By Felicity Perryman

Pilgrim badge from the shrine of St James in Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain. This badge is in the shape of a scallop shell. In the centre of the shell is a standing figure of St James dressed as a pilgrim with a cloak, a satchel and holding a staff. He has a large nimbus (halo) around his head. The edge of badge is beaded.

Pilgrim Badges

Pilgrim Badge
Source: London Museum

Pilgrim badge from the shrine of St James in Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain. This badge is in the shape of a scallop shell. In the centre of the shell is a standing figure of St James dressed as a pilgrim with a cloak, a satchel and holding a staff. He has a large nimbus (halo) around his head. The edge of badge is beaded.Speaking of souvenirs, medieval pilgrims used to bring home tin badges from pilgrimage sites. As the British Museum puts it: “Pilgrims’ badges were a symbol of the relationship between the saint and the pilgrim who had undertaken the journey to the relic.”

There are even records of pilgrims holding up mirrors within sight of the relics, to reflect and contain rays of light from the relic. Johannes Gutenberg — yes, that Gutenberg — reportedly made pilgrim mirrors for sale before turning to inventing the printing press. The mirror, having once held a true image of the saint became a sacred relic as well. It also reminds me of all the modern day pilgrims holding up their camera phones to do the same — record the image in light coming from the relic; we figured out how to hold the image permanently in 1839.

Pilgrim badge from the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. This badge depicts the mitred head-shaped reliquary bust that held the remains of Becket’s skull. This type of badge, which depicts the head reliquary as a silhouette without any frame, is the most common of all Canterbury pilgrim souvenirs. Along the base is an inscription: ‘THOMAS’. The badge has snapped in two at the neck, which was the weakest point on this type badge. Sometimes such badges were deliberately folded at the neck, which made them liable to breaking.The badges, whether with mirrors or images associated with the saint, were stitched to pilgrim’s cloaks and hat brims. They were sold by the thousands and hundreds have survived, but given the number of badges found in the Thames, there may also have been a tradition of throwing the badges brought from Canterbury (the shrine of Thomas a Becket, murdered by order of King Henry the 8th), into the river once the pilgrim was home in London again.

The British Museum Digital Pilgrim Project recently made available 3D scans of some of these badges, so you can turn around and examine Thomas’ face from any angle on your computer screen. Here he is:

Medieval badge - 14c


My current “home” icon is a medieval badge as well…

A rare medieval pewter badge, dating to 1300 – 1500 AD. The badge depicts a young king, but I think he looks a bit like me ;-). Source: Brian Spencer’s Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges.

Cafe La Giralda - Bathrooms

Everyday Orientalism

Cafe La Giralda, SevillaIn my favourite cafe in Sevilla, near the cathedral it is named for, the Cafe Giralda marks its washrooms with reproductions of two paintings, one of a woman, the other of a man, in robes and chains, with signs over their heads in Arabic. One of the woman’s breasts is exposed.

With some image searching on Google, I found the originals. They’re by the Catalan artist Antonio Fabrés y Costa, examples of Orientalism popular in the late 1800’s in Europe. Entitled Ladron and Ladrona (thief), they’re an eroticization of vanquished, enslaved Arabs. The signs over their heads say they are condemned to death for the theft of jewellery, which hangs above them.

It’s my favourite cafe not just because it’s a beautiful space, and is authentically Sevillian, but also because it’s one of the few cafes where I could comfortably go as a woman on my own. Other cafes had a habit of ignoring me when I tried to get a coffee or something to eat. (Maybe they thought I was waiting for a suitable companion?) But then these are in the restaurant, and no one seems to mind.

Cafe La Giralda - Bathrooms

la-giralda-bathrooms-3 Cafe La Giralda - Bathrooms


El Transito Synagogue – Toledo

Synagog of el Transito -- Toledo
Synagog of el Transito - Toledo - interior with wooden ceiling in Mudéjar styleThe Synagogue Samuel ha-Levi in Toledo, now known as the Synogogue of El Transito and the Sephardic Museum, was first built in 1356, by Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia, treasurer to the Christian king of Castile and León, Pedro the Cruel. It’s an unusually large building given that it was a private family synagogue, and beautifully decorated in Islamic-style stucco work, similar to the Nasrid palaces of the Alhambra, with Hebrew and Arabic inscriptions, arches, and a Mudéjar wooden ceiling. Women were not allowed in the main gallery, but watched ceremonies from the women’s gallery above.

toledo-synagogue-7Synagog of el Transito - Toledo - Women's gallery overlooking the main hall, with wooden Mudéjar ceiling

Synagogue - Toledo - close up of capital

Ibn Shushan Synagogue – Toledo – Santa María la Blanca

Synagogue - Toledo - Santa María la Blanca - Interior

St María la Blanca - Synagogue in Toledo - arches with original capitalsAs you’re not using it, we’d like it back, thanks.

In 2013, Isaac Querub, the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain made a request: “What would be a better act of generosity and reconciliation than the return of the Grand Synagogue of Toledo to the Jewish people and particularly to the Jewish community of Spain, as a symbol of dialogue between Jews and Christians.”

