Saturday, 2 November 2013

Granada! Part Dos!

Just a brief addendum.

The cathedrals and churches of Granada were, as you’d expect, a definite highlight, especially those in the mixed Spanish-Moorish style. Not all of them were open to visitors. Of those that were, the interiors were often very splendid as in this quire:

(My photographic skills are less than splendid – see here and here).

Sometimes they were slightly gaudy and over-gilded, as this from Guadix cathedral:

And sometimes they were downright terrifying, as this from the church in the Barrio de las Cuevas just outside Guadix (picture taken from the web):

I am not sufficiently informed to know whether or not this is a particular flavour of Spanish Catholicism, though my hunch is that to some extent it is. Either way it’s trivial to run down someone’s faith simply because I find its symbols aesthetically unappealing, so I won’t.

Nevertheless, I am interested to know why I find this style unappealing. There are lots of descriptions I could throw at it – macabre, kitsch, un-self reflective and so immune to irony – but these feel unexamined and therefore unfair.

Maybe what makes me uncomfortable is an extremity of belief which holds that it is impossible to overstate or hyperbolize what is absolutely and infinitely true. And, similarly, which holds that these images need no moderation or circumspection – Mary is absolutely full of grace, Christ absolutely having a shitty day up there on the cross – because there is no other alternative truth that could undermine or ironize it. You can only have irony where a plurality of truths is possible; to insist on its impossibility is to claim that there is just one, crushingly victorious truth. Which is probably why we respond antagonistically by emphasizing their kitsch value – we insist on reinstating the ironical potential we think has been peremptorily ruled out.

But even then, I’m not sure this is getting me any closer to why I was put off at the gut level – this is all a number of rationalizations down the line. And my immediate feeling wasn’t one of oppression. Maybe the problem is in over-exemplification – in her grace and lovingness and innocence Mary is, or poses as, the final and undiluted instantiation of those things. Again, this can be immoderate and oppressive: a claim that this is the highest, most perfect manifestation and therefore cannot be hyperbolized. But the real kicker is that it has a sense of the uncanny – they are human figures but with an inhuman idealness and unreality, and this human but somehow-not-quite aspect (see this) is what disturbs and alienates.

On an incidental note, and I am not sure in what way, if any, this is related, some of the Moorish décor of the Nasrid palace in the Alhambra has a similar impossibility-of-excess style. All over the walls are repeated passages from the Koran and Islamic catechism, like this:

As the guide pointed out, if you are an Arabic speaker the effect is of entering a room with the same words written all over its walls. If I wasn’t so afraid of the repercussions I’d compare it to that bit in The Simpsons taking off The Shining, where Homer scrawls ‘no beer and no TV make Homer go crazy all over the walls’.

I found the effect beautiful, though as a non-Arabic speaker I suppose it was mainly decorative for me. The same principle seemed to hold: that an uncontestable truth cannot be overstated. It reminds me of the only passage of the Koran I know, in fact not from the Koran (I just found out) but from one of the Hadiths, recounting Muhammed’s vision of the Sixth Heaven. This is quoted from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (notoriously flaky, apparently) but from having a snoop on Google it seems the Hadith definitely says something very much like this:

I saw there an angel, the most gigantic of all created beings. It had 70,000 heads, each had 70,000 faces, each face had 70,000 mouths, each mouth had 70,000 tongues, and each tongue spoke 70,000 languages; all were employed in singing God’s praises.

Not sure what I’m doing with this. I suppose what immediately crossed my mind was some sort of cross-cultural historical link between Spanish Catholicism and Moorish Islam. But there’s no basis for that, and this is all getting a bit thin. I’ll just call it an interesting parallel and leave it at that.


  1. When I was in Andalusia, admittedly many years ago, there seemed to me a distinct difference between Islamic and Christian architecture (epitomised nowhere better than in the clumsy cathedral built in the middle of the graceful mosque in Cordoba: even Carlos V was moved to say that they had disfigured something beautiful to build something ordinary). Islamic architecture, despite decorating every square inch of the walls, have a lightness to it: the Christian architecture, even with bare walls, seem heavy. As you say, the churches seemed, to my eyes at least, overly ostentatious.

