A bearded figure, dressed in a tunic, his arms outstretched out to form the shape of a cross inside a circle of geometric forms, which is crowned by a giant bird.
The drawing is schematic but the force of the figure still moves us ten centuries after it was painted on a wall beside one of the windows of the church of Sant Quirze de Pedret, in Cercs.
The Man at Prayer. End of 10th-early 11th Century. Sant Quirze de Pedret church, Cercs (el Berguedà). Museu de Solsona.
This fragment of pre-Romanic painting remained hidden for centuries until one day in 1937, at the height of the Spanish Civil War, it was discovered and removed from the wall. Ever since, The Man at Prayer, as it became called for the supposed praying position of the figure, is the undeniable icon of the Museu Diocesà i Comarcal de Solsona, where it is exhibited together with another famous and mysterious fragment of pre-Romanic painting The Knight, and the Romanic paintings of the central apse and triumphal arch, one of the great work of the Master of Pedret. The collection of murals of Pedret is one of the pillars of Catalan Romanic painting and includes apsidal chapels that are conserved in the National Museum of Catalan Art (MNAC), removed during the campaign of the 1920s which brought so many of the Romanic murals to the museum in Barcelona.
The Knight. End of 10th-early 11th Century. Sant Quirze de Pedret church, Cercs (el Berguedà). Museu de Solsona.
In Solsona, the paintings of Sant Quirze de Pedret are the star pieces of the museum situated inside the impressive Neoclassical building of the Episcopal Palace, next to the cathedral. Within the permanent collection, which includes archaeology and art from the Neolithic to the twentieth century from counties included in the Diocese of Solsona, the paintings of Pedret occupy the central position. The Pedret room is presided over by the magnificent central apse, with iconography of the Apocalypse and the Final Judgement from the beginning of the twelfth century.
Visitors can go into the apse and see close up the incredible figures from different scenes in the collection: the elders of the Final Judgement, the horsemen of the Apocalypse, the incense-burning angel, a seraphim with wings covered in eyes, archangels, the souls of the martyrs, an elephant, an altar decorated with sumptuous altar cloths. It really is worth spending a while there to look at them.
Interior of the apse. End of 11th Century. Sant Quirze de Pedret church, Cercs (el Berguedà). Museu de Solsona.
The Man at Prayer and the Knight, which precede the apse by a century, are hung in on a wall to the side of the room, and on the left there are two reproductions of apsidal chapels exhibited in the MNAC, which you can also go into.
The Pedret room of the museum, however, is in need of modernisation, according to the technical director of the centre, Lidia Fàbregas, so that “visitors can understand what Sant Quirze de Pedret was like, both from the paintings we have here and those that are in the MNAC, to better explain their fascinating iconography”.
It is planned that The Man at Prayer and the Knight will be placed at the eye level of the viewer.
The idea is to use digitisation of the mural paintings from both Solsona and Montjuïc and the original space of the church, to create an audio-visual experience offering an overall explanation of the whole collection with a unitary discourse. Work began on this some months ago. It is also planned to hang the The Man at Prayer and the Knight at the viewer’s eye level (currently they are at the level at which they appeared in their original location) and remove the reproductions of the apsidal chapels to free up space for the audio visual exhibition. “Since the presence of the paintings of Solsona and the MNAC is highly consolidated, we also want to achieve a three-tiered effect so that people are interested in visiting both museums , as well as the church and can therefore see what the site was like in the medieval age”, says Fàbregas.
After fragments of the triumphal arch were restored in 2018, having been damaged by the type of glue used when the paintings were removed in 1937, and with a view to the remodelling of the presentation of the paintings, the restoration of the apse is also planned. So, if all goes well the Museum of Solsona could have the new presentation of the paintings of Pedret ready by 2021.
The renovation of the room will help to make more visible a museum which manages the diocesan part but also that of the public institutions of the county. It is a museum which has also enabled a view of the interior of the cathedral through a window and revealed the impressive Romanic window of the bell tower which, as a result of the construction of the Episcopal Palace in the eighteenth century, had been hidden.
