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ArribaAbajoReligion and art in Ángel Guerra

Geraldine M. Scanlon

The prominent role of religious art in Ángel Guerra is obvious to any reader of the book, and it has been commented on by several critics. It may seem superfluous therefore to return again to the subject, but the thematic and structural importance of Galdós' use of religious art in that novel is such that an attempt to get it steadily into focus seems to me to be called for. For although the matter has been touched on often enough there is no study in which it is given sustained attention in a coherent fashion.313

Casalduero perceptively attributes the religious elements in the second half of the novel to the «esteticismo de fines de siglo, que se acerca a Roma en busca de una belleza espiritual».314 Yxart, writing in 1891, saw in Guerra's sensitivity to Catholic art a reflection of contemporary currents in art: «Guerra es un artista a quien se revela con nueva intensidad la belleza y los esplendores de un arte simbólico y espiritualista, real e ideal a un tiempo. Sus fruiciones artísticas son las propias del artista contemporáneo.»315 The widespread desire amongst late nineteenth century artists to find some connection between religious and artistic experience partly originated in a feeling of revulsion at the ugliness of modern life. Many were particularly fascinated by Catholic art and ritual as a rich source of aesthetic experience. The development of Ruskin's religious ideas was intimately related to his artistic experiences; Pugin was «the first man to be led to Catholicism through architecture» and Pater's hero Marius was converted to Catholicism through art.316 Mario Praz deals at length with the obsession of the writers of the French Decadence with the relationship between religion, art and sex.317 Huysmans' A Rebours offers one of the best examples of aesthetic dalliance with religion. The protagonist, Des Esseintes, painstakingly cultivates a refined aesthetic appreciation of church ceremony and doctrine: Catholicism becomes a spectacle to be admired for its beauty. Dorian Gray, Des Esseintes' disciple, is equally fascinated by Catholic ritual: «It was rumoured of him once that he was about to join the Roman Catholic communion; and certainly the Roman ritual had always a great attraction for him... The fuming censers that the grave boys, in their lace and scarlet, tossed into the air like great gilt flowers, had their subtle fascination for him.»318 I am not, of course, attempting to establish any direct relationship between these writers and Galdós; I wish merely to underline Galdós' sensitivity to contemporary currents of thought and feeling and to show how these are incorporated into his novel for a particular purpose.

Ruiz Ramón rejects the view that the religious elements are exclusively a reflection of fin de siècle aestheticism: «Cierto que hay una reiterada valoración estética de lo religioso, pero apoyada en una visión más honda que la del puro esteticismo.»319 He affirms that despite the profound effect of religious art on Guerra his religious experiences are genuine and his one mistake is to interpret a 'spiritual vocation' as an 'ecclesiastical vocation.' The particular aspects of Catholicism which attract Guerra he considers irrelevant to structure and characterization: «Ángel Guerra se siente atraído por ciertos aspectos del fenómeno religioso concreto del catolicismo; atracción que no me parece responder a una necesidad intrínseca de la novela, ni menos   —100→   a una necesidad de la caracterización del personaje, sino a un particular conjunto de elecciones propio de Galdós.»320 On the contrary, I hope to demonstrate that the religious-aesthetic experiences are fundamental to the structure of the novel and the characterization of Guerra. This can only be done by tracing Guerra's development and examining the position occupied by these experiences within the narrative.

Part I deals with Guerra's growing disillusion with active politics as a method of solving social problems and his gradual return to conventional life. He feels a growing revulsion for the Babeles, even for his mistress Dulce and his affections are centred more and more on Lere for physical and spiritual reasons. Though her vocation rules out the possibility of marriage Guerra asserts that her faith is one of her principal attractions and that if she loved him as he loves her «[...] se vulgarizaría, y entonces, perdido el encanto y deshecha la ilusión, no valdría para mí lo que vale y no me cautivaría tanto».321 Half in fun he offers to turn 'místico' so that they may love each other 'a lo místico'. But this is before the influence of Toledo and religious art and before Leré's ascendency over him have become absolute: he rejects the solution as false and sees that the only remedy is separation.

