On Something/The Relic

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On Something by Hilaire Belloc
The Relic

It was upon an evening in Spain, but with nothing which that word evokes for us in the North - for it was merely a lessening of the light without dews, without mists, and without skies - that I came up a stony valley and saw against the random line of the plateau at its head the dome of a church. The road I travelled was but faintly marked, and was often lost and mingled with the rough boulders and the sand, and in the shallow depression of the valley there were but a few stagnant pools.

The shape of the dome was Italian, and it should have stood in an Italian landscape, drier indeed than that to which Northerners are accustomed, but still surrounded by trees, and with a distance that could render things lightly blue. Instead of that this large building stood in the complete waste which I have already described at such length, which is so appalling and so new to an European from any other province of Europe. As I approached the building I saw that there gathered round it a village, or rather a group of dependent houses; for the church was so much larger than anything in the place, and the material of which the church itself and the habitations were built was so similar, the flat old tiled roofs all mixed under the advance of darkness into so united a body, that one would have said, as was perhaps historically the truth, that the church was not built for the needs of the place, but that the borough had grown round the shrine, and had served for little save to house its servants.

When the long ascent was ended and the crest reached, where the head of the valley merged into the upper plain, I passed into the narrow first lanes. It was now quite dark. The darkness had come suddenly, and, to make all things consonant, there was no moon and there were not any stars; clouds had risen of an even and menacing sort, and one could see no heaven. Here and there lights began to show in the houses, but most people were in the street, talking loudly from their doorsteps to each other. They watched me as I came along because I was a foreigner, and I went down till I reached the central market-place, wondering how I should tell the best place for sleep. But long before my choice could be made my thoughts were turned in another direction by finding myself at a turn of the irregular paving, right in front of a vast façade, and behind it, somewhat belittled by the great length of the church itself, the dome just showed. I had come to the very steps of the church which had accompanied my thoughts and had been a goal before me during all the last hours of the day.

In the presence of so wonderful a thing I forgot the object of my journey and the immediate care of the moment, and I went through the great doors that opened on the Place. These were carved, and by the little that lingered of the light and the glimmer of the electric light on the neighbouring wall (for there is electric light everywhere in Spain, but it is often of a red heat) I could perceive that these doors were wonderfully carved. Already at Saragossa, and several times during my walking south from thence, I had noted that what the Spaniards did had a strange affinity to the work of Flanders. The two districts differ altogether save in the human character of those who inhabit them: the one is pastoral, full of deep meadows and perpetual woods, of minerals and of coal for modern energy, of harbours and good tidal rivers for the industry of the Middle Ages; the other is a desert land, far up in the sky, with an air like a knife, and a complete absence of the creative sense in nature about one. Yet in both the creation of man runs riot; in both there is a sort of endlessness of imagination; in both every detail that man achieves in art is carefully completed and different from its neighbour; and in both there is an exuberance of the human soul: but with this difference, that something in the Spanish temper has killed the grotesque. Both districts have been mingled in history, yet it is not the Spaniard who has invigorated the Delta of the Rhine and the high country to the south of it, nor the Walloons and the Flemings who have taught the Spaniards; but each of these highly separated peoples resembles the other when it comes to the outward expression of the soul: why, I cannot tell.

Within, there is not a complete darkness, but a series of lights showing against the silence of the blackness of the nave; and in the middle of the nave, like a great funeral thing, was the choir which these Spanish churches have preserved, an intact tradition, from the origins of the Christian Faith. Go to the earliest of the basilicas in Rome, and you will see that sacred enclosure standing in the middle of the edifice and taking up a certain proportion of the whole. We in the North, where the Faith lived uninterruptedly and, after the ninth century, with no great struggle, dwindled this feature and extended the open and popular space, keeping only the rood-screen as a hint of what had once been the Secret Mysteries and the Initiations of our origins. But here in Spain the earliest forms of Christian externals crystallized, as it were; they were thrust, like an insult or a challenge, against the Asiatic as the reconquest of the desolated province proceeded; and therefore in every Spanish church you have, side by side with the Christian riot of art, this original hierarchic and secret thing, almost shocking to a Northerner, the choir, the Coro, with high solemn walls shutting out the people from the priests and from the Mysteries as they had been shut out when the whole system was organized for defence against an inimical society around.