Antonio Rodríguez Hernández (Móra d’Ebre, 1889-Madrid, 1919), artistically known as Julio Antonio, is one of the most interesting Catalan sculptors of the turn of the twentieth century.
And we are lucky to be able to do so at the Modern Art Museum of Tarragona (MAMT), where a large part of the legacy from his brief but prolific career from 1908-1919 is held.
Julio Antonio at the MAMT.
However, if you look for the name of Julio Antonio in the art textbooks, you will find it only in passing. The last stage of his training was in Madrid, beside the Olot-born artists Miquel Blay. He sculpted and made works in iron in Madrid and even his Catalan artist friends like Miquel Viladrich and Lluís Bagaria, were resident in Madrid. His work was inspired by Rodin, Donatello and Michelangelo and while it could not be labelled as noucentista, neither does it fit into any particular avant-garde style. We can define his style as realist and, at the same time, platonic.
Julio Antonio, Self Portrait, 1907. MAMT.
Julio Antonio’s work and memory were the victims of a society in shock from the disaster of ’98, unable either to react or regenerate itself. In the magazine La Campana de Gràcia on 22 February 1919, Aragonese anarchist Àngel Samblancat wrote about the death of the sculptor: “If he has died, then let them bury him, they will say on these planets […] So Julio Antonio was a genius? So what? The geniuses are all getting booted out. […] And not to mention the criminal press that silenced their work, and that Tarragona, which probably even ignored the fact that the sculptor with the Roman name was even from there. Nothing. But don’t complain. Spain is like that. […] The men are great, the great values of the race, dead from TB at the age of twenty-nine, in a rented hospital bed, with their head on the fleshless and spiritless breast of the old mother. Rage, you dogs! Oh! That Spain should have a head so it could be cut off”.
Julio Antonio, Ávila de los Caballeros, 1914. MAMT.
Julio Antonio experienced a relative process of oblivion until 1962 when his sisters offered the all the work held by the family to the Diputació de Tarragona. The sculptor had been able to develop his career thanks to different grants from the institution: one to study in Madrid in 1907 and a travel grant of 1,000 pesetas to go to Italy in 1909.
It was precisely on his return from Italy that Julio Antonio settled in the Almadén area of Ciudad Real where he began work on the “Busts of the race”. At that time references to race did not have the same tragic sense that they would acquire under fascism. It was a series of popular portraits from that mining region, Simple people who it is said inherited an eternal dignity.
Julio Antonio’s work tools. MAMT.
On the occasion of 50th anniversary of the artist’s death, in 1969 the art historian Rafael Santos Torroella curated the first anthological exhibition of Julio Antonio’s work, which travelled to Madrid, Tarragona and Móra d’Ebre, with a catalogue containing the first documented chronology.
Julio Antonio, María, la gitana, 1908. MAMT.
The Diputació de Tarragona, aware that the work of Julio Antonio needed a permanent exhibition space, and that they should also be acquiring and preserving the works of other Tarragona artists, in 1976 created the Modern Art Museum of Tarragona (MAMT) in the eighteenth-century Casa Martí. Julio Antonio is, rightfully, the most represented artists there.
Julio Antonio, Lemonier Mausoleum, 1917. MAMT.
The visit to the MAMT begins at the foot of the stairs with the Lemonier Mausoleum (1916-1919), which was Julio Antonio’s last commission. It is a pietà for the death of an eleven years old child and was admired by the whole of Madrid. On the first floor there are the busts from Almadén along with other portraits of the anonymous, humble people of the Castella cast in bronze and clearly influenced by the Florentine sculpture of the 1400s.
Julio Antonio, Wagner monument project, 1912. MAMT.
The visit brings together a series of allegorical monument projects: to the Americas; to the “Spiritual Light”, and also monuments dedicated to cultural figures, such as the engineer, architect and archaeologist Eduardo Saavedra from Tarragona, and the composers Enric Granados and Richard Wagner. This last project was never finished because of the outbreak of the First World War, which divided music-lovers in to the French and German camps. The tour is designed to be educational: at all points there are descriptions and images on the wall or in leaflets which provide the context to be able to understand the pieces better. Also, as in the case of the Wagner monument there are descriptions for the visitor of the sculptural techniques used, such as bronze casting and the lost wax process.
