Debate over medieval artworks reopens Catalonian rift with Spain

spain medieval artworks battle with catalan

By Ian Mount.

Catalan leaders defy attempts to repatriate Romanesque frescoes removed in civil war

The Monasterio de Santa Maria de Sijena, tucked away among fields of corn and alfalfa in Spain’s northern Aragón region, is famed for a series of elaborate frescoes, dating from the 12th century.

The most outstanding are from the arched chapter house, where biblical scenes include Cain slaying Abel, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the genealogy of Christ as told in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

The Romanesque murals and other artworks from the monastery were removed decades ago during the Spanish Civil War and the Franco era — in circumstances that remain disputed — and deposited in museums in the neighbouring Catalonia region.

Now, 20 years after the mayor of nearby Villanueva de Sijena began calling for their return, the fate of the collection has been dragged into the long-running fight over Catalonia’s independence.

The Monasterio de Santa Maria de Sijena was once home to the elaborate biblical frescoes, some dating back to the 12th century

The works belong to the monastery, Alfonso Salillas, Sijena’s mayor, says from his office in the town, a portrait of Spain’s King Felipe VI hanging behind his desk. “This has nothing to do with Aragón and Catalonia — it’s that everyone who gained objects from Sijena has sought to keep them.”

After years of trying, Sijena and Aragón won a series of victories over the past 18 months, as two Spanish judges ruled the artworks on display in Barcelona’s Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya and a museum in nearby Lleida belonged to the monastery and should be returned immediately.

This was seen by many in Catalonia — a region of 7.5m people with its own language and identity where many favour statehood — as typical of the way Spanish authorities, including the courts system, are anti-Catalan. A Catalonian plan for an independence referendum in September was halted last month by Spain’s constitutional court.

“Aragonese authorities have a great interest in recovering pieces in Catalan museums, but have no desire to recover other objects from Sijena that are, for instance, in the Prado in Madrid,” says Santi Vila, Catalonia’s cultural minister. “Why? For political reasons.”

In November, after the court said Mr Vila could be held criminally responsible if a group of the smaller artworks was not returned, Catalonia pledged to keep hold of the trove. Calls to send police to take the works by force or to fine or arrest Mr Vila were resisted. Catalonia has appealed against the decisions.

The fight over Sijena’s collection — which also includes medieval tombs, fragments of Renaissance alabaster altarpieces and 18th-century paintings — comes as Madrid and Barcelona gear up for a new fight over secession.

Many of the Sijena frescoes are now on display in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona

Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s recently re-elected prime minister, has refused demands for a vote similar to Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014, while Catalonia’s first minister Carles Puigdemont has pledged that a “legal and binding” plebiscite will take place this year.

Both sides, however, are weaker than before the previous rounds of elections. After losing his parliamentary majority, Mr Rajoy has taken a more conciliatory approach, even calling for more dialogue with Catalonia — albeit not on a referendum. Polls also show Mr Puigdemont’s pro-secession coalition, which won a majority of seats but not of votes in 2015 elections, could lose its majority if fresh elections were held.

The tussle over the medieval treasures revives painful memories in Spain of the civil war and Franco’s dictatorship. All sides agree the former monastery — now home to a group of French nuns — was intentionally burnt in 1936 during the early weeks of the conflict.

Mr Salillas says the building was torched by anticlerical Republican militia from Barcelona, and that his great-grandfather helped save the monastery’s artworks. But Alberto Velasco, curator at the Lleida museum, insists it was burnt by the town’s anarchist committee and blamed on the Catalans. He says Sijena’s moves to recover the artworks are “born from a deep anti-Catalanism in Aragón”.

Either way, soon afterwards an art dealer and historian sent by the Catalonian administration glued cloth over many of the surviving murals, chipped them off, and carted them to Barcelona. Mr Salillas says other objects were sold by a nun with the help of forged signatures. Catalonia’s government says the artefacts were acquired in good faith.

This is also not the first time art has been drawn into the battle over Spain’s future. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, depicting a Franco-era bombing of a Basque village, hung for four decades in New York’s Museum of Modern Art at the painter’s request, only to be returned when Spain achieved democracy. It was taken back to Madrid in 1981, after Franco’s death.

“It never occurred to the Americans to think, because it has been here for so many years, let’s declare it the patrimony of the US,” says Mr Salillas.

Catalonia has now returned some of the smaller pieces, but has refused to return the 44 more valuable works in Lleida, while insisting the larger murals cannot be moved without causing irrevocable damage. “They are in such a fragile and precarious state that it would put them at risk to move them,” says Mr Vila.

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica was returned to Spain after more than 40 years in the US © Getty

In Sijena, where renovations are under way to restore the former monastery in anticipation of the frescoes’ return, Mr Salillas pledges to fight on while rejecting the idea that his motivations are political.

“This is about justice,” the mayor insists. “I’m a Barça fan,” he adds, referring to Barcelona football club. “If I were anti-Catalan I would support Real Madrid.”

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