Goya – La Cartuja De Aula Dei

I NEVER knew such a place as Zaragoza for disappointing you at first in order to please you afterwards. She is a very Kathleen ni Houlihan among cities, who greets you in the guise of an ugly old woman and then, throwing off her rags, becomes a young girl with the gait of a queen.

On second thoughts I don’t believe that’s a very apt simile-it is as a prosperous and rather vulgar matron that Zaragoza first presents her-self to you, with paint plastered over her wrinkles and a would-be youthful smirk that ill becomes her years. For she has years, thousands of them. She was already out of her infancy when Cesar Augustus discovered her and gave her his name, which, apart from the lisp, she has mangled some-what in the course of ages. But she is growing short of memory. She has very little to tell you about the Roman emperors (though a few of their mosaics are still lurking in her cellars ) and not much more about their successors, the Moorish caliphs and the Catholic Kings. The cathedrals still bear august witness to her past, and there is the Lonja, the sixteenth-century exchange, tremendously imposing in that sheer expanse of wall, a mode of antique Rome, of which our British architects —all except the one who built the spacious wall outside Victoria Station—have never learnt the trick. I had read too that there were fine Renaissance palaces with great overhanging eaves, but if they have not been pulled down, which I fancy is the case, I never succeeded in finding them. I found instead streets of flashy shops, in most of which they sold oxydised-silver reproductions of the Virgin of the Pillar, sewing machines and sanitary appliances. Of course, nowadays, one is compelled to applaud this zeal for sanitation ; nevertheless I have a secret conviction, not unfounded on experience, that no really romantic town ever submits to be quite sanitary.

And yet in spite of her virtues I like Zaragoza. I can’t for the life of me tell you why. Proof of the liking, I suppose, for once you can give a reason for your likes you are in a fair way to losing them —is it not ? It rained nearly the whole time I was there—oh yes, it can rain in Spain !—but I never lost the sense of an unaccountable blitheness in the air. I suppose it must have been partly on account of the friendliness of the place.

At the British Vice-Consulate, I must tell you, a surprisingly large number of clerks is employed. The nature of their employment during fifty-one weeks in the year I cannot guess, but whatever it is they abandoned it during the one week of my sojourn in Zaragoza in order to sit with me all day in the cafés, which exceed even the hotels for multitude. Now each of these clerks has a friend, or friends, who also will obligingly put aside the calls of business to keep you company in the café. And these friends have other friends, who never tire of smoking your cigars and drinking your proffered cups of coffee, just to show the extreme sincerity of their friendliness. And the street, too, swarms with friends, and the tramcars and the churches. I had never thought it possible to possess so many friends. All Zaragoza became my friend—one great, smiling, warm-hearted, myriad-mouthed, expensive friend. And from time to time I would retire to the solitude of the Lion d’Or and wonder whether of that of all my friends I did not chiefly prefer the dim and spectral friendship of Juan.

It was with one of these friends, who bore the fascinating name of Don Larripa Gil (must not the life of the owner of such a name be a daily adventure ?), that I drove out one day in a victoria and pair (of mules) to visit the neighbouring monastery of Nuestra Señora de Aula Dei, better known as the Cartuja Alta. A friend sat on the box, and Don Larripa invited another friend to come inside. As the inside consisted of a narrow shelf that was completely filled by Don Larripa and myself, I was no less gratified than surprised when this friend remembered some neglected business which positively demanded his immediate attention.

I had privately formed an opinion that the paving contractor who had undertaken to pave Zaragoza was, like many optimists, incompetent, and that it would have been wiser not to have attempted to improve upon the streets as Caesar Augustus had left them. But that was before I drove to Aula Dei. The road to Aula Dei consists of several more or less parallel series of ruts, interspersed with pits lying at a considerably deeper level than the surrounding landscape. Even the mules, which were presumably accustomed to excursions of this kind, seemed at times perplexed to know how to extricate them-selves from these lower strata. A noteworthy procedure was followed on the occasion of these temporary halts. The driver descended from the box on one side and the friend on the other. Each expostulated with a mule, until at last the dismayed beasts with a supreme effort scrambled up the sheer side of the pit and set off in a panic gallop towards the monastery, the reins mean-while lying loose on the box. Don Larripa and myself then became the interested spectators of a race between the mules and the driver and friend.

It was a moment charged with some anxiety, but happily the driver and friend proved the superiority of their wind and stamina, and finally, with a dexterity that a trained acrobat might have envied, leapt into the crazy vehicle and resumed a temporary control of its destinies.

