The third and final installment of our series on the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela focuses on an allegorical personification to be found in one small carving on a column capital (it’s small enough in fact that The Secret History of Art was unable to find a quality image of it to include in this posting). But small details can hide a great deal of interest.
“Personification of the Month of February”
The entire pilgrimage route to Santiago brims with wonderful tiny detailed carvings, most often occupying the ornate capitals of columns. Entire studies have been done in tracing symbols in carved column capitals from Jaca to Santiago. An inordinate love of detail, not to mention a playful sense of humor, augments the people, animals, plants, and designs of the capitals.
There has been some discussion of the place of humor within the history of art. Fuddy-duddy old art historians don’t like the idea that “important” art can be funny—art should be edifying, sobering, didactic, moral…but not funny. And yet there have always been humorous elements to works of art that were, in the main, never meant to be funny; particularly because so much art is religious, it was meant to provide moral and theological lessons, not entertain. However the so-called bas-de-page figures in illuminated manuscripts represent a diversion from the heavy subject matter of early art, and are purely entertaining. The bas-de-page figures are drawn in beneath the block of text, most often integrated into an elaborately decorated border. They may contain scenes that illustrate fables and proverbs, and sometimes even dirty jokes.
The sculptural equivalent of bas-de-page figures may be found hidden in column capitals, and no route contains a more delightful array of such treasures than the route to Santiago. It would be silly to name just one capital, or just one carved figure, to exemplify them all. It is best for each tourist to plunge into the search, and approach each capital with eyes open for the instances of humor and playfulness in the otherwise sobering religious iconography of the churches of northern Spain.
But while we’re in Santiago, a fragment of a relief sculpture provides some indication of what to look out for. This “Personification of the Month of February” comes from the now-lost Porta Francigena, the northern portal (just like the column, number 3 on this list). The old guidebook for the route to Santiago, the 12th century illuminated manuscript called the Codex Calixtinus, records that the Porta Francigena is decorated “in relief [with] the months of the year and many other such allegories.” This lovely (and some might say adorable) relief carving of a peasant warming himself by a fire, is indicative of a popular theme: illustrating months of the year by way of showing people doing what they would traditionally do during that month. While the illustration of May might show the harvest, in February it’s cold, so you warm yourself. The peasant wears a hooded cloak, to protect against rain and snow, and is seated on a stool. We don’t know what the peasant might have been holding in his left hand, as a corner of the relief is broken. Beneath his feet, a piece of firewood burns to warm him.
In Old Spanish February was sometimes referred to as chico, a diminutive because it’s short (in length), but is sometimes personified as a rustic, short (in height) peasant with caricature facial features—all of which could describe this cute little fellow. The scene may illustrate a Roman proverb that was popular in the area: “Do not bring your foot too close to the fire.” Consider this as an appetite whetter to encourage your search through column capitals for similar figures of fun amidst the beautiful, if sober, religious artwork in the cathedral.
Thank you for reading this series on the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Feel free to post comments about your own experiences and recommendations in Santiago. For Part I of this series, click here. For Part II, click here.