Goya – La Virgen Del Pilar

MOST cities count themselves fortunate if they can boast of one cathedral. Zaragoza possesses two.

Now if you have two cathedrals, the result is just the same as if you should have two wives —jealousy, rivalry, bickering. Which was the legitimate cathedral ?—or, in other words, which possessed the metropolitan dignity ? Both claimed it, and so, in order to put an end to a dispute that was becoming wearisome, some seventeenth-century Solomon hit upon the happy plan of conferring it on both. But the dispute isn’t really ended even yet. It is latent, but you can’t escape the influence of it. It is impossible not to take sides. You must become a partisan either of La Seo or of El Pilar. Personally, I am enlisted in the Pilar faction.

This preference, I know, may seem to indicate a debased taste. For La Seo is Gothic, with the mystery and devotion of Gothic, while El Pilar, as it now stands, is late seventeenth and eighteenth century, chiefly mid-eighteenth—not a period very enthusiastic or very successful in the building of great churches. But the architect, Francisco de Herrera, upon whose designs the church was built, or rather is still being built, for the original plan has not yet been completely carried out, lived near enough to that splendid age, the siglo del oro, when Spain possessed the daring and imagination which made her for a brief hour the mistress of the world, to receive its influence and impress it on his work. I should like to know more of this Francisco de Herrera. Did he ever visit Russia, I wonder ? How else could he have conceived of this typically Byzantine conjunction of domes and minarets, which gives El Pilar a more vivid sky-line than that of any building I have ever seen ? You should see it at sunset, from the other side of the stone bridge that spans the Ebro. And be sure you choose a dramatic sunset—it’s not difficult in Aragon—with ragged purple clouds against a sky the colour of the blood of bulls. There is something correspondingly dramatic in the bizarrerie of the cathedral’s silhouette, something that communicates I know not what sense of tumult, imminent disaster and the wrath of Fate. And if, instead of two towers, the four which the architect planned had been completed, the effect would no doubt have been more tremendous still. Certainly the architect was helped, perhaps in-spired, by the site of the building, for El Pilar stands, as every cathedral mindful of its appearance should stand, by the side of running water.

It may be just as well for their own safety that most cathedrals do not. Nothing like the proximity of water for undermining the foundations. Perhaps El Pilar does not prophesy disaster in vain. Already one of her cupolas is rent with gaping cracks, and Fate has shown her malice by choosing just precisely the one that is adorned with Goya’s frescoes.

The unkindness of this stroke would be more keenly felt if the cupola was not at such a height above the floor as to render the frescoes almost invisible. I fancy that the conscientious sightseer, both in Spain and Italy, must have often privately cursed those ecclesiastics whose enthusiasm for the fine arts was not contented with the wall space of their churches, but must needs annex the ceilings also. Had they prophetic vision of the army of northerners who should one day trample through their churches, and did they thus ingeniously conspire to give a crick to stubborn Protestant necks ? Emphatically a ceiling is not a fit and proper place for the exposition of works of art. It is both undignified and dangerous to perambulate a cathedral with your nose pointing skywards. And twist and turn as you will, the figures on the ceiling always persist in remaining upside down.

But the disappointment natural at finding these frescoes on the cracked cupola so difficult to see is lessened by the fact that it is possible to examine the designs which Goya executed to assure the critical Chapter of his ability to undertake the work. It is possible—it is not easy. El Pilar is not a show place but a place of worship —I liked it all the better for that—and affords few facilities for sightseers. I went therefore one morning to seek the permission of the Chapter to look at these designs. It was the first time that I had been behind the scenes, as it were, of a great cathedral. I wandered through spacious sacristies, heavy with the odour of incense and burning charcoal, lavishly adorned with the most gorgeous and elaborate carving. It would seem as if all the carvers of the seventeenth century had had nothing else to do but to carve cherubs and cornucopias for the luxurious canons of El Pilar. What a passion they must have had for cherubs and cornucopias, those old fellows ! Cherubs on the chairs, on the doors, on the cupboards, on the reading desks-the whole place was aflutter with coveys of cherubs. And all the silversmiths too must have been busy hammering the bars of silver which the heavily freighted galleons brought from the Americas, into flagons and chalices and patens. And there in the midst of so much splendour, and quite oblivious of it all, sat a decrepit canon, spelling out his breviary and toasting his toes at a smouldering brasero, for all the world like an old crone warming her bones at her kitchen fire. I suppose that when one has lived in such an atmosphere of splendour for threescore or fourscore years one comes to accept it without any special consciousness of it, just as the beggar accepts his rags. I wandered too into vestries, found myself in the midst of canons vesting and unvesting themselves, and then, abashed at the intimacy of so much dainty lace and so many pink and purple vestments, wandered incontinently out again.