The background for Guerra's conversion is, very appropriately, Toledo, a city rich in ecclesiatical tradition and art. When Guerra arrives there in pursuit of Leré he visits the churches and convents in the capacity of a tourist viewing the art treasures of the city. He prays, but with 'fingida devoción', in order to observe better the choir railings. The profound effect religious art has on Guerra even at this stage is largely due to its association with Leré; he derives special pleasure from one particular image of the Virgin because he surmises it to be the one which appeared in Leré's vision. The atmosphere of art, poetry, mystery and noble tradition is heightened by contrast with the vulgar bourgeois lack of taste of Guerra's uncle, don Suero, whose house Guerra visits immediately before his first artistic tour. Suero represents the short sighted philistinism of the age in his plans to knock down half of the city and build wide, gaslit avenues with trams and an iron exhibition hall. His house is full of bad religious paintings which for Suero are 'cosas de mérito', and the renovations to his house are in the worst taste. Guerra, like the late nineteenth century aesthete-hero, shudders at the vulgarity of this self-styled art collector, whose wife, significantly enough, never emerges from her home but to attend mass at the only church in Toledo which is absolutely devoid of «interés artístico y de poesía religiosa o legendaria» (1312).

Guerra continues to visit churches and so powerful is the influence of the general atmosphere that he begins to modify his attitude towards religion: «Admitía ya cierta fe provisional, una especie de veremos, un por si acaso, que ya era suficiente estímulo para que viese con respeto cosas que antes le hacían reír» (1321). Galdós makes clear that this change is based on a purely emotional experience. The beauty of art, the noble solemnity of tradition, the attractive mystery of 'el mundo ultrasensible' all fill him with a love for things previously rejected as false and which he still thinks false. Later love turns to conviction: the adornment of religious images with rich clothes and precious jewels, once disapproved of, is seen as a logical expression of the submission of nature to the celestial powers. Guerra himself is aware of the ambiguous origin of his desire for piety: «Ignoraba si aquel prurito suyo de probar las dulzuras de la piedad obedecía a un fenómeno de emoción estética o de emoción religiosa, y sin meterse en análisis, aceptábalo como un bien» (1321). Guerra's new piety shows its vulnerability after his next meeting with Leré when he feels overwhelmed by a   —101→   desire to possess her, a desire provoked perhaps by the «ambiente romántico y artístico que respiraba» (1329). He leaves the house longing for great and profound things, incapable of separating the 'drama humano' from 'el religioso lirismo'. The experience -like that in the church a little before- is a compound of sensuality, idealistic longing and religious aestheticism.

That religion, art and sex are inseparable in Guerra's mind becomes increasingly evident when, guided by Leré, he begins to fulfil the formal requirements of the Church. Guerra believes that now both feeling and reason are involved: «Reconoció que en los comienzos el culto sólo hablaba a sus ojos y oídos; pero también hubo de notar que no tardaba en herir las fibras del sentimiento, tendiendo a invadir poco a poco los espacios de la razón» (1393). At the same time the sensual attraction of religion is still paramount. In prayer his concentration flags and he needs the aid of visible symbols. Significantly enough images of male saints, especially if they are bearded and reading books, or even the image of crucified Christ, do not produce the required effect. They inspire him with ideas of social reform, but only the image of the Virgin can transport him to the longed for ethereal and luminous region. It is clear that the Virgin and Leré are identified in Guerra's mind and his religious emotions are little more than a sublimation of his sexual desires. The identification of Leré and the Virgin is made explicit later when Guerra prays to the Virgen del Sagrario to protect the innocent Leré from calumny: «Y no es fácil determinar qué imagen embargaba más el ánimo del neófito, si la del Sagrario, que ante sus ojos tenía, o la de la ausente amiga y consejera, porque las dos se confundían en su corazón y hasta en las percepciones de sus alborotados sentidos» (1415). So complete is the identification that he imagines Leré wearing a veil encrusted with pearls and a cornet adorned with pearls and emeralds. His new sensitivity to christian iconography has provided him with the means of idealising Leré even further.

One of the characteristic features of Galdós' novels is the reflection (often ironical) of key themes in the secondary characters in order to bring into sharper focus the attitudes and character of the protagonist. The need for self-knowledge and a role in life which is in harmony with one's character is a central theme in the novel; it finds its chief expression in Guerra but is illustrated also in many of the minor characters. The parallel between Dulce and Guerra is striking: both suffer emotional crises, both turn to religion and although both at first encounter difficulties in fulfilling the formal requirements of the Church they are helped by particular images -Guerra by that of the Virgin and Dulce by the Cristo de las Aguas. Both become obsessed with religious images in general (doña Catalina tells Casado that «[...] la niña se me ha vuelto tan babosa con la religión, que toda la mañana se la lleva en las iglesias, besuqueando reliquias y diciéndoles secretitos a las imágenes» (1517); and both decide to enter the Church. Dulce, however, faces up to reality again and makes a new life for herself by accepting a role more in harmony with her character. Guerra wakes up to reality only on his death bed.322