This synagogue was originally built for the Jewish community of Toledo in 1180 and was known as the Ibn Shushan Synagogue. Wikipedia tells me that it is the oldest European synagogue still standing, and is an example of Mudejar architecture: a fusion of the three dominant cultures of the time, built under Christian rule by Islamic architects for Jewish use. It was taken over by Christians in 1411, renamed Santa María la Blanca in 1550. It was used by a monastery and then as a warehouse until being restored in 1856 as a national monument.

The Catholic Church in Spain has not responded.

Synagogue - Toledo - Santa Maria la Blanca - The shell-shaped arch at one end of the synagogue is where the Torah would have been kept, the heart of the building.
The shell-shaped arch at one end of the synagogue is where the Torah would have been kept, the heart of the building.
Synagog - Toledo - St Maria la Blanca - Capital in Mudéjar style
Capital with finely carved pinecones and other natural imagery, in Mudéjar style with both classical Greek and Byzantine origins.


Darle un Abrazo – Santiago

Santiago - Cathedral altar

Give Santiago a hug for me – Darle un abrazo – is what one pilgrim will say to another who is going to Santiago de Compostela. And they mean it literally. In the cathedral there is a small staircase that ascends behind the altar to the statue of Saint James, Santiago. Behind the statue is a small space, just enough for one pilgrim, with a monk keeping watch from a corner, to embrace Santiago’s cloak, or kiss it. In this photo of the front of the altar, you can see a hand on Santiago’s left shoulder. Santiago is dressed in finery, but still carries his staff with a gourd for water, and his halo takes the form of the scallop shell, symbol of the camino.

Bracelets from 2015 CaminoI didn’t feel quite the same need to touch him. It seems odd. Maybe because the statue has a certain 1950’s cheesy quality to it. Again, that’s a lot of cherubs. But I certainly have felt the need to collect physical talismans of the camino, to hold and keep for luck and perseverance. Walking to Santiago was hard sometimes; but waiting out the years to go again has been harder. When Jan Morris writes about the Spanish making little goddesses out of their Virgin Mary statues, I understand that. The Reformation was hard on Catholicism’s idolatries of physical objects. The iconoclasts, clawing out the eyes of saints and chipping effigies off the walls of churches, strike me as vandals. The objects, their realness, their being made by people before us, in devotion, in craft, are important. I don’t think they even reference particular ideas or church doctrine, they just overwhelm with layers of gold and detail, straight to emotions of wanting to belong and hold on. That’s what kitsch does, and I’m not above its appeal. Perhaps that’s what my photos do as well? Appeal to the visual and sense of the object with its own weight of symbol.

Jan Morris - Spain

Jan Morris – Spain

Jan Morris - SpainFound it! I’ve been looking for another copy of this since I lent my first copy to my sister. As she lives far away, it’s easier to buy another.

My last copy of this book, a later edition, said “The most evocative book ever written on Spain ~ Independent” and while I distrust most such blurbs with romantic wording, it’s true. Every sentence brings up a wealth of story telling about Spain. Spain suddenly appears before me, full of sounds, smells and warmth of sun, cold stone and real bodies.

Opened at random just now, here’s a paragraph:

At the other end stand all those miraculous relics which, to the cold northern mind, blur the edge between religion and superstition, and give to Spanish Catholicism an odour of wizardry. All over Spain there are miracle-working images of the Virgin, hallowed and well-loved objects with traditional powers of cure and protection. They are usually squat, primitive, vaguely Oriental figures, blackened by centuries of candle smoke, and sitting upon their high plinths, their banks of flowers, or their altars like dark little idols. Most of them are mediaeval figures which were buried for their safety when the Moors conquered Spain, whose whereabouts was forgotten during the seven centuries of Muslim rule, and whose rediscovery after the Reconquest was regarded as miraculous. A typical story is that of the Black Virgin of Montserrat. This small, almost African-looking image, now to be seen as a small black blob among the multitudinous flowers, gems and candles of its altar, was discovered by some shepherds who noticed strange lights flickering, to celestial music, outside a cave on the holy mountains; a sweet fragrance surrounded the image, a halo hovered about its head, and when they carried it down the steep mountain track it presently grew so heavy that they left it where it was, and built around it a monastery that is famous now where ever Christianity is known.

I know parts of this — the Visigoths ruled the Iberian peninsula and lost it to the Moors in the 700s. And I’ve seen the virgins in the churches; each village or city neighbourhood has its own, paraded at Easter. I’ve recently looked at photos of Monserrat, planning a visit to its perch high above Barcelona. But I did not know the synthesis of what Morris writes. She has the breadth of knowledge and imagination to put it all together — the miraculous unearthing of figures in the earth by shepherds or farmers — it really happened. Perhaps some of the stories are true.

