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Ricardo Fernández Gracia, Director of the Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art.

Heritage and identity (21). Scenes of child cruelty in Navarrese art.

Fri, 06 Dec 2019 18:22:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

The great codifier of the personifications of vices, virtues, attitudes, aptitudes ... etc., who was the humanist Cesare Ripa (1560-1622), wrote in his great work entitled Iconology ( 1593) that cruelty was represented in the figure of a woman with a frightful look, drowning a child in her swaddling clothes with both hands, accompanied by a nightingale. He argues this with the thought that there is no greater cruelty than to put to death one who harms no one, being innocent of all class of crimes, "hence cruelty is said to be an insatiable and wicked appetite by which the innocent are punished or the property of others is taken away, or the good are offended and in final justice is offended." As for the nightingale, he adds it to the representation in memory of the Fable of Progné and Philomena, related to a mother who served her stewed son at a banquet. Both escaped the vengeance of Tereus angered by the slaughter of his son, whose limbs were served at the table as food. Tereus, turned into a sparrowhawk, pursued the two sisters: his wife Progné and the outraged Philomena whose language had been cut off so that she would not speak. The two sisters managed to escape his wrath by metamorphosing into swallows and nightingales, respectively. In the edition of Ripa's work, made by Georg Hertel in Augsburg (1758-1760), a feline devouring a sheep is added and in the background of the composition a story that abounds in the same concept of evil, in this case that of the tyrant Falaris, taken from Pliny's Natural History , where he tells how the convicts were introduced, by order of the despot, inside a hollow bronze statue in the shape of a bull, which functioned as an oven. The screams of the victims were heard through the mouth of the bull, simulating the animal's mooing.

Starting from this particular model of cruelty to the most innocent and weakest of children, we will make a brief review, through some examples from Navarre, of some representations where those candid creatures were the protagonists of evil or alienated characters, from the biblical passage of the innocent saints, to the stories of the lives of St. Nicholas and St. Vincent Ferrer. 

There are no representations of the martyrdoms of saint Dominguito del Val or the Niño de La Guardia, in which the brutality and ferocity of their Jewish murderers is so much emphasized. With respect to the saints Justo and Pastor, titulars of some hermitages and patrons of Fustiñana, only the images of the same in juvenile age of the Shrine of Our Lady of Fair Love of Oronoz, of beginnings of the XVII century and a pair of busts reliquaries of both children of the Augustinian Recollect Sisters of Pamplona stand out.


Innocent saints from Romanesque sculpture to the 17th century

The wickedness of King Herod in ordering the execution of children under two years of age, born in Bethlehem, to get rid of Jesus of Nazareth was captured in numerous reliefs, paintings and engravings, for the children were considered the first martyrs who shed their blood for the sake of Christ and, as St. Augustine reminds us, in place of Christ. 

The artists, at different times, knew how to take full advantage of both the perversity of Herod, sometimes with a devil whispering in his ear, and the cruelty of the executioners, with sharp knives that they stick in the small bodies of the infants before the heartbreaking looks and gestures of the mothers. The drama is usually intensified by the presence of bodies with their throats slit on the floor.

Estella and Tudela conserve monumental sculpture that is quite didactic in this respect. In one of the capitals of the façade of San Miguel in the first city, a work made in the last third of the 12th century, the story is described with acrimony, corpses on the ground and with impotent mothers who cannot contain their terror before the soldiers who kill or snatch their children doing everything possible to protect them. Without leaving Estella, in the cloister of San Pedro de la Rúa, another capital narrates the passage in three of its faces, following the order of Herod to his soldiers, the slaughter itself and the executioners presenting the heads of the children. This last scene, with great intensification of the dramatism, is the most exceptional according to the programs of study of M. J. Quintana and E. Aragonés. The chronology of this capital is around 1200.

In the parish of the Magdalena of Tudela we find this topic in a capital of its nave, from the end of the XII century, with the particularity that the figure of Satan advising Herod has been introduced. In the doorway of Santiago de Puente la Reina, from the beginning of the 13th century, in two voussoirs we also find the order of Herod and the slaughter. 

From the Gothic period we remember the examples of the doorways of Santa María de Olite and San Saturnino de Pamplona. In the first case it appears in the tympanum together with other scenes from the cycle of the infancy of Christ and is dated to the end of the 13th century. In San Cernin, we find the story in one of the capitals of the doorway made around 1330-1335. In a panel of the main altarpiece of Tudela, a late Gothic work from the end of the 15th century, by Pedro Díaz de Oviedo, we also find the passage of the Innocents, in this case together with the Nativity, the Epiphany and the flight to Egypt.

The 16th century was prodigal in the representation of the bloody passage, especially in early Renaissance altarpieces, such as those of Legarda, Mendavia and Lumbier. There is no lack of paintings in altarpieces such as those of Ororbia, Elcano and Villanueva de Yerri, from the second third of that century, almost always depending on very widespread engraved models. Even in bas-renaissance pieces of silverware the passage is depicted, as can be seen, among other examples, in the cross of Cirauqui and the Corpus Corpus of the cathedral of Pamplona. In some cases the gestures of the mothers take a step forward, hooking the beards of the executioners or sticking their fingers in their eyes, as occurs in an oil on copper of the conference room capitular of the Pamplona cathedral.