The people of Tarragona were outraged and protested.
The permanent collection dedicated to Julio Antonio was the culmination of a set of pieces made on the theme of the Monument of the Heroes of 1811 – an episode in the siege of Tarragona during the Napoleonic Wars.
Julio Antonio won the competition organised by Tarragona City Council in 1909. He wanted to avoid the typical design based on cannons, rifles, swords and “unbelievable figures and incredibly bad taste…as a sculptor I have felt and still feel I need to give the sensation of heroism through the most beautiful and harmonious nude that my intelligence and my energy can manage”.
Julio Antonio, Monument to the heroes of Tarragona, 1916. MAMT.
Problems in obtaining bronze meant that Julio Antonio never saw his work completed. It was cast in Madrid by one of the sculptor’s pupils: Enrique Lorenzo Salazar. When the people of Tarragona discovered the sex of the main hero and, bearing in mind that the work was to be placed right in the middle of the Rambla, they were outraged and protested. The monumental work did not occupy the place assigned to it until the Republic in 1931.
Julio Antonio had been inspired by the works of Michelangelo that he had seen in Italy during his visit in 1909, such as the Palestrina Pietà and the Dying Slave. Some of the people of Tarragona, however, ignorant of the history of art would sign ironically about the monument and their mayor, Andrés Segura:
“The raggle-taggle women
Gave the Mayor a compliment
And said to Senyor Segura
Cover up the monument.”
The monument remains in the Rambla in Tarragona. If you want to visit the work of Julio Antonio at the MAMT, you can go and see it on the way out. That would be an act of justice.
For more than a decade now when we talk about art institutions, we do so in complacently: there’s no money, people aren’t interested in art or in heritage…as Barça’s van Gaal used to say: “always negatif”.
And now, precisely a decade ago, well aware of these difficulties, the Art Museum of Cerdanyola (MAC), has made a huge effort to overcome them and turn them into something positive.
MAC’s modern style room. Photo: Llorenç Conejo-Llorco.
On 11 September 2009, at the height of the economic crisis, the MAC opened its doors for the first time. It is a small space – a Modernist building which has housed a casino, been a summer residence and the headquarters of a pharmaceutical laboratory. And the team is even smaller – just the director Txema Romero and his assistant.
There is no money for acquisitions, but in ten years the collection has gone from 300 to 3000. All donations. And most of them private. This, along with the disinterested collaboration of the two prestigious art historians: Josep Casamartina, Fina Duran and Joan Maria Minguet.
Night view of the MAC. Photo: Xavi Olivé.
And even if the MAC is pressed for space, a glance at the activities it offers makes it seem much bigger. The soul of the museum is its collection, of course, but if a collection isn’t explained, if we don’t get the opportunity to find out more about it, if it doesn’t provoke dialogue between different thinkers then it cannot help us to understand our role in society, or promote values such as gender equality or intergenerational collaboration, and runs the risk of becoming a sterile space.
Ismael Smith, Manola, c. 1907. Glazed porcelain reproduced by Antoni Serra Fiter. Col·lecció Nacional d’Art de la Generalitat de Catalunya’s deposit.
Take two examples who are almost contemporary: postmodernist draughtsman and sculptor Ismael Smith (Barcelona, 1886-White Plains, Nova York, 1972) and painter Josep de Togores (Cerdanyola del Vallès, 1893-Barcelona, 1970). Each has a room dedicated to them. Smith was Jewish and homosexual: Sogores deaf from the age of thirteen. These factors somehow marked their lives and their work.
Finestres de les roses. Property of Domènech brothers. MAC deposit.
The permanent collection which occupies the first floor is divided into four sections: the route begins with a section dedicated to the two architects of the building. Gaietà Buïgas, who built the theatre-casino in 1894 for the summer visitors; and his nephew Eduard Maria Balcells, who was commissioned around 1910 by the indiano Evarist López, to turn the building into a luxury summer residence.
Ismael Smith, “Enceinte ‘grossesse’ Enfin, je puis me reposer!”. Pregnant Mona Lisa, 1912. Enrique García-Herráiz donation in memory of Paco Smith.
