Jan Morris – Spain

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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.

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