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Ricardo Fernández Gracia, director of the Chair of Heritage and Navarrese Art of the University of Navarra.

The old altarpiece of San Nicolás de Pamplona

Sun, 06 Dec 2015 12:30:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

The old altarpiece of the parish of San Nicolás de Pamplona, completed in 1715, three hundred years ago, was moved to the Ciga parish when another altarpiece was built in 1905 and removed after the last restoration works of the temple a few decades ago.

Nineteenth century Pamplona was not very respectful of baroque works. There was a fever against that style, especially since 1785, when the secretary of the Royal Academy of San Fernando, Don Francisco Ponz, criticized the monstrous ornamentation of the chapel of San Fermín -which would end up destroyed- or the altarpieces of San Saturnino or Carmen Calzado, which also succumbed later on.

However, the old altarpiece withstood the anti-baroque fevers of academicism and the nineteenth century and was moved to Ciga in the Baztan Valley in 1904, saving it from destruction, as happened with many others in the city. The piece of furniture has been preserved and this year marks three centuries since its completion.

Another circumstance makes the work special, as the sermon that was preached on the occasion of the placement of the image of the patron saint in it, after its construction by one of the most prestigious masters of Pamplona, Fermín de Larrainzar, who had made position of it in 1708, has been preserved.

The altarpiece and its author

Fermín de Larrainzar (c. 1674-1741) was the son of a carpenter and was related to other masters, such as the Aragonese sculptor Manuel Gil and the multifaceted José Pérez de Eulate, who married one of his daughters. His training, begun in the family workshop, was completed from 1691 in one of the best workshops in Pamplona in the last third of the seventeenth century, under the direction of Juan Baron de Guerendiain. In 1695 he took his entrance exam for the guild of San José, for the specialties of carpentry, assembly and architecture. His artistic degree program was fast and, besides having deserved the appointment of overseer of works of the diocese of Pamplona, he took over most of the altarpieces of the best clients of the kingdom and of the bishopric, such as the altarpieces of the cathedral ambulatory or the Benedictines of Lazcano. In 1700, he litigated against the aforementioned guild to differentiate architecture -considering it a liberal art- from assemblage, in order to emancipate himself from the concept of craftsmanship and acquire a certain intellectual recognition.

On July 23, 1708 he signed a contract for the construction of the main altarpiece of the parish of San Nicolás de Pamplona, according to his own design, for 400 ducats and to be made of pine wood. The execution deadline was set for Christmas 1714.

When the altarpiece was moved to Ciga in 1904, it underwent some modifications, the most important being the placement of the semicircular relief with the topic of the Annunciation of the Virgin. The altarpiece has a semi-hexagonal plan that follows the lines and layout of the Gothic apse of the Pamplona parish. In its elevations the proportions are also in function of the windows of the temple, so as not to impede the passage of light, not very abundant in the interior of the enclosure. It consists of a bench, a body divided into three sections and an attic. The only body is articulated by means of four salomonic columns that suppose certain originality as for its ornamentation, since they present a great garland of flowers that runs surrounding the throats of the supports, leaving the breasts of the salomónicas to the sight.

With respect to the iconographic program, the relief of the Annunciation in the central street and the carvings of St. Peter and St. Paul on the sides currently appear in the first body. These last two and the two virtues that mount plumb on the extreme columns belong to the altarpiece that Larrainzar worked on, but not the aforementioned relief and the sculpture of the patron saint of the parish of Ciga, San Lorenzo, which occupies the templete of the attic, from where a Crucifix was removed from the primitive altarpiece. The quality of some of these carvings reminds us of the way of working of some foreign sculptors who may well have made position of them, such as the Madrid-born Antonio González and other masters from Aragón, among whom were his own brother-in-law Manuel Gil y Luna, an Aragonese sculptor from La Almunia, or Jerónimo Sánchez, son-in-law of the aforementioned Pedro Onofre.

One of the most important data of the piece is the incorporation of the new subject of salomónicas, possibly influenced by the Aragonese artist Pedro Onofre Coll, who came to work on the tabernacle of San Fermín in 1714 incorporating salomonic columns "dressed with flowers", as stated in the conditions for making the altarpiece of the Virgin of Jerusalem of Artajona.

Oratory and rhetoric for your inauguration

When the work was finished, in 1715, it was placed in the presbytery of the parish and blessed without missing the sermon delivered by Matías Jerónimo Izcue, vicar of the church, which was printed in the Pamplona presses of Francisco Picart, with the degree scroll Oración panegírica de San Nicolás en el día en que se consagró su nuevo retablo. The preacher dedicated it to the workers of the parish. As it is known, the Obrería was a kind of board of administration and factory that existed in the old parishes of Pamplona until the XIX century. The panegyrist, Miguel Jerónimo de Izcue, was from Pamplona and a doctor of theology. He had been priest of Fuentenobilla in the bishopric of Toledo and was vicar of San Nicolás between 1711 and 1720 when he resigned to take possession of the abbey of San Martín de Unx and Beire. He had a reputation as an orator and was chosen on important occasions to preach. Due to his historical knowledge he was in charge of approve in 1712 the volume V of the Annals of Navarre, work of Father Alesón, censoring years later the Compendium of the five volumes of the Annals of Miguel de Elizondo. After leaving his vicarage in the parish of San Nicolás, he continued to advise the Obrería on artistic matters, as is shown on sample a enquiry that was made to him in 1723 in order to gild the altarpiece of San Mauro. At his death he was buried in grave 214 of the box of the parish of Pamplona.

The oratory piece is, like many of its time, very complicated in its language and exaggerated in its contents. After pointing out St. Nicholas as the admiration of the world and a true hero, he adds that if the other saints were born for our imitation, St. Nicholas "seems to have been formed for our admiration". Leaving aside the merely doctrinal and compositional questions of the sermon, what affects the altarpiece is concretized in the following paragraph: "Nor admire that this new prodigy of grace is the object of our attention on this festive day, in which your most ancient devotion has placed St. Nicholas on this majestic throne, whose pilgrim construction is delightful flattery of the eye, having with ingenious novelty flaunted in its factory of the noble arts of architecture and sculpture as many primors as knew how to link the delicate taste of the moderns with the learned artifice of the ancients. It is a marvelous effect of your piety how much in all the centuries has served to the greater decorum of this most noble temple. To your fervor is owed all that threshes in these sacred aras and thus I would gladly owe me in this matter the gratitude due to your Christian generosity, if I did not know that I have not come to form your praise, but that of your patron saint ".

This subject of sermons published to commemorate the inauguration of buildings or other artistic works is not abundant. The monastery of Fitero had the one printed for the inauguration of the new chapel of Santo Cristo de la guide in 1736. In both cases the sermon and the art-images went hand in hand, the words being in complete harmony with the sculptures and paintings.

The sermons were very frequent acts and the preachers took great care of what they said in the pulpit, preparing ad hocpanegyrics , according to the audience, with the corresponding ornatus full of the prevailing rhetoric and always with the triple content of teaching, delighting and moving behaviors. The preacher was required to pray and study, as well as to excite fervor, displaying science, eloquence and wit. All this in order to achieve the three aforementioned purposes of sacred oratory, which were none other than the movere, or to mark behaviors, not only by delighting and teaching, but also by moving the affections in the hearts.