excelling in mathematics.

His aim was to study maths at university, but in the interval between college and university Harry worked as a stock boy in large stationary store. When the store sign painter could not meet his deadlines Harry offered to stand in. His manager found Harry to be more than satisfactory, and he let him use a fourth floor room as a studio and he became the store’s permanent sign painter.

He enrolled at the University of Illinois in 1925, but when he came to register for his sophomore year he had to choose another subject. The maths course was hard work and Harry wanted something easy that would not overtax him. He chose a course in still life painting. After his first year in the art classes, his teacher, who was an alumnus of the Syracuse School of Art, asked him if he had considered art as a profession rather than mathematics. In the autumn of 1927, he began attending classes at Syracuse as a full-fledged art student with friend and fellow artist Tom Lovell.

The two attended classes together and shared a studio in the attic of Anderson’s dormitory. As well as working on course subjects, they earned extra money freelancing with Harry working on lettering jobs and Tom painting pulp covers. They both graduated with honours in 1931and moved to New York City to set up a studio in some old stables in McDougall’s Alley just off Washington Square. They had arrived in the illustration world in the middle of the depression and work was very hard to find. Harry served behind the counter for a sweets store in the evenings, and by day toured the agencies with his portfolio of artwork. Finally, after months of small jobs producing book jackets, he got his first commission from one of the big magazines, Collier’s.

With Collier’s under his belt was more confident about approaching the big publishers and agencies and began to earn enough to support himself with art alone. He quit the sweet store and paid off his debts, but he was tired of the rat-race in New York and began to save for his fare to return to Chicago where he knew the biggest prize was.

The Stevens-Gross Art Agency was the most successful art service agency in the Midwest, if not the entire country. They had a studio room where all their artists worked together and had models and photographers working along with the artists. Reps toured the country and brought in orders from advertisers and the top magazines in America. For providing this service, Stevens-Gross took 50% of sales, but Harry thrived on it.

His first big assignment was a series of illustrations for a Cream of Wheat advertising campaign, produced in 1937. Big commissions began to come to him: American Airlines, Ovaltine and Ford all asked for Harry to paint their advertisements. By 1940 he was working for Collier’s, Redbook, The Saturday Evening Post, Woman’s Home Companion, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Cosmopolitan.

           Cosmopolitan,                         Woman’s Home Companion,                               Cosmopolitan. 

              Esso,                                                  Coca Cola,                                                 Colliers. 

It was whilst he was working for Stevens-Gross that he met a young woman called Ruth Huebel who was working as a model in the studio room. They dated for a while during 1940 and finally married. It is Ruth who modelled as the mother comforting her young daughter in the Collier’s painting above. Harry had kept his faith throughout the years and he and Ruth joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Harry was now very well established in his own right and could leave Stevens-Gross and work for the Haddon Sundblom studio. Shortly after this move he had a crisis of faith. He felt that, due to his religious beliefs, he could no longer continue to paint for some of the publishers or companies that he had been working for in the past. The decision would have a big impact on his income.

By 1944 Harry and Ruth had two boys and a daughter to look after, and were struggling financially. Because of his strong beliefs and his fame as an artist, Harry was approached by The Review and Herald Publishing Association to produce religious illustrations for them. Harry agreed, and his first commission for the church was to paint Jesus talking with children. He broke with the long traditions of the publishers to show Jesus in a modern setting rather than a biblical one. He painted Jesus in a garden with a young girl dressed in modern clothes sat on his knee. There are other modern children around him and the girl on his knee is asking about the crucifixion marks on his hand. Harry called the picture What happened to your hand? The painting caused a furore within the church, and the editor was urged not to print it because it was blasphemous. He was on the verge of returning Harry’s work when the editor’s daughter saw the picture and said that she wished she could sit on Jesus’ knee and hold his hand. That made up the editor’s mind. He printed the picture, and instead of the predicted disapproval, it was met with great acclaim. Harry continued with his modern theme and produced around 300 religious illustrations for the Review and Herald Publishing Association over the next 35 years. Eventually, this huge body of work comprised half of the total artistic output of Harry’s life. He continued to paint commercial art, but he split his time between that and work for the church. Throughout the rest of his career he charged only the minimum wage for his religious artwork.

In 1946, the Andersons moved to Washington. D.C. to be closer to The Review and Herald offices. He continued working for several of his old customers and in 1949 he painted covers for a whole year’s editions of Woman’s Home Companion. The theme for each cover was “brother and sister” and Harry’s own son was model for some of them, but Harry was beginning to feel a little isolated and missed the interaction with other illustrators that he had enjoyed over the years. Finally, in I951, the Andersons moved closer to the New York City area. During this period, Anderson began to receive awards from several of the associations that he had worked for, and he was featured in a 1956 issue of American Artist in recognition for his contribution to art.

