Friday, May 9, 2014

The Altar of the Souls in Purgatory, Basilica of Saints Justus and Pastor, Barcelona : Guest post by Kaiser Noir

Whilst in Barcelona recently, Kaiser Noir--historian, tour guide and co-organizer for the Barcelona Congress of Curious Peoples, and director of Kriminal Kabarett--took me on a special visit to the grim and fabulous Basilica of Saints Justus and Pastor. I asked Kaiser to write a brief post about the church and its entrancing shrine dedicated to the souls in purgatory; his text follows, and the above images are my own:
The most fascinating church in Barcelona, the Basilica of saints Justus and Pastor, has a long history related to martyrdom, funerary rites and the supernatural world. The temple is unique because its preservation is exceptional (surviving wars, looting and religious persecution) and it is perhaps the oldest Christian sanctuary in the city.

The pagan roots of this church are still discussed. Although archeological evidences are unclear, this might have been the place where the temple of Castor and Pollux, two Graeco-Roman divinized heroes, once stood. Their names were Christianized and changed, and they became the saints Justus and Pastor, two christian boys killed near Madrid in the times of the emperor Diocletian. The first Christians from "Barcino" (the name of Barcelona in the Roman times) also suffered these persecutions in the beginning of the IV century A.D. The most famous victim was saint Eulalia, patron of the city. The surroundings of the church were used as a cemetery for these martyrs, whose relics were greatly appreciated. This fact consecrated the place as one of the holiest in the city.
When the Germanic invaders, the Goths, conquered Spain, Barcelona became the court of the king Ataulf and the first version of this church was built. Since then, the temple enjoyed royal protection, only interrupted by the Muslim invasion, when it is said that the church was used as a mosque. Louis the Pious (son of Charlemagne) retook the city in the year 801 and confered an unusual privilege to this church: it was the sacramental testament. In the chapel of Saint Felix it was possible to declare and confirm the last will before dying, a tradition absolutely legal until 1991.

It is also said that the Virgin of Montserrat, protector of Catalonia (which some authors believe to be a Christian version of the goddess Isis) was saved here after it was discovered in the IX century A.D. For this reason, the architect Antoni Gaudi came here to pray everyday.

But the most astonishing and haunted chapel in this church (a building rebuilt in the XIV century in a majestic and splendorous Gothic style) is the altar of the Souls in the Purgatory. We can identify this masterpiece as a work from the last half of the XIX century, because some Neo-Gothic details were common in this date. The altar shows terrified human beings of all conditions burning and being punished for their sins in their afterlife. Only the pilgrims and the most devout visitors could save these souls from the flames of God and eternal damnation. Its extraordinary theatrical scenography evidences its Baroque conception and the origins of this ancient tradition from the Catholic countries. Maybe the aristocrats and the nobility, who lived in Renaissance and Rococo palaces in the neighborhood of the church, used this place as a memorial for the futility of their lives. This cult around the ideas of Purgatory and Hell were also present in other churches of Spain, the most spectacular case being the "Iglesia de las Animas" in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia. Its neoclassical facade shows impressive and hellish scenes of punished souls. This church was part of a mystic itinerary, the "Stations of the Cross" in the last section of the Saint James way.
Definitively, the basilica of Saint Justus and Pastor is perhaps the most magnificent temple after the cathedral and there are still more stories to be discovered, as some tombstones made by the first masons and exquisite funerary inscriptions.
You can find out more about Kaiser Noir and his work by clicking here.

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