The route ends with a room dedicated to the colony of artists working in Cerdanyola from 1920 to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. They were creators working within the second wave of noucentisme and Art Deco such as Italian mould-maker Alberto Lena, sculptor Josep Viladomat, painters Manuel Humbert and Marian Anton Espinal and illustrators Valentí Castanys and Josep Coll.
The room dedicated to Ismael Smith contains drawings, prints, ceramics, jewellery and sculptures by this great artist who we are still in the process of discovering; a rich collection brought together thanks to the donations by Enrique García-Herráiz – the artist’s chosen heir, the Artur Ramon Gallery and the collection of Marie Christine Vila, daughter of the painter Joan Vilacasas.
Josep de Togores, Femme avec raisin (Woman with bunch of grapes), 1926.
In the room dedicated to Togores there are works that pass from noucentisme, to magic realism, surrealism and more traditional realism such as the epic The Drunk (1911) or the sensual Woman with Grape (1926). There are also works by other noucentistes, such as the sculptor Manolo Hugué, with his bust of Togolo’s daughter, Tití’s Head (1927).
Josep de Togores, Portrait of Manuel de Togores, 1918.
But the biggest and lightest space in the MAC is the Modernist Room, with a painting by Anglada-Camarasa, sculptures and ceramics by Josep Llimona, Marian Burgués, Modernist furniture…all bathed in the light shining through the original stained glass windows of the building: the Dames de Cerdanyola.
Irises, tulips, oranges, peonies, lotus flowers, passionflowers, daisies, roses…behind these compositions lies a rich symbology of love and beauty.
These panels were installed during the refurbishment carried out by jeweller Evarist López when he bought the building and turned it into his summer residence round 1910. The works are attributed to the Alsatian glassmaker Ludwig Dietrich von Bearn, and no it is not known for certain where the ideas came from for their composition (possibly the architect Eduard Maria Balcells, who ran a glass shop jointly with his sister) or who did the original drawings.
Dames del gronxador (Swing Ladies)
When Cerdanyola City Council wanted to buy the building, the glass panels had already been removed. They remained in private ownership until they were acquired by the Urban Planning Consortium of the ‘Centre Direccional de Cerdanyola’, and they were returned to the MAC in 2009. Between 2013 and 2014 they were restored by specialist Jordi Bonet, with the support of the Diputació de Barcelona and the Centre de Restauració de Béns Mobles de Catalunya. And last year they were declared Items of National Cultural Interest.
Dames dels cignes (Swan Ladies).
The Dames de Cerdanyola work is made up of two scenes: the Dames del gronxador (Ladies on the swing) and the Dames del llac (Ladies at the lake). The second scene is made up of two glass panels: the Dames dels cignes (Ladies of the swans) and the Dames de les tulipes (Ladies of the tulips). Iconographically the three glass panels show two female figures in a floral setting.
Dames de les tulipes (Ladies of the Tulipes).
Irises, tulips, oranges, peonies, lotus flowers, passionflowers, daisies, roses…behind these compositions lies a rich symbology of love and beauty.
The ladies in the central scene are feeding the swans with peonies, the spineless rose. Do they symbolise love without pain? Do they allude to the myth of Leda and the Swan? Or perhaps they are praising restful love, without all the initial frenzy?
If you want to find out the meaning you can always go to the MAC and ask. Better still, if you go on 19 September at 7pm you can join the 10th anniversary celebrations and the declaration of the Item of National Cultural Interest. Why not go and enjoy a toast to the museum yourself?
It is never easy to really see the works in a museum for what they are. Normally we get a bit of an overview, from a distance, like looking at clouds, or the sea, or a constellation of stars, or looking at somebody’s geranium on their balcony.
That’s why you really need a good guide – someone who can explain what needs to be explained as it needs to be explained. Somebody with a knowledge of history and art, but above all, someone with the power of conviction and seduction.
Sala femenina del Museu Marès. Foto: Museu Frederic Marès © Patrícia Bofill.