In the mid 60’s he was asked to paint a number of paintings for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For the church’s pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair he painted a large mural in oils of Jesus ordaining his apostles. Re-prints of this painting can be found hanging in nearly every Latter-day Saints Church meetinghouse and temple in the world, following this, he did nearly two dozen more paintings for the LDS Church and his paintings are also still widely used by the church for many of its printed and online materials.

I have seen a large print of The Apostles close up, and I can verify the detail and accuracy of skin colours and the textures of the clothes. This is, to my mind, his crowning masterpiece. Harry continued painting at this level for several more years, and because of his fame, his work was exhibited in the most prestigious and visible venues.  But technology was overtaking him. From the 70’s onwards, photography had become the preferred medium for advertising. Harry carried on painting for Esso (later Exxon), Humble Oil, John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company and Redbook. He also continued his devotion and professional relationship with the Seventh Day Adventist Church and the Review and Herald. By now, Harry was in his eighties and painted just for enjoyment.

In recognition for the 70 years of his professional life, he received the Grumbacher Purchase Prize from the American Watercolour Society, the Clara Obrig Prize from the National Academy of Design, and numerous awards from the Art Directors Club. Additionally, he was elected to the Illustrators Hall of Fame in 1994. Harry died in 1996, aged 90.

But where’s the Last Supper? Well, this is Harry’s Last Supper, and it’s the most believable last supper of them all. There is no huge table as Da Vinci painted, or the great feast with half a dozen servants as Tintoretto painted, and nobody bought a place at this table. Harry was meticulous about detail, and he painted what he thought that meeting so long ago in one of the poorer houses of Jerusalem would have looked like. The dress of the disciples is that of men who have wandered from town to town following Jesus as he preached. They all eat frugally, and now Jesus tells them that he will be betrayed in the morning and must die soon. The photograph here is poor, but the painting is up to Harry’s high standards and is beautifully done.

We’re nearly at the end of the last suppers.  I have missed out half a dozen worthy of mention. In fact, there are hundreds more Last Suppers, but they would have become tedious.

There is only one more Last Supper left, and I know that you will enjoy it.      


Like 4        Published at 09:01   Comments (0)

A love lost, but a faith renewed.
13 February 2021

Jacques Joseph Tissot was born in Nantes in October 1836, France to a fervent Catholic family. His father, Marcel Théodore Tissot, was a successful drapery merchant and his mother, Marie Durand, was a designer of hats. Marie instilled in her son a pious devotion to her Catholic faith. Jacques spent his youth in Nantes, and many of his later paintings contained river scenes and the shipping that he would have seen working up and down the River Loire.  His father was adamant that Jacques would follow him in the family business, but by the time he was 17 the boy knew that he wanted to be a painter. His mother supported him in his choice of career, and Jacques decided that he would change his forename to the more anglicised James.   

In 1856 or 1857, Tissot travelled to Paris to enrol at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to study in the studios of Hippolyte Flandrin and Louis Lamothe whilst lodging with a friend of his mother, painter Elie Delaunay. Around this time James began meeting other influential artists of the day, the American James McNeill Whistler, and French painter Edgar Degas who was studying in the same school along with Édouard Manet. His first exhibition was in the Paris Salon in 1859 during which he displayed five paintings. Success for James came a year later when the French government paid 5,000 francs for The Meeting of Faust and Marguerite, which he again exhibited the following year along with other paintings. Fellow artists, Claude Monet and Alfred Stevens were exploring Japanese art, and James also dabbled with the theme for a while before returning to his more familiar subjects. It was during this period that his friend, Degas, painted James’ portrait working in his studio.


Degas' portrait of James now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

He became an international artist when he exhibited in the 1862 international exhibition in London at the gallery of Ernest Gambart and James sensed that if he changed his approach he would be more successful. He began to accept commissions for portraits and scenes depicting contemporary life and was rewarded with critical acclaim.

 Un dejuner, 1836

Things were going well for James until the States of the North German Confederation led by the Kingdom of Prussia decided to invade France in 1870. The war lasted seven months, from July 1870 to 28 January 1871. The Germans defeated the French armies in northern France and surrounded Paris, which fell on 28 January 1871, and just two months into the war, the French formed a new government for national defence and fought on. James was living in Paris, and when the Germans took the city, the Parisians formed a revolutionary group called the Paris Commune, which seized power and held the Germans at bay for two months. Tissot joined the Garde Nationale and fought with them on the barricades, more to protect his own belongings from looters than fighting for an ideal. The commune was bloodily suppressed by the regular French army at the end of May 1871, and having seen enough of war Tissot packed his bags, gathered his belongings, and sailed for London.

