Friday, February 01, 2013

Eternal Avila

Text and photos by Lakambini A. Sitoy

Originally published in Philippine Graphic newsmagazine,  November 2005

AVILA, west of Madrid, blazed in the 40-degree heat of midsummer. The city squatted, a veritable fortress, in the middle of an inhospitable plain strewn with boulders and scrub trees. A massive 11th century stone wall encircled the ancient city -- 2.5 kilometers of round towers, gates and battlements. Above the wall tiled rooftops were visible, and a Gothic cathedral with its distinctive rose window. 

Avila is best known for St. Teresa of Jesus, whose feast day is the 15th of October. Many monasteries and churches in the city have some affiliation to this scholar and mystic. Born of noble parentage there in 1515, she was brought up in an atmosphere of books and religion. Following her mother’s death when she was 14, she was sent to the Augustinian nuns for her education. Against her father’s wishes, she entered the Carmelite convent at the age of 19. A serious illness in her early 20s left her health permanently impaired. Shortly after she began to experience visions, one of the most famous being the piercing of her heart by an angel armed with an arrow.

As a nun Teresa reorganized the Carmelites along a more severe and disciplined path, and she managed, before her death in 1582, to found 15 women’s and two men’s monasteries for this barefoot order. She exerted great influence on the spiritual life of her time through her visions and revelations, which she described in a flood of books. She was canonized in 1622.

We entered the Convento de Santa Teresa, within the city walls. It is a baroque church from the 17th century built over the saint’s birthplace. Because the church is very much in use as a place of worship, flash photography is forbidden, especially when masses are being held. Though there was no activity as we went in, the pews nonetheless held devotees sitting in quiet contemplation, in contrast to the tourists roaming the aisles and peering at the statuary and paintings. In the summer, Spain’s cities and monuments are besieged by out-of-towners, scantily clad, a jarring sight. Most speak Spanish, coming either from Latin America or other parts of Spain.

The small church was crammed, floor to ceiling, with art depicting scenes from the Bible or from the lives of the saints. They were the work of anonymous artists from the 18th and 19th century. At the altar, an eerie odor greeted us, of musty wood, damp paper and cut flowers. The interior was stone cold, a reminder of the extremes of temperature experienced by this city, which turns icy-cold in winter as the winds blow in from the plains.

To the left of the altar we found a little chapel built over the very room where Teresa was born. It stunned the senses with its ornate decoration and the sheer amount of gilt on one wall, presided over by a statue of the saint.

I paid 1.5 euros to enter the museum devoted to the saint’s life, which was organized along various theological themes that her visions called up and her writings addressed. The lengthy captions were in learned Spanish, impossible for someone with a beginner’s knowledge of the language to decipher. Paintings from the 17th to 19th centuries depicted her as a formidable-looking, rather rotund woman with piercing dark eyes and a double chin. A tough authority figure.

There was a vast amount of paper on display – leather-bound editions of her writings (an entire section being devoted to “St. Teresa Escritoria” – Teresa the Writer), letters from various notables, and a collection of modern biographies and translations of her work. No relics – these were contained in the Sala de Reliquias, a building away.

And these relics proved to be fascinating and quite macabre. The sole of a sandal she had worn. It is a flat sole of compressed rope – the traditional Spanish alpargatas (espadrille) sole. It could not have been very comfortable, walking over the burning hot rocky ground. Nothing remains of the upper straps, though I supposed they would have been as plain as could be. The sole is contained in a reliquary box carved a hundred times more elaborately than the artifact it houses, and laid on a bed of pink and white flowerets and tiny leaves. The flowerets would have been added at the time the relic was laid therein, certainly many years after her death. 

An ovoid piece of glass, set with gems and surrounded by the same faded flowerets, holds a fragment of cloth from one of her dresses. She had worn a rough, loose-weave fabric, the better to cope with the heat of the plains, I suppose. The color would have changed with time: the present hue is like café au latte. Her rosary is draped over a satin-lined and richly inlaid reliquary. It is a huge affair, large enough to hang at the waist, I suppose, and the beads, which seem to be wood or glass, are the color of dull metal.

The ring finger off the saint’s right hand resides in a dome of glass, similarly garnished with flowerets. A long, knobby thing, the nail hard and almost black, the flesh and skin desiccated and peeling. Most bizarre, for a woman whose life had been equated with bare simplicity, is the gigantic ring containing many gemstones, the most prominent being a rectangular blue rock of singular brilliance. The finger, more than 500 years old, wears the ring at its base.    

But the notebook is the most powerful testament to her life and work. The book is thick and leather bound, open to a page somewhere in the middle. Her writing was large and loopy – the hand of a woman of authority. The word “demonitos” is discernible. She must have sat for hours in her cell with its brown bedspread and primitive furnishings – a model of this room with some authentic items is on display in the museum. She had not conserved space, devoting an entire spread to only three or four paragraphs. Wealthy patrons must have provided her with a steady supply of precious paper as her influence grew.
Later we paid a few more euros to climb up the famous walls, and walk their length to the Gothic cathedral of San Salvador. The view is of random, red-tiled roofs on one side and the vastness of the plains on the other. Sharp-eyed watchmen would have manned the towers, scanning the terrain for clouds of dust that would herald an advancing enemy. Bowmen would have stood at ready behind the battlements.  The walls are a testament to the strife Avila has seen.

The city was founded in Roman times and was conquered by the Moors in 714 AD. They occupied and administered it for nearly 300 years. After the Christians took Toledo, to the southeast, in 1085, King Alfonso VI established a new defense line south of the river Duero. This line encompassed Avila and the cities of Segovia and Salamanca. The walls as they stand today were built from 1090 to 1099, and belong among the best preserved defense works from the Middle Ages. A community of Moors remained in the city under the Christian administration. During the 15th century the city experienced an economic and cultural high. But under Phillip II, they were expelled in 1609. Thereby, Avila lost nearly all its competent artisans and traders and the city went into decline.

We walked through narrow, twisted streets, passing the Gothic cathedral, before which sightless stone lions are sitting, reminiscent of their marble brothers, centuries older, in a patio of the Alhambra. Avila’s other churches include the Basilica de San Vicente, a 1000-year old stone church where San Vicente and his two sisters are said to have been martyred in 303 AD; Santo Tome el Viejo, a small church outside the ancient walls built in the 1200s, and constructed with three naves; and San Pedro, an elegant church with Gothic traces.

 In the midst of all this history is a modern bar, El Rastro Avila, where we stopped for a beer and orange juice, among Spanish yuppies who with their rapid decisive speech seemed a world apart from the old men, of the berets and walking sticks, lounging on stone benches in the shadow of the walls. The constant flow of tourists, too, has left an impression on the cityscape, in the form of kiosks selling outrageous kitsch – little costume dolls, plastic dinosaurs, bull figurines and toy swords. On a supporting pillar of an overpass, just before one enters Avila, the words “El Aborto No Es Malo” has been spray-painted: “Abortion is not evil.”

Avila, seemingly built of eternal rock, is in a state of flux, as no doubt it has been since the time of the Romans, when the first stones were laid.      


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