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Exiled Navarre heritage (1).


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Diario de Navarra

Ricardo Fernández Gracia

Director of the Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art

The loss and disassociation of cultural property in Navarre has had, historically, many causes and, above all, different paths. The topic awaits a monograph. When analyzing it, it is necessary to take into account the times and their contexts, which were far from being the current ones. Those were times with hardly any legislation, nor evaluation towards objects that, in many cases, were considered old and with no possibility of recovery, where fashions prevailed in such a way that the new models of architecture, visual and sumptuary arts dragged along the social groups that had enough purchasing power to consume art.

Often, we are accustomed to look only at religious art, which, in spite of having had very important losses, has preserved much more than town halls, civil institutions and private houses, due to the inherent conservatism towards the images and all that surrounded them.

The furnishing of the domestic architecture: an example

If we consult the inventories and documentation of what the noble, bourgeois or popular houses contained, the disappointment is tremendous, since, for various reasons, a very high percentage of its contents, perhaps more than 90%, has disappeared, by transfers of the goods subject to entailed estate until the nineteenth century, by sales or simply by the fashions and the dimensions of the new family residences. Anyone has the experience of having seen in their ancestor's house belongings that no longer exist.

Pilar Andueza has recently written numerous articles and a monograph on the furnishings of the great mansions and the most popular ones, considering the house much more than its architecture.

Among the great collections of paintings, we will mention the example of the Antillón de Lumbier house, in which one of the great Spanish collectors of the Age of Enlightenment instituted an estate. We refer to the Navarrese canon of the cathedral of Calahorra, Juan Manuel de Mortela y Ciganda (Sorauren, 1687 - Calahorra, 1776), a man of broad culture and exquisite taste, whose collection included works by Escalante, Rafael, Ribera, Cotto, Maratta, Murillo and Palomino, along with Chinese porcelain and selected national and foreign pieces. That collection, which he had so much trouble putting together, he linked it, in 1774, declaring "as I have been very fond of painting, I have come to put together quite a large collection of original paintings of ancient and modern authors, the most outstanding and of the first grade, and as these jewels do honor to the houses, it is my will that they remain linked to the foundation of this estate". Along with numerous religious, allegorical and mythological canvases, he owned the Inmaculada de Escalante (1666), donated by his successors to the Benedictine Sisters of Lumbier. His pompous portrait is preserved in the cathedral of Pamplona.

The disastrous consequences of the disentailment of the nineteenth century

The French invasion, the successive exclaustrations and the disentailment of Mendizábal had disastrous consequences for Navarre's heritage. Codices, images, tables and canvases, gold and silver work, tapestries and other sumptuary arts disappeared forever. It is a real displeasure to read the inventories of movable goods and libraries, hastily and laconically carried out, to see the disappearance of most of them. Even the churches of the great medieval monasteries were the object of robberies, thefts, fires and, in the best of cases, part of their furnishings were moved. The only case in which most of it was saved was that of Fitero, thanks to the fact that its church remained as a parish church of the town. 

The silver losses have been studied by Ignacio Miguéliz and José Antonio Marcellán. It is a pity that the thesis by Amaya Zulaica, defended at the University of Navarra in 2001, has not been published. The lists of processional crosses, chalices, pestle holders, ostensories, reliquaries, and even silver frontispieces, which were the object of plunder in the French Embassy, are quite eloquent and no less surprising the means that the people of the towns and the religious communities put in place to prevent such beloved pieces from leaving in that way. An example of the latter is provided by the pathway and loss of the ark of St. Veremundo de Irache that we dealt with in this same newspaper (March 6, 2020).

In the best of cases, some altarpieces from convents and monasteries were transferred to other places and, little by little, we are getting to know them through documentation, since the report of the successive generations has disappeared among the people of the places of destination. It goes without saying that, in most cases, the pieces suffered considerable losses and mutilations, if not changes in their iconography.

The paintings had a worse fate, since most of them had to be destroyed or at best cut out to obtain a fragment of landscape Pass to be placed in a nineteenth-century house. Portraits of princes and kings, series of founding saints, large altar canvases and Flemish coppers disappeared without a trace.

It was no less disastrous for the libraries and archives. Isabel Ostolaza has made a study and evaluation of the libraries of the Cistercian monasteries, some of whose books are in the Library Services General of Navarra. Other pieces ended up in Madrid, such as parchments, codices and other documents that are in the National Historical file , or pieces as significant for the history of Navarre as the poem of Guillem de Anelier de Toulouse, from the monastery of Fitero and currently in the Royal Academy of History. As is well known, it narrates the Navarrese War of 1276. Its finding and first edition were a consequence of the visit to Fitero of Pablo Ilarregui to inspect the bookshop in 1844, in representation of the Commission of Monuments of Navarre. It was then when the aforementioned researcher set aside some valuable copies, among them the aforementioned copy written in Provençal verse, a work that according to José Goñi Gaztambide is an "inestimable jewel that would be enough to justify the existence of the monastery of Fitero".

Sales of outstanding pieces, now in major museums and collections

From today's perspective, we cannot judge many of the sales that took place over the preceding centuries, often for the sole purpose of maintaining buildings and with much pain for those who carried out the alienations. 