Advancing thus by leaps and bounds through the smiling valley landscape, we came at last within sight of the low range of buildings, crouching round a slender tower, which form the monastery of Aula Dei. Founded in the middle of the sixteenth century, the monastery fell into decay in the evil days of the French invasion at the beginning of the last century, when the invaders converted it into a barracks. Then just when things had settled down a little, in 1830, Spain was seized with one of those anti-clerical fits, epidemic in all Latin countries, and sent her patient monks packing. The order of the day being laborare rather than orare, the sacred edifice saw itself transformed into a factory and wore perforce the secular habit until, in 1901, a ragged ruin, it was acquired by the Carthusian Order as a refuge for the expatriated monks of France, now in its turn fever-stricken with anti-clericalism. And so to-day the monastery is, structurally, neither ancient nor interesting. Why, then, undertake the hazardous drive to visit it ? I had forgotten to tell you. Goya, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, decorated the walls of the church with a series of paintings.’ During the unfortunate factory period the roof partially collapsed and the paintings were seriously damaged by the damp, those on the north wall being irreparably ruined. After their reinstallation the Chartreux fathers summoned two smart young painters from Paris, the Buffet brothers, who replaced the lost works with smooth, highly coloured, improbable renderings of religious subjects, of the same family as the oleographs which the Religious Tract Society turns out wholesale for the embellishment of Sunday schools and church parlours. Encouraged by the polished and cheerful aspect of their original work, the incorrigible Frenchmen also devoted some attention to the unperished designs of Goya, on the opposite wall, to which they endeavoured to impart a little of their own brightness and chic.

The prior received us in the courtyard, a pleasant-looking figure in his clean white habit, French every inch of him, with the most courteous manners and humorous beady eyes imaginable. We conversed for a short while about Goya, a little in French, a little in Spanish, a little in English, in none of which did I succeed in making myself very intelligible to his Reverence’s understanding—it is somewhat confusing, I find, to attempt to give each of the idioms of the three languages a turn within the space of as many minutes. The prior then turned to a burly brother with a rough brown beard, who was engaged in some plumbing business in a corner of the yard, and I was slightly taken aback to hear myself introduced as ” Un monsieur, passioné de la peinture, qui vous parlerez en anglais, français, espagnol, tout ce que vous voulez ! ” I was left to infer as best I could from his bland countenance with its beady twinkling eyes whether the prior spoke more in flattery than in satire.

I don’t know whether it is the rule among Carthusians, but at the monastery of Aula Dei it is certainly the fashion to shave the upper lip and cheeks, and allow the hair to grow upon the chin. The habit gives the pious fathers a disconcerting facial resemblance to the typical British workman as he was portrayed in the pages of Punch a generation or more ago. It was for that reason, perhaps, that I could scarcely believe my ears when the plumbing brother began to discourse of Goya in the most polished French, and with the exact knowledge of an art specialist.

” No, it is impossible to tell with absolute certainty the year when the paintings were executed. Records ? Well, you see, all the records were destroyed when the monastery was suppressed in 1830. It is probable however, certain we may say, that they were done during the period when Father Felix Salzedo was prior. It was he, you will remember, who is supposed to have discovered Goya, when a small boy, drawing pigs on a white-washed wall in Fuendetodos, and to have started him on his career as a painter. Certainly he remained Goya’s friend, as we know from his kindly intervention when the irascible genius was at logger-heads with the Cathedral Chapter about the designs for the frescoes there. Moreover, as it is reasonable to suppose that Goya decorated our church during one of his visits to Zaragoza when he was at work upon the cathedral, we are left with two dates to choose from-1772, immediately before he went to Italy,’ and 1780-1781, five years after his return. Now our paintings show no sign of the tentativeness of youth. They have manifestly the stamp of maturity. They were executed when Goya possessed the full mastery of his talent. Therefore I have little hesitation in saying that they belong to the second period, after his Italian visit.”

Thus the plumber. I have since referred to Forma, which gives a detailed account of Goya’s work at Aula Dei and bears out the plumber’s opinion. But perhaps he also had referred to it in the intervals of his plumbing !

The bell now began to ring for vespers, and the monks prepared for one of those swift transitions from work to prayer which mark for them the tranquil passage of the day. Would I look round the monastery while vespers were being sung and visit the church afterwards ? No, if it were permissible, I would rather keep the good fathers company at their devotions. After all, the arts are not very remote in kin from religion, and I am not sure whether looking at good painting is not in its way a kind of prayer.

The monks filed into the church and took their several places at the stalls ranged round the choir. The wooden gates of the choir screen were closed, and I was left alone in the body of the church, Goya all in front of me and the Buffet brothers at my back.

