Art and Catalan independence: the case of Sixena.

Elizabeth Castro English Leave a Comment

By Alberto Velasco Gonzàlez

This is an excerpt from the upcoming What’s *still* up with Catalonia? which is particularly timely. After Catalonia voted in a referendum on independence on October 1st and the Parliament subsequently declared independence on October 27, 2017, the Spanish government, and in particular the ruling PP, approved a resolution enabling it to use Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution to dissolve the Catalan Parliament and take over its government. It has subsequently accused all of the members of the Catalan Government with sedition and rebellion (for fulfilling their electoral platform in seeking the independence of the Catalan Repubic), jailed eight of them for over a month, and still holds two in custody while five others are in exile in Belgium.

The PP has used Article 155 far beyond its capacities to implement its own policy in Catalonia, despite the fact that its party only represents 8.5% of the voters. For example, it overruled the Catalan vote on teacher certification rules thereby breaking a tie in favor of its own party’s policy. And, as described below, it has refused to let the Catalan Government challenge the decision about the Sixena art pieces in court, leading to a judge’s decision to allow the Guardia Civil to enter the Museum of Lleida, by force if necessary, on December 11 at midnight, to confiscate the disputed objects.

In this article, Museum of Lleida curator Alberto Velasco explains the origin of the dispute.

It all started in 1995.That was the year the Spanish Episcopal Conference and the bishop of Barbastre-Montsó—located in Aragón, the autonomous community just west of Catalonia—won a big political victory: the transfer to this diocese of a hundred parishes that despite being part of the Aragonese administration, had been part of the Catalan diocese of Lleida since medieval times. That is, the Lleida diocese extended into the territory of the neighboring autonomous community. That happened because the geographical limits of the diocese had never coincided with the current division of Spain into provinces, which dates from 1833. In Catalonia, we have four provinces. In contrast, there are eleven dioceses and archdioceses counting the one in Perpignan in Northern Catalonia on the French side of the border.

The ecclesiastical authorities who promoted that parochial segregation argued that this was about lining up diocesan boundaries with administrative ones. They justified it by promising to do it in other parts of Spain, but the truth is that they didn’t dare. Why not? Because the segregation in Lledia created a sociopolitical conflict of biblical proportions, never better said, that lasts to this day.

This segregation went way beyond matching the administrative and ecclesiastical limits. This whole operation started in the 1960’s and 70’s when a small group of particularly reactionary Aragonese chaplains from the Lleida diocese who had important differences with the bishop of Lleida started to promote this separation. They simply couldn’t stand that a Catalan bishop was encroaching on Aragonese territory. After the death of Francisco Franco, some of them also couldn’t stomach the fact that many of the masses in these parishes in Aragon were given in Catalan. Catalan is spoken in Aragon, whether they like it or not. Not throughout the region, but to a significant extent in the border areas with Catalonia. This area is called “the Strip” or the “Aragon strip”, although some similarly reactionary groups don’t consider this name valid for the linguistic area that they call “Eastern Aragon”. These are the same folks who say that what they speak in Aragon is not Catalan but LAPAO (an acronym for “Aragonese language which it is particular to Eastern Aragon”), despite the unanimous opinion to the contrary of the academic world.

One of the first consequences of this diocesan wall built on the administrative border between Catalonia and Aragon was that mass ceased to be given in Catalan on the Aragonese side. Today, the people in Benavarri and Tamarit de Llitera can buy their bread in Catalan, and can use the language whenever they like, for example, to speak to their neighbors. They can even have sex in the language of Ramon Llull, Jesús Montcada or Francesc Serés —the latter two of which are recognized writers from the Aragon Strip. Just the same, in their towns, you can’t hear mass in Catalan. All because someone wanted to favor the poor diocese of Barbastre-Montsó. This is the diocese, we might just mention, which was home to Escrivà de Balaguer, the priest who built the main Opus Dei sanctuary (Torreciudad). This fact, as we will see, is quite pertinent to the topic at hand.

At the beginning of the 90’s, “Aragonese Diocese NOW!” became a popular cry in furtive graffiti on the walls of a few towns. Behind this phrase there was a strong component of Spanish nationalism. That phrase simply tried to make something seem strange that up to that moment had been completely normal. It was an attempt to conquer, or in terms with very Spanish connotations, reconquer, terrain that had been in the hands of outsiders. How dare these territories in the province of Aragon be managed religiously by Catalans.

