The theatre of faith | Cultural Heritage. Goverment of Catalonia.


The theatre of faith

We travel through time and space to once again reunite a masterpiece of the Catalan Romanesque.

An innovative project by the Catalan Cultural Heritage Agency has taken down the sculptures of the Descent from the Cross of Erill la Vall in order to scan them in 3D and study them in detail. We discover what there is behind one of the most outstanding groups of sculptures of 12th century European art.

Art and faith

The church of Santa Eulàlia is blanketed by silence and darkness. It is very cold, maybe more so inside than out. Many eyes seek each other out nervously, they speak volumes, but nobody says a word. The snow has not prevented anyone from being in their place, standing, deferential as always, waiting for the sermon to commence. It was Easter and they knew they were about to witness something that would transcend time and space, body and soul.

Liturgy in the Catholic church has always had a representative, show-like, theatrical element. The celebration of Mass today is itself like that, with someone reading the verses of the Bible, bringing the faithful closer to the word of the Lord, involving them in a celebration that culminates in receiving the body and blood of Christ. All officiated from an elevated stage, the chancel, with its decorations artfully illuminated. The devoted congregation following it all, captivated by the words they hear.

Santa Eulàlia Church (Romanesque Centre Vall de Boí)

Between the 9th and 13th centuries churches had a different function to the one they have today, but their message was much more stimulating. Romanesque churches spoke directly to the people and exercised a very powerful influence on account of their aesthetic and lack of light. A didactic influence that both indoctrinated and that was also capable of transmitting God's message in a two-fold way: captivating the faithful with the promise of paradise, and threatening them if they did not obey the accepted dogmas. 

The perfectly orchestrated performance accompanied, furthermore, by a marvellous mise en scène consisting mainly of paintings and sculptures which, in some cases, have survived to the present day.
Reproduction of the set of the Descent from the Cross of Erill in Santa Eulàlia Church (Romanesque Centre Vall de Boí)

Rediscovering the romanesque

In 1907, during the 'Archaeological-legal expedition to the Catalan-speaking territories of eastern Aragon bordering Catalonia', or Aragonese Strip, organised by the recently-created Institut d’Estudis Catalans, the art of our country underwent a defining moment with the rediscovery of the Pyrenean Romanesque. It was an artistic style that lasted for a long time on account of the difficult communications between the rural communities, and the absence of changes for centuries, something that did not happen in the case of the urban Romanesque, which has hardly survived because of the constant refurbishment and extension of the churches in Renaissance, Gothic or Baroque styles.

The expedition was a complete success and, amongst its prodigious finds were what, with the passage of time, would be considered to be the jewels in the crown of the Catalan Romanesque. The wall paintings of the Vall de Boí and Taüll and, the subject of this article, the group of sculptures known as the Descent from the Cross of Erill la Vall.
The expedition team on the way from Areny to Roda d'Isàvena. Photograph published in Anoia Diari (Arxiu Mas)

The group of sculptures is outstanding on account of its uniqueness, quality, dimensions, and even on account of the enigmas that still surround it. The story of its discovery is like something out of the adventures of Indiana Jones. At that time the village boasted barely 30 souls, eight houses and a church. The church was the first place in the Vall de Boí that the intrepid explorers visited, and judging by the photographs taken by Adolf Mas, and especially by the words of Father Josep Gudiol, recorded in his notebook, they were astonished:

“[...]; I will always remember the feelings I had as they emerged from their dark and gloomy hiding place [...]. Each sculpture we took into our hands was placed upright and in relation to the others and with great emotion we found, although damaged, a new iconological example of the Descent from the Cross [...].”

Old photograph of the 1907's expedition finding (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

Being true to their mission, the team declined the invitation by the rector of Santa Eulàlia to purchase the seven sculptures, but two of them were bought soon afterwards by Lluís Plandiura, one of the main art dealers in Catalonia during the first half of the 20th century. The other five were bought in 1911 by Father Gudiol, on behalf of the Episcopal Museum of Vic, given the real risk of them being sold to an antiques dealer.

