A Late Afternoon in the Cathedral

What is the first sensation you feel when you walk into a medieval cathedral? Do your eyes squint as they become accustomed to the darkness? Do you smell incense, or candle wax? How about the cool air coming off the damp stone? Do you feel it? What do you hear?

Have you ever considered a late afternoon visit to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela as a vibrant, soul searching, sensory exercise?

The 19th century Galician poet María Rosalía Rita de Castro, better known as Rosalía de Castro (24 February 1837 – 15 July 1885), described a visit to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in a poem published in her 1880 collection called “Follas Novas.” She writes such a clear description of what she saw that day, and what she sensed: the murmuring, whistling, singing of the living played against the silence of the royal and the holy tombs.  And as the shadows take the place of afternoon light, she adds her own prayers.

“Like any day, in the corners
of the vast temple,
old men and old women nodding,
whisper Aves and Paternosters.
The archbishops in their sepulchers,
kings and queens, with great repose,
sleep tranquil, in peace in their marbles,
while in the choir the clerics sing.”

This choir she talks about is not a group of church singers, it is a three-sided, decorated enclosure that seats the cathedral priests, who would pray and sing there, in the center of this building, but away from the view of the public.

Placed in the central nave of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the choir enclosure was an elaborately carved stone structure that sat where the organ pipes jut out over the pews now, effectively closing off the length of the church but opening up again to the main altar area at the front. It was carved at the end of the 12th century by Maestro Mateo, the celebrated master sculptor of the Portico de la Gloria.

It stood there until the turn of the 17th century (1599-1606), when it was dismantled and removed. A good bit of Mateo’s stone choir can be seen now in the Cathedral Museum and another group of Mateo’s choir sculptures decorates the exterior of the Puerta Santa, the Holy Door entrance to the church that opens onto the Plaza Quintana on the east wall of the Cathedral. Those 24 prophets and saints that frame the doorway were all part of Mateo’s stone choir.

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It was replaced by an equally elaborate wooden choir. This wooden choir would have been in place during Rosalía’s visit in 1880. It was removed from the Cathedral in 1945 for liturgical reasons and later, it was restored and installed in the upper gallery of the nearby Church of San Martin Pinario.

1945 also marks the first time Masses were offered in the main body of the Cathedral for the public with pilgrims in attendance. It was subsequent to moving the wood choir out of the nave that the Cathedral central crypt was uncovered, which led to decades of archaeological research beneath the nave, and the old checkerboard tile floor itself was replaced.

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“The organ lifts up sad cries,
and the faraway bells reply;
the holy image of the Redeemer
seems to sweat blood into the garden.”

In the center of the west side of the wood choir, facing the back of the cathedral, there was a small altar with a statue of La Virgen de Soledad. Walking into the Cathedral, most likely through the Azabachería doors, listening to prayers and singing, Rosalía would have come around to stand in front of the altar dedicated to La Soledad, with the twisted, crucified figure of Christ suspended just above it.

“The west-setting sun,
through the stained glass of La Soledad,
throws serene light
that falls discolored
on the Gloria angels and the Eternal Father.”

The strategic placement of a full crystal chandelier, more recently located farther back in the nave than was likely positioned in 1880, would have caught the rays of the sun as it set and splashed color on the Soledad altar, possibly giving the impression of light coming through stained glass.

If you stand just before the westernmost pipes of the organ, with the Portico de la Gloria behind you, you will be standing where Rosalía stood that afternoon.

As she watches, the old men and the old women move like ghosts now, across the floor, still asking for remedies. The sun is turning a bright afternoon into shade and Rosalía begins to pray at the altar of La Soledad. She prays for her mother and for her children, and for her soul – and she leaves, because she becomes afraid. If you ever have the opportunity to stand in the Cathedral as they are locking up for the night and everyone has left, you might have a sense of this very lonely, very dark sensation, standing in that silent, cavernous space. As she says, “Like any day.”

In 1945, when the wooden choir was dismantled, the entire altar with the sculpture of La Soledad was separated from the rest of the choir and installed in the small chapel just to the right of the entrance to the Corticela Chapel, called the Holy Spirit Chapel, also known now as the Soledad Chapel. This is located in the north transept. Originally used as a funeral chapel, recently, it has also been the place for Masses to be said in English.

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Rosalía de Castro was born in Santiago de Compostela but lived in Madrid and Padron, where her house is a small museum now. She published her first collection of poems at the age of 19, had seven children, and died of cancer in 1885 at the age of 48. She was buried in Iria Flavia but her remains were moved in 1891 to Santo Domingo de Bonaval in Santiago de Compostela. It has been said that, owing to the standards for girls in 19th century education in Spain, she taught herself to read and write. She was an important early feminist, she wrote popular songs, and above all, she loved Galicia. After a lifetime of poor health, as she lay dying in her house in Padron, she asked that they open the window so she could see the sea. That request is written on the wall over the bed where she died.

You can follow the route of her life, starting in Santiago de Compostela and ending in Padron, along the Ruta Rosaliana. The text of the poem, in Gallego, is here. For further reading, “Follas Novas,” Fundacion Rosalía De Castro.

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