Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Spain in Early December - I - Montserrat II

In the last post we covered Montserrat (literally, 'serrated mountain') and the Church's exterior.  We now step inside.  For some reason they recommend visiting the Church in an anti-clockwise direction.  Therefore we enter from the right.

The painting depicts Simeon receiving Jesus on the day of Jesus' consecreation ceremony.  This ceremony originates in Judaism wherein the first-born male must be redeemed back from God by payment to a priest.  The Holy Ghost had promised Simeon that he would not die until he had seen Jesus.

Jesus' Consecration Ceremony: Now that Simeon has seen Jesus he utters "Nunc Dimittis Servum Tuum in Pace", or in English, "Now let your servant depart in peace" (in reality he is far more likely to have spoken liturgical Hebrew but let us put reality aside ...).

This statue depicts some Pope.  That it is a pope is easily recognized by the 'two key' insignia.  In Roman Catholic Church the Pope is believed to have keys to two separate kingdoms, of Heaven and of Earth.  Just a conjecture - one would probably not see keys in Churches belonging to other sects wherein the Pope is not recognized as 'God's representative on Earth'.  An alternative give away that the statue depicts the Pope is if you understand Latin and know that Peter is recognized as the first Pope in Roman Catholic Church (read the writing on the pedestal).

Peter the 1st Pope: "Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam" - "You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church"

No Comments: If you know about this relief then let me know.  It would be nice to put a caption here.

Arch of Angels: This staircase leads to another chamber, which leads you to yet another until you eventually reach the Black Madonna.  The angels are easily recognized as they are depicted with wings in supplicating poses or encircling an important figure. 

The stained-glass window in one of the sequential chambers leading to the Black Madonna was beautiful, and interesting.  It perhaps symbolizes the apparent opposites of darkness and light arising out of the same underlying unity, i.e.,the window.  I find this odd in a Church or any Semitic place of worship as in Semitic ideologies the forces of darkness are not part of a universal balance but arise out of conscious choice of some (wo)men to disobey God's command. In any case, this window is particularly stunning as it stands out rather well in a chamber which is otherwise devoid of art.

Ying Yang: A Glass-stained window with only one half of the window with a lit-up background.

The mosaic depicts Mother Mary.  The eagle represents many things in Christian iconography.  It is interesting that the eagle is up side down.  This perhaps is symbolic of the idea that it is sent down from heaven with the word of God imprinted on its wings.  Or perhaps it represents a ravenous bird that is sent down by God to destroy and sweep clean what is decadent.  At present, I can only speculate ... 

"Mater Ecclesiae" - or in English, "Mother of Church", is name given to Mary.

I reached the statue of Black Madonna. I had no idea what Black Madonna was when I saw it first.  Therefore I did not take a frontal.  I have not found a convincing reason so far as to why Madonna is depicted black - see here for some theories.  With Black Madonna just about a foot behind me, I tucked down as much as I could in order to avoid the line-of-sight of worshippers (not all in a Church are tourists or students of religious iconography!).  Here is what I clicked.  The stained-glass art depicts Coronation of Mary - a depiction that originated in Italy in (probably) the early Renaissance period.  On the left of Mary is God the Son, on the right, God the Father and the dove, right on the top of her head symbolizes the Holy Spirit.  You know that the art form is representative of latter styles as during the early Renaissance the coronation would typically have earthly subjects and court members instead.  These have been entirely replaced by angels here.  The style of the Church ceiling is very different from what you see in Milan, Florence or Rome.

"Mater Ecclesiae" - or in English, "Mother of Church", is name given to Mary.

What you see below I find rather strange - a congregation area behind the (main) altar. If you sit in this mini congregation area you would face the back of Black Madonna and perhaps infinitely worse, the face of worshippers in the main congregation area.  A wall separating the two areas would probably redeem what may, in some Christian thought, be considered blasphemy (worshippers facing each other).
Congregation are behind the Altar: I was not expecting a congregation area behind the main altar.  Probably because I have not seen enough churches?
The stained glass themes are centered around Mary while the statue appears to be that of a crusader.

Mini congregation area facing the back of Black Madonna: Worshippers that would take seats in the last picture would see this.
You can see Black Madonna draped in golden cloth, facing her back to you.  At the mini altar you have another depiction of Coronation of Madonna. 