The silence of the place was not complete nor, as I have said, was the darkness. At the far end of the choir, behind the high altar, was the light of many candles, and there were people murmuring or whispering, though not at prayers. There was a young priest passing me at that moment, and I said to him in Latin of the common sort that I could speak no Spanish. I asked him if he could speak to me slowly in Latin, as I was speaking to him. He answered me with this word, "Paucissime," which I easily understood. I then asked him very carefully, and speaking slowly, whether Benediction were about to be held - an evening rite; but as I did not know the Latin for Benediction, I called it alternately "Benedictio," which is English, and "Salus," which is French. He said twice, "Si, si," which, whether it were Italian or French or local, I understood by the nodding of his head; but at any rate he had not caught my meaning, for when I came behind the high altar where the candles were, and knelt there, I clearly saw that no preparations for Benediction were toward. There was not even an altar. All there was was a pair of cupboard doors, as it were, of very thickly carved wood, very heavily gilded and very old; indeed, the pattern of the carving was barbaric, and I think it must have dated from that turn of the Dark into the Middle Ages when so much of our Christian work resembled the work of savages: spirals and hideous heads, and serpents and other things.

By this I was already enormously impressed, and by a little group of people around of whom perhaps half were children, when the young priest to whom I had spoken approached and, calling a well-dressed man of the middle class who stood by and who had, I suppose, some local prominence, went up the steps with him towards these wooden doors; he fitted a key into the lock and opened them wide. The candles shone at once through thick clear glass upon a frame of jewels which flashed wonderfully, and in their midst was the head of a dead man, cut off from the body, leaning somewhat sideways, and changed in a terrible manner from the expression of living men. It was so changed, not only by incalculable age, but also, as I presume, by the violence of his death.

To those inexperienced in the practice of such worship there might be more excuse for the novel impression which this sight suddenly produced upon me. Our race from its very beginning, nay, all the races of men, have preserved the fleshly memorials of those to whom sanctity attached, and I have seen such relics in many parts of Europe almost as commonplaces; but for some reason my emotions upon that evening were of a different kind. The length of the way (for I was miles and miles southwards over this desert waste), the ignorance of the language which surrounded me, the inhuman outline hour after hour under the glare of the sun, or in the inhospitable darkness of this hard Iberian land, the sternness of the faces, the violent richness and the magnitude of the architecture about me, and my knowledge of the trials through which the province had passed, put me in this Presence into a mood very different, I think, from that which pilgrimage is calculated to arouse; there was in it much more of awe, and even of terror; there seemed to re-arise in the presence of that distorted face the memories of active pain and of the unconquerable struggle by which this ruined land was recovered. I wondered as I looked at that face whether he had fallen in protest against the Mohammedans, or, as have so many, in a Spanish endurance of torture, martyred by Pagans in the Pacific Seas. But no history of him was given to me, nor do I now know as I write what occasion it was that made this head so great.

They said but a few prayers, all familiar to me, in the Latin tongue; then the "Our Father" and some few others which have always been recited in the vernacular. They next intoned the Salve Regina. But what an intonation!

Had I not heard that chant often enough in my life to catch its meaning? I had never heard it set to such a tune! It was harsh, it was full of battle, and the supplication in it throbbed with present and physical agony. Had I cared less for the human beings about me, so much suffering, so much national tradition of suffering would have revolted, as it did indeed appal, me. The chant came to an end, and the three gracious epithets in which it closes were full of wailing, and the children's voices were very high.

Then the priest shut the doors and locked them, and a boy came and blew the candles out one by one, and I went out into the market-place, fuller than ever of Spain.