So, some museums have been trying out some clever tricks to offer better and more convincing explanations. The night visits for example bring out the adventurer in the visitors as well as their imagination, perhaps helped by the darkness. Actors have sometimes been hired, also for their capacity for fiction, allowing the visitors who want to be carried along by the fantasy of a certain character straight out of the past acting as their guide.
It is from this perspective that the Marès Museum has begun to organise guided tours using the evocative, transformative power of literature. On this occasion we are not accompanied by actors on the routes but by the voices of some of the great writers who lived in times that will never come back, of which there are just a few remains, a few testimonies of life and art like those that have been so proudly accumulated by the museum. The visit is called A Museum out of a Novel and takes us around the cabinets of curiosities with the guidance of some great literary fragments from the or about the turn of the twentieth century. Sometimes simple curiosity can offer us knowledge in the same way as wisdom emerges from modesty. Jacint Verdaguer called it “that voice of those who are absent”, the voice of those who are no longer here but who evidently continue to be present, the plasticity and the ideas of a contemporary literary language juxtaposed with the objects we look at in the museum and which have lasted as evidence of the passing of time over us.
The Marès Museum is one of Catalonia’s greatest treasures – a gathering of extraordinary pieces which unsettle and fascinate us.
Frederic Marès collected antique collections, he preserved objects from destruction in the same way as literature keeps alive for us a past that we do not want to disappear – the Barcelona which would be changed by the Universal Exhibition of 1888, the Barcelona of Pitarra, rough and hand-crafted, the dramatic Barcelona of Guimerà, both of whom filled the city’s theatres; the Barcelona of a fabulously wealthy Catalan bourgeoisie who made their money during what Narcís Oller called Gold fever. This was the great city that broke, stifled, out of its own walls to grow unrestrainedly, described by Joan Salvat-Papasseit, the Barcelona of the tireless manual weaving of the hives of women and the fiery furnaces where the men, half hidden by the smoke, hammered away. This is also the city of people who smoked tobacco and still used snuff and spoke excitedly about Paris, as the books of Santiago Rusiñol assures us. It is the Barcelona in which Josep Pla became a writer and the hub for Marian Vayreda, Joaquim Ruyra and Prudenci Betrana. The city of modernity which, like in the novels by Mercè Rodoreda, sees everything and wants everything to be a part of it.
The Marès Museum is one of the great treasures of Catalonia and a gathering of extraordinary pieces, of presences that unsettle and fascinate us; the more we look at them, the more we understand them.
The activity A Museum out of a Novel. A literary walk through the “sentimental museum” will take place on Saturday 21 September at 11am at the Frederic Marès Museum. You must book a place. Groups can request the same activity on a certain, here.
The website of the Manresa County Museum warns: “The museum has embarked on a major refurbishment project and as a result we have had to close most of our exhibition rooms”.
Currently, the warning continues, there are just two exhibitions that can be visited: Paintings by Antoni Viladomat i Manalt (Barcelona, 1678-1755) and the Little Museum exhibition with a small collection of pieces from our collection.
View of the exhibition “Little Museum”.
But if you still want to see the museum’s treasures, click on the red “Enter” button and you can experience, in all its encouraging virtual presentation, the past, present and future of a space which brings together archaeology, history, memory and art – lots of art.
The museum’s director, Francesc Vilà, explains that the current museum building, the monumental thirteenth century College of Saint Ignatius, built by Jesuit monks, is being transformed to meet the requirements of the twenty-first century, taking advantage of the 500th anniversary of the conversion of the founder of the Company of Jesus at the Cave of Saint Ignatius in Manresa.
Antoni Viladomat, La primavera, c. 1730-1755. MNAC. Llegat de Ramir Lorenzale, 1918.
It may sound strange but Ignatius of Loiola was one of the heralds of the Counter-Reformation: a doctrinal, mental and spiritual reform in the Catholic church which forms the basis for Baroque art and even the modern concept of propaganda.
Vilà wants to take advantage of this refurbishment to expand the exhibition space of the museum to 1900 square metres and reorganise the content. The first floor will be entirely given over to the baroque – a style which has been erroneously identified in Catalonia with a period of economic, social and artistic decadence. The rest of the space will be dedicated to the region: archaeology, medieval art, the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. I would say this is one of the most ambitious refurbishments carried out in a Catalan museum since 2008.