The most surprising thing about the wall they built between Aragon and Catalonia is that it was fortified by the leftist thinkers in Aragon. They looked the other way, and they didn’t complain about the attack, which was nothing less then the dismemberment of a centuries old diocese. That diocese was definitive proof of historic brotherhood. It was intangible heritage that Catalans and Aragonese shared. Political parties like the Aragonese chapter of Spain’s Socialist Party (PSOE) accepted the arguments sight unseen from the religious groups that were promoting the separation. It was pretty rough seeing José Antonio Labordeta, a highly respected figure in Aragon and a steadfast anti-francoist fighter adopt the demands of particular parts of the mustiest right.

The separation in 1995 brought about the demand two years later by the bishop of Barbastre-Montsó that the Bishop of Lleida return a hundred works of art conserved at the Museum of Lleida that had come from the transferred parishes. This museum is the heir of the old diocesan museum founded in 1893 by Bishop Josep Meseguer, who bought those works of art with money from the diocese so that the art wouldn’t fall into the hands of collectors, antique dealers or other museums. These operations between the bishop and the parishes are documented with hundreds of documents and proofs of ownership. Just the same, the bishop of Barbastre-Montsó claimed that the artistic works were only in Lleida on deposit and that the parishes had never given up ownership. The conflict went through several ecclesiastical courts at the Vatican, which always sided with the Aragonese. The rulings from the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura and the Roman Rota, however, are filled with irregularities and were absolutely partisan and biased. They were never interested in listening to the Catalan side of the argument, nor did they look at the four volumes of carefully documents carefully protocolized by a notary public, that certified the ownership which the Bishop of Lleida presented as evidence in court.

It was a judicial travesty. The Vatican hierarchy that decided the matter was completely manipulated and controlled by the hard liners in the Spanish Episcopal Conference, that was clearly in favor of the interests of the Aragonese Church. The long arm of Opus Dei, which in those years was omnipresent in the Vatican’s dicasteries and organs of power did the rest. The orders were to favor the diocese that gave birth to Escrivà de Balaguer, and they were not shy about it. The Catalan church was ignored and disregarded. In Aragon, politicians and citizens of all ideological stripes enthusiastically and cynically applauded the ecclesiastical judicial machinations. It was surreal watching people on the left, including the aforementioned Labordeta, asking for Vatican resolutions to be carried out, given that to do so was to go back to medieval times. The inquisition all over again. “Rulings must be followed.” This sentence came to be the worrisome mantra that almost everyone in Aragon accepted absolutely noncritically, as if the resolutions of those ecclesiastical courts had somehow to be approved by the Spanish legal system. Luckily, they were not. Today, those resolutions have still not been carried out and the works in question remain at the Museum of Lleida.

At the same time as that conflict was playing out, the city government of a small Aragonese town, Vilanova de Sixena, started asking Catalonia for the return of 97 works of art from a monastery that is just at the edge of the town, Santa Maria de Sixena. They did so twenty-seven years after the nuns who owned the monastery had left that unhealthy building (built on a marsh) and had moved to Barcelona. The nuns took their artwork with them, and left forty-four pieces in the old Diocesan Museum of Lleida, since the monastery was under the jurisdiction of the Lleida Diocese. The other fifty-three pieces were deposited with National Art Museum of Catalonia in Barcelona, which also contained the Romanesque frescoes from the Chapter room of the monastery on deposit. These frescoes had been stripped from the walls in 1936 in the middle of the Spanish Civil War thanks to financing by the Catalan Government, after a fire destroyed the building. It was an effort to protect and save the art, not an act of stealing war booty, as some in Aragon have tried to say. The nuns signed a commitment to indefinitely deposit the frescoes at the Barcelona museum in 1992, and the Catalan Government and the National Art Museum of Catalonia formalized the definitive acquisition of the objects left in Lleida and Barcelona since 1970s with three purchases in 1983, 1992, and 1994, with all of the corresponding ecclesiastical authorizations, including from Rome.

The government of Aragon actively protested the three sales, but it did so fourteen years after the first sale, coincidentally at the same time as the aforementioned suit about the Franja art was taking place. It’s notable that they didn’t do so beforehand. Now, they were asking for the first right of refusal to acquire the pieces. Given the situation, in 1998, the Catalan Government brought this conflict of competencies to the Constitutional Court, who fourteen years later ruled that the Aragonese government did not have right to first refusal, since the works had been in Catalonia since 1970 and therefore, the three purchase agreements had been produced in Catalan territory. The Aragonese politicians persisted and opened two additional legal fronts: one for the objects in 2012 which tried to get the three purchases declared illegal, and the other for the frescoes in 2014 that had never been reclaimed with such virulence.