That is how the figures became, and remain, separated. The sculptures of the Virgin and Saint John are kept at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (donated in 1932 by their original owner) while the sculptures of Dismass, Gestas, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea and Jesus Christ are kept at the Episcopal Museum in Vic.

Image of the entire Descent at the Episcopal Museum in Vic, exhibited in 2002 on the occasion of the inauguration of the new museum (Episcopal Museum in Vic)

A pyrenean rarity

Experts agree that they are the most outstanding 12th-century European Romanesque sculptures in wood, mainly because not many such grand pieces have survived. They were found in a prominent place, presiding the nave, almost certainly supported by a beam above the high altar. The group is outstanding because of the presence of the two thieves, something that is not the case with other representations of the descent from the cross in other countries. It is the case, however, with another group found in Santa Maria de Taüll and also with the Santíssim Misteri in Sant Joan de les Abadesses, but nowhere else. It is therefore an extraordinary Pyrenean rarity.

Furthermore we know for certain that it had a major role to play in the liturgical theatre of the time thanks to the mise en scène mentioned earlier, and especially because of the dramatic force that emanates from the composition, something that is reinforced by such details as the eyes, the strong features of the faces, the prominent ribs and the folds in the clothing. 
The original figures of the Virgin Mary and Saint John of the Descent from the Cross of Erill preserved at the MNAC (MNAC)

If it moves us today, the impact it must have had on the population during those first years of the millennium must have been one of extreme realism, especially if we remember that the figures were painted. A strong impact. An effective language. A master work.

The priest's dry voice resonated throughout the church. The flickering light of candles cast sinuous shadows across the walls. The figures came to life, they moved, gesticulated, like people wailing at the sacrifice of the King of the Jews:

"And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour.
And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst.
And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost." Luke 23, 44-46 (King James Version)

And fear spread throughout the church, and the congregation flinched at the sight of these giants, amidst the light and darkness, the smoke and the powerful aromas.

The original figure of Sant Joan from Descent from the Cross of Erill preserved at the MNAC (MNAC)

Art and science

In 2019 the Catalan Cultural Heritage Agency embarked on an extraordinary project to choose some of the best and most representative items in the country's heritage to scan them in 3D. The criteria for selection included quality, significance, variety of types and geographical provenance. The project is planned to last until 2021 and during this time an exhaustive study will be made of approximately 100 items that will be digitalised, photographed, inspected and studied.
According to Albert Sierra, the project leader, “There is a two-fold aim. On one hand to raise awareness about Catalan heritage, and on the other, to promote this technique, which is now very accessible for museums". One aim is to create a database that can be consulted via the Internet to obtain models that can be downloaded by anyone. Another is to study details that have thus far escaped notice, and another aim is to promote this technology so that the large network of museums throughout Catalonia can use it with their collections, it being a fine way to highlight the treasures to be discovered in our history and put them within reach of everyone.

3D scan of the set (Episcopal Museum in Vic)

At the present time the idea of art seems inseparable from that of science, in the sense of computer technology. It is an ideal combination that can be greater than the sum of its parts, while helping us discover new ways to look at both aspects. Albert Serra explains, "The Descent from the Cross of Erill la Vall fulfils all the criteria to be included in this project and is, furthermore, a special case because the group of figures is divided between two museums and can not be seen the way it was conceived. We think it is very much the right thing to do to bring the sculptures together again, even if it is only virtually".
But the challenge posed by the Descent from the Cross of Erill la Vall goes beyond a mere study, which is clearly of key importance for unravelling the puzzles still presented by this group of figures. What is for certain is that it will be possible to amend the straight line of history, the road that led to them, at the beginning of the 20th century, being condemned to separation on account of the purchases made by Plandiura and Gudiol.

3D model of the set 

Art and science become allies again, but on this occasion in the theatre of faith. Something that transcends time and space to return to that original stage. After a century of separation the sculptures of the Virgin, Saint John, Dismass, Gestas, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea and Jesus Christ can be reunited, and we can enjoy seeing them together once again thanks to the benefits also provided by technology:
One by one the faithful left the church, as if in a trance, their heads bowed. Convinced but fearful. They were illiterate, but they had understood the message perfectly. Now everything was in the hands of God.

3D scan of the set (Episcopal Museum in Vic)