At length, at the extremity of a long corridor, I came upon a priest in a greenish, threadbare cassock, warming himself at a brasero, from whom I derived the information that the Chapter was assembled in solemn conclave behind the door at the end of the corridor. He thought it inadvisable that I should intrude upon the conclave and more fitting that I should wait outside, as he himself was doing. I could not help feeling sorry for him—he wore so plainly the stamp of adverse fortune —and I wondered whether he had been shut out of the council, and why they wouldn’t let him in. And then I thought that perhaps in the absence of any pressing business—for I am sure business never presses in Zaragoza—they were amusing themselves with one of those homely guessing games we used to play as children, and that the priest had been sent out of the room until the Chapter should have thought of a word. At any rate, as they seemed to have forgotten to call him in again, I offered him a cigarette, which he smoked with an air more of resignation than of satisfaction.

We must have smoked many cigarettes—we were behind the scenes, you will remember—before the conclave ended. As the dignitaries filed out, I made my request to a canon to whom my priest directed me, and received the reply that they would have pleasure in showing me the designs on the following day. What is a day more or less when there are such a lot of them in the year ?

The next day I presented myself again, and was taken up some flights of stairs to a kind of lumber-room, which serves as the museum of the cathedral. There, surrounded by numerous sketches of his brother-in-law, Bayeu, and others, hung the two fan-shaped designs of Goya. The subject represented is Maria Sanctissima as the Queen of Martyrs. They are executed with the freedom and vigour of sketches, which, as is usually the case, the painter seemed to have failed to reproduce in his finished work—so far, that is to say, as I was able to form any opinion of the latter. The colour is amazingly fresh and limpid. The general effect is finely flowing and decorative. Intense feeling there is none, but who wants intense feeling ninety feet above his head ? Decoration is what is required, and if proof were wanted that Goya was a born decorator, as well as a born realist, there is nothing more to be done than to consult these designs. Consult them too when you have first taken a glance at the competing compositions of Bayeu-after such a restless confusion of niggling, academic figures how large, restful and rhythmic is Goya’s work.

The preliminary sketch for the fresco in the quadrangular vault above the coreto or little choir of the Chapel of the Virgen del Pilar, I could not find, and cannot say if it still exists. Goya executed this work in 1772, just before leaving for Italy. Probably the fifteen thousand reals which he received in payment for his work enabled him to defray the expenses of his journey thither. Tradition has it that he fought his way from Madrid to the coast as a bull-fighter. But of two alternatives tradition always chooses the more dramatic and less probable. The fresco is effective by reason simply of its colour, a splendid blaze of gold, in the midst of which flames the luminous triangle, emblem of the Holy Trinity. The other frescoes, the Maria Sanctissima, with the four figures of Faith, Fortitude, Charity and Patience filling the spandrels of the arches, were not executed until 1780. I do not propose to weary you with re-counting the endless disputes between Goya and his brother-in-law Bayeu, supported by the Chapter, which accompanied the progress of this work. It is enough to say that Goya had the short temper of his Aragonese countrymen, Bayeu the irritating condescension of the successful Academician and the Chapter the tactlessness proper to chapters all the world over in matters in which art and artists are concerned. Here we have all the material for a pretty quarrel. The Chapter passed a resolution instructing the canon who had charge of the decorations to impress upon Goya how grateful he ought to be to his brother-in-law for his good offices in engaging him as his assistant. Goya refused to be grateful to his brother-in-law, was instead very much put out at his interference. Then the Chapter found some faults with Faith, Fortitude, Charity and Patience, particularly with the lady who represented Charity, whom they said lacked the decorum which one has the right to expect from a Christian virtue. The matter ended with the Chapter resolving that on no consideration should Goya be permitted to undertake any more decorations in the church, but that this need not deter the Senor Administrador from presenting his wife with a few medals, in virtue of her being the sister of Don Francisco Bayeu. Clearly the Chapter had a pretty knack in the art of pin-pricking ! So Goya received his fee and his wife her medals, and off they went in the diligence to Madrid. (I wonder if the Despacho Central was running in those days !) But let us be going downstairs.

I have said that El Pilar is above all else a place of worship. I should suppose there is no other place in the world where there is so much worship. Enter it at whatsoever hour you like, you will find Zaragoza worshipping there. For Zaragoza is the Holy City of Aragon, and its holiness has a definite, concrete centre in the image and the jasper pillar which Santiago received from angelic hands, with a command to build a church there and a promise that it should endure to the end of the world. (Did Francisco de Herrera presume too much on the celestial promise and neglect to put his faith, as a more sceptical architect would have done, in terrestrial foundations ? The world will not have to endure too long if his church is to be present at the final catastrophe.) The wooden image of the Virgin still stands on its jasper pillar, as it has stood if not since the first century at any rate since the twelfth, but it is difficult to see either the one or the other. The smoke-blackened Madonna, dressed in a white dalmatica; stands within a small but sumptuous bronze and marble temple, behind a dazzling array of candles and silver lamps. The jasper pillar would remain entirely conjectural but for a hole in the wall at the back of the shrine, which discloses a few square inches of the surface of the shaft, scooped into a smooth hollow by two or three centuries of pious kisses. Beneath the marble canopy, any time between daybreak and moonrise, you will find kneeling figures dreamwrapt in adoration of their beloved Virgen del Pilar.