Plan of the cave of San Ignacio de Loyola, 1731.
If you still want to visit the two small exhibitions that are currently open in the museum, your journey will not be in vain. On the ground floor there is a room of around forty square metres with a selection of the contained that is currently held at the museum. From a tenth century lipsanotheca, or small reliquary, from the church of Santa Maria de Lillet to a wayside cross from Crulla (14-15 century) and an original plan of the Cave of San Ignacio (1731) showing what the cave looked like in the eighteenth century.
Servidora de l’harpia, s. XIV. Medieval pottery.
But maybe the most typical pieces of the museum collection are a high altarpiece relief of the Rosary (1642-1646), from the old church of Saint Peter the Martyr – a paradigmatic work by one of the main Baroque sculptors from Manresa, Joan Grau. There is also a vitrine with decorated medieval ceramics from the fourteenth century. Chronologically this is the first known luxury Catalan tableware and it was discovered during the demolition of the Church of Carme during the Spanish Civil War. Finally, there is a large painting by Antoni Viladomat, The Assumption of Mary with all the Saints (c. 1728-1750).
Antoni Viladomat, L’assumpció de la Mare de Déu amb tots els sants, c. 1728-1750.
One the first floor there are fourteen more paintings by Viladomat, most of them deposited on loan from the MNAC, and an Apparition of Christ to Saint Ignatius in Rome (c. 1700-1755) in both rough and final versions, on loan from the Sant Jordi Academy of Fine Art. This is the space where you can see most work by Viladomat who gained his greatest recognition during the War of the Spanish Succession. For example, there are three works from the “Four Seasons” series: Spring, Autumn and Winter (c. 1730-1735). Viladomat covered all kinds of subject matter: religious compositions, portraits, still life and genre scenes.
Antoni Viladomat, Aparició de Crist a Sant Ignasi a Roma, c. 1700-1755. Sketch.
The renewed Manresa County Museum aims to be the most important museum for Baroque art in Catalonia. In the seventeenth century the city of Manresa experienced a population boom. Also, there were so many religious order that the demand for art grew exponentially to make Manresa one of the most outstanding centres for the production of Baroque sculpture. Dynasties such as the Grau family (Joan and Francesc), the Sunyers (Pau and Josep), Josep Generes, Jaume Padró, Jacint Miquel i Sors mean that today we can talk about a Golden Age (1630-1730) of art produced in Manresa.
As well as the Baroque, we should also remember the twentieth century when Manresa was home to interesting names such as painter Alfred Figueres, scenographer Josep Mestres Cabanes (soon we will be able to see his sets for Aida at the Liceu Opera House) and the painter, restorer and art dealer Josep Dalmau, who introduced styles such as French Cubism (1912) to his Barcelona gallery, as well as supporting artists like Joan Miró (1918) and Salvador Dalí (1925).
While 2022 seems like a long way off, we can always get a taste of the aperitif at the two rooms that remain open at the Manresa County Museum. The time will fly by.
If we think we know about Catalonia, we cannot ignore its medieval roots. And once of the best places to see the material and artistic culture of Catalonia is at the Episcopal Museum of Vic (MEV).
The MEV is both medieval and digital at the same time. It dates back to 1891, in the midst of the Catalan Renaixença, when a group of intellectuals and clerics from Vic organised themselves to recover the artistic heritage of the region. The museum was renewed in 2002 with the opening of a new building designed by architects Federico Correa and Alfonso Milán, both of whom studied under the incredible José Antonio Coderch. This is not one of those iconic buildings destined to be shown on postcards or fridge magnets, but a mass of irregular geometry inspired by the great Catalan palaces of the modern era, and exclusively designed for the content.
La Nit dels Museus 2019 al MEV.
There are several collections in the MEV but the most outstanding for their originality and quality are the Romanic, Gothic art and textiles. But just being exceptional pieces of art is not enough. They need to be explained, with the details of each one and the context in which they were created.
