Yesterday was another tourist day, this time in Burgos, a larger city than Pamplona and on the basis of my very brief acquaintance, a less charming one. But Burgos is famous for its late gothic Catedral de Santa Maria, so we dutifully trailed behind our official Spanish guide into a man-made Grand Canyon in which the walls are gilded, not metaphorically by the rays of the slanting sun but literally.
It seemed the cathedral consisted less of the main nave than soaring side chapels built for this or that bishop or nobleman and his wife. They lay with their feet facing east, marble and alabaster VIP’s in square-toed shoes, the wives with little dogs at their feet.
On one side of the chapels and rising thirty or more feet would be an altarpiece, punctuated by dozens of niches, each niche populated with a gilt or polychrome saint or apostle or allegorical figure. Two of the altarpieces we saw featured, among other figures, female sculptures one of whom was blindfolded and the other who could see. The blindfolded woman was old and withered; she represented the Old Testament, while the radiant young woman was the New Testament. Mary sat enthroned on the altarpiece pinnacle holding the infant Jesus with his little crown globe. And at the feet of all the altarpiece denizens lay gold and silver: immense candlesticks, reliquiary boxes, embossed Bibles, jeweled patens.
One of the chapels was dedicated to Alfonso de Cartagena, Bishop of Burgos — and son of the former Chief Rabbi, who also became a Bishop of Burgos, around the time that Ferdinand and Isabela instituted the Inquisition.
Later that day we found ourselves in the cloisters of the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos, famous for its monks, who sing Gregorian chant. Santo Domingo is on the steep edge of a plateau, tucked into a wild, wooded landscape sliced by jagged blades of gray rock.
The cloister is 11th-century Romanesque. Its dimensions were small, scaled to the daily life of the monks. And though the columns, capitals and arches had been painted once, they were now the gray of the surrounding rocks. Parading around the capitals were fantastical processions of leaves, birds and animals, and at each of the four corners of the cloister was a large bas-relief with a scene from the life of Jesus. The human figures were angular and elongated. In some the pupils had been drilled into the stone, which gave their eyes a peculiar intensity, though the direction of their gaze was not always decipherable. But the eyes of the two travelers on the road to Emmaus were fixed on the stranger traveling with them. According to Luke’s Gospel, he was the teacher, the rabbi, the insurrectionist who had been crucified only a few days earlier, but the two travelers didn’t recognize him.
Today as we traveled in our bus between two of our Camino walking stretches we passed through a small, rural town called Castillo de Matajudios, literally “Castle Kill-Jews.” Though it is possible the word “matar,” or “kill,” was a corruption of an earlier and less violent word, the current name has existed for centuries. Recently the town voted to change its name.
I have begun to feel burdened by the weight of a tradition of power and violence, all in the teacher’s name, the person who was walking and walking, certainly in Galilee, perhaps to Emmaus. It was good yesterday evening to have left the great cathedral of Burgos behind and to be among the flattened, more primitive figures of Santo Domingo. It was better today simply to be walking the Camino again.