Sales have been documented for centuries. The monks of Fitero sold the old organ, from the beginning of the 17th century, when the current baroque organ was installed in 1660. It was destined for the convent of La Merced in Tarazona, where it is now, after its recent restoration. We know that in 1751, a neighbor from Madrid, named Manuel Rodriguez, passed through the sanctuary of El Puy de Estella, acquiring a pair of very old dresses of the image, together with two frontals and three chasubles. The mentioned search engine of antiques arrived at the city of the Ega in search of old ornaments, having already acquired some in other temples of the same Navarrese city and of Tarazona and Viana.

Emilio Quintanilla studied the sales made in Navarre at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, especially everything related to the episcopate of Fray José López y Mendoza. Although many sales projects were stopped by the towns, such as the ashlars of Los Arcos or the tibores of Puente la Reina, other pieces such as the Romanesque image of the Virgin of Villatuerta, the enamel chest of Abárzuza, the gothic ivory image of the Poor Clares of Estella or the tapestries of Recoletas did not suffer the same fate. As these are special objects and the fact that we have some photographs, we do not lose hope of finding some of these pieces. Let us remember the case of the Marian image of Estella that is today in the British Museum, recognized by M. Zuza, or the ivory pyx of San Pedro de la Rúa of the same city, today in the Metropolitan Museum of New York, located by E. Quintanilla.

The passion for medieval art in many museums and collections meant that the frontispieces of Góngora and Arteta -Museo de Arte de Cataluña- and that of Eguillor -today in the Galleria Sabauda in Turin- left the Foral community at a date that is not very precise. Some archaeological goods followed the same route.

It is more difficult to locate everything that does not have a photograph, since the passage through different collections tends to erase its provenance. Unfortunately, we do not know the Recoletas tapestries, sold with the episcopal push, against the will of the nuns, in 1911.

We also know that, on some occasions, the sales were carried out with light and stenographers, as occurred with the 1706 hangings of the Poor Clares of Estella, auctioned in 1921, for which public announcements were placed in the national press, with bids coming from Zaragoza, London, Pamplona, and Madrid. More recently, the organs of the Franciscans of Olite (San Sebastián) and that of the Poor Clares of Tudela (Sant Creus) were auctioned.

Theft and deception

The thefts of objects, preferably of silver in other times and of other arts in the last century, can be documented with certain ease, in the files of file and also with the enquiry of the periodicals collection. The list of robberies is enormous, some with supernatural events included, such as that of El Puy in 1640. The one of Aralar, in 1797, was very famous. Among those of the XX century, we will mention that of the cathedral in 1935, with the theft of the crowns of the titular of the temple and of the very chest of Leire, which inspired a novel by José Luis Díaz Monreal. However, if there was another theft with even more novel details and characteristics, it is the one that took place shortly after the beginning of the civil war of 1936, when Néstor Zubeldía was the archivist. A man he trusted made off with numerous codices, books and incunabula. Some were sold in Paris, while the archivist was purged and tried for his nationalist ideas. Back in Pamplona, in 1939, he discovered the mess. Those who wish to read in detail about that event can do so in the third volume of Goñi Gaztambide's Historia eclesiastica de Estella, in the biography he dedicates to the multifaceted Don Nestor.

The last major robberies were perpetuated in Aralar and Estella. In the first case, it took place in 1979 and the organizer of the theft was the famous Erik the Belgian. In 1981 most of the enamels returned, after a journey through European lands worthy of the best of detective stories. The curious can recall everything in a chronicle of the magazine Príncipe de Viana of 1981.

As far as San Pedro de la Rúa de Estella is concerned, numerous thefts have been documented since the beginning of the 18th century. However, the great theft took place in October 1979, when the silver filigree reliquary with the scapula of St. Andrew and 25 other objects were stolen, including the famous enamel crozier. Although some pieces were recovered, the bulk and the most important jewels were never found.

Some objects came out relatively late. Father Planas, from the monastery of Montserrat, took the pectoral of the abbots of Fitero, a little more than a century ago, exchanging it for a wall clock for the sacristy. A realejo was exchanged, a century ago, also in Fitero, for a harmonium. Tempus regit factum.

Relocation and relocations to the present day

The transfers of pieces of movable art have been a constant since the 19th century. Let us remember, as examples, the series of St. Elias del Carmen of Pamplona that went to the Augustinian Sisters of San Pedro and later to the monastery of Leire, or the altarpiece of Carmen to the chapel of the Museum of Navarre.

Interventions in some buildings also led to the removal of historical pieces of different value and chronology. The unfortunate restoration of the cathedral of Pamplona, in the postwar period, caused the main altarpiece of the Barbazana, a singular work of early Baroque in Navarre, made by Mateo de Zabalía around 1642, to end up in the monastery of Santa Isabel de Madrid, where we located it, thanks to a photograph. Previously, other pieces had already left the same church for other parishes in 1805. The altarpiece of the Holy Trinity ended up in that of Errazquin and that of St. Martin, today in that of Yaben. A singular piece of which we do not know its value or age, was the veil with which the cathedral's main altarpiece was covered during Holy Week, requested by the parish priest of Leache in 1942, because it was no longer in use.

The mural paintings exhibited in the Museum of Navarre bear witness to a number of transfers from various locations in Navarre and its capital, in interventions that were justified in their day, although today, surely, they would not have been carried out.

In the last decades, the depopulation and withdrawal in some towns, has led to the transfer of their churches to other localities, although with a series of records and annotations that document the whole transfer, as well as the lifting of some enclosures.