It wouldn’t hurt to know a bit about the new Testament and the stories of the lives – and miracles – of some of the saints and martyrs that appear most often in Catalonia. Beyond faith, this is an exercise in basic knowledge which will offer us a better understanding of Catalan culture. In any case, the brief explanations placed at the side of each of the works suffice for understanding what we are looking at.
But what makes the MEV an example to be imitated within the Catalan museum scene is its website. In the Collection section you can explanations of all of the works in more detail than in the rooms where they are exhibited, with short, well-made videos, and a “gigaphoto” of the piece allowing us to see it significantly enlarged.
In the section My MEV you can organise a custom guided tour with an audio guide which you download to your phone. There are three recommended routes to choose from: Masterpieces, The Museum in 45 Minutes, or A 360º Virtual Tour. Or you can choose one of the numerous tours designed by the users. Honestly, if anyone ever had to design the teaching function of a museum, this magnificent initiative would certainly seem to be the way to go.
Master of Erill, The Descent from the Cross from Erill la Vall, first half of the 12th century.
The museum space is designed specifically to house the pieces. At the beginning of the route visitors come face to face with the Descent of Erill la Vall – a set of wooden sculptures from the first half of the twelfth century. This is a really exceptional work: there are very few sculptures of its monumental proportions conserved in Catalan Romanic art, and even the art of the period was not as expressive as this in expressing pain, the pathos of the two figures shown. Also, the figures are articulated, suggesting that they were used in liturgical dramas. The set was discovered, in disuse, in 1907 at a church in the Vall de Boí. The main part of the set was acquired at the antiques market by Father Gudiol, the curator of the MEV, in 1911. Two more figures, the Virgin and Saint John, were acquired by the collector Lluís Planidura and are currently held at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona.
The defeated, lifeless body of Christ, the penitent thief, dead with his tongue hanging out, Nicodemus taking down the body of Christ while Joseph of Arimathea supports the corpse…even today we can feel the pain and resignation of the scene.
La Seu d’Urgell workshops, Mural painting with the scene of the Saint Supper, 1242-1255.
A Mural Painting with the Scene of the Last Supper (1242-1255) is a great example of the transition from the Late Romanic and Early Gothic periods. In the centre is Christ, facing forward, celebrating the Eucharist as the act which the Christian liturgy is centred on. Beside him, a described in the gospel, Saint John leans his head on him. The only figure facing away from the viewer is, of course, Judas the traitor, receiving the host from Jesus. It is a delicate composition.
Gothic courtyard of the MEV.
Without being a criticism of other museums exhibiting large altarpieces inadequately, Room 8 of the MEV allows us a close up and also a distant view of a first-rate piece: the Altarpiece of the Franciscan Order (1414-1415), by Lluís Borrassà.
Lluís Borrassà, Massacre of the innocents. Altarpiece dedicated to Saint Francis, 1414-1415.
This work is one of the masterpieces of European painting from the first international gothic period and is characterised by a naturalist aesthetic based on dynamism and use of brightly coloured pigments. The naturalism is highlighted, for example in the violent scene of the slaughter of the innocents, with a sinister heap of dead babies.
Bernat Martorell marked the second period of the International Gothic.
Curiously, Borrassà’s death in 1425 coincided with the start of the artistic activity of Bernat Martorell. Martorell marked the second period of the International Gothic, with less gesticulation and a calmer feel reflecting early humanism. The influence of Flemish painting is evident.
Bernat Martorell, Scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist, 1427-1437.
At the MEV there are parts of an altarpiece with scenes of the life of Saint Eulalia, and a predella with scenes of the life of Saint John the Baptist by Martorell, from the Cathedral of Vic. Martorell is a poet of terror as we can see in images such as the horrific adolescent Saint Eulalia put to death on the cross as the snow protects her modesty on the lower half of her body. Or Salome carrying John the Baptist’s head on a tray while behind her a soldier has just decapitated the last of the prophets. Not even Tarantino could have done it better.
The collections, but especially the work of the museum team, have meant that at the MEV Catalan art from other centuries can speak to us without the need for glosses or intermediaries. When applied in museums, technology is often a kind of mirage or bottomless pit of resources. But in Vic they have understood and made the best use of it, aware that any tool, without adequate handling, can be a firework.