Friday, May 2, 2008

From Antonio Gaudi back to Carthage

The extraordinary popularity of Antonio Gaudi among individuals who have little interest in the history or development of architecture in general for the most part conditioned me almost to reject his work, despite the fact that his philosophy should have been attractive to me as some one who is obsessed with caves and natural temples. Yet, like any other subject or artist who becomes too trendy, from Pachelbel's Canon to Mozart, Gaudi was damned in my eyes before I ever saw his work firsthand by too much praise.

Nonetheless, as with respect to so many natural and man-made wonders, there is no substitute for firsthand experience and actually BEING A WITNESS. Barcelona in general surprised me. Again, it is so popular with the masses, even among those with little knowledge of culture or art, that I was prepared to disregard it completely in favour of Montserrat. In the end, however, I had to come down from the lofty mountain to spend a few hours on the ground and in the streets of the city of Barcelona.

In fact, the descent from Montserrat to Barcelona was what gave me true appreciation of Gaudi's work. It was then that I realised he captured nature's handiwork in his own caves and turrets. Every one speaks of the organic quality of Gaudi, of course, but it is the 'feeling' of a mountain range or cave that he captures so completely as well as the shimmer of moonlight or sunlight on water or the ever-changing reflection of light on leaves and stones, creating a mosaic of colour. Gaudi never will be a favourite of mine because he is too modern, and indeed I always will prefer the original Cathedral in Barcelona to the Sagrada Familia simply because it is steeped in history as well as for the sake of its incredible cloisters. Nonetheless, I left Barcelona with a greater appreciation of Antonio Gaudi.

As far as Montserrat was concerned, my interest initially was sparked by its great antiquity as a sacred site that far predated Christianity. In fact, the Black Madonna was found in a cave there and legend claims that it was created by angels. This made me believe that it could have been connected to an original earlier statue of the Great Mother, Cybele.

Meteorites always were considered to have magical powers and to have been sent to earth by the gods or some divine power. I always thought that the black stone of Cybele brought to Roma to save the land was a meteorite. Certainly there are many theories of why the Madonna of Montserrat is black, but to me, the most compelling is the ancient connection with the Great Mother.

Whether the statue was carved by human hand or that of an angel or spirit, and whether or not the colour of the Madonna is black because of the slow effect of candle-burning or because of association with Cybele is really irrelevant. 'Black Madonnas' exist throughout the Mediterranean and it is the natural surroundings, in my view, that determined the power of the place.

The Mother of a God will be perceived in different forms. There is a wonderful passage in Apuleius' 'Golden Ass' when the Goddess Isis declares that: 'My name, my divinity is adored throughout all the world, in divers manners, in variable customs, and by many names.'

Initially, every cave on this Earth was revered as the womb of the Great Mother and the birthplace of every great god from Attis to Zeus to Christ.

Be that as it may, the journey to Montserrat was undertaken as a pilgrim to try to discover whether or not it were a sacred place quite apart from its Christian significance and powers.

The actual buildings at Montserrat are fairly modern, as it served as the location for a series of battles between the French and the Spanish during the Napoleonic Wars. The Spanish tend to blame Napoleon for the damage, but it was they who first used the monastery as a military position. The French, however, did not have enough soldiers to occupy the position permanently after routing the Spaniards and thus, Monserrat was occupied, vacated and re-occupied a number of times until finally, the buildings were destroyed to prevent it from being used again for military purposes.

Nevertheless, it is not the buildings but the surrounding mountains that truly are the home of the Black Virgin. She is housed in a tiny chapel in the Church, access to which is gained through a series of side chapels and finally by mounting a number of steep, narrow, winding staircases higher and higher into the very heart of the Church. Only two or three individuals can stand in the actual chapel and therefore, as the number of pilgrims and curious tourists is enormous, one is not permitted to linger for more than a moment there. To make matters worse, the statue now is protected by a large dome of glass or acrylic as though an exhibit in a museum. In the view of the ancients, whatever sacred powers she may possess have been isolated in the capsule into which she has been imprisoned. One cannot touch her foot as so many of the faithful are wont to do when appealing to statues of saints, the Blessed Virgin or her Son in other churches and sanctuaries throughout the Mediterranean region.

Preservation of historical monuments for posterity undoubtedly is a noble aim, but there is something to be said for direct contact with any object of power or virtue. I felt somewhat cheated to be honest.

