The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, like most medieval churches standing today, is a sum of its parts. It is stone piled on stone; it is glass, painting, and precious metals, and it is also the embodiment of the men who built it, the ambition and drive that they poured into it, and the many people since who have come into it to pray, to find absolution, or to leave a bit of themselves in it. Eugenio Montero Ríos is one of those men.
Born in Santiago de Compostela in 1832, Señor Montero spent his adult life in public service. He filled many roles in Spanish government, including Prime Minister, he taught law, he signed the Treaty of Paris, giving Cuba its freedom, and he was instrumental in swaying the vote to allow civil marriages in Spain in 1870. When he died in 1914, the local politicians decided to design a roughly life-sized statue to pay appropriate tribute to his memory, which in itself was a lovely idea. Something to honor this famous local jurist. However, in the light of history, it did not go entirely according to plan. They decided the best place to remember Señor Montero was smack in the middle of the Plaza Alfonso XII, now called the Obradoiro, which sits smack in the front of the Cathedral in a giant-sized plaza. Nearly every art association in Spain cried out that the very idea of planting a statue in the most magnificent of plazas in Spain was an affront. Yet little of the outcry, if any, addressed his political views or his career as a well-respected civil servant.
The mayor cajoled Montero’s widow, saying everyone really loved the idea. A prominent sculptor, Mariano Benlliure y Gil (1862-1947), was commissioned to produce it, announcing he would forego his salary, and the thing was unveiled on St. James’ Day in 1916, barely two years after Montero’s death. The bronze, robed, standing portrait was left out in the middle of the square for all to see – how terribly small it was. Luis Mariscal, who accompanied the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca on a tour of the cathedral that following October, called it “insignificant,” and he imagined a day in the future when “you might wander around the Obradoiro looking for a trace of that statue that went up on a bad day in the 20th century.” The then 18-year old Garcia Lorca called it “hateful spit on the Baroque façade of the Cathedral.”
Mariscal was something of a fortune teller, for the thing was only there for the next 12 years before being unceremoniously removed to what is in effect the Siberia of Compostela – the Plaza Mazarelos, where he stands today, visited more by local pigeons than political historians or civil marriage aficionados, I would imagine. He is missing some bits because vandals have now twice pulled off the side pieces that define the base. As recently as this past February, someone made off with a bit of sculpture to the continuing outrage of the keepers of the Benlliure fan website who demanded better protection for Benlliure’s important artwork. The original base featured four corner allegorical sculptures: Law, Faith, Science, and Charity. Some years ago, someone noticed he was missing the allegory of Science. Now he is also missing the allegory of Faith.
The irony, of course, was that one of the speeches during the original installation in the Obradoiro in 1916 emphasized that Montero would be there “forever, forever.” A remarkably similar fate met his lamp. Montero donated a bronze chandelier of some enormity to the Cathedral back in 1895. Over the centuries, lamps have been very popular gifts. It was meant to hang over the main altar, forever, forever illuminating the altar of St. James. But by 2006, it needed both a sound cleaning and an upgrade since its earlier transition from gas to electric was long out of date with modern code. It was cleaned and replaced, hanging near the main altar. Sometime after 2013, our Señor Montero was exiled again: this time his lamp was moved out of the main church entirely and into the sacristy, where it hangs now. All 2100 kilos of it, just for robing priests to enjoy.
If you stand at the entrance to the sacristy, on the west wall of the south transept (the entrance is Puerta de Platerias, the entrance to the sacristy is on the wall on the left as you face the opposite door on the north, the Azabacheria), you might catch a glimpse of the chandelier. It was hung originally just forward of the organ pipes, in the center of the nave.
On the general topic of cleaning, the Benlliure statue did make a reappearance in 2006, in its original spot on the Plaza Obradoiro while the base was being cleaned in the Plaza Mazarelos. It was hoisted up onto a truck overnight and posted standing in its old spot as part of a temporary art installation called “A Visit from Eugene.” The Portuguese artist Andres Guedes is photographed “visiting” with Eugene. The statue was returned after two days.
And civil marriage? I am certain Montero believed it too would last forever, forever, laid out simply as it was that you could finally marry outside the Church and that the union would be legitimate and binding equal to Church marriages. It only lasted until Franco came to power in the 1930s, effectively reinterpreting the 1870 provisions, banning divorce, and decreeing that the state intervene to determine if civil marriages would be allowed. Laws in Spain now concerning civil unions are among the most progressive anywhere.
So, this is one of the best lessons in impermanence. The thing we buy, imagining it to last forever, to be as meaningful to our children as the thing is to us, or the monument we put up right away that just doesn’t stand up to history. In further irony, Eugenio Montero Ríos really was a significant politician. His work was impactful. He was highly respected during his life. He just wasn’t big enough for the Obradoiro.
Next time you’re in Santiago de Compostela, you might want to pay him a visit, maybe leave some flowers. Before any more bits of his statue are boosted from the base.
Check back for more stories of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. My new book will feature Eugenio and many more pilgrims, poets, politicians, and priests who have interacted with the building over the past 800 or so years.