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Sacred Realism: Religion and the Imagination in Modern Spanish Narrative

Sacred Realism: Religion and the Imagination in Modern Spanish Narrative

by Noel Valis

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In this thoughtful and compelling book, leading Spanish literature scholar Noël Valis re-examines the role of Catholicism in the modern Spanish novel. While other studies of fiction and faith have focused largely on religious themes, Sacred Realism views the religious impulse as a crisis of modernity: a fundamental catalyst in the creative and moral


In this thoughtful and compelling book, leading Spanish literature scholar Noël Valis re-examines the role of Catholicism in the modern Spanish novel. While other studies of fiction and faith have focused largely on religious themes, Sacred Realism views the religious impulse as a crisis of modernity: a fundamental catalyst in the creative and moral development of Spanish narrative.

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Sacred Realism




Copyright © 2010 Nol Valis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-15235-7



The Relics of Faith

In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain, the drawing power of Catholicism was palpable. Traces of that fervor show even today in the writings and art of the period. Faith was doubly incarnated as doctrine and as emotional experience. Can a secular age even begin to understand how religious belief imagines itself as sacred embodiment? how the relics of faith are only remains or spiritual residue, if one does not believe in their divine significance? How does one go semantically from one kind of relic to the other, from the sacred to the superfluous? And what effect does such a change have on the secular form of the novel in periods of impending crisis like late eighteenth-century Spain?

What is now often viewed with detachment as a museum piece was once infused with the enthusiasm and passion of popular devotion. I begin with an example, with a figure of beauty as both the backdrop and entryway into the vexed relation between faith and realism and the possible permutations of novel writing produced in circumstances of troubled spirituality. The figure is one of powerful, disturbing beauty derived from violent, protracted death. He is a healthy male in his thirties, lying down, his head on an embroidered pillow, the face somewhat twisted to the right, eyes and mouth partially open. He has various wounds to head, chest, hands, and feet. Except for the covering over his groin, he is unclothed. The blood is coagulated, signs of lividity have set in. The dead eyes stare with an intensity that defies what has happened. He looks utterly exhausted.

The figure I have described in its barest outlines is one of the most celebrated sculptures of early seventeenth-century Spain: Gregorio Fernández's Cristo yacente, or Reclining Christ, executed in 1614–15 on commission from King Philip III. Fernández's innovative positioning of the dead Christ—recumbent rather than crucified or in a Pietà—was reproduced with many variations by his disciples and imitators. Like other religious works by Fernández, this sculpture was the object of passionate devotion and reverence, not so much as an art form of inspired religiosity but as constituting a direct line of communication with the divine. Akin to relics, such sculptures were understood to be imbued with special powers and hence to be in a special relationship with the devout, whose intense reception of these works tended to erase the differences between art and experience. For the Church hierarchy, "sculpture was held in higher regard than painting," precisely because the art form spoke more directly to the spectator.

Viewed aesthetically, the polychromed wood of Spanish religious sculpture, along with the dramatic theatricality of glass eyes, horn fingernails, crystal tears, and vividly painted wounds, violates the conventional norms of European high art. Works like Fernández's dead Christ are often profoundly disturbing to the eyes of modern viewers, in part because the artist appears to have reduced the aesthetic distance between object and spectator. The safety zone that protects and delimits art is gone. As Gridley McKim-Smith observes, "The eroticized violence inherent in the naked reclining Jesus has always been there as a repressed subtext of the Passion in Christian art, but the Cristo yacente now has allowed it to become unacceptably overt by representing a dead-but-desirable divinity with an inescapable immediacy." In a word, she says, "viewers expect a statue but find a corpse."

A corpse that is remarkably alive, as the powerful gaze and the muscular tension centered upon the head and neck attest. Fernández's sculpture functions as a kind of relic within the theater of resurrection. One cannot divorce such intensely executed and experienced artifacts from the context of seventeenth-century beliefs and practices represented here, beliefs that combined Counter-Reformation Catholic orthodoxies with surviving local cults of near shamanistic veneration. What still stuns viewers today in the figure of the dead Christ is its compelling, inescapable presence, reinforcing the idea that "relics, it seems, of the thing/are always stronger than the thing itself."

The Fernández sculpture, in dramatizing the real signs of physical death, marked visibly and anatomically, goes beyond traditional Christian attitudes toward the material body and suggests a more than ordinary interest in the effects of violent death. Indeed, it distinguishes death as violent. Moreover, the use of artificial eyes, fingernails, and tears in Spanish polychrome sculpture in general draws these objects closer to the uncanny, Freud's das unheimliche, which he observes in the automaton and in wax figures, that is, in the unsettling forms of the double and of the desire/dread of the reanimated dead body. Federico García Lorca saw in this art form something of the dark, mysterious qualities of the duende, that creative force which he likened to a kind of religious experience circling the edges of death. The exacerbated realism of the dead Christ, the traditional emphasis on his suffering and on the value of martyrdom, were meant to transmit Catholic doctrine and feeling. The corpse lies on a bed of mimesis, anchored like the pillow upon which his head rests, but belief in resurrection brings the Christ figure to life.