He had enough money to buy a house in St John’s wood, and found that his good reputation had preceded him. He had already worked as a caricaturist for Thomas Gibson Bowles, the owner of the Vanity Fair and he resumed his work for the magazine using the pen-name Coïdé. He gained admission to the Arts Club of London and Invitations to exhibit at the Royal Academy soon followed. By 1874, one jealous critic wrote sarcastically that he had “a studio with a waiting room where, at all times, there is iced champagne at the disposal of visitors”. In 1874 his old friend Degas asked him to return to France and join a new movement of painters who called themselves the Impressionists. Tissot declined, though he never lost contact with his old friends, and travelled to Venice with Édouard Manet and regularly saw Whistler, who influenced his Thames river scenes.

His decision to remain in England brought James his greatest reward when in 1875 he met a young divorcee called Kathleen Newton. She moved into his house in St. John’s Wood in 1876 and gave birth to a boy, Cecil George Newton. She lived with James for the next six years before she died of consumption in 1882. In the years that followed, James always referred to his time with Kathleen as the happiest days of his life. Despite all the acclaim for his art and the money that he had earned, nothing could replace the love of Kathleen and the family that he had briefly found.

 James' portrait of Kathleen

The loss of Kathleen led to a profound change to James’ life. There is a little known painting of his that had been assumed destroyed or lost for decades. It is now in Tissot’s collection of photographs and paintings in his studio in the rural Bouillon region of southern France. It’s called The Apparition. After her death he visited several spiritualists, but the dark painting shows the well-known spiritualist and medium, William Eglinton, accompanied by a woman. Both are shrouded in white and holding orbs of light. It is supposedly based on a vision Tissot had in a séance with Eglinton.

Shortly after Kathleen’s death Tissot returned to France, but he was not the same man who left a few years earlier. When all of France was buzzing with Impressionism, James changed to watercolours and he began painting biblical pictures. Some have argued that he took advantage of a growing movement of Catholic revival, but his conviction to his new theme was strong enough for him to visit the lands of the Bible. Between the years of 1886 and 1896 he travelled to the Middle East three times to make sketches of the people and towns. His watercolours, always well researched, moved towards realism and accuracy of detail. He produced a series of 365 gouache watercolours which he exhibited in France in 1894/5, London 1896 and New York in 1898/9. In 1900 the Brooklyn Museum bought the collection and published them in two versions; one in French and the other in English. After the first exhibition in France in 1895 Tissot was awarded the Légion d'honneur, France's most prestigious medal. James carried on painting subjects from the Old Testament and exhibited 80 of them in Paris in 1901.


Tissot's illustrations for sale on the internet, second hand at £3,760. Published by M. de Brunoff & Cie, Paris, 1904

One of the gouache paintings that he painted was the Last Supper. If you remember the Agape Feast drawings in the catacombs of Rome, the people at the table were laying down on beds. This is what Tissot saw for himself on his visits and accurately drew in his pictures. The table is sparse, but the symbolic Holy Grail is placed in front of Jesus. He painted another picture whose theme is less familiar, but will show up again later on. It shows the disciples standing in a circle with Jesus on the right apparently blessing them. Both paintings convey an air of sadness and knowledge of the horrors to come.  

That could be the end of the story, but there’s more.

Tissot’s depictions of the Holy Land had a historical value, and when film director William Wyler began a remake of the 1925 silent film Ben Hur in 1959 he began looking around for authentic biblical scenes. His researchers showed him Tissot’s drawings and he used many of them for his scenes, especially What our Lord Saw from the Cross.

When George Lucas was writing The Raiders of the Lost Ark in the 1970’s he had to ask what the Ark of the Covenant actually looked like. He was shown Tissot’s Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle and The Ark Passes over the Jorden and when the time came for making props he ordered copies of Tissot’s ark to be made for filming.

Just to add a topical note. The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in northern Ethiopia is the reputed resting place of the real Ark of the Covenant.  According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, it was taken there by the Queen of Sheba’s son Menelik and King Solomon of Israel after Jerusalem was sacked in 596/587 and Solomon’s temple destroyed. It has been guarded by monks who are forbidden to leave the church grounds until death. The war that is going on there is putting the ark in danger. Eritrean troops have been looting churches in the area and reports of mass shootings of civilians and photographs of damage to the church are emerging. I write theses blogs sometimes weeks in advance, so by the time you read this there may be more news.





Like 0        Published at 09:44   Comments (6)

Spam post or Abuse? Please let us know

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse you are agreeing to our use of cookies. More information here. x