    I too know little of Spanish Catholicism, but what I saw of it in Andalusia put me in mind of Hinduism, of which I guess I have seen a bit. In Andalucia, bus drivers,, taxi drivers, lorry drivers, etc would place on their windscreens a picture of their favourite image of the Madonna; and seeing this, I was inevitably reminded of my native Bengal, where drivers would place on their windscreen favourite images of Kali or of Durga. And there seemed little to choose between the veneration of the various saints in Seville and the veneration of various god and goddesses in Calcutta. A curious correspondence, i thought, since historically, neither culture has had teh opportunity of making its mark on the other.

    1. Hi Himadri,

      Yes - one thing we didn't see so much of, but is certainly out there, are the small picture cards of saints etc. When I was in the south of Italy over ten years ago you couldn't go anywhere without seeing images of Padre Pio, presumably because he was just in the process of being canonized and was Italian (the equivalent of hanging an England flag from your window, or having a 'vote Labour' sign in the garden?).

      The mosque in Cordoba, and the St Sofia in Istanbul, are definitely high up on my 'next' list. Regarding the Christian saints and religious 'syncretism' I'm sure I heard a theory somewhere that the Apostles or some of them correspond with the pagan Greco-Roman gods. The most I remember, however, is that Luke was a healer just like Apollo. I'm not sure this theory is going to get off the ground.

  2. If the angel is the largest created organism, let's assume it works on a similar principle, and is comparable in size, to the largest organism we know of. This would be the colonial quaking aspens of Utah, the largest of which, Pando, has 40,000 stems. 70,000 individual angel-sprouts isn't too much of a stretch here, so each can have one head.

    However, aspens aren't that large. Generously, an angel-head would be similar in size to the aspens' crowns: say 5m cubed. That's a surface area of 150m^2 (not counting where the head meets the neck), or 21cm^2 per face.

    We still need to fit 70,000 mouths in this area. Allowing no room for eyes or other features (perhaps they're on stalks?), that allows each mouth an area of 0.03mm^2, roughly a sixth of a millimetre a side. These praises are going to be *extremely* high-pitched.

    Change tack. Let's make the angel-faces fit on the leaves of an aspen. At a wild guess, let's say our aspen - sorry, angel - has 70,000 leaf-faces. Mature aspens (the angel is at least 13.8 billion years old, quite elderly for a tree) have leaves about 50cm^2. Each mouth therefore has an average area (again, no other features, which are relegated to the catkins) of 0.07mm^2. Hooray! We've more than doubled the available angel-mouth-area allowance.

    Just as well; each mouth has 70,000 tongues. That gives each tongue about a square micron of wiggle room, roughly the size of an E. coli bacterium. And wriggle they will, as they have 70,000 languages to speak, each, or ~14 times the number of languages currently extant, each. (God's treatment of the language/dialect boundary is largely unknown.) In total that's 1.6807 septillion languages, or 15 trillion languages per human, living or dead.

    Is it possible to have that many languages? We can discount sign language, given the mention of tongues, so let's look at the international phonetic alphabet. As of 2008 it had 107 letters and 52 diacritics, 11,149 different sounds (not counting prosodic variation). Combinatorially, we can quickly get to astronomical numbers of possible languages. Our angel barely scratches the surface.

    So. To recap, our angel now resembles some kind of nightmarish forest grove, festooned with microscopic faces, each with a profusion of infinitesimal mouths, gibbering incomprehensible praises at a pitch only viruses could hope to hear.

    But each tongue has to speak 70,000 languages simultaneously, so must be vibrating at a phenomenal frequency. Such quick vibration of the muscle tissue would surely cause extreme overheating and inevitable near-instant conflagration. The subsequent effects of this are beyond the scope of my analysis, but for a general impression of the scene, please refer to Exodus 3:1-22.

    1. Ha! Welcome to heaven - it's terrifying.

      Are there really 11,149 different sounds? Extraordinary. Presumably that is the number of sounds that can be used phonemically - or does that number also include 'inarticulate' sounds, such as e.g. the fed-up grunt of a bus driver, Jeremy Paxman's low whistle of contempt, etc.?

      C3PO mastered only six million languages. Pah. No sixth heaven for you, lowly droid.