Virgin of MontseratSome research on Wikipedia provides a photo of the virgin, known as La Morenata, and conflicting reports of the statue’s origins. It’s described in the same entry as being ‘carved in Jerusalem in the early days of the Church,’ and Romanesque from the 12th century, and also already in existence in 718 when moved to Monserrat to protect it from Saracen invaders. No mention of unearthing by shepherds though.

Spain, by Jan Morris
First published as The Presence of Spain, 1964, Faber & Faber
Penguin Books, 1982
Faber & Faber, 2008

Jan Morris recently celebrated her 90th birthday. After serving in the British Army in WWII, her writing career launched in 1953 when she was the only correspondent allowed on the British Mount Everest Expedition. The Guardian had a lovely article about her career just last week.

From the walls of Galisteo, looking into the back yards of houses in the village. Some are cared for, others abandoned.

Galisteo and abandoned houses

Iberian peninsula from the international space station - photo courtesy NASA

If you were to look at Spain from up high at night, you’d see this, the night lights massed and glowing in the center of the peninsula, which is Madrid. The darkest areas are where Spain’s rural villages have emptied out as anyone who can leave moves to the cities for work. (photo by NASA)

Small towns are left to the elderly and a handful of farmers. There are few children, and many houses have been abandoned. These photos are from Galisteo, a small town in Extremadura, population 2001.

Gallisteo - abandoned houseGallisteo - abandoned houseGallisteo - abandoned house

This house is stone, in the center of town, one story with a low roof that is caving in. One shuttered window was open, and I took these photos from outside in the street. From the debris, a table still set with a cloth, flowers, and bowls, clothes still hanging in the closet, wedding photos fallen to the floor, it looks like the house was abandoned, but not cleared out of personal effects. Perhaps the owners died, and the heirs still have the property but have never used it.

Galisteo, Extremadura - Moorish defence walls and towerGalisteo, Extremadura - Moorish defence wallsFrom the walls of Galisteo, looking into the back yards of houses in the village. Some are cared for, others abandoned.

Galisteo with its Moorish fortification walls is a bit of tourist draw, with school groups coming by to climb its walls and admire the view over the countryside. But other small towns have much less. You can buy an entire Spanish village for a few hundred thousand euros.

This article from NPR explains more.

“Everyone else left, too, or they’ve died, and the local school closed,” Fernandez says. “There aren’t enough children anymore.”

Galicia’s birth rate is 1.1 offspring per fertile woman — one of the lowest rates in all of Europe. The region is on track to lose a third of its population in the next 35 years.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, says Avelino Luis de Francisco Martinez, the mayor of Cortegada, a rural town in southern Galicia. An abandoned hamlet that’s part of his town isn’t for sale. He’s giving it away.

“For free! Someone just has to promise to renovate the 12 ruined houses,” he says. “They’re beautiful — bucolic! Next to a river and an 18th century royal procession path.”

The challenge? “We just need to find someone to live here in this century,” he says.

Give me a few years, I’ll figure it out.

Where the light comes in – Toledo Cathedral

El Transparente - Toledo Cathedral
This is Toledo Cathedral, directly behind the altar. I visited on a Sunday morning when the church first opened, and the sun came in through a skylight cut high in the walls and illuminated the sculptures behind the altar. I felt extraordinarily lucky to see it, wanting to call people over to see it. Can you see what the light is doing? It’s for us!

As it turns out, this play of light and architecture is called el Transparente, the transparency. The light continues through a piercing in the altar to reach the sacrament, usually deep in shadows. The architects’ joy and playfulness come down the three centuries since they planned this, every day in a few minutes of clarity.

This, below, is what the light illuminates. A Baroque effusion of angels, saints, prophets, cardinals, and rather a lot of cherubs, grouped around the opening where the sun goes through.

El Transparente - Toledo CathedralToledo Cathedral - El Transparente

Where the pieces join


Visigoth column in the mosque of Cristo de la Luz, ToledoThis is the mosque of Cristo de la Luz in Toledo, Spain. The square part of the building on the right hand side is the original mosque (mesquita), with the three horseshoe arches on the main level, and the row of striped keyhole windows above. It’s small, only 8m square, and was founded in 999 by Ahmad ibn Hadidi, and known as the Mezquita Bab-al-Mardum. When Toledo was taken by Christian forces in 1085, the mosque was converted to Christian church, renamed Cristo de la Luz, with an added rounded apse. You can see the windows of the apse on the left are a different shape, with pointed window arches.

The brick work of the outside is almost seamless between the Islamic/Moorish section of 999 and the Christian of a century later. Certainly the craftspeople of one century knew the work of the previous–they may have been descendants of the same workers. The Moors were forced to convert to Christianity, or leave. Those who stayed became the Mudejar, the converted. They created a new fusion of architecture and art, joining Muslim and Christian forms.

Inside the mosque, the columns holding up the 9 small domes of the roof are Visigoth. Spolia. From the Latin for spoils of war. Older stone works that are incorporated into new structures, either from a need for building materials, or a desire to visibly overtake the old structure in a literal way, proving the new society’s dominance. Or, as I imagine it, a carver saying, that’s a nice bit of stone work, that is. Best keep it.