Monday, May 11, 2015

Reflections from Burgos

 Monday after we arrived in Burgos we decided to go right into the cathedral, which was quite literally across from out hotel. It was quite a stunning structure to behold. Construction on it began in 1221 by King Fernando III and the building would not completed until about 500 years later, which is pretty typical for a cathedral. Burgos Cathedral is rich in many different types of architecture, after all in 500 years fashions come and go, albeit not as fast as shoes or clothes. As a result, what began as a Gothic Cathedral incorporated Rococo and Baroque (which plays an important part I think).
One of the things that I thought about constantly while walking through the cathedral was just how ornate everything was and how big it was. All of this is typical of Baroque architecture. The Baroque period was roughly during the 1600s and 1700s, when Spain was importing all the gold and silver it could from the Central and South America. Trust me, if you ever take a tour of Spanish churches you'll see all the gold and silver that was in our part of the world. Anyway...all this imported gold and silver found itself planted in the altars and chapels of Spain's churches. Another characteristic of Baroque architecture is the fine attention to detail, almost every surface of an altar display or a stain glass window is not wasted and has some symbol etched into it. I was certainly overwhelmed by everything and I'm sure the average pilgrim several hundred years ago felt the same sense. It made me wonder why a church would go to such extremes of ornateness and detail if only a small (priestly) population could possibly appreciate it? Was it really worth it?

Then, Dr. Survilla pointed out something very important and that was the vast majority (and I mean VAST) of people in the Middle Ages were illiterate. Thus, all the artwork, frescos, and displays in this cathedral were deliberate in what they were trying to convey to the pilgrims and parishioners and this doesn't start inside. All three entrances to the cathedral (north, south, and west) all convey a different theme to those who enter. For instance, the western entrance of Burgos displays the conception and coronation of the virgin; the southern entrance, the twelve apostles and the Transfiguration; and the northern entrance, the "humanity of Jesus" in tandem with Mary and Saint John. In other words you got a sense of the overall story just by walking around the outside.

Once inside you can view one of the sixteen different chapels that surround the nave. Each of these chapels conveys a different moment in the Gospels. So as I walked from chapel to chapel I felt like I was getting an education in the different scenes from the New Testament. One chapel was devoted to the genealogy of Jesus, another to the annunciation of the Virgin, and another still to the crucifixion of Jesus. Depending at what point you were in the story determined the emotional experience. When you saw the scene of the Epiphany you felt hope and joy and yet when you reached the crucifixion you felt depressed and skeptic only to then have those feeling rescinded when you saw the Resurrection. I can only imagine that the emotional connections that I was making with each of the different chapels and reliefs paralleled those felt over 500 years ago. This indicates the power that the medium of visual art has on the mind. We all experience this when we see a movie, but in the Middle Ages the Burgos Cathedral was the movie theater and the pilgrim relied on it to give them new strength and continue the journey to Santiago.

I have no doubt that by the time the pilgrim reached the end of the Camino (and if they had taken the time see some of the churches along the way) they had probably seen the story of Jesus a dozen times over. Thus, the pilgrim went through the roller coaster of emotions associated with the Gospels just as many times, but rather than dulling the senses to the emotion, I can attest from my own experience that a great appreciation and hope has arisen from these multiple exposures. It is more than likely that the pilgrimage was the first time a Christian could truly understand and connect with the story of Jesus. When your entire service is in Latin and all the Medieval citizen can discern is the Eucharist you probably never actually heard the Gospel. Certainly your church had a main altar, probably with the scene of the crucifixion, but beyond that a person could not read the Bible (or any other book for that matter) and truly comprehend the series of events culminating in Jesus.

For all the corruption and deceit that is often associated with the Medieval Church, artwork and architecture had the best intentions of strengthening the Christian in his or her faith. Burgos Cathedral was not alone in this goal, but it definitely was and still is unique in the way it conveys the story of Jesus.

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