Guerra's religious convictions are put to the test when he discovers that Leré has not been allowed to take her vows because of her rumoured affair with himself. His reactions are entirely in character: anger, threats of violence, scorn for the clergy -the nuns are 'beatonas'. He goes to the cathedral without the slightest intention of practising his usual devotions but once there he falls under the spell of religious art and inspired by the singing he turns to God for help but still finds prayer difficult. Guerra's reactions to religious art are used by Galdós as a pointer to the precarious   —102→   nature of his conversion: his response depends very much on his state of mind, as we see in his change of attitude to the interior decoration of the cathedral: everything that was beautiful, divine, dignified becomes human and vulgar. The retablo is no longer the most elegant expression of Christian art but a display of human pride; the verjas are no longer celestial gates but «frontispicios de jaulas magníficas para dementes atacados del delirio de arte y religión» (1414); the religious images are transformed into members of the Suárez and Babel families. Angry at the apparent tarnishing of the purity of Leré's reputation he sees religion itself as tarnished. However, Mancebo's news that Leré is going to leave the convent and the renewed hope of marriage transform the church again: «Nunca le pareció la Catedral tan risueña, ni el canto tan hermoso y sentido, ni el Presbiterio tan rematadamente suntuoso y bello» (1419).

Guerra's decision to become a priest is clearly an act of dedication not to God but to Leré: «[...] ante ella abdico mi razón, me aniquilo, me borro de mis propios papeles, y soy y seré lo que ella quiere que sea» (1422). The aspects of his studies for the priesthood which appeal to him most come as no surprise to the reader: «[...] si los lugares teológicos le causaban tedio, la liturgia le enamoraba» (1438). Even at this stage Guerra is aware of the equivocal basis of his admiration for Catholic ritual: «¿Será esto, me pregunto a veces, diletantismo, delirio estético y amor de la forma? No lo sé. Pero sea lo que quiera, adoro el simbolismo del culto y quiero ser artista de él. Es una clase de vocación que usted no puede rechazar porque la rúbrica me hace amar el dogma» (1459). Galdós underlines yet again Guerra's unwillingness to analyse his motives. Guerra's reactions to the Easter services mark the high point of his vocation and are given a central position in the structure of Part III.323 So great is the emotional impact of the reading of the Passion on Guerra that he is actually affected physically: «Durante todo el tiempo que duraron las recitaciones, su emoción fue tan honda, que apenas respiraba, y cuando oyó cantar el emisit spiritum, se le puso un nudo en la garganta y sintió un dolor agudísimo en el corazón» (1477). Under the influence of this essentially aesthetic experience Guerra feels completely certain of his vocation: «El acto resultaba lento, teatral, deslumbrador. Pero como grandiosidad patética nada podía compararse con el incomparable himno Pange lingua. Allí se sintió Ángel en la plenitud de su vocación eclesiástica...» (1482). Ruiz Ramón sees in these texts evidence of a genuine religious experience: «Todos estos textos nos muestran de manera contundente la autenticidad subjetiva de las vivencias religiosas de nuestro héroe. De ningún modo podemos ver en ellas una sublimación de lo sexual, ni un puro esteticismo.»324 One can hardly quarrel with the first part of the statement since subjective authenticity is the characteristic of every individual's experience and there is no doubt that Guerra sincerely believes that his emotional experiences in the cathedral are genuine religious experiences. Galdós, however, by stressing the powerful effect of religious art and ritual on Guerra suggests that this experience is in fact fundamentally an aesthetic one.

