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Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona and a case of mistaken identity ...

The Basilica of Sant Feliu is an ancient place, a very ancient place indeed. It’s an older church than the Cathedral of Santa Maria on top of the hill, and arguably just as important in terms of its role in the history of the city. During the Moorish occupation it served as a cathedral for the city's Christian population, who were displaced when the Moors commandeered Santa Maria as their mosque. 

Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona on the banks of the River Onyar


Originally they planned that the church would have two great towers, but that proved over-ambitious and the second tower never materialised. The single tower that we have owes its blunt nosed top to providence: it was struck by a bolt of lightening, and never restored to its original pointed form.


Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
The blunted spire of the Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
The church was built outside of the defensive city walls, facing over the banks of the River Onyar. As a result it had to be fortified itself. The walls were built thick, and the windows were placed high so that they wouldn’t become fatal points of weakness in the event of attack.

Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
Its origins can be traced back to the tomb of Sant Feliu – or Saint Felix if you prefer English. Now here's an interesting case of biographical schizophrenia. You see there were in fact, not one, but two Saint Felixes - or should that be Felices, as in helix, helices?  One was indeed a native of this fair city, and rose to become deacon to the Bishop of Girona, who was himself later canonised as Saint Narcissus. The other, sometimes referred to locally as Saint Felix the African,  came from Carthage with Saint Cucuphas as an early Christian missionary. He was  born in the Roman city of Scillium in present-day Tunis.

Saint Felix, the African, was martyred as part of the Emperor Diocletian's crack-down on the early church. He was hurled into the sea with a millstone around his neck. Miraculously he floated and his disciples rescued him, half-dead, from the water. The Romans, however, intervened, taking him to Penedès where he died.  And his mortal remains were buried here. 

Saint Felix, the deacon, was martyred in Girona, also as a victim of the Diocletian persecution. It is believed that he and Saint Narcissus were martyred together whilst they celebrated Mass, and Charlemagne is believed to have taken his remains back as holy relics to France after he'd liberated Girona from the Moors. 

Way back in Diocletian's time the site where the present church stands was a Roman necropolis convenient to the city but just outside the city walls. As such it was a logical resting place for Saint Felix, the African. Before long rumours of miracles and healing at the holy man’s tomb started to circulate. Word spread fast amongst the faithful, and soon the great and the good were jockeying for tombs of their own and a position in death close to his remains.

In the popular imagination the records of these two holy men have been elided to create a canon of folklore for a single, super Saint Felix. The Saint Felix of popular repute is said to have been a son of Girona, born here and a deacon to Saint Narcissus, who was martyred by drowning with a millstone round his neck. His image in religious art generally shows a man of non-African ethnicity wearing the robes of a deacon, and often with a great millstone tied with rope around his neck. 

Given his chequered career with water a tradition arose whereby, when the good folk hereabouts wanted rain, they would take the reliquary containing the remains of Saint Felix down to our village, Sant Feliu de Guíxols, where they believed the Romans had tried to drown him. In a ceremony on the beach they would pour sea water over the saint's remains, thereby guaranteeing that the rains would come.  

The story goes that there was a terrible drought through the long dusty summer of 1567, and the townsfolk took the reliquary of Sant Felix down to the beach to beg for rain. Perhaps, in their desperation, they overdid it a bit with the sea water, but in the following year the rains fell without respite and the Onyar flooded its banks all the way up to the Plaza del Vi. Finally Saint Narcissus was called upon to intervene with a miracle using his special apples to restore the status quo.

Let me explain the miracle of Saint Narcissus's apples. The priests of the Cathedral Chapter owned a property near the lake of Banyoles, where they had an orchard that produced small red apples of great succulence. The habit had grown up of taking some of these apples at harvest time to Saint Narcissus's tomb. Placed on top of his sepulchre and blessed during a special Mass of remembrance on his Feast Day (29th October) they were said to have remarkable powers. For one thing they would keep, fresh and pristine, for a whole year until the next harvest. In the event that the river threatened to flood the locals would take some of Saint Narcissus's apples and cast them into the waters to calm them.  Historians suggest that this may have been a copy-cat ritual inspired by how the ancient Romans once made human sacrifice to the waters of the Tiber when it threatened to flood their city. Whatever the way of it, local householders, who lived in danger of being washed away by the Onyar, made sure to keep a good store of the Saint's holy apples to hand. 

Slowly, slowly as the attitude of the Empire towards Christianity softened a church of great antiquity quite literally grew out of the bones of Saint Felix. The present structure dates from the early 12th to 13th centuries with a 14th century bell tower that took the better part of two centuries to complete.
In time it became the seat of a college of canons, many of whom now repose in death beneath its flagstones. And finally, in 2011, Pope Benedict decreed that it should be a Minor Basilica of the Catholic Church. 

Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
Reclining Christ figure in the Chapel of the Angels, Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
The 14th century Chapel of the Angels is home to a masterpiece of Renaissance carving by Aloi de Montbrai from Normandy. The Crucified Christ, completed for Easter 1350, is part of a group that once depicted the Holy burial.


Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
Close-up of Reclining Christ, Chapel of the Angels, Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
And then there’s the chapel of Saint Narcissus, the patron saint of Girona, to whom the townspeople have turned in times of crisis. He’s believed to have been particularly effective in wartime. And, as I've mentioned, he’s also invoked for protection against flood. On his feast day  (29th October) cotton is spread throughout the church to be blessed and held as protection against inner ear-ache.


Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
Chapel of Saint Narcissus, Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona

His chapel was built in eighteenth century and houses the simple, ancient sarcophagus that once contained the saint’s remains. 


Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
Altarpiece, Chapel of Saint Narcissus, Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona

This old sarcophagus was replaced by the much flashier version fashioned for him by the Flemish Master, Jon de Tornai in 1328. It shows Saint Narcissus reclining on top in full liturgical robes. Alabaster carvings set against stained glass show scenes from the saint’s life. 


Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
Tomb of Saint Narcissus, Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona

In 1285 an army of French besiegers, led by their King, Philip III or Philip the Bold, broke through and entered the city. They desecrated the tomb of Saint Narcissus, and the saint responded with a plague of large, stinging flies that swarmed from his resting place to attack the French, many of whom were mortally wounded by their bites. Horrified the French withdrew, and fled back across the Pyrenees to France. On the way their King died, and they returned home leaderless and in disarray.

The official Capetian version of history from France has a slightly different take on events. On 26th June, 1285 it is accepted that Philip and his army lay siege to Girona. Notwithstanding its strong defences they broke through the city walls on 7th September, 1285 whereupon an epidemic of dysentery afflicted the French camp. The King himself was laid low by the sickness, and the French retreated to Perpignan, where he died of dysentery on 5th October, 1285. 

The most important part of the church is the Sanctuary. It is here, beside the High Altar, that they believe Saint Felix, the African, was laid to rest. The important wall sarcophagi in this part of the church dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries are unique on the Iberian Peninsula. They are a little bit mind-blowing. Just think: some of their owner-occupants may well have known the various Saint Felixes and Saint Narcissus personally. Some of them may have been Christian, others not, but they would all, no doubt, have discussed the affairs of Diocletian's empire as we discuss the state of the European Union today. 

The earliest tomb dates from 230 AD. It is carved out of marble that was quarried on the Greek island of Paros and depicts the rape of Proserpina by Pluto.   This is a really interesting tomb. The cult of Proserpina and her mother, Ceres, had been adapted from the Greek legends of Persephone and her mother, Demeter, and introduced into Rome in around 205 BC. The Romans had associated Proserpina with fertility, and the cult had been actively promoted by the religious establishment to respectable Roman women. With its mother and daughter iconography it's not difficult to see how it would have appealed to women. I wonder if this was the last resting place of a respectable Roman matriarch who'd lived her life in the Province of Hispania.



Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
3rd Century wall tomb, Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona depicting the rape of Proserpina

This sarcophagus dating from 310 AD depicts the Chaste Susannah.


Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
4th Century Wall Tomb, Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona

Another beneath, dating from 315 to 325 AD depicts scenes from a lion hunt.


Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
4th Century Wall Tomb, Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona

This tomb dates form 315 to 325 AD, and depicts the miracle of the water being turned into wine at the Canaanite wedding - one of my personal favourite all-time miracles!

Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
4th Century Wall Tomb, Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona

The tomb below dates from 310 AD and depicts the good shepherd amidst geometric S-shaped strigil lines.
Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
4th Century Wall Tomb, Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona


And this is the tomb of Saint Felix the African, which depicts Saint Peter being captured by soldiers.

Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
4th Century Wall Tomb, Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona

But removed from all of these ancient tombs in the Chapel of Our Lady of Grace and the Holy Trinity is a medieval tomb that has always intrigued me. It was originally suspended on the side wall of the church but was then removed, and a replica hung outside in its place. It caught my imagination because of its position (half way up the outer wall of the great church!) and its zodiac-style depiction of the sun and stars. It seemed to me that it would have been the perfect resting place for a great wizard.  Although I daresay back in the day they wouldn't have given one of his ilk burial space within consecrated ground. And what's with this being suspended in death way up on the outer wall of the church? That always struck me as a really zany final gesture. Was it a practical response to the risk of flooding?

Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
13th Century Wall-mounted replica of the Sitjar family tomb, Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
I've asked everyone about the occupants of this tomb, and why they settled for such an amazing final resting place. It turns out that it belonged to the Sitjar family, who were a well-known family, of the minor nobility, who lived in the city. They say that it dates from 1214.

Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
13th Century Sitjar family tomb, Basilica of Sant Feliu, Girona
I did a little bit of research on the family, and whilst I couldn't turn up very much I did find out that the Sitjar women were leading players throughout the medieval period in the affairs of the wealthy Saint Daniel Monastery, just beyond the city walls in the quiet valley of Saint Daniel. It's the oldest female monastery in Catalonia that still continues in use, and is believed to have been the place where the Tapestry of Creation was woven. Founded in 1017 by the Countess Ermessinda of Barcelona, it was supported by the minor nobility from hereabouts. Agnes de Sitjar was the Abbess from 1197 to 1240, and another relative of the Sitjar family, Berenguera de Palagret was Abbess from 1255 to 1283. One of only two male donors prior to 1300 was Bernat de Sitjar.

One of the guides in the church explained that the sun and stars iconography was essentially Christian given that the sun in the centre frames a lamb, which depicts Christ as the sacrificial Lamb of God. I'm sure they're right and it's all very respectable, but there's a little bit of me that hopes it was really all about wizards and maybe even the Kabbalah, which once had a stronghold here within the city walls.

I can always dream!

All the best for now,

Bonny x



3 comments:

  1. Beautiful photos of this unique basilica.
    Regards:)*
    Monika

    ReplyDelete
  2. Beautiful inside and out!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Love the truncated spire on the church which is quit stunning inside an are the effigies

    ReplyDelete