Postcard from Burgos, Spain: Counting on forgiveness at the hour of death

Above: A putto cradles a skull in the Chapel of Santa Ana in the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Burgos.

“Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”

Growing up Catholic in the United States seems to bear little resemblance to the experience in Europe. Even the basic images in a place like Star of the Sea in Virginia Beach are more than an ocean apart from what surrounds church-goers in an ancient church of Europe – for example, the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Burgos, where these photographs were taken.

Before we move on to this post’s morbid distinctions between that parish and the Cathedral, let’s examine this detail on the left of a 15th-century painting in the Cathedral’s collection. I am certain I was never exposed to an image of the Virgin Mary nursing until I was in college. This would never have hung in Star of the Sea, even if painted by one of the original disciples. (Although it is safe to say that one would not learn much about a woman’s anatomy from this painting. Mary’s breast is so far off target that the follower of Rogier van der Weyden who created it must have been celibate or gay.)

As a child, I had a lot of time to examine what hung on the walls of Star of the Sea because Mass was said in Latin (Yes, I’m that old.), a language I failed to master. Of course, there was Jesus on the cross, and stations of the cross hung between the windows and the too-small rotating fans. But, modestly crafted out of plain wood, they did little to convincingly convey the agony of the cross-bearing Jesus as he was whipped toward the Calvary, which means place of the skull.

But add heavy Gothic doses of polychrome and gilt, and no Latin is needed to grasp Jesus’ pain. The monochromatic art in the white chapel below makes it appear pleasant for an intimate wedding. But wait, a full-color recumbent figure of Jesus bleeds on the cushion below the matrimonial scene. At Star of the Sea, little blood was evident, not even when the Priest pronounced body and blood of Christ during Communion (Old Father Habit offered wine from the chalice to no one but himself.).

And there is art depicting violent Biblical tales and tragic stories of saints (Where did all the lions come from?). While the Cathedral and Cloisters contain numerous portrayals of Santiago, Saint James, as a peaceful pilgrim, other works render him as he rode onto the battlefield, sword-swinging astride a horse, to lead outnumbered Christians to victory – miraculously 800 years after his death. No mercy is shown the turbaned Moors trampled under his horse’s hooves.

As in most Catholic churches in Europe, both symbolic and vivid representations of death are everywhere you look in the Cathedral. Not to mention tombs. None found at Star of the Sea.

Born near Burgos in 1043, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar became a skilled warrior who fought against both Christian and Moor as his political alliances shifted during turbulent times. Public minstrels’ popular oral recitations of the medieval epic poem, “Song of My Cid,” sealed his transformation into a national hero, a hero whose remains along with those of his wife Jimena were transferred to a prime location under the spectacular dome pictured at the top of the prior post.

It was a sight to see the lances rise and fall that day; 
The shivered shields and riven mail, to see how thick they lay; 
The pennons that went in snow-white come out a gory red; 
The horse running riderless, the riders lying dead; 
While Moors call on Mohammed, and "Saint James!" the Christians cry.... 

Excerpt from “The Poem of the Cid,” as translated by John Ormsby in 1879

Perhaps the most grandiose resting spot in the Cathedral is found in the Chapel of the Constables. Pedro Fernandez de Velasco spent a lot of time off at war at the bequest of kings – the conquest of Ubeda and Baeza and several battles against the Moors. King Enrique IV of Castile (1425-1474) rewarded his service by naming him Constable of Castile.

Despite Don Pedro’s extensive absences, his wife Mencia de Mendoza y Figueroa produced a passel of children. She also was left in charge of their funds and applied her good but expensive taste to the construction of the lavish Casa del Cordon for the family and an elegant pantheon attached to the Cathedral as the ultimate resting place for the couple. What became known as the Chapel of the Constables is a hexagon at floor level with an octagon at the top crowned by a stunning star-shaped vault.

The Constable perished during the conquest over the Moors at Granada in 1492, followed by his wife eight years later. Their serene faces convey the belief that any sins they might have committed in battle or marriage were forgiven before the hour of their deaths, and the finely carved detail of their shared marble sepulcher ensures Dona Mencia remains fashionably attired and bejeweled for eternity.

As if tombs are not enough of a reminder of the inevitable fate that awaits all who enter the Cathedral, there are bones. Bits and pieces of saints carefully housed in individual reliquaries fill one chapel.

Once, the western world was full of relics. The bones and skin, fingernails and even heads of saints were preserved, bought and sold, stolen and cheished. Relics of holy people and of Jesus Christ were at the heart of medieval Christianity. Today many relics have been discredited…. Some relics are still cherished. They have survived sceptics, scientists and in some cases detailed exposure, to be revered as holy objects of awe.

“From St. Peter’s bones to severed heads,” Jonathan Jones, The Guardian, 2013

One probably could find a part of a patron for any miracle requiring intercession through prayers in the Cathedral’s Chapel of the Relics.

There is a remedy for everything except death.

Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, 1605

Should you want some bones of your own, you can still purchase first-class relics on Ebay. Definitely buy at your own risk; belief in authenticity requires a leap of faith in the honesty of the seller.

While this trade in body parts is legal under civil law, it is not according to Canon Law. Nefas est – the Latin root of nefarious. Jim Blackburn writes that according to the Code of Canon Law::

“It is absolutely forbidden to sell sacred relics” (CIC 1190 §1)…. The New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law explains that, “The prohibition against selling any sacred relic is expressed in the code’s strongest language, nefas est, meaning ‘it is absolutely forbidden.’ Relics may be given away by their owners, except for the second category of relics which may not be given away without permission of the Apostolic See” (1415).

The second category of relics referred to in the commentary are very significant or highly honored relics…: “Relics of great significance and other relics honored with great reverence by the people cannot be alienated validly in any manner or transferred permanently without the permission of the Apostolic See” (CIC 1190 §2). The commentary explains relics of great significance: “A significant relic was defined in the previous code as a part of a saint’s body (arm, forearm, heart, tongue, leg) or the part of a martyr’s body that had suffered the wound that caused death, provided the part was entire and not too small” (1415).

“Are there any rules governing relics?” Jim Blackburn, Catholic Answers

Lest you think I find the presence of reminders of death in the Cathedral a bad thing, I do not. Aside from hazy memories of an over-abundance of platters of deviled eggs, ham and potato salad vying for space on dimly lit antique buffet tables, I was overly sheltered from death throughout my childhood – so much so that I was shocked in my thirties when close relatives failed to emerge from hospitals cured.

There’s comfort in memento mori, like the skull cradled by a chubby putto. They assign a sense of normalcy to death, making it merely a part of the cycle of life. A reminder that when you depart church, you need to live life to the fullest.

Carpe diem. Tempus fugit.

So off we fly to Oaxaca next week.

2 thoughts on “Postcard from Burgos, Spain: Counting on forgiveness at the hour of death”

    1. Shannon – Only coming in for ten days – way too short for Oaxaca, particularly as it’s been four years. Of course, I’ve been following your blog, but please let me know if there’s some place new we absolutely should not miss.


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