Personal Project

❧ My study abroad experience in Barcelona was one enriched with artistic significance. The countless paintings, sculptures, and architecture of local icons we were given the opportunity to experience firsthand gave great insight into the local culture of Barcelona, as well as a glimpse into Spain's history as a whole. Remnants of ancient history standing alongside modern residence, a portrait of a world-renowned figure displayed beside that of an unnamed ordinary citizen—this city exhibited a unique display of diversity unlike any other I've seen. One element of the city's landscape which consistently caught my attention, however, were the churches. What I was not able to take full advantage of in Paris—as the Notre-Dame is, to this day, still under repair from its fire in 2019–I am confident I made up for in Barcelona. The churches we visited were beautiful, with the Sagrada Família being the grandest by far, lined with elaborate artwork upon doubly elaborate framework. Each looked well maintained, down to the greenery of each cloister, and was attended by at least a couple parishioners outside of mass, so it surprised me to hear that they struggle to maintain funding due to the decline of religious devotion amongst younger generations.
❧ This fact, as it was imparted unto me on the first day of our tour, is one I immediately researched, as it provided fundamental insight into the city's cultural landscape. My first conclusion was that Spain's status as a secular nation might have facilitated the development of its unorthodox artistic movements. In art history classes, it is often taught that the Catholic Church is the culprit of artistic conformist standards in Europe, as art was viewed as a method of worship subject to standards of propriety and respect. But aside from the art scene, I wondered what other effects this cultural shift could have on the church structures themselves, as well as what caused this shift. I already had a vague idea of Spain's darker history with Catholicism—the expulsion of Muslims and Jews, the following Inquisition, and the forced conversion of Natives—which may have motivated a desire to dissociate from the religion altogether, as well as its more recent struggle to move on from the period of Francoist dictatorship, but I would need to conduct further research in order to string together a cohesive procession. As I did this, I payed close attention to the verbal and written descriptions accompanying each site we continued to visit; each excerpt of information which was provided to me, each observation I made for myself, each sliver of knowledge I could acquire contributed towards a possible conclusion. I ultimately noticed that, despite the current state of affairs, Christian influence remains ever-present in city corners, and, to the untrained American eye, Barcelona appears to be no less secular than Paris really. At least on the surface.
❧ On the first day, we took a walking tour of Barcelona, visiting meanwhile the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia. The guide explained to us that the structure itself is Gothic—having taken the place of a demolished Ancient Roman wall in the middle ages—with a Neo-Gothic façade, which was added on to the initial structure in the 19th century. Its namesake, Saint Eulalia, is the patron saint of Barcelona, martyred as a young girl for refusing to surrender her faith. Upon further research, I discovered that the church was constructed in 1298, built upon the foundations of a previous Cathedral consecrated in 1058, and, earlier still, a Cathedral dating back to the 4th century, in which the relics of Saint Eulalia were housed for safekeeping. These relics remain within the cathedral to this day, though the crypt itself was not accessible outside of mass. Concerning funding, I was not able to find any information suggesting scarcity—understandably so, as it would conflict with the dignified nature of tourism promotions—though I was affirmed that the church relies on donations, and, despite entry being free of charge, visitors can pay extra to access otherwise restricted areas such as the observation platform, choirs, side chapel, and roof. A 6€ donation may also be requested during late afternoon visits, which typically fall outside of mass times.
❧ On the fourth day of assignment, excluding weekdays, we visited the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, a minor basilica constructed by Antoni Gaudí, a Catalan artist who would become a recurring figure in the Barcelonian art scene. This church, as told by the guide, has fostered a rich and dramatic history, one that, to this day, has yet to reach its conclusion. Its construction begun in 1882, but Gaudí's vision of the structure was preceded by another artist, Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano, who was replaced by Gaudí in 1883. It was and continues to be constructed from sandstone and granite, with distribution and masonry adapted to Gaudí's image of beauty and structural intergity, with sculptures of notable biblical figures, cast from common workers selected by Gaudí himself, decorating the façade. These figures include the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, and a Roman soldier massacring innocents; our guide this time told us that the soldier was cursed, as the model, intentionally selected for his imperfection, had six toes: a superstition of misfortune in his time; this is fabled to have led to the soldier's lower body breaking off, dangerously plunging to the ground below, and requiring repair, hence the paleness of this area in contrast with the rest of the sculpture. I am unable to verify this event, but the mere existence of such an account establishes the presence of superstition in Barcelonian culture. I found this interesting as, though I am used to superstition from a Caribbean perspective, I find that it is almost completely absent in modern America. Could this be a testament to a difference in secularity, or another byproduct of the latter nation's embrace of Protestantism?
