Thursday, September 13, 2012
Erratum: I originally stated in this post that the tomb of Opus Dei founder Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer is located at Torreciudad. A reader pointed out that his tomb is actually in Rome (see comments). I sincerely apologize for this embarrasing and inexcusable error.
Opus Dei. "The Work of God." Chances are that if you've heard the name of this organization, it hasn't been uttered without some reserve. The group has been accused of everything of being pro-fascist, excessively secretive and overly controlling of its members. Cult-like, in other words. They're said to be fanatics who mortify the flesh with flagellation, thorny belts and shoes one size too small. They do have a pretty stringent religious life, including daily mass and prayer, and a quick read of a list of their daily, weekly and annual obligations does reveal a depth of devotion and commitment that is almost monk-like in its rigor.
It doesn't help their image that in Dan Drown's wildly successful best seller The Da Vinci Code, the villain was an Opus Dei assassin, a murderous albino monk guided by a sinister priest. Tough luck for Opus Dei. Dan Brown, who claims that his book is aboslutely all true, is basically full of shit. For starters, there are no monks attached to Opus Dei.
As for the other charges (pro-fascist, fanatical, etc.), the facts are a lot more nuanced than reputation would have you believe. Which doesn't mean there isn't some truth in them; it just means that like many organizations with accusations leveled at them by opponents and disgruntled ex-members, grains of salt should be acquired and used....and context needs to be widened beyond "because I said so."
I'm not here to defend or attack Opus Dei, however. I merely want to describe their sanctuary at Torrecuidad and the Black Madonna revered there.
Torreciudad (Huesca, Spain) is a stunning place. Making good use of brick in a region where most churches are are made of cut stone, it stands out, but not like a sore thumb. It could only have come from the 70's, but it doesn't look dated. Rich in subtle details but not gaudy like Gaudi, the lines are pure and spare, but not parsimonious. To me it's another testament to the Spanish genius for architecture.
Having recently translated a vast quantity of material about contemporary fashion, I can say without reservation that the idea of something embodying both contemporary chic and tradition has become a widely-used marketing cliché, a cliché certainly found in art criticism as well. But this sanctuary embodies the mix of modernity and tradition extremely well and if I mention that it's a cliché, it's only to demonstrate that I'm aware it can be a cliché and that in this case, it is not; the designation is merited. It's a very "modern" design, yet all the traditional elements are present: campanile, clerestory, transept, twin towers at the narthex end of the basilica, apse behind the altar at the other. This successful blend of modernity and tradition has a few surprises, a clerestory that isn't clear at all, for example; the main supporting walls are perforated by strong vertical lines which are in fact windows. Where the windows would be in a clerestory, there is only solid wall. The technical prowess of contemporary architecture makes possible which wouldn't have been possible during say, the Gothic period. The supporting walls would have to have been heavy and buttressed, the higher parts of the wall thinner and mostly stained glass, thus far lighter. Here the walls are high, but not a buttress is to be found. Despite its substantial height, the basilica is thus more evocative of the Romanesque, a nod to the plentiful examplesof the style found in this mountainous region. I should also add that saying buttress makes me chortle inside like Beavis.
This non-contradiction is also exemplified in the sanctuary's sense of scale. It doesn't seem massive, but in fact, it is. The campanile doesn't seem absurdly high, but when you get next to it, you realize that yeah, it it pretty damn high. Maybe it's because the mountains and vast spaces it overlooks help reduce the scale, maybe it's due to the intimacy of the brick, maybe it's because the principal entrance is in fact quite low, maybe it's the grand congregational space before the entrance....Maybe all this helps keep it the basilica itself on a human scale. Fact is, once inside, it's surprisingly large. A metaphor perhaps, for the vastness of the interior life, not to be judged by what is outside?
This in fact is one of the priciple doctrines of the Opus Dei. That is, that everyday life is holy; that saints, the monk or priest's life, are no more holy than the life of the fruit peddlar or civil servant. Opus Dei refers to a "universal call to holiness". Everyone can aspire to saintliness. There is also a special emphasis on work within the Opus Dei, which is after all the "work" of God. The Work is another way members refer to their institution and practice. This is no mystical retreat into the desert; they preach engagement and industriousness, that one's work is a path to God. Which is a bit Protestant-sounding to these ears.
Whatever the case, the Opus Dei pulls a lot of weight within the Vatican. John Paul II was and current Pope Benedict is a strong supporter of the organization. Perhaps most significant is that the group's founder, entombed here at Torreciudad, was made a saint so quickly, in a process rife with irregularities. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer died in 1975, was beatified in 1992 and made a saint in 2002. That's pretty fast. Wikipedia has an interesting summary of the controversies surrounding his canonization. I'm not even a Catholic, so my opinion on all this is rather pointless. I do view Escrivá and Opus Dei with suspicion, to be honest, but I also recognize that a lot of the attcks upon both may stem from doctrinal differences which make no difference to me whatsoever and that in some cases there may be even more than a hint of jealously regarding their recent success. What's a Jesuit jockeying for influence supposed to say when this Aragonese upstart is sainted and placed in marble in the Vatican less than thirty years after his death? Observing Vatican politics, it's a State after all, would be a great way to spend a journalistic career!
