Christmas in Madrid - 2008
Every year, I try to give people an overview of last year’s activities in the US and Spain. This is what I have for you as of now, although this could change as other belenistas report back.
I went to Madrid in the early part of December to visit the Christmas market and to see what was going on in the belen world. Some belenes don’t open until Christmas Eve, so I wasn’t able to see them all. But a number are set up at the beginning of December.
Naturally, the Asociación de Belenistas de Madrid was the most active. As usual, they set up a belen for the Ayuntamiento [City Hall], with the Mayo figures that they have been using for several years. Jose Luis Mayo is a madrileño and is also a truly fine artist whose figures are also in the huge Belén Más Grande del Mundo, the Bancaja [a Spanish bank] belén that travels throughout Spain and was in Tarragona this year. These links go to nice Youtube videos posted by visitors; the website doesn’t seem to be up anymore.
The Madrid City Hall has recently moved from its lovely old building in the Plaza de la Villa to the old Post Office, the Palacio de Comunicaciones, at the Plaza de Cibéles. The building is beautiful, but it did not make a very attractive location for the belén, which was stuffed into a dim and shadowy plywood and astroturf-sided shed in front of the bulding near where the public urinal had been located .
However, the figures were as lovely as ever, and the scene was very well designed. Attendance was not very good when I was there, but that could be the result of the new location and the fact that the Zapatero government is somewhat hostile to Christianity. One of the ministras (a government minister) shrieked to the press that her rights had been violated when she arrived at work to find that the building staff had, as usual, installed a belen in the lobby. However, there was a lovely large scene in front of the Cuartel Militar, the nearby military headquarters.
Be that as it may, the average madrileño didn’t seem concerned about this. Attendance was great at the Madrid association’s wonderful display at the Casa de Correos, which is just off the Puerta del Sol. I was fortunate enough to be there when kids from a Spanish high school were giving a truly excellent and professional concert, including a remarkable version of the Salve Regina.
One thing I love about the Spanish Nativity scene is the diorama component. This year, unfortunately, I saw only one set of dioramas, this one at the Casa del Reloj, which is out near the Manzanares river near the old slaughterhouses. This was the edge of the city for centuries, although now it’s simply another outlying residential district.
There was a large free-standing belén in the center of the room – which is part of an area now used as a senior citizens’ center – and a row of dioramas on one side.
The figures in the central belén were from the Olot school, probably mostly by Castells, although there were other figures mixed in. Obviously, this is typical; there are some people who will set up scenes with one school of figurista only, but others, who set up large scenes, will try only to keep the figures in each individual scene (for example, a plaza with merchants, or more formal scene like the Flight Into Egypt) within the same school.
The important thing, in any case, is your eye. Figures from the different schools are painted in a different palette and also have certain other stylistic differences, so if you care about keeping a harmoniuos scene, all of your figures should be from the same school or be very similar.
However, that said, I was in interested to see that there were so many figures from Olot. There were fewer from Murcia – until, of course, you got to the Museo de la Ciudad, which had a great belen from Murcia. The figures were by Griñán, and the set-up – done by the Murcia association – was brilliant. It was a free-standing scene that encompassed many scenes from the Gospel accounts, ranging from the Annunciation to the Flight Into Egypt. It was intricate and interesting. Again, however, I felt that there was a lack of attendance. I don’t know if these scenes have been poorly publicized, or if it is simply a reflection of the Zapatero government’s hostility.
I went to the pregón [opening proclamiation] for the kick-off of the Madrid association’s Christmas 2008 season. The pregonero- that is, the person who presented the address – was Fr Bernardo XXXX, who is a priest in Zamora and is responsible for coordinating the excellent Las Edades del Hombre exhibits, a rotating exhibition that features works from the treasuries of the different dioceses in Northern Spain. The location was the Iglesia de Santa Isabel. You will notice that there is a woman in a sari featured in the scene. This is because the nuns are responsible for the institution were missionaries to Indian and now have many Indian members.
I saw a few other scenes that were interesting. The Iglesia de los Doce Apóstoles [Church of the Twelve Apostles] was a place I had never visited before. It’s in a residential neighborhood not too far from the center, and for several years thye have put up a wonderful belén. It was quite dark, so I didn’t get very many photos, but I talked with the priest afterwards and he let me take a better photo and then had to turn off the lights for the next group of viewers, thus ending my photo session.
The church building is interesting. It was built after the Spanish Civil War to replace a destroyed church and has Perpetual Adoration, so there are always people running in and out. The church is staffed by diocesan clergy, who are very orthodox and very pastoral.
I saw other odds and ends of interest in Madrid – and heard things, too, since the Archdiocese schedules great choral concerts in the churches during this season. One of the best I heard was a 60-voice amateur group made up of people who worked at or were associated with the Police Academy, La Virgen de la Paloma. They sang at the Iglesia de San Lorenzo, which is not too far from the Museo Reina Sofía, in the Lavapiés district of Madrid. In addition to villancicos [Christmas carols], they did a very amusing piece based on radio and TV ads for a particular brand of turrón, the nougat candy that is traditional at Christmas in Spain. I wasn’t familiar with the ad, of course, but all the Spaniards loved it and laughed uproariously. It was funny to me, too, because I kept thinking of the “André champaign” ad that was all over the country (the US, that is) in the 1960s and 70s.
Unforunately, I was only in Spain for a few days and I didn’t get to Barcelona, Andalucía or Murcia. The furthest I got from Madrid was San Sebastian de los Reyes, a bedroom community that can be reached by bus and train from Madrid. Fortunately, my friend Ignacio Acosta, an art historian associated with the ICOM [International Commission of Museums], has a car and drove me out there. Unfortunately, I had left my camera at the hotel and wasn’t able to get any photographs of the scene. The next page will show you what’s been happening here in the US. But that page isn’t finished yet, because our US belenistas are shy and have to have photographs coaxed out of them…