The shaky foundations of his religious beliefs are revealed only too clearly by the rapidity with which he forgets the lessons of Christianity and becomes his old passionate and violent self when provoked. The passage we have been considering is a case in point. Guerra, who feels himself worthy to be a priest, free of all earthly things, pure spirit and love of God, learns that Zacarías has attempted to murder Leré: «La irritación de Guerra, oídas estas cosas era tal, que si en aquel momento   —103→   le dan un arma y le ponen delante al bárbaro agraviador de su ídolo, allí mismo, sin acordarse de la santidad del templo, lo pasa de parte a parte» (1483). In the very next section (III, iii, 6) Galdós lays bare Guerra's soul by means of a vision which is profoundly influenced by religious art. The vision as a whole does not seem to be inspired by any one painting but is a synthesis of elements drawn from traditional Christian iconography used in an extremely vivid and skilful fashion to reveal Guerra's state of mind. The thunder and lightening, the suffocating heat and the «antros terroríficos, abismos que causaban vértigo» (1484) through which Guerra passes in pursuit of the kid conjure up a vivid image of hell. After fruitlessly attempting to embrace Leré he falls to the ground and the frisking kid is suddenly transformed into «el más feo y sañudo cabrón que es dado imaginar, con cuernos disformes y retorcidos y unas barbas asquerosas» (1484), which stamps on his chest and overwhelms him with its foul breath. In medieval representations of the Last Judgement and of the condemned in hell the devil is traditionally depicted as a goat who, often with assistants even more monstrous than he, torments the sinners. The most famous exponent of this theme is probably Bosch whose paintings are full of hybrid monsters like those which torment Guerra: «El cual se vio entonces acometido de animales repugnantes y tremebundos, culebras con cabezas de cerdos voraces, dragones con alas polvorientas y ojos de esmeralda, perros con barbas y escamas de cocodrilo, lo más inmundo, lo más hórrido que caber puede en la delirante fantasía de un condenado» (1485). It seems to me likely that Guerra's vision is also partly based on paintings of the Temptation of Saint Anthony. The subject is a common one and it is by no means improbable that Galdós, given his interest in painting, should have seen examples either in Spain (where there are several) or abroad. Hideous monsters who appear to the Saint are an integral part of the Saint Anthony iconography, as in the painting by Joachim Patenier in the Prado. They are described in lurid detail by Flaubert in La tentation de Saint Antoine. Another feature is the women who, clothed or nude, tempt the Saint with food or drink. The painting by Patenier referred to above shows the Saint on the ground rejecting a luscious apple offered to him by two women. When Guerra recovers from the goat's attack Leré stands before him: «[...] con el pecho descubierto, y éste era como manantial del cual fluía un arroyo de sangre. Sin mirar a su amigo, arrancóse un pedazo de carne blanca y gruesa y lo arrojó al animal, que hocicaba junto al desdichado Guerra» (1484). The basic elements are there: the man, the woman and the offering of food but their significance has been changed. The temptress has become the 'saint' and the saint the man tormented by lust. Another probable source of inspiration for this vivid materialization of Guerra's sensual desires is the popular estampas of the Secred Heart where Christ is depicted either bearing his breast and revealing his bleeding heart or actually offering it.325 The vision ends with Guerra joining in the hymn Vexilla regis which the women sing as they draw water from the fuente; he asks Leré if this is the fount of forgiveness and tries to go towards her but his legs will not carry him. The vision is composed of elements derived from Christian iconography which the confused turmoil of Guerra's mind distorts and adapts to his own situation. It brings to the surface his subconscious fears and desires: his lust, his attempt to overcome it, his dependence on Leré and his fear that he will never be capable of joining her in the heady heights of purity and religion where he feels she belongs. All these fears are expressed in terms of his recent contact with religious art. The vision does not make   —104→   Guerra reconsider his vocation which he only sees as false when on the point of death.

The motif of religious art is of utmost importance in the novel as a device for making Guerra's conversion more plausible and his self-delusion more psychologically convincing. It is used to complete the portrayal of Guerra's character adding depth to aspects we are already aware of. Religious art satisfies both his need for a lofty social ideal -the cathedral treasures are seen as the synthesis of the united forces of society working for one goal- and his deeply felt longing to experience the extraordinary. By underlining Guerra's emotional and sensual character the motif functions as a warning system to the reader to question the authenticity of Guerra's conversion.326 All the climactic moments of his conversion occur when he is under the intoxicating influence of either Leré or Religious art. This is not to say of course that Guerra has not changed at all by the end of the novel for he manifestly has. Although it cannot be said that he has accepted wholeheartedly the Catholic faith and all it entails he has acquired a more selfless and profound compassion for his fellow human beings and a firmer foundation for his humanitarian feelings which his political convictions lacked. He is thereby saved from falling into the egoistical complacency of the bourgeois property owner. It is this love for his fellow human beings and his awareness of his duty to them which make him, despite his aesthetic sensitivity, so different from aesthete-heroes such as Des Esseintes and Dorian Gray. If Galdós, like Wilde and Huysmans, is disgusted by the materialistic, philistine values of his age, he is incapable of imitating their purely negative reaction and of proposing an alternative system of values as sterile in its own way as the one it purports to oppose; for Des Esseintes and Dorian Gray are as egoistical and selfindulgent as the bourgeois they despise. Galdós was too profoundly immersed in real life and too much of a moralist to suscribe to a theory of Art for Art's sake and to create a protagonist whose rejection of the values of the society of his day and a longing for unusual experiences expresses itself in a purely narcissistic worship of beauty. This for Galdós would have been tantamount to a denial of human values. Guerra is far nearer to John Ruskin: in both sensitivity to religious art goes hand in hand with a profoundly moral and humanitarian outlook.327

King's College London

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