Santiago de Compostela, writes the 20th c. American writer and Bryn Mawr professor, Georgiana Goddard King, “is a dead town, monumental and triste.” The very same vibrant, bustling Spanish town that greets thousands of pilgrims and tourists every year, that she herself visited every year, that she wrote about at considerable length – dead. What fascinated her were the bells, the rituals, processions, sepulchers, monuments, the crypt of the Cathedral, the Botafumeiro and the incense. And all of that spoke volumes to her about the dead.
Georgiana Goddard King was only one of a significant group of American writers and art historians who visited Santiago in the early 1920s. The only difference among her compatriots was that she wrote the guidebook, she led the way, she was the canary in the coal mine. Sent by the Hispanic Society in New York to write about Spain, she set out to revisit a work by George Street, looking into what she called “Persian” influence on Spanish architecture, but instead, she wrote a comprehensive three volume guide to the Camino de Santiago in 1920 that became an important resource for anyone wanting to travel in Spain, either to explore the Camino or to research the tremendous treasure trove of previously unpublished medieval Spanish art. She writes about train travel, attending a Catholic Mass, of the skies and the people, of a Spanish Boy Scout troop that comes to Santiago for the Feast of the Apostle – and in each instance, she tells the story with such tremendous care and such a clear view, you feel like she is in fact present beside you, guiding you by the hand.
And her friends did come to Spain. Her writing influenced two prominent American art historians, Kenneth Conant and Arthur Kingsley Porter, who would go on to eclipse her in fame among medievalists, as if the impetus for their writing was their own intuition and not this pioneer Bryn Mawr professor. Gertrude Stein visited Spain with King’s guide, as did Edith Wharton and Walter Berry. Ernest Hemingway surely must have known her work.
But it’s her description of Santiago and the Cathedral that attracts our attention.
“It is the gift of Santiago to seem, for each man, the place where he would be. The low streets, arcaded, with low-browed houses and a low hanging sky, are like places to which you come in a dream and remember that you have known them long ago. … Santiago is triste, mortally. It is grey of granite: greenish, tawny, blackened or lichened; but somber and austere even in its heaviest pomp. The Puerta de las Platerías is gilded by weathering, but that opposite is stained with sea fog and greyed with mountain mist.
Santiago is a dead city. The town is full of the crying of bells, for bells are voices of the dead, warning, impelling, urging, arresting; calling to recollection, signaling to prayer, sounding for the passage of time, marking the years of one dead, clamouring at sunrise like sea-birds, clanging in the green clear twilight of early moonset, making the devotion appointed. La Oración, they call the Angelus in Spain, and riding toward a mountain city in the still pale light after the sun has dropped, you may hear them break out in a loud crying of their own: one after another takes it up, and rocking in their open arcades, echoing in the windless air, ringing against the red wall of the city and the blue wall of the mountain, they call and they compel.”
Grey, melancholy, dark, haunted, triste.
King attends the “great Mass of the Vigil,” the day before the Feast. The church “smelt warm and human,” and she remarks on how Spain manages crowd control, suggesting the Cathedral was full that day.
“By the commencement of the choir office, we were standing each immovable on his own scrap of pavement, and kneeling in our tracks. Piety was a matter quite private and personal.” There were the ladies “in the long black veil gathered tight at the throat,” the crowd “came and went, laughed and talked, and fanned.” And of the statue of St. James behind the altar? “The effect of the entire sanctuary is as of one of the lacquered shrines of Buddha, and the imperturbable, within, abiding there.”
If you stand in the south transept, facing the altar with the Puerta de las Platerías behind you, you will be where Georgiana Goddard King stood in July that Holy Year, watched the Botafumeiro, and knelt during that Mass. The floor of the Cathedral, at the time, was a white and black checkerboard design. Everyone on their own “scrap of pavement.”
“The Way of Saint James” is King’s most impactful work, in terms of bringing Americans writers at least to a deeper understanding of Spain. After a decades-long professorship at Bryn Mawr, where she had founded the Art History Department and served as its first chair, when she retired, she left the East Coast for California. Her important work, “The Heart of Spain,” was published in 1949, ten years after her death. Her influence on a generation of important art historical scholarship is undervalued now. Her contribution to our appreciation of the Cathedral today should not be.
“One night, I remember, as I traveled, the Camino de Santiago hung straight across the sky, frothy white as the surf on a night in August, and I knew that under it lay the grand church.”
Georgiana Goddard King (1879-1939): The Way of Saint James, 1920, the Knickerbocker Press, New York.