Below you see a close-up of the right end of the wall in the picture above.  You never see this sort of architecture in Italian churches.  Probably it is influenced by Islam?

Distorted Circles: The Italians drew inspiration about geometric patterns from the Greeks.  The Greeks liked their circles round and their lines straight.  Archimedes reportedly told soldiers of the invading army 'Don't spoil my circles.'.  I conjecture therefore this part of the church architecture is influenced by Muslims from North African Moors that ruled much of what is today Portugal and Spain for 750 years prior to reconquista.

Another depiction of Coronation of Mary - note here you see a combination of both early Renaissance depiction with its Earthly imageries (musicians, court attendees and worshippers and angels.  I am not sure I understand the iconography of smoke emerging from the bottom.

Ceiling Painting: This painting adorns the ceiling of the mini congregation area.  It (yet again) depicts the Coronation of Mary.  The painting is in need of restoration.  I had to enhance the original image to bring out features that were not even visible to the eye.

We started the Church with Jesus' Consecration Ceremony.  We have now gone past the half way mark and are now turning back.  I do not know what this statue depicts.  If you do then please drop me a note.

A Church is a place to light candles.  They do this a lot more in Spain and I conjecture, Portugal (never been to/read about Portuguese churches).  My conjecture is based on similar practises ref candle burning I have seen in churches in India.  Religions expand and ebb with geopolitical or geoeconomic power.  Spaniards never colonized India.  The Portuguese did (mainly Goa).  

Light a candle.  It brings peace.  At least that is the idea.

You can see Black Madonna with Black Jesus in the mosaic.  A few comments are in order: Black Madonna is depicted brown instead.  This is quite common in Mexico.  Towards the bottom is the name of the church.  In the right hand Madonna is holding a sphere (not the Greek kind!) which symbolizes the universe.  Jesus is pointing his right index finger upwards and his left palm to himself.  Together these show that Jesus claims he is the redeemer who will lead his followers to heaven.  Towards the bottom, just above where it says 'Montserrat', you can see Montserrat, i.e., the serrated mountain, painted.  The church is built on Montserrat.

Black Madonna, Black Jesus (actually depicted brown)

This picture was pretty much the last before I exited back into the church's courtyard.  It was late evening and you can see the bluish tinge.  This is partly a result of might dispersion in the mist and partly a result of a blue-saturated exposure. 

Montserrat Church with Montserrat in the background.  Where is the dome?  Or is the exterior architecture also influenced by the Muslims - the Moors from North Africa?

That is pretty much it.  We will head back to Barcelona in the next post.  More churches and yes, Gaudi awaits you!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Spain in Early December - I - Montserrat I

My friend thinks Barcelona is one of the coolest places to visit in Europe.  So I said, why not?!

I landed in Barcelona at 11 in the morning.  If you have ever traveled by Ryanair you would understand when I say that the elation at being liberated from bone-distortion inducing seats dominates the excitement of initial moments in a new place.  Nevertheless, Barcelona is nice enough to make one forget the flight experience. 

I took a bus ride to La Rambla street; reached there in 40 minutes flat.

La Rambla: In the words of a Spanish poet "the only street in the world which I wish would never end".

Spaniards, just like the Chinese, love red.  I am not sure if this is brought out well in this picture as my camera was center-focused on getting the candid shot.  The blurred up tree canopy looks rather nice as well I think as it puts a sense of closure ...

Rituals Cosmetics: One of the several places on La Rambla that can help you burn deep holes in your pocket.

The Spanish poet's wish was not granted.  The street (almost) came to an end.  That is where I found my hotel.  I dropped my bags off and asked the hotel receptionist about how I can get to Montserrat.  To my dismay he mentioned that all tours leave in the morning and noon is a trifle too late to start off, specially in winters when sun sets around 5:30 PM.  Nevertheless with nothing else on plan for the day I headed straight to Placa Espanya that has buses and trains departing for Montserrat.

If you take a train ride, you have the option of taking another train for the last leg of your journey or taking a cable ride.  I highly recommend doing the last leg on the cable as the view from where you catch the cable is simply stunning - something you would see only in passing if you would instead ride the train all the way to the top.

Catalunya Flag: Took this shot while waiting for the transfer train to Montserrat. 