❧ Finally, on the eight day of assignment, we visited the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. This is not a church, but I wanted to include it in my list of examples because it houses a significant collection of religious artwork. Unlike the other museums we visited, the Museu Nacional contained both modern art and art from previous eras: Renaissance, medieval, and even ancient paintings and structures inhabit the lower levels of the museum. Of these, very few lacked some reference to the Holy texts. If they did, they were instead dedicated to royalty, who, depending on the time period and cultural landscape, might have been regarded as religious figures in the artist's time. The Crucifix was a recurring sight, with a few rooms containing noting else; then there were saints and scenes of their martyrdom, the birth of Christ, Archangel Michael fighting against demons, Archangel Gabriel delivering a message, both with shining wings and halos, each piece so elaborate, I believe anyone, regardless of their religious knowledge, could form a vague idea of this sequence of events. This may be a product of its time, when literacy was much less common amongst the general population and the Word of God was to be sourced from the Church itself. This results in an interesting progression from elaborate, almost literary illustrated scenes to the surrealist art residing upstairs, which will only truly be understood by the artist themselves. I argue it may be possible for someone to see where the Age of Enlightenment took place, without reading the dates attached to the art pieces, simply judging by the stylistic changes between the rooms in the museum. I challenged myself to do so, first noticing the vaguer shapes, brighter colors, and more mundane scenes in more recent paintings. Subtly, I saw how these traits indicated the individualism of the artist—much different from the traditional method of dedicating the artwork wholly to the subject of the painting.
❧ This broadcast begins with an account of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Spain, during which he expresses his concern towards an apparent deviation from traditional family values in favor of secularization. Specific examples of this include acceptance of homosexuality, birth control methods, and human embryo research. The reporter, Saul Gonzalez, proceeds to explain the background of the situation, that, in the past, the country gave rise to the Jesuit and Dominican orders, and spread Christianity far past the borders of Europe; however, in the 21st century, it finds itself hosting a mere 20 percent of aged devotees of a majority nonreligious population. Gonzalez interviews a churchgoer, Blanca Castelleano, who states that most people have a sense of morality, but have lost their connection to religion and desire to practice it. He later confirms my prediction that, to some degree, this dramatic decline in religious investment can be attributed to the end of Francisco Franco's dictatorship. This is framed as a sort of counterpoise, with radical secularism and progressive ideals following a strict Catholic regime. The examples used to illustrate this are the proliferation of Muslim immigrants, acceptance towards divorce and abortion, and the legalization of same sex marriage in 2005. This was frowned upon by the Catholic Church, but readily accepted by a majority of Spanish citizens. Beatriz Gimeno, the next interviewée and Spain's leading gay and lesbian rights leader, recalls a time where, under Franco's rule and for some time thereafter, homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment; from then to the present, great progress has been made to elevate homosexual, bisexual, and lesbian persons to the same quality of life as the rest of the population. And, to the contrary he proceeds to interview a theologian, Father Leopoldo Vives Soto, who affirms that Catholic values are more beneficial to Spanish society than they are given credit for, as the country's birth rate has drastically declined since the legalization and normalization of contraceptive measures. He then compares secularization to a cancer which is slowly killing society. A brief segment of a pro-life, anti-abortion protest plays before the next interview is conducted; this protest is attributed to the grassroots political and religious group Hazte Oir, and the next to be interviewed is its founder and director, Ignacio Arsuaga. Arsuaga tells Gonzalez that their goal is not to impose God upon nonbelievers, but to secure his presence in public life, for those who do believe. Having outsourced strategies from American evangelical organizations, Arsuaga aims to make this goal a reality. But Gonzalez follows up with an explanation as to why this strategy may run into some difficulties; according to Spanish liberals, he recounts, religious leaders must be open to societal changes if they wish to restore the prevalence of faith. To support this positon comes a quote from Gimeno, that as long as the church opposes what Spanish society has come to accept, secularity will continue to flourish and the Church might fall into obscurity. To demonstrate how this dynamic manifests within the religious population, Castelleano and her friend express their conflicting views on gay marriage, with the former being for and the latter against. The broadcast concludes with Gonzalez summarizing the primary conflict, with the Catholic Church's role in society remaining uncertain. He also proposes a new dilemma: a matter of assimilating the Islamic faith, and ventures that are already being taken towards it, such as the recent construction of a considerably large mosque and Islamic cultural center.
❧ In conclusion, and from what my research indicates, Spain is and has been going through a period of substantial social upheaval which will inevitably change the city of Barcelona even from how it is at present. Just as, during this trip, I gazed through a time capsule into the time of the Romans, the Age of Exploration, the dictatorship, I may regard my memories similarly should I ever visit again, though less dramatically. Building upon my basic knowledge of the country, I learned just how influential, though unsung, local Jewish history has been to the development of the area. Seeing faded Hebrew lettering seeping through the stones of the church's wall really put it into perspective. I also learned who Antoni Gaudí is; a brilliant artist with talent, potential, and his own flourishing legacy—not simply a footnote beside Pablo Picasso's. Why the humanization of great artists is so rarely touched upon in art history courses evades me, but my guess is because it demystifies them. I hardly believed that the man behind one of the largest structures I've ever witnessed could have succumbed to something as common as a vehicular accident; that he had his own weaknesses and vices that hid behind his work. Regardless of where Barcelona ends up in the future, however; and I wish it well; I believe that the spirit of those who contributed towards it will always shine through, maintaining within it a rich and beautiful character.