After you have stood a good while on the stone bridge and looked your fill at the cathedral’s haggard profile flung against the darkening sky, then is the time to enter its portals and measure the effect of its interior. You will not enter it alone. Across the little tree-shadowed plaza throngs of people are flocking to the church. They too seem to know that the great hour of El Pilar has arrived. If the portals of the cathedral had been closed before dusk, I am not sure that I should ever have enlisted in the Pilar faction. Like a Spanish beauty past her prime, El Pilar cannot with impunity face the rigorous scrutiny of noon. The searching light exposes not only the wrinkling cracks in her cupola but also the general hardness of her aspect, an aspect of lifeless classical regularity unredeemed by any hint of emotion or significance. She has nothing to say to you, she will not answer your interrogations, she leaves you cold. But, again in the manner of a Spanish beauty, when the gloom begins to thicken, El Pilar begins to live. She contrives to borrow a little of that air of mystery which is the natural gift of her Gothic sisters, and she adds to it a majesty of mien that is all her own.

The citizens who are now flocking into the church do not all remain kneeling before the sumptuous marble shrine of the Virgin. In leisurely fashion they promenade up and down the spacious aisles, the magnitude of the church dwarfing them to the ridiculous proportions of those pigmy ladies and gentlemen one sometimes sees in the old-fashioned engravings of the interiors of buildings, the gentleman always grandiloquently indicating nothing in particular with his walking-stick, the lady hanging on his arm with a gesture of loving attention. One of the minor losses, among the graver ones which the Reformation entailed upon us, is the loss of this habit of promenading in our churches. The practice it is true lingered in old St Paul’s until the Gothic fabric perished in the Great Fire, but it seems to have given no little scandal to the Puritan mind. We sometimes visit our cathedrals on weekdays even now, and when we have paid our sixpence, and inscribed our signature in an album, tiptoe round the choir in company with other like curious but awed visitors, pausing from time to time in our silent perambulation to listen while the erudite verger recalls to our memory forgotten dates of Plantagenet kings and confusing periods of Gothic architecture.

In Zaragoza there is neither fee nor verger nor autograph album, and for the citizens there is no more novelty in the aspect of El Pilar than in that of their own homes. But then El Pilar is their own home—there’s just the point—another vaster, grander, more spectacular home, but no less their own. They walk in it with an air of contented possession, unvexed by dates and architectural styles, taking its tranquillity, its pomp, its exhilarating amplitude into their spirits, as simply as one might take the sun and air. I could not help considering how profound, if insensible, an influence this daily promenading in their temple must have upon the citizens, elevating and tranquillising their minds after the petty vexations from which I suppose even the commerce of Zaragoza is not wholly free. And I wondered, too, whether Catholic Zaragoza is not after all informed by a finer spirit of democracy than that which agitates republican Barcelona, or for the matter of that any other so-called progressive metropolis. In Barcelona, as in London, the ardent and impoverished democrat can enjoy the blessings of democratic oratory and the cheap thrills of the democratic cinema, but the only place he can call his own is the mean tenement in the back street. In Zaragoza, however, the democracy promenades every evening in its sumptuous home, is familiar with the sense of a palatial environment, regards, at any rate at Easter time, with a some-what negligent eye an array of tapestries, any one of which an American railroad magnate would sell his railroad to possess. Considering this I no longer wondered at the contentedness of the citizens, who seem to have no special reason for content, at their assured but unostentatious air of dignity, at their friendliness, which assumes but does not, American fashion, insistently assert, equality with the stranger, however many railroads he may happen to direct.

Now the clock strikes seven and the promenade becomes more formal. It is headed by three boys, blue-smocked and bare-legged, carrying gay silk banners, hung with streamers like a maypole, the ends of which are held by grave-eyed little girls. On either side of every banner other and smaller urchins hold up ponderous gilt lanterns, which look as though they had once been the lamps of an antiquated state coach. Behind them walk a number of men, in double file—all sorts and conditions of men, tradesmen, soldiers, clerks, peasants, the democratic medley of the street. And behind them a still greater number of women. No priest, no incense—nothing that is not purely popular and secular. They halt in front of the marble shrine, and kneeling recite the Litany of the Blessed Virgin and chant some verses of a hymn. Do not, I beg you, grow weary of the repetitions of the Litany and go away. Stay for the singing. It is Aragonese singing, harsh, shrill, urgent, with an undertone of sadness and a compelling fervour of appeal, plaintive yet triumphant. You will never hear such singing save in places where the Faith is firm, immemorial and undismayed. Then silence falls, and the banners and lanterns are carried away down the long, dark aisles. I think there is a magic in those lanterns. The naked candle is the light proper to the Catholic Church, but it was a right instinct which led El Pilar to prefer lanterns for her ceremonies. They accord well with her palatial rather than ecclesiastical splendour, her eighteenth – century and somewhat secular pomp.

El Pilar’s great hour is now over. The citizens pass on to the next item in the day’s programme, the café, and since, as an Aragonese author has said, it is the alternation of contraries that beautifies and sustains the world, they prefer, after the gloom and plaintive music of the church, that the café shall be bright with the raw glare of electric illumination and noisy with the still rawer merriment of automatic, electric pianos.