Towards Montserrat:  I took this shot from the train - you can see reflections in the train's window.  The other train the background with mist-induced solar light dispersion generated a nice effect.

After an hour of train ride, a 10 minutes wait and then another 15 minute train ride, this is where I found myself.

Montserrat: which literally means 'serrated mountains' is 60 km from Barcelona.  This view is what you see when you step right out of the train station.  The rocks are pretty homogeneous in color.  You see different shades and even a bit of yellow due to optical effects of sun rays piercing through differing densities of mist. 

The Church of Black Madonna is in Montserrat.  More on this later.  Let us enjoy the sight of its unique rock formations in the next few pictures.

Montserrat: Notice the small cross planted atop the rightmost peak.  Look out for the local topographical maxima and there is a high chance you would see the cross of Christ on top of that.

Cross in Mist: This picture is taken from the Churchyard.  What you see in the foreground are not clouds but mist. 

Montserrat: Never seen a temperate zone tree as thin, tall and seemingly straight.  On the left is the Montserrat museum and on the right the Montserrat church.

Montserrat Fenicular: Those who like to go up still higher from the Church's base can take the fenicular - a train the climbs up (and down) an incline of 75 degrees on rails.

When I first heard about it I exclaimed, "no way!".  Actually, it really does.  But here is the deal, while photographing from the Churchyard I saw 3 of them on their journey down.  Whenever one would come down, another would go up in sync.  This prompted me to head back down to the information counter and ask 'why'.  The lady on the other end smiled and said that is because the fenicular system operates like an elevator - two trains are connected to each other by a close-to-the-track cable.  Thus while one rolls down under gravity, the other is raised by the weight of the other.  If no one wants to come up then you can't take the train down - its (almost) that simple :).  In this picture you can see the two trains one just emerging from the canopy below and the other moving out of the canopy above.

This ends the outdoor fun.  In the next post we will enter inside the Church of Black Madonna.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Italy in Nov 2013 - Milano I

Raindrops, bricks and a distinct touch of old - these caught my attention as the airport bus drove into Milan.  The next day I headed off to Santa Maria della Grazie.
Santa Maria della Grazie
The church houses L'Ultima Cena, a painting better known as The Last Supper.  You need to buy a ticket in advance.  You can try here.  Beware of fake websites.  All I can do is caution, I wouldn't know how one would identify a fake website.

Alternatively you can waltz in 30 minutes before the gallery opens and pick up one of those cancelled tickets.  This should work well, at least during the low season.  Camera buffs - tough luck here - you cannot photograph the masterpiece that (probably) brings you to Milan.

Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan

The church suffered heavy damage as a result of Allied bombing in 1943.  Extensive restoration work was subsequently carried out.

Santa Maria della Grazie after allied bombing in 1943.  Source

Gelateria MiSciolgo

Gelateria MiSciolgo - adverts elsewhere but in Italy one might just commission a painting!

This painting was commissioned in 2006.  Gelateria MiSciolgo has however a longer tradition.  This place tops my list of ice cream joints in Milan.  The gelato are smooth, silky and without too much of sugar. The owner speaks a bit of English. Pull out your ipad, request for an internet password, sit back and relax while you tongue your way into the swirls.
The gelateria is located off Piazzale Lugano - not a place you would normally visit as a tourist but the experience is far more delightful than the relatively less personal, factory-made tastes you will come across around the Duomo. La Gelateria della Musica, another highly recommended gelato spot; closer to the city center but with a rather cramped sitting area.


Milan is full of tourists.  Milan is also full of people who make brisk business running restaurants but do not take pride in preparing what they serve.  Gelateria MiSciolgo blew me over with their emphasis on making sure the sugar-seeker goes back content.  I took the safe bet and asked the owner to recommend a pizza joint.  That is how I landed up at S.P.I.B.  They offer over 40 types of toppings.  All pizzas are priced between £4-9.  The bread is thin.  It has a distinct handmade flavour.  This is the third best pizza I have ever had in life (my best ever was at Pizza Hut in Rolla, Missouri and the second best at Breit au Soleil, a small village in Southeast France).  If you need taste bud orgasms then come here.  It is about 500m walk from Maciachini train station.

S.P.I.B.: I never met a person with an exclamation in her name.  But here is a pizzeria full of dots (and awesome pizza).