I've only met one person with any personal encounter with the group; a student of mine, a well-to-do conservative Tridentine Catholic. Invited by friends to check out the Toulouse branch, he went out of friendship but left unimpressed. Basically, he was shocked by their wealth and the luxury of their headquarters, as well as their aggressive recruitment pitches. I remember his slight pride as he recounted that by contrast, his 14-year-old daughter spent many a Friday night walking around Toulouse with nuns, speaking with and offering food to the homeless. Make of that what you will, but it would seem to contradict the reputation of Opus Dei for austerity. Torreciudad is not an ostentatious display; it is spare and basic, but far from spartan.
What delighted me about this place is that it is deep within the realm of the Black Virgin. Nuestra Señora de Torreciudad herself is as black as they come and we'll come back to her in a moment, but there are also several other Black Madonnas evoked in the sanctuary.
The basilica's crypt houses chapels dedicated to the Virgen de Loreto (Loreto), Our Lady of the Pillar (Zaragoza) and Our Lady of Guadaloupe (Mexico City), all of which are both significantly dark and cited as Black Virgins.
And as Torreciudad's offical website states:
A 200 mile (350 km) route links the four Shrines of El Pilar (Saragossa), Torreciudad, Montserrat and Lourdes in a prayerful journey, combining artistic works and breathtaking scenery.
As we've said, El Pilar and Our Lady of Torreciudad are Black Virgins. Our Lady of Montserrat is of course, La Morenita, a nickname dervied from her dark color. Our Lady of Lourdes, though quite white, shares a lot of important characteristics of the Black Madonna genre, having been found in a grotto and associated with healing waters. Lourdes is also the most visited Marial shrine in the world.
Devotion to Our Lady of Torreciudad dates back to the 11th century, hence another wise reason to have designed this contemporary shrine in a quasi-Romanesque manner. I have long wondered about the link of the genre with the Reconquista, as several examples have legends involving conflict with the Moors (including La Morenita and Notre Dame de Sabart. This is also apparently true here as well; the story goes that in 1084, the last of the Moors having been expelled from the area, the statue was housed in a chapel that still exists today, having been hidden during the period of Moorish occupation. In 1100, Barbastos, to the south, was reconquered and Torreciudad became a fortress on the frontier between Christendom and the Muslim-controlled areas, a launching pad for further exploits in the Reconquista.
This Virgin is of the Sedes Sapientiae type ("Seat of Wisdom"), or Virgin in Majesty. She is made of elm; hands and face are dark, severe, inscrutable; the clothing by contrast is brilliantly gilded and bejeweled. She is unfortunately somewhat difficult to discern in her niche in the retable, a massive alabaster marvel which somewhat dwarfs her. The pleated garb, the stiff frontal regard, the entirety of its characteristics actually, make her an unremarkably typical image Romanesque aesthetics. That said, she is beautiful and remarkably
well-preserved, as photos reveal.
In restoration it was determined that the original was polychrome and that the gilding of the throne and robes were a later addition. The site where I found a lot of this background information does acknowledge that she is a Black Virgin, but states her color is a resuilt of the aging process of the white lead used in the original decoration.
Se trata de una Virgen morena, semejante a la de Nuestra Señora de Montserrat, y existe la leyenda de que se apareció a unos leñadores de Bolturina declarándole su deseo de ser allí venerada.
Basically stated, she is a dark Virgin, like Our Lady of Montserrat ad as legend has it, she appeared to some woodcutters at Bolturina and told them where she wanted to be venerated; this latter element is quite common among Marial legends, Black or otherwise. I'm not sure how this theme played out in this case; some Virgins keep returning to their favorite spot after being moved, sometimes Mary appears in a vision and sometimes the statues lift an arm and point!
Our Lady of Torrecuidad's connection with the Opus Dei stems from the life of Escrivá. Born at Barbastos, he was brought by his parents at the age of 2 during an illness from which he was not expected to survive. But they prayed to this Virgin and lo! He did survive, go on to found the Opus Dei and, in 1975, died in his office located in the sanctuary, The focal point of the triangular plaza before the basilica is an altar. It is a simple constructionof brick, open to the air but under a covered porch. A large reproduction of Virgin of Torreciudad is mounted on the wall behind the altar and to the left.
This new sanctuary was Escrivá's brainchild, completed under his supervision and inaugurated days after he died. Whatever else you want to say about the man and his group, they certainly got this sanctuary right.
And hey, Opus Dei is also a cool album from Slovenian avant-gardists Laibach. I was wearing my 20+ year old Laibach t-shirt as I entered the sanctuary. Maybe I should have reconsidered; the real Opus Dei almost brought the group to court over the use of the name on an album which featured Nazi-like imagery (actually work by anti-Nazi artist John Heartfield). But that's another story.
Monday, September 10, 2012
Lunch at Au Nez Rouge, Visit to Black Virgin of La Daurade, Toulouse 10 Do's and Don'ts by Mamina and Anne
Serge the Concierge provides some good recommendations for things to do while visiting Toulouse. One of these includes visiting Notre Dame de la Daurade. He's kindly provided a link to our article and credited our photo.
Maybe he'll send a few visitors our way, so we return the favor.