Light, Silence and Darkness

Towering over the mud-coloured reaches of the Guadalquivir river stands Cordoba’s Mezquita, the greatest mosque in Moorish Spain and today the only surviving mosque of the Moorish period – all the rest were long ago replaced by churches, usually on the same foundations. Majestically expanded in successive phases of construction between the 8th and 10th centuries, the Mezquita is approached across a vast pebbled courtyard of symmetrically-spaced orange trees, watered by stone channels, still containing fountains to refresh the air and the great circular basin of Al-Mansur where the Faithful performed their ablutions before entering the mosque. Inside, in a forest of stone columns surmounted by double red arches, 8000 Moorish warriors at a time could prostrate themselves before the Mihrab, the golden niche indicating the geographical direction of Mecca.

The Mezquita owes its existence today to the massive whimsy of the Catholic Church in the 16th century. The then Bishop of Cordoba, Don Alonso Manrique, possibly mindful of the extreme beauty of the architectural space, or perhaps recognizing its convenience as a mass gathering place for Christians in wet weather, decided not to destroy the mosque absolutely as had been Christian practice after the Reconquista everywhere else in Spain, but to build a Baroque cathedral in the middle of the mosque, open all around to the mosque itself. It is at one and the same time both a dreadful act of architectural vandalism a miracle of architectural integration. `You have destroyed something unique!’ protested Carlos V, monarch of the day. But the fact is, Bishop Alonso had also created something unique – a marriage of Christian and Muslim architecture unparalleled elsewhere in the world – a symbol also of a mutual religious tolerance already long dead in Spain of the Holy Inquisition, which had once been at the heart of Moorish culture in Cordoba itself.

All this comes to a point in the Mihrab at the Eastern end of the Mezquita. An octagonal niche of extreme simplicity within, lit from hidden windows above, surrounded by texts from the Koran in exquisitely inlaid mosaics, it had been a gift to the then Caliph of Cordoba from the then Emperor of Byzantium – titular head of the Christian Orthodox church in the old Roman Empire of the East – who supplied not only the lavish materials for the mosaics but the skilled craftsmen to execute them to Muslim designs. On a first view the Mihrab, in its extreme austerity and lack of monumental symbolism, pales beside the colourful exuberance and sculptural complexity of the Christian altarpiece some 8 rows of columns away in the Cathedral. On a second or third view the eye may begin to calibrate to what is actually there in the Mihrab, indeed to all that is there, given the utter simplicity of the interior space beyond the gilded mosaics. What is there, of course, is light – light captured in the tower above and made visible in the space below – a compellingly powerful metaphor for the wisdom which the Faithful have always sought in the Divine. By comparison the gilded altarpiece of the Christian cathedral, with its central figure of the risen Christ and attendant angels, its internal domes and supporting arches and columns, can seem like the lady in Hamlet, to protest too much.

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High in the hills above Cordoba is Las Ermitas, a group of 13 hermitages inhabited for many centuries by a community of solitary monks who shared the chapel, vegetable gardens and burial ground as communal facilities. The community died out more than 50 years ago, but the chapel still survives, approached along a drive of dark cypresses, behind which self-seeded vegetables and flowers from the monastic days still run an unregulated riot amongst the woodland shrubs. Sombre messages of the memento mori variety dot the path, a skull here, a text there reminding mere mortals of their mere mortality as they draw nearer the chapel of La Magdalena

The chapel is T-shaped, with that curious Spanish feature of a second nave and choir, used by the monks as a chapter-house, at right angles to and behind the altar of the first, as though some habit of North/South solar orientation left over from pagan days was still being discreetly preserved behind the dawn-to-dusk East/West orientation of the more recent Christian church. (The Holy Week ceremonies in Cordoba and Seville, with their swaying floats, groaning and long lines of hooded penitents, convey a similar impression of paganism glossed over but still giving a darker-than-usual emotion to Christian ritual). In a glass case in a small vestry off the main chapel there are gold monstrances containing chips of dusty bone alongside other talismanic items of an ancient Christian faith – gifts from visiting pilgrims, at an extreme of variance from the poverty the monks themselves sought out in their tiny two-room cabins, a couple of which are still open to view: the one room with a fireplace and vessels for the preparation of food; the other, with bed, table and stool for sleeping, prayer, study and pious self-flagellation with vicious scourges still displayed.

The chapel too is brilliant with the gold leaf, richly-coloured wall-tiles and statuary twisted in ecstatic prayer from centuries of generous donations. All leap into the light for a few lovely minutes when a Euro coin is dropped into the magic box at the entrance to the nave, for tourists and their listless children to wander round, take their snaps and be off into the gardens again in, following the path down to the mirador, where an Episcopal chair in marble looks out over limitless views of the Guadalquivir valley, beneath a tall column surmounted by a statue of St Raphael patron saint of Cordoba, its base decorated with the emblematic fasces – bundles of lictors’ punishment canes – of the former Falange party.

The real meaning of the chapel of the Ermita is only revealed when the tourists have gone, the lights have clicked off and virtual darkness falls, barely penetrated by sunlight struggling through the few heavily decorated church windows. High on its hill-top, protected by its lofty elevation and by its hedge of cypresses from the hum and buzz of human life on the plains far below, what the Ermita then offers is the gift of silence – the silence through which the divine Signal, with or without teasing bursts of divine Noise , may trickle down through the ether to the ear of the attentive and well-scourged hermit, to be received and rejoiced in as the divine Word, manna in the wilderness for the mortal soul.

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Divine light and divine silence – threatened metaphors in a world where natural light and natural silence are increasingly hard to attain – marginal light and marginal silence, still beckoning the occasional attentive eye or ear, biding their time, no doubt, for when the energy runs out or the human species runs down, and light and silence will come into their own again.

And meanwhile, in a tall side-chapel off the nave of Cordoba cathedral which encroaches darkly on the space of the Mosque itself, permanently locked but permanently open to view through elaborate iron gates, set before an opulently gilded altar there stands a huge black basalt tomb. The tomb bears an expensive spray of artificial lilies and the simple legend `Jose-Antonio’.

Jose-Antonio Primo de Rivera was the son of the first dictator of Spain under king Alfonso XIII. Founder of the Falange party – the `Phalanx’ – modelled on Italian Fascist lines, the dashing young Jose-Antonio planned to use it to impose an authoritarian socialist regime on Spain, with an all-powerful central government taking decisions for and on behalf of the common people – a replica of his own father’s unfulfilled plans. In 1936 already deemed a threat to the ephemeral political stability of the Republican government of the day, he was imprisoned, and after the invasion of Spain by the Nationalist forces of Generals Mola and Franco he was executed by firing squad in Alicante gaol at the age of 27. Franco then took charge of the Falange, an arm of civilian power which he played off with great skill against the rival powers of Church and Army, by developing a death-cult of the young Primo de Rivera himself and by allowing his strikingly beautiful widow to be nationally prominent in the performance of good works. The tomb of `Jose-Antonio’ remains the nowadays unspoken fons et origo of the cult.

Light, silence and pitchy darkness – the trinity of magical/occult powers which still subtly infiltrate the inner life of 21st century Cordoba, as the people and the traffic hum and buzz by outside.

NT: 04/09/2008