Cities Of Old Castile
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
BURGOS CATHEDRAL AND THE COFFER OF THE CID
Burgos can boast of its cathedral, which is one of the finest in the world; but, unfortunately, like all Gothic cathedrals, it is hemmed in by a number of ignoble structures, which prevent the eye from appreciating the general disposition of the building and seizing the whole mass at one glance. The principal entrance looks out upon a large square, in the middle of which is a handsome fountain, surmounted by a splendid statue of Our Savior in white marble. This fountain serves as a target to all the idle vagabonds of the town who can find no more amusing occupation than to throw stones at it. The entrance, which I have just mentioned, is magnificent, being worked and covered with a thousand different patterns like a piece of lace.
The moment the visitor enters the church, he is forcibly arrested by a chef-d'oeuvre of incomparable beauty, namely, the carved wooden door Ieading to the cloisters. Among the other bas-reliefs upon it, there is one representing Our Savior's entry into Jerusalem; the jambs and crosspieces are covered with delicious little figures, so elegant in their form, and of such extreme delicacy that it is difficult to understand how so heavy and solid a substance as wood could ever be made to lend itself to so capricious and ethereal a production of the imagination. It is certainly the most beautiful door in the whole world, if we except that executed by Ghiberti, at Florence, and which Michael Angelo, who understood something about these matters, pronounced worthy of being the door of Paradise. There certainly ought to be a bronze copy taken of this admirable work of art, so that it might at least live as long as the work of men's hands can live.
The choir, in which are the stalls, is enclosed by gates of wrought iron of the most wonderful workmanship; the pavement, as is the custom in Spain, is covered with immense mats made of spartum, besides which each stall has its own little carpet of dry grass or reeds. On looking up, you perceive a kind of dome formed by the interior of the tower to which I have before alluded. It is one mass of sculptures, arabesques, statues, columns, and pendentives, sufficient to make your brain turn giddy. Were a person to gaze for two years, he still would not be able to see everything in it. The various objects are as densely crowded together as the leaves of a cabbage; there is as much open work as in a fish-slice; it is as gigantic as a pyramid, and as delicate as a woman's earring.
How such a piece of filigree work can have remained erect during two centuries surpasses human comprehension ! What kind of men could those have been who raised these marvelous buildings, which not even a fairy palace could ever surpass in profuse magnificence? Is the race extinct? Are not we, who are always boasting of our high state of civilization, but decrepit barbarians in comparison? I am always opprest with a profound sentiment of melancholy whenever I visit any of these prodigious edifices of the past; my heart is overwhelmed by a feeling of utter discouragement, and the only wish I have is to withdraw to some retired spot, to place a stone upon my head, and, in the immovability of contemplation, to await death, which is immovability itself. Why should I work? Why should I exert myself?
The most mighty effort of which man is capable will never produce anything more magnificent than what I have just described; and yet we do not even know the name of the divine artists to whom we owe it ; and, if we wish to obtain the slightest information concerning them, we are obliged to seek it in the dusty leaves of the monastical archives. When I think that I have spent the best part of my life in making ten or twelve thousand verses, in writing six or seven wretched octavo volumes, and three or four hundred bad articles for the newspapers, and that I feel fatigued with my exertions, I am ashamed of myself and of the times in which I live, when so much exertion is required in order to produce so little. What is a thin sheet of paper compared to a mountain of granite?
If the reader will take a turn with me in this immense madrepore, constructed by the prodigious human polypi of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, we will commence by visiting the little sacristy, which, notwithstanding its name, is a very good-sized room, and contains an "Eece Homo" and a "Christ on the Cross" by Murillo, as well as a "Nativity" by Jordaens. It is lined with the most beautifully carved woodwork. In the middle is placed a large brazero, which serves to light the censers, and perhaps the cigarets also, for many of the Spanish priests smoke—a practise that does not strike me as being more unbecoming than that of taking snuff, in which the French clergy indulge, without the slightest scruple. The brazero is a large, copper vessel, placed upon a tripod, and filled with burning embers, or little fruit-stones covered with fine cinders, which produce a gentle heat. In Spain, the brazeros are used instead of fireplaces, which are very rare.
In the great sacristy, which is next to the little one, the visitor remarks a "Christ on the Cross" by Domenico Theotoeopuli, surnamed "El-Greco," an extravagant and singular painter, whose pictures might be mistaken for sketches by Titian, if there were not a certain affectation of sharp and hastily painted forms about them, which causes them to be immediately recognized. In order that his works may appear to have been painted with great boldness, he throws in, here and there, touches of the most inconceivable petulance and brutality, and thin, sharp lights which traverse the portions of the picture which are in shadow, like so many sword-blades. All this, however, does not pre-vent El Greco from being a fine painter. The good specimens of his second style greatly resemble the romantic pictures of Eugene Dela-Croix. .
The walls of this apartment are covered with paneled wainscoting, with florid and festooned columns of the greatest richness. Above the wainscoting there is a row of Venice mirrors; for what purpose they are placed there, unless it is simply for ornament, I am at a loss to say, as they are hung too high for any one to see himself in them. Above the mirrors are ranged, in chronological order—the most ancient touching the ceiling—the portraits of all the bishops of Burgos, down from the very first, to the preIate who now occupies the See. These portraits, altho in oil colors, look like crayon drawings, or sketches in distemper. This is occasioned by the practise they have in Spain of never varnishing their pictures, a want of precaution which has been the cause of a great number of very valuable masterpieces having been destroyed by the damp.
Juan Cuchiller's room, which we traverse after the one I have just described, offers nothing remarkable in the way of architecture, and we were hastening to leave it as soon as possible, when our guide requested us to raise our eyes and look at an object of the greatest curiosity. This object was a large chest, firmly attached to the wall by iron clamps; it would be difficult to conceive anything more patched, more worm-eaten, or more rotten. It is decidedly the oldest chest in the world; but the following inscription, in black letters, "Cofre del Cid," instantly imparted, as the reader may imagine, an immense degree of importance to its four planks of moldering wood. This chest, if we can believe the old chronicle, is the very same that the famous Ruy Diaz de Rival, more generally known under the name of Cid Campeador—being once, hero tho he was, prest for money, exactly as a mere author might be—caused to be filled with sand and stones, and left in pledge at the house of an honest Jewish usurer, who made advances on this kind of security. The Cid forbade him, however, to open the mysterious deposit until he, The Cid Campeador, had paid back the sum borrowed.
This proves that the usurers of that period were of a much more confiding disposition than those of the present times. We should now-a days find but few Jews, and I believe but few Christians, either, so innocent and obliging as to accept a pledge of this description. Monsieur Casimir Delavigne has used this legend in his piece entitled, "La Fille du Cid"; but, for the enormous chest, he has substituted an almost imperceptible coffer, which, in sober truth, should only contain "the gold of the Cid's word;" and there is no Jew, and there never was one, not even in those heroic times, who would have lent anything upon such a toy. The historical chest is high, broad, massive, deep, and garnished with all sorts of locks and pad-locks. When full of sand, it must have required at least six horses to move it; so that the worthy Israelite might have supposed it to be crammed with apparel, jewelry, or plate, and thus have been more easily induced to humor the Cid's caprice, which is one that, like many other heroical freaks, is duly provided for by the criminal law.