Spirit and matter, while distinct, are at the same time compatible in Catholic metaphysics. Relics—parts of saints' bodies, clothing, and other objects that had come into contact with holy persons—partook of the divine. Philip II while he lay dying kissed and adored obsessively large numbers of the more than seven thousand relics he had collected and brought to the Escorial. It is no accident that the relics collection and the royal corpses were stored in the same space. Moreover, popular belief in general ascribed potent, even magical qualities to dead bodies. There was a kind of personality attached to the dead. The uncertain, strange status of the dead body extended to dispute over the actual moment of death, as opposed to apparent death, which has lasted to this day. It is largely true that by the nineteenth century medicine, as a sign of increasing secularization and empiricist, positivistic knowledge, was to abandon belief in the vestiges of life and personality attributed to the dead body. Yet at other levels of experience and perception, among ordinary folk, that belief simply took on another visage or went underground, surfacing in moments of high tension and conflict.

Fernández's dead Christ offers a concrete instance of how representation of the real can function as the doorway or entrance into the transcendent or sacred or into the uncanny. The Cristo yacente is both dead and alive. His eyes are glassy with death yet glimmer with unspoken life. His face and torso speak of obscene torture, of flesh profaned and humiliated; but the eyes, half shut and rolled back, suggest an inner vision, and the mouth is agape, drawing the viewer into their openings and intimating the soul that has departed the living eyes and breath.

The sense of the material—the body—as being an inextricable part of the sacred or divine is fundamental to Catholicism. The sacredness of the human body is the centerpiece of Christian faith, primarily understood in the doctrine of Incarnation. More important for my purposes here is its centrality in the emotional experience of practicing Catholics as it is expressed artistically. What happens to this experience in the shift toward a more secular world? Are there moments when the trembling tectonic movements of belief and secular change can be discerned in the stories eighteenth-century writers told themselves? And how would such rumblings look narratively and aesthetically?

This question is what I want to examine here. What direction do fictional writings that are caught up in religious crisis take? Can they be said to be harbingers of narrative change? And what then is the relation between realism and faith in such narratives? How does belief in something transcendent reveal itself in the painful struggle with an uncertain outcome, with belief that something is true? In singling out the texts I discuss here, in particular one of the most fascinating and challenging of eighteenth-century writings, Cadalso's Noches lúgubres (completed ca. 1774–75; published in 1789–90), I propose to reimagine these works as part of the field upon which a freshly embryonic realism is born. The new shape of Noches lúgubres issues from a spiritual impasse that turns the protagonist from his subjective imprisonment of self toward humanitarian purposefulness, toward making visible those persons and social classes whose lesser (or in other cases, persecuted) state has rendered them invisible. This humanitarian drive, also discernible in writings like Olavide's El evangelio en triunfo (1797–98) and Gutiérrez's Cornelia Bororquia o la víctima de la Inquisición (1801), is predicated on a secularized understanding of resurrection that aims to bring back the symbolic dead into the social realm of existence. Along the way, it brings back the novel, in rediscovering the real bodies of the poor and other marginalized figures as a new subject of novelistic inquiry. These bodies are, in essence, the new relics of faith.

For Thomas Laqueur, the humanitarian narrative includes such genres as "the realistic novel, the autopsy, the clinical report, and the social inquiry," all of them "children of the empiricist revolution of the seventeenth century." He studies "how details about the suffering bodies of others engender compassion and how that compassion comes to be understood as a moral imperative to undertake ameliorative action." In such accounts, the body becomes the focus and site of inquiry: dead bodies, diseased bodies, poor bodies, conflicted bodies. This strand of narrative, for which Laqueur finds examples mostly in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Great Britain, also obtains in Spain. Moreover, a precedent exists in the sixteenth century: Bartolomé de Las Casas's efforts on behalf of the indigenous population's welfare and the impact of the Christian humanist tradition in general upon New World evangelization. If one grants a religious vision at work, one also must question whether details "engender compassion" or whether sympathy for the suffering of others already informs such details. The Spanish humanitarian narrative, I argue, only partly derives from the empiricist side of things, and a Catholic vision of seeing and acting must be considered central to understanding the twists and turns fiction took in Spain following the eighteenth-century decline of genres like the picaresque and the Cervantine narrative. These earlier forms also brought to the fore social distinctions and abjection but lacked the particular focus which we call humanitarian.