It is said that Goya was no painter of religious subjects, being no great lover of religion. Of this question perhaps the monk may be allowed to be a more competent judge than the mere critic. And it seemed to me that the monks of Aula Dei worshipped none the worse for the presence on their walls of these large, simple and gracious designs. Nothing hieratic or mystical, of course—we are in the eighteenth century, remember—and therefore, thank heaven ! nothing sentimental. (If it’s sentiment you want, just turn your head over your shoulder—the Messieurs Buffet are wholesale dealers in the commodity.) No, these grave personages, taking their part in these scenes which form the prologue to that deathless Drama which we call the Faith—the Birth and Marriage of the Virgin-Mother, the Visitation, the Adoration of the Kings, the Presentation in the Temple, the Purification—move across the stage with a large, mundane, serene humanity. I begin to doubt whether the Ages of Faith were the best commentators of that Drama after all. They were so dominated by its tremendous spiritual significance that they disdained to linger over its merely human charm. They read the story for the allegory, and seemed to be almost impatient of the text itself in their eagerness to hurry on to the mystical glosses with which the theologians swelled the appendix. They etherealised the dramatis personae, haloed and canopied them overmuch. They were indifferent to the scenery of earth, deeming it too mean a setting for so divine a theme. They wrapped up the action in an awful flame. We may be conscious of some loss of exaltation in passing from Cimabue and Fra Angelico to Carpaccio and Veronese, but at any rate the Renaissance set the Drama firmly on the earth again, gave it the staging of the world we know, restored to the players their mortality.

Our modern religious painters have gone further still. They are blessed with that sixth sense, the historical, which the older men had to make what shift they could without. They know that the Drama took place in Palestine, a province of Asia Minor, inhabited by a people of Semitic race.

They know exactly what the scenery of Palestine is like, for they have photographs of it in their portfolios. They know that Mary was a Hebrew maiden, Joseph a Hebrew carpenter, and such sticklers for the letter as Holman Hunt and the brothers Buffet can give you accurate facsimiles of the costumes of Hebrew maidens and carpenters, for have they not been to Palestine to see ? What could you want more topical, more realistic ? And since you naturally want a little sentiment too, why a touch or so of flake-white about the head will satisfy all pious requirements—but just a vague glimmer, mind you, nothing so improbable as a well-matured nimbus.

Goya was no visionary, neither was he a Pre-Raphaelite pedant. (It is extremely unlikely that he ever saw a camel, but that did not prevent him from putting two of them in his ” Adoration of the Kings “—and two very intelligent camels they are too, far more expressive than any that ever came out of Palestine.) He was pure eighteenth-century in 1780 at any rate—later, as we shall see, he received the fiery baptism of a newer age. There was not much mystery for him about the foundations of the Faith. Had he known English, I feel sure he would have read Toland’s ” Christianity Not Mysterious ” with warm approval. His vision therefore was unmodified by any strictly ecclesiastical bias, he was free to treat his subject in a purely naturalistic manner. And the truth he aimed at was not the literalism of the historical scene, but the perpetual truth of human emotions in the grave crises of human life. At the same time he was aware that convention demanded a certain aspect of decorousness, of pomp, or at all events Father Felix Salzedo demanded it, and it would never do to displease kind Father Felix. Hence his figures are not untouched by a kind of heroic grandeur, a kinship with the august persons of classical mythology, and fall at times into almost academic poses. I don’t wish to imply that this sort of thing went altogether against the grain with Goya—it was the eighteenth-century tradition into which he was born, a tradition against which he did not immediately revolt.

Not all the Father Felixes in the world, how-ever, could prevent Goya from being himself. The natural touch, the Aragonese touch even, pre-dominates. Among the delightful group of women who gather solicitously round the smiling new-born Maria, one kneels and rests her arm upon a pitcher with the self-same gesture that you may see any day in any village in Spain. Only it is not a Spanish pitcher that she rests it on—convention is placated with a Grecian urn. In ” The Madonna of the Circumcision” I recognised—I knew I should come across her sooner or later—Pilar of the posada, no swart-featured Semitic maiden, but a ruddy daughter of Aragon. Conscious of her good looks, she displays the full, supple curves of her figure in a somewhat bold and negligent pose, making a bid for the admiration of the spectator, just as I am sure Pilar herself would have done in the like circumstances. Indeed I was almost surprised to find no ruby earrings pendent from her ears. In ” The Adoration of the Kings ” Goya has treated the Ethiopian monarch with peculiar freedom. He stands, arms extended, gigantically silhouetted against the sky in a gesture of immense surprise. Indeed one who speaks with authority on the subject has said that he precisely resembles the nigger who used to dance the Tango de la Habana in the Café de Marina at Madrid. In many of the paintings is to be noticed a feature, unobtrusive but perhaps the most essentially Goyaesque of all—somewhere in the background, beneath archways, in the shadow of walls, outlined against dull skies, are seen little miscellaneous groups of figures, chiefly in half-length, vague, grey, anonymous. Something more than a mere decorative device, I think, a way of filling up empty corners. A record doubtless of a fact of real life, for every notable incident in a public place has its fringe of casual lookers-on. But I seem to see in it more even than a record of fact—a hint rather of that preoccupation with the crowd—shall we say of the democracy ?—which acquires as the years go by a greater volume and significance until it becomes almost the dominant note of Goya’s work.

