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Heritage and identity (53). In the bowels of the basilica of Santa Felicia de Labiano


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Diario de Navarra

Ricardo Fernández Gracia

Director of the Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art

Santa Felicia de Labiano has been, since centuries ago, a place of pilgrimages and visits of numerous devotees. Among the former, those in the valleys of Egüés and Unciti have disappeared, although the one in the valley of Aranguren and the general one on the infra-eighth Sunday of Corpus Christi remain. The legendary and tragic story of his life, at the hands of his brother Guillermo, with differences between the tradition of Obanos and Labiano, was imprinted in the hearts of the people, being transmitted through the squares and from generation to generation among families and pilgrims. The version of Labiano defends the origin of the brothers, in the bosom of the French court and the pilgrimage of both to Compostela. The legendary story served to catechize about the withdrawal of privileges and the experience of poverty, as well as the forgiveness obtained with the penitent life. 

A visit to the basilica, without haste and with the deserved attention, in a place full of history and stories, is always gratifying for the poetic landscape and for its material and immaterial patrimony. The legend, the community of seroras who lived there, the lawsuits with the patrons and the pilgrimages have been the subject of programs of study by Fernando Pérez Ollo, Roldán Jimeno and Jesús Equiza. The same is not true of the basilica and its furnishings, especially the main altarpiece, the B and exotic silver urn, as well as the unpublished Renaissance tables. Four years ago, we dealt in these same pages with the set of votive offerings preserved in the sanctuary, undoubtedly the best in these lands(Diario de Navarra, March 3, 2017).

This week, marked by the pilgrimage of the valley of Aranguren and the general one, we will reflect on the special collection of its ornamentation, very poorly known, due to the lack of documentation. Faced with this lack, the art historian must meticulously apply his knowledge of style, techniques and context of the works so that they "speak" about their origin, patronage, chronology and meaning. This task must always be done, following the dictum of a classic of our Golden Age: "referring what is true as true, what is plausible as plausible, what is doubtful as doubtful".

Through these lines, we would like to invite and encourage our readers to visit the basilica and enjoy its heritage, contemplating it as a sign of identity and an element of cohesion, structuring and link between yesterday and today.

The building and board of trustees of the Counts of Javier

Of the baroque construction of the present sanctuary it is repeated, according to data published by Jesús Equiza, that it was inaugurated in 1753, after a fire. We have not been able to corroborate this testimony and it seems debatable. On the other hand, we have found other documents that tell us about the history of the building. The first corresponds to 1679, when the chaplain of the basilica agreed with the mason Juan Francisco Pardo the construction of one of the two side chapels, that of St. Francis Xavier, where the relics of St. Felicia would be placed with her ark, on an altar altar altar large enough to also allow the celebration of mass. Foundations, abutments and the necessary parts for security would be made of stone. The 140 ducats imported for the construction came from various alms. This chapel was later endowed, between 1749 and 1750, with a dome and lantern by Francisco de Múzquiz, a work approved by Manuel de Olóriz. The extraction of stone from the Aldaba area gave rise to a lawsuit between the residents of Labiano and the Count of Javier, who authorized the works as patron of the building.

A little later and in order to give uniformity to the whole, the master builder of Estella, Juan Ángel Igaregui, author of the top of the tower of Andosilla and the vicarage of Javier, made position of the chapel symmetrical to that of San Francisco Javier, for which he brought bricks and tiles from Pamplona and acquired various materials, including some wood from José Coral, of whom we will deal with later. The cost of the work amounted to 1,385 reales. This amount included the construction of the portico and the roof of the place "where the mule that brought the saint burst, because it threatened ruin".

The documentation of past centuries always insists that the alms collected in the sanctuary were invested in the support of the blessed who lived there, worship, cleanliness and ornamentation. If there were deficits, the counts made up for them from their private wealth.

