The conventional wisdom concerning the Baroque period in Catalonia has always been, “There’s not much to look at.”
For the past century or so, art historical emphasis has been placed on the area’s Romanesque, Gothic, and Early Renaissance periods of art and architecture, when the financial and naval power of the Catalans was at its height. With the economic decline that set in after trade shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, causing wealth to flow to more strategically-placed Seville rather than Barcelona, a parallel artistic decline naturally followed. Without the riches of the New World to fill its coffers, and later having backed the losing side in the Wars of the Spanish Succession, Barcelona and the other Catalan cities became suspended in time, slumbering away until the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century fueled the explosion of Modernisme, the local equivalent of Art Nouveau.
Or so we thought.
Recently, a parish church in the small town of Butsènit, located about an hour and a half NW of Barcelona, had to have its leaking roof repaired. Water damage from the leak had caused stains to form along the whitewashed ceiling and walls of the interior. In order to prepare for a new coat of whitewash, workers began to clean away the stains, mold, and years of dirt.
To their surprise, as they cleaned, painted figures and designs began to emerge. Eventually, from underneath layers of old white paint, restorers were able to uncover Baroque murals from the 18th century, which covered both the ceiling of the church as well as the walls of two of the side chapels. You can see some of the results by following this link.
While, with one or two exceptions, there really isn’t much in the way of impressive Baroque architecture in Barcelona, it’s always struck me as rather odd that, in a number of neighborhoods outside the city center, as well as in many smaller cities and towns around Catalonia, the main parish church is often neither Romanesque nor Gothic but Baroque, albeit a very plain, austere Baroque. Alternatively, even if the building itself dates from a much earlier period, sometimes you’ll find that, at some point during the 17th or 18th centuries, the church was “modernized” with the addition of a Baroque façade, or had its earlier, Romanesque or Gothic paintings and sculptures replaced with Baroque ones. You’ll typically find lavish, heavily carved and gilded Baroque altarpieces standing several stories high even within the most plain, whitewashed of village churches.
It’s that whitewashing that always seemed strange to me, and now it seems that the experts are beginning to understand why. In many cases, the paintings have been covered up in these churches both because the elaborate designs of the Baroque came to be viewed as too ostentatious – or even unhygienic – by subsequent generations, and because damage which occurred during the Spanish Civil War left many of these parishes with no option but to paint over the ruined murals that had been defaced by Leftists during their reign of terror, rather than restore them. In the case of this particular parish, not only did no one in the community ever remember seeing these murals, but no one was aware that the walls of their church had ever been decorated to begin with.
The implications for art history research are quite significant, as historian and conservationist Pere Rovira of the Centre de Restauració de Béns Mobles de Catalunya notes in the article linked to above. “If we start scraping, murals will be revealed in all the Baroque churches, all waiting to be discovered.” He goes on to ask other parish communities to keep this possibility in mind, and to inform the appropriate cultural preservation authorities when their churches need to undergo cleaning and repairs. “[W’e ask that before repainting walls, you let us know so that we can do a survey.”
Now, it must be said that no one should expect finds of enormous artistic significance, even if a concentrated effort actually gets off the ground. There’s no question that the artistic center of the Iberian Peninsula shifted to Seville and Madrid during the 17th and 18th centuries. There are plenty of decent Catalan Baroque painters, but none of them come up to the level of a Velázquez or a Murillo. What’s more, even if originally these interiors were not as plain as they are today, none of these Catalan churches even begins to compare with the elaborate Baroque parish churches being constructed in Andalusia or Castile during this period.
That being said, this effort is an important one for art history because it overturns the idea that the production of large-scale art effectively ended in Catalonia between about 1500 and 1800. The evidence that this belief was mistaken has always been visible. It doesn’t explain the construction of so many Baroque churches at a time when, supposedly, Catalans had no more wealth with which to undertake significant construction projects, nor does it explain the presence of so many elaborately decorated Baroque sculptural ensembles within these newly built churches, and indeed within churches from earlier time periods.
While it remains to be seen how many of these wall murals have survived, there are other issues of interest as well. Experts will need to learn who painted these works, how they came up with the designs which they chose, what artists from outside of Catalonia were influencing their work, and what idiosyncratic elements specific to Catalonia appear in their paintings, as opposed to depictions of the same subject in other parts of Europe. In short, if you’re interested in Baroque art and architecture, or just fascinated by history, this is quite an exciting, new area for exploration.