Even so, the ascent to the chapel was arduous and rather magical. My favourite stairwell was a narrow tunnel with Byzantine mosaics of all the greatest holy women in Christian history from Eve onwards depicted on either side. The fact that I cannot walk easily in the best of circumstances and even more poorly when ascending stairs or a steep incline added the element of personal sacrifice and suffering to the experience, like it or not. Burning with agony therefore, I finally reached the summit of my quest and gazed upon the ancient statue of the Blessed Mother or Great Goddess.

Her face and bearing are austere and stern. She is a very different woman from the pretty Madonnas of the Renaissance or of Lourdes and Fatima. In that sense, she did inherit the mantle of the ancient Great Goddess Cybele, who was a figure of omnipotence to be feared as well as loved. Does she exhibit compassion? No more nor less than Nature herself... She is a mother, of course, and holds the Divine Child on her lap, offering him to the world. One does sense her role as a Protective Guardian, powerful enough to counter any threat, to answer any plea or prayer, powerful enough to crush the head of the ancient Serpent beneath her heel or to cause or stay any earthquake or other natural disaster.

She has been credited with many miracles and many victories. The youth of Barcelona still make pilgrimages on foot from the city to the shrine of the Black Madonna. They depart from Barcelona in the evening and arrive at Montserrat early the next morning. The devotion of the people feeds the power of any shrine. When one considers that these mountains housed temples to other gods and goddesses from time immemorial, one does recognise a true seat of spiritual power.

At Fatima years ago, faced with a large concrete pavement in the place of the fields that once surrounded the site of the tree where the Blessed Virgin made her appearance, I was conscious of great power suffocated by a manmade structure. In the vast ancient caves near Fatima, however, the power remained undiminished. I felt as though charged with electricity as I walked along those dark paths in the very womb of Nature. There, I believe, was the true source of the power that created the apparition.

I am a deeply religious individual but I do believe that humans create most of the rules, regulations and descriptions of the Divine. Strip the Divine of all the human accretions and you find the caves near Fatima and the mountains surrounding Monserrat. The source of inspiration is there.

I have strayed far from my original intention which was to link Gaudi with Carthage via Montserrat...

The area of Tunisia where the ancient sites of Carthage can be found is extremely beautiful, if slightly arid. Trees and vegetation are everywhere, but it is the subtle green of the desert rather than the lush colours of the North.

The first site I visited was a 2nd century Roman amphitheatre, almost entirely obliterated but with a rather powerful history. Originally five floors, only the first floor above ground and one that is underground remain.

Once, there was seating for over 50,000 spectators and in fact, the amphitheatre could be flooded for naumachias (mock naval battles). Historically now it is known best for its connection with early Christian characters such as St. Perpetua and St. Augustine. The former was martyred there with a number of others by being trampled to death by wild cows.

The cow as a feature of the martyrdom cannot be coincidence. From the ancient bull dances of Crete to contemporary bullfights, the cow and bull have been agents of the gods. It is difficult to separate fact from myth where early Christian history is concerned, but it is possible that the mode of martyrdom had religious significance in ancient times, long before the life and death of Christ or St. Perpetua.

The 2nd Century amphitheatre certainly was not the most magnificent ruin I have seen but the visit was a memorable one.

First, I startled a lizard who was basking on the stones of an ancient archway. It disappeared into the ruins but not before drawing my attention to the composition of the stones themselves. They contained a mixture of materials, including small rocks, concrete and seashells. In fact, I noted what appeared to be many local contemporary offerings of snail shells as well as seashells left in crevices between huge stones or in tiny niches and scars in the rocks created by Nature through the centuries.

These shell offerings, coupled with the many wildflowers growing in the cracks and in archways, served to wed the ruins to Nature. Through the thousands of years they have endured, the land has embraced them, becoming a very organic structure.

The architecture was in no way similar to that of Antonio Gaudi but the organic quality of the stones reminded me of him.

More later about Carthage. Meanwhile, here is a link to quite a good site about the ancient civilisation:

Ancient Carthage

I have included photographs here of the Gaudi house in Barcelona, the mountains of Montserrat, the ruins of the amphitheatre in Carthage and the Tree of Attis in the ruins of the Punic Quarter near the National Museum. Unfortunately, there was so little time at each location. I always was the last person to return to the group, and being at a port for less than a day in each case and having little money myself made it impossible really to venture forth alone to explore. Taking organised group tours is NOT my preferred way to explore any location anywhere in the world, to be quite honest. I would prefer to spend a month in one location than a week in a dozen different places.

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