A painting as a wundervita

In front of the door of entrance, hangs a painting with the topic of the martyrdom of Felicia at the hands of her brother Guillén and other vignettes around with the most important passages of the legendary story, with long explanatory texts. The framework of the painting dates from the second quarter of the 17th century and the present canvas, very repainted, is very popular. It was made after 1841, since it mentions the "province of Navarra and judicial district of Aoiz". It is possible that there was an earlier original that was completely redone in the middle of the 19th century. The content of its inscriptions has been spread in the novenarios of the saint since the end of the 19th century. Because of its form we can imagine the composition on a sheet of string in which a blind man or a dealer explains the legend at the dictation of images and texts, inviting the listeners to ask the saint for protection against headaches and "in habitual accidents, especially in cold tumors or lamparones", as some printed documents state.

It is, therefore, a wundervita or marvelous and admirable life, following engraved models of other saints, popularized since the end of the 16th century. There are eight small scenes narrated. On one side we contemplate the farewell of the brothers from their parents, Felicia's resolution to stay in Amocain, the miracle of the bread turned into stones and Guillermo in Arnotegui. The other four, on the other side of the martyrdom, show the death of the saint, her burial, the mule with the coffin and the arrival at Labiano with the fall of the cavalry.

The main altarpiece

An analysis of the piece takes us to the models of the Pamplona workshops of the mid-18th century and more specifically to the workshop of José Coral, a Valencian artist, established in the capital of Navarre from 1717 until his death in 1753, and author of the major altarpieces of Huarte Araquil and Ciáurriz and of the Rosario de Larraga.

Some facts support this attribution. On the one hand, the remodeling of the sanctuary at that time, just after the middle of the 18th century, which required a new altarpiece in accordance with the fashions of the time. On the other hand, we must remember that the Duke of Granada de Ega and Count of Javier, Don Antonio de Idiáquez undertook at the same time the business to build new altarpieces in the chapels and churches of his board of trustees. He did so in the abbey of Javier and in the altarpieces of the chapels of Santo Cristo de los Milagros in the Merced of Pamplona (1750) and of San Pedro Mártir in the Dominicans of the same city (1743-1750). These last two altarpieces were commissioned by the Duke to the aforementioned José Coral in 1750.

There is no doubt that the nobleman wished to project his image in all those religious spaces, making clear his signs of munificence and his devotions. Don Antonio de Idiáquez Garnica y Córdoba (1686-1754) married the Countess of Javier, Doña María Isabel Aznárez de Garro, in 1708. The famous father Pedro Calatayud made a portrait of his customs and life in a booklet published in Pamplona in 1756. There he ponders his devotion to St. Francis Xavier and to the Heart of Jesus and confirms all his work of artistic promotion with the following words: "He gave daily alms in various ways to different religious communities, to parishes and basilicas; in some by paying for and gilding altars, in others by sending statues and precious ornaments, since in the last four years alone the ornaments he made for several churches amounted to fourteen to fifteen and some of them amounted to almost two thousand pesos. He made not a few large alms of two hundred, three hundred, five hundred, one thousand ducats, one thousand pesos and even four thousand ducats at a time".

In the altarpiece of the basilica of Labiano the columns or stipes have disappeared and the pilasters are decorated with asymmetrical vegetal motifs, with slight hints of rococo, but conceiving the whole as the great baroque machines. The bench is reused from the old altarpiece, made around 1690, when the saint was in the chapel of St. Francis Xavier. Four scenes from the life of the saint follow one after the other. In the central ones, which are sliding doors to watch over the urn, the saint is presented saying goodbye to her parents after obtaining her "licence and blessing". To the left of the viewer are her martyrdom, which would serve as model in pictorial and engraved compositions and, to the right, the arrival of her coffin to Labiano, on the back of the mule that falls before the astonishment of numerous characters. The main body houses three canvases from the early eighteenth century, the conversion of St. Paul, titular of the basilica, St. Michael expelling the demons and the miracles of St. Francis Xavier, in the presence of St. Ignatius of Loyola. In all of them, the Rubenesque influences are evident through engraved prints. The devotions of the counts are visible in these paintings, as well as in the credence with a Sacred Heart of Jesus in the form of the Sacred Viscera, as it was spread until the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767.