Less presence is detected in the centuries of the Baroque, in which we will highlight, as an example, the relief of the altarpiece of Santa Catalina of the cathedral of Pamplona, contracted with Miguel de Bengoechea in 1686.

St. Nicholas resuscitates three children from a salt lick in an inn

The most usual iconographic subject of St. Nicholas presents him dressed as a pontifical and accompanied by a salting tub with three children, sometimes already represented as young people, although the most usual is the former. The reason lies in a legendary passage about the life of the bishop, which tells us that when the saint was traveling to attend to the Council of Nicaea, accompanied by other prelates, he stopped one night at an inn. There they were served dinner and when he was about to bless the food, it was revealed to him that what was on the table was human flesh and that the innkeeper was a vile murderer who went so far as to kill guests, preserving their remains in salt. The last victims would have been three boys whom he had butchered and put in a salt cellar in his cellar. St. Nicholas went to that place, where he prayed, after which the three living children recovered their lives.

Such was the popularity of the passage that it became associated with the exempt figure of the saint. In Navarre we have examples from the leave Age average. The titular image of his parish in Estella -today in San Pedro de la Rúa- from the first half of the 14th century, incorporates passages of his life on its pedestal, something exceptional in the Navarrese imagery of the time, as Professor Clara Fernández-Ladreda points out. The scenes are specifically the three resurrected children, the rescue of a ship in a storm and the endowment of the three maidens.

Among the representations of the 16th century, the seated image of the patron saint of his parish in Pamplona stands out, as well as the painted panels of the old main altarpiece of Tulebras, the work of Jerónimo Cosida (c. 1570) and of the parish of Milagro. The relief of the attic of the altarpiece of San José de Viana is also a remarkable work, from 1672, located in that place because the altarpiece occupied the old chapel of San Nicolás. In the XVII and XVIII centuries there is no lack of canvases, and even an ex-voto in the Comendadoras de Puente la Reina.

One of the engravings collected, at the dawn of the 17th century, by the Discalced Carmelite nun Leonor de la Misericordia (Ayanz y Beaumont) represents the children in the bathtub with Saint Nicholas dressed in a roquette, cloak with embroidered imagery, mitre and crosier, imparting the blessing. The engraving is the work of Leonard Gaultier (1561-1641) and his publisher was Jean Leclerc. Another engraving with the same outline, was stamped with a plate paid for by the parish of San Nicolás de Pamplona in 1774-1775 -currently conserved in the Municipal file of Pamplona- opened by Pedro Antonio de Sasa. It was thrown away on numerous occasions, the first time when the aforementioned matrix was opened, at issue of 1,000 by the printer Pedro Miguel Ezquerro.

The miracle of the child of Morella in the Dominicans of Pamplona

The altarpiece of St. Vincent Ferrer in his chapel, in the church of the Dominicans of Pamplona, preserves in its attic inside a curtain and pavilion, a medallion -uninterpreted until now- that represents one of the most spectacular miracles of the saint, in the town of Morella. It shows St. Vincent Ferrer seated next to another Dominican friar in front of a table with various foods, and a woman with a naked child on a plate to one side. Three witnesses, on one of the sides, who seem between horrified and amazed, contemplate the event and one of them even holds the curtain drawn, in a gesture of theatricality, to allow the spectator to contemplate the event. There is also the anecdote of a couple of domestic animals next to the legs of the table disputing for some food. The relief together with the altarpiece were made with alms collected by the religious, having worked on it one of them, Fray Francisco de la Vega and preacher of the Pamplona convent, shortly before the middle of the eighteenth century.

It is a gruesome crime narrated in the hagiography of St. Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419), whose account states that, in 1414, the saint stayed in Morella on his journey to meet with Pope Luna and King Ferdinand I in the context of the end of the Western Schism. Francisco Vidal y Micó in the hagiography that he published in Valencia in 1735, which tells us what happened, being also a text a little before the altarpiece, from which the Dominicans could have used when making the relief that concerns us. The chilling story goes like this: "During this time the saint was staying at the house of a gentleman, whose wife, although quiet and modest, suffered from her lunations of madness. And in one of them, when those of the house were in the sermon, the fury took her and it seemed to her that from the tender meat of a child that she had, she could make the guest a dish of gift, she took a knife and made him quarters. And throwing one of them into a pot, she kept the others for supper. Her husband came back from the sermon and, asking if the meal was ready, answered her that everything was ready and that for the holy guest there was not only fish, but his plate of meat. How meat (said he), don't you know that Master Vincent doesn't eat it? And where did you get it? It is, she said, that of our son who is in taste. The gentleman was stunned by the atrocity. He went crying for the remedy to the saint, who calmed him, telling him: trust in God, that as he raised this infant, he will resurrect him. He then picked up (putting in their places the traces of the child, superimposed his blessing and added this prayer: Jesus, son of Mary, Health and Lord of the world, who out of nothing raised the soul of this infant, restore it to the body, for the glory of his ineffable Majesty and his name. No sooner had she finished saying this brief prayer, when the child was resurrected healthy, good and joyful, to the admiration of those around". The story has other versions, even identifying the knight with the notary Francisco Gavaldá and narrating the healing of the unhappy wife and mother forever, but it is substantially in line with what is referred to in this literary source which, as we have said, is the one that could have been used as information for the relief of the Pamplona altarpiece.