That the transition from the sacred to the secular can be detected in the writings of Spanish Enlightenment figures is a largely accepted given in current scholarship, though how to interpret the shift is another question. The continuing strength of religion in the eighteenth century is acknowledged but conceived as an impediment to the triumph of reason. More commonly, key Enlightenment figures like Jovellanos and Feijoo serve in this view as emblems of the problematic reconciliation of faith and reason. Modernity is interpreted as a secular, rational process, void for the most part of religious content or significance. For some critics, the Spanish Enlightenment bears little resemblance to other European progressive movements, given that the country's "cultural life was too steeped in Counter-Reformational traditions to allow these foreign values to be diffused." The extent to which there exists a Spanish Enlightenment thus depends on its vexed relation to the critical perception of a fuller, more "modern" form of Enlightenment experienced in France and elsewhere. Never mind that despite regional and class differences in the reception of faith (much the same could be said of Spain), eighteenth-century prerevolutionary France was still quite Catholic.

Was this the same faith in eighteenth-century Spain? Spanish Catholicism in most of the eighteenth century was at once strong and weak. The spiritual presence of the Church, prosperous if rather complacent, was palpable in all spheres of life. The Inquisition continued to play a visible, if somewhat moderated, role in regulating orthodoxy. At the same time, the Church was poorly organized, with an uneven distribution of ecclesiastical wealth and personnel already showing the classic north–south and urban–rural split so prevalent in the next two centuries. Parish vacancies went unfilled in rural, impoverished areas, while secular clergy preferred living in towns and cities. The Church also provided massive amounts of charity, much needed in a period of agrarian crises and persistent poverty. Its administration, however, was often inefficient, given the uncoordinated, fragmented nature of such assistance. An enlightened monarchy increasingly sought to bring the Church under State control and to make it more useful, but these attempts at reform achieved mixed results at best. The death of the devout and beloved Charles III in 1788 and the French Revolution the following year signaled the start of rocky times for the Church. Decline and a siege mentality were to shape the face of religion in the coming years.

While the practice of religion, in both its institutional and popular venues, could be seen everywhere in eighteenth-century Spain, it is nearly impossible to judge the depth of belief or the quality of faith embedded in such practices. How seriously, for example, should one take the Jesuit Isla's satire of clerical misconduct and ignorance in Fray Gerundio de Campazas (1758–70)? Is his book a blanket condemnation of a lukewarm, shallow faith among clergymen? or a more limited, internal critique of ecclesiastical miseducation, in particular the abuse of sacred oratory? Some of his own fellow churchmen could not be certain, accusing him of Lutheranism.

To give another example: in my library there is a small volume (32mo), Doctrina christiana, bound together with Exercicios devotos, by Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, bishop of Osma (1600–59). While the authorship and year of publication of the Doctrina christiana are not known, the edition of Palafox's book bears the date 1711 in one of the Aprobaciones, or ecclesiastical approbations. From internal handwriting and a nameplate, the owner of the volume appears as Molloy, along with the year 1729. More interesting than the texts are the marginalia, which are written in English, Spanish, and Latin. I suspect the book user belonged to an Irish (or Anglo-Irish) merchant family who had most likely settled in southern Spain in the early eighteenth century, part of a historical influx of Irish. The handwritten comments, found mostly in the endpapers, range from the devout to the profane. Alongside prayers and blessings in Spanish and once in Latin, in a small, neat hand there are also precise calculations made to reduce the length of time spent in Purgatory through prayers (that is, indulgences for the remission of sins), advice concerning proper conduct in spiritual matters (modesty, silence, obedience), and the physical posture when offering specific prayers. On a more lighthearted, playful note, halfway through Exercicios devotos (opposite page 260), evidently someone else has written, date unknown, in English with a loose, sloppy script, that Arnario "is a big black fool" and a "rascal"; then at the bottom, "find me out if you can." How to interpret these comments? On the one hand, the marginalia indicate a serious engagement with religious practice and with salvation. On the other, the use of devotional material for varying purposes offers a glimpse into the secular world of eighteenth-century domestic life. Beyond that, there is no way to generalize from one example.

We lack the means to assess religious feeling adequately. Empirical indexes, like attendance at Sunday Mass or going to confession, afford little insight into the human heart. There were, however, a few small signs of urban de-Christianization in the decline of religious confraternities after 1750 and the avoidance of Easter Communion through the purchase of certificates of compliance in the 1780s. Certainly something had changed or was about to change, something which, combined with the impact of the Napoleonic invasion in 1808, could account for the emerging phenomenon of urban anticlericalism by the 1820s.

While we cannot judge how most ordinary people experienced their faith, there was one sector of the population, a very small one to be sure, that did express in writing a growing sense of spiritual crisis and the awareness that religion did not simply play an oppositional role or second fiddle to modernity: it was intimately bound up with it. Men of the Spanish Enlightenment like Cadalso, Olavide, and Gutiérrez demonstrate in their lives and work how difficult it is to separate religion from other endeavors such as the writing of fiction (see Jean Sarrailh). Their predicament, confined to a minority, also makes clear the distinction between Enlightenment and secularization: "Enlightenment was of the few. Secularization is of the many."

Excerpted from Sacred Realism by NOÃ?L VALIS. Copyright © 2010 by NoÃ"l Valis. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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