The silver urn, a work of Peruvian silverware of the 18th century

The silver urn is, ordinarily, veiled, that is to say, hidden behind a cabinet that is closed by the sliding doors of the altarpiece bench. In this regard, we must remember that, in the religious cult of medieval times, the "velum", in the form of a curtain or door, was part of the staging of the altar image. The action of veiling and unveiling made concrete in those times the dialectic of the presentation of the images, of agreement with the liturgical function and the feast to be celebrated. 

It is significant that towards the end of the sixteenth century and, above all, in the seventeenth century, the religious use of the "veil" disappeared in many places, when documents and canvases testify to the irruption of the curtain in the presentation of the works of private character, particularly in the cabinets of painting, in which the best piece of the collection was covered to generate curiosity and expectation among visitors. However, in certain environments its value and function in the religious field survived, because it was understood that the ease with which the images could be seen did not exactly contribute to their greater veneration and worship. Roncesvalles, Codés, the Puy de Estella or the cathedral of Pamplona are good examples.

The silver urn, with exuberant embossed silver plates, decorated with grapes and pomegranates with pecking birds, one with the claws of the legs and, above all, unmistakable masks of the art of the Peruvian Altiplano, lead us to date the piece around 1735. Of the same Peruvian origin is a chalice of the same period conserved in the parish, but belonging to the basilica. There is no information about the donor, neither documentary nor from registration . It gives the impression that he wanted to hide it, in spite of the originality and importance of the piece, although if the gift came from a person to the patrons, they would not allow the display of name or heraldry in place of their board of trustees. Without ruling out a relative of the counts of Javier or a generous donor grateful for his cure, we could also think of someone from the "family" of the viceroy of Peru, Don José Armendáriz y Perurena, who was in those lands between 1724 and 1736, and stood out as a generous patron of the arts in the Benedictines of Corella, the chapels of San Fermín and the Virgen del Camino, and the cathedral of Pamplona. The silver ark is later than the episcopate of Don Juan Camargo (1716-1725), since in his pastoral visit to the sanctuary it was opened and the head was placed in its place, when it was found that it was mixed with the remains. If it had been the crystal urn, this detail would have been obvious. Surely, it was still in the large gilded wooden box preserved and that tradition places as the one that arrived on the back of the mule. The latter is a richly polychromed piece from the mid-16th century, with delightful moresques derived from textile patterns. Professor Pedro Echeverría has pointed out the dependence of the models on the books of Francesco Pellegrino (1530) and Balthasar Sylvius (1554).

The urn contains the remains of Saint Felicia, which, as with those of Saint Pedro de Usún, were submerged in water in times of drought, something that was condemned as superstition and sacrilege by the Pamplona canon Martín de Andosilla in his work De Supersticionibus, written at the end of the 15th century and published in Lyon in 1510.

Five unpublished Renaissance panels by painter Pedro Sarasa

The surprises that the sanctuary holds did not stop at our visit, since, after examining the urn, we were able to see the interior lining of the box that shelters it, made up of no more and no less than five panels of Renaissance painting: a Descent from the Cross and the four evangelists. Its analysis offers no doubt as to its authorship, especially after Professor Pedro Echeverría Goñi studied the figure and production of the painter Pedro Sarasa y Navardún, active between 1530 and 1544 and closely related to the Aragonese capital. This painter contracted numerous works, many of which are no longer extant, behaving like a businessman. Part of his production is the result of collaborations with other artists. The panels of the Evangelists are copies of prints by Agostino Veneziano (1519), based on paintings by Julio Romano.

The origin of the tables is, for the moment, unknown. Without ruling out the locality of Labiano, we cannot fail to consider other churches in which the counts of Javier held the board of trustees.