Had these paintings in the Cartuj a not been practically unknown until the last decade, I doubt whether the legend of Goya’s failure as a religious painter would have had such a facile growth. The adverse verdict has been generally pronounced upon the exclusive evidence of his more mundane decorations for the Church of San Antonio de la Florida in Madrid, which we shall study later. It is a far cry from the gay Paseo de la Florida, gay in his time at any rate, to this lone monastery in the Ebro Valley. I cannot but think that the quiet smiling landscape and the mild, placid lives of the holy fathers among whom he lived had some influence upon the mood in which he did his work here. The impression which they leave on the mind is one of simplicity, serenity and grave tenderness, the very qualities surely which the religious painter should reveal. And these qualities cling to the paintings not merely as an indefinable aroma : they enter into the actual composition of the designs. They are almost the only works on a large scale that I can remember which retain the innocence and freshness of the original sketch. They are informed with a breadth and largeness of a striking nobility. Compare his ” Adoration of the Kings ” with the usual treatment of the subject—in particular with the riotous conception of Rubens in the Prado at Madrid. There, royalty is clothed in the royalest purple and scarlet, accompanied by a glittering, tumultuous retinue, surrounded by every circumstance of pomp. The central theme is well-nigh lost amidst the multiplicity of incident—pages of a hectic beauty bearing caskets, negro boys blowing on censers with cheeks distended to the bursting point, naked men straining under unnecessary burdens simply that they may display their herculean proportion and cracking muscles for the spectator’s admiration, trampling of horses and shouting as in a midnight riot, the blackness of the night rent by the fierce flare of torches. Here, in an ample open space, against the clarity of a sweeping sky of blue and snowlike cloud, the three kingly figures detach themselves with an unencumbered dignity and awe. Goya has refused to avail himself of any of the diamonded and brocaded accessories of the vulgar conception of kingship ; he gains a higher effect of grandeur by the broad masses of falling robes and large patriarchal gestures. This absence of rhetoric and display from a subject so peculiarly inviting to them is the more remarkable in a Spanish painter, for they are qualities very dear to the Spaniard, which he has introduced largely into his art, to its no small confusion. In “The Marriage of the Virgin ” there is the same omission of ceremonial—it is little more than a clasping of hands, a gesture of union, between man and woman. And in the same scene is to be noted another feature recurring in Goya’s religious compositions—the indifference of the subordinate persons to the main action. The figures in the background chatter among themselves, the children play self-absorbed upon the steps, the solemn, memorable event passes almost unheeded. Life is like that.

All this time the monks had been quietly chanting their office, and by-and-by I found myself turning from the pictured life on the walls to watch the real life around me. A young brother came in at the main entrance, carrying a censer, a poor brass affair, glowing with charcoal, which he handed to the prior. The chanting ceased, and through the railings of the choir screen I could see the prior gravely censing one by one the robust and sun-tanned fathers, each of whom responded to this salutation with an inclination of the head. An idle way for twoscore full-grown men to pass an April afternoon, did you say ? So, too, I dare conjecture Goya thought, as he paused in his work and, looking down from his scaffolding, watched with a scornful wonder the immemorial and unprofitable ceremonies of the Church. Who shall judge ? For my part, when the memory of the paintings has faded from my mind, I think I shall still retain this picture of a little band of brothers, who spend their days in pursuit neither of profit nor pleasure, but draw aside from their labour to listen yet again to the rehearsal of that death-less Drama, for which the rest of us find our April afternoons too short.

But the bitterest anti-clerical of all must at any rate admit that they know a thing or two about liqueurs, these fathers of Chartreux. And if he could have come with Don Larripa and myself into the mournful little parlour where Brother James, the burly plumber, brimmed up two little glasses with a pale amber liquid, whose fragrance was like that of an orchard in May, he might have conceded that monks have their use, even in a world that has grown dubious of the certainty of all things save those which it can touch and see and taste. Your anti-clerical, if he has the seeds of wisdom in him, will perceive that this is a point or two better than the forged stuff they export under a borrowed label from anti-clerical France. Be careful of the label, my friends, when you order your Chartreuse. See that it bears the authentic seal of the Prior of Tarragona. And remember when you drink it—although perhaps the fact won’t interest you so greatly if you have not been to the Cartuja de Aula Dei—that the herbs are grown here in the cloister garden, tended by the kindly fathers, who, as they daily chant their antiphonal psalms in the choir, regard with mild uncritical eyes, one half the works of Francisco Goya y Lucientes, the other the master-pieces of Paul and Amadée Buffet.

(Do they dispute which side to sit on ? And are the stalls facing the Buffet frescoes overcrowded ? I wonder.)