The Sixena conflict burst into the media in 2016 when two Aragonese courts of first instance decreed that both the objects and the frescoes had to be returned to the monastery. Currently, the two rulings have been appealed and they will surely wend their way all the way to the Supreme Court. The rulings are incredibly controversial and have filled countless pages in the newspaper and endless minutes of radio and television. The legal arguments of the two judges have been described as partial and even reckless, since they could unleash an avalanche of claims around the Spanish State. There is also the very strange coincidence that both judges decreed that the Catalan Government and the two Catalan museums had to turn over the art work immediately. Regardless of the appeals that had been lodged or the path the cases had to take before being finally decided.

One of the strangest extremes about this whole matter has to do with the sentence regarding the frescoes, which completely dismissed all of the technical recommendations that discouraged the reinstallation of the frescoes in the monastery. This decision made the leading world specialist in conservation and restoration, Gianluigi Colalucci, in charge of the restoration of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, vociferously protest the disaster that they intended to carry out. Other professionals and internationally recognized institutions have made similar statements.

The Catalan Government and the National Art Museum of Catalonia decided to hand over the fifty-three objects from the Barcelona museum, as a demonstration of good will and to prove that there was a desire to reach an agreement. In addition, these pieces were not protected to the same degree as the forty-four pieces in Lleida, which in 1999 had received special protection under the Law of Catalan Cultural Heritage. That fact led the Catalan institutions to refuse to hand over the Sixena pieces conserved in Lleida, despite the ruling and the corresponding court order. Disobedience. Clash of legitimacies. A collision between the Aragonese judicial decision and the Catalan heritage law.

The two Aragonese judges, in a further show of judicial violence and of the Spanish State to impose its will, had bulldozed over the Catalan legal order, ignoring it and dismissing it in this particular point. It’s clear that they jumped the gun with their injunctions instead of waiting for the cases to make their way through the court system. Today the threat hangs over the Museum of Lleida, since the judicial police could appear and take away the works in question. This is something that pleases many parts of the Aragonese society, including their leftist government, which has insistently demanded sending the police to confront the “disobedience” and “rebellion” of the Catalan authorities, with an attitude that is more reminiscent of past eras rather than present ones.

From the vantage point of Catalonia, it has been defended that the two rulings and their provisional injunctions are politically conditioned by the current context of the relationship between Spain and Catalonia. Even the executive council of the Catalan Government, formed by President Carles Puigdemont and his ministers have decreed that the Lleida pieces will not leave without government authorization. Statements like this one are the reason that a prestigious international paper like the Financial Times dedicated an article to the Sixena matter, focusing on the politics that characterize the conflict as just one more of the issues in the disagreements between Catalonia and Spain.

Aragonese politicians of all stripes have congratulated themselves for this legal “victory” but in contrast, they haven’t tried to demand other Sixena works that are housed in Spanish museums. They only have demanded the return of Sixena artwork that is in Catalan territory. Strangely enough, they justify it by saying that they’re only asking for the pieces that left the monastery after 1923, the year the building was declared a national monument. However, that declaration did not include the “movable” property (that is, beyond the structure of the monastery itself), despite what the Aragonese authorities and the two judges say. Not only that, the sale of movable property from national monuments in the Spanish State has taken place throughout the 20th century, even in the most relevant instances in Aragon itself, like the Pilar Basilica, from which jewels valued at more than 300,000 euros were sold between 1979 and 1981.

With respect to this matter, and similarly to how they did with the litigation over the art work from the Franja, the Aragonese left has sided with the right and once again enthusiastically applauded these controversial legal decisions. The left and right have even coincided in saying that there is no political conflict, and that this is simply an attempt to restore the artwork and an act of historical justice for the town of Vilanova de Sixena. While that might be seen as noble, there are two reasons to be suspect. First, the obvious underlying political motivation, and second, toward the way Catalonia acted by saving, legally acquiring, and conserving the artwork.

Another surprising factor is that the current Aragonese government, theoretically leftist, during the court proceedings acted in the name of the supposed heir of the defunct Sixena abbey, a nun who lives in the Basque Country, and who was authorized by the Vatican as the federal representative just before the litigation and who immediately afterwards authorized the Government of Aragon to litigate for the frescoes. Why is a public institution going to court, with public monies, to benefit a religious order? That’s Spain for you, folks. And there’s the surreal situation that this same nun should have had to sit on the accused bench in the litigation for the Sixena artworks but she refused to testify. And it’s even more terrifying to see that the final objective of the Aragonese authorities is to turn over the art to the monastery, which is no longer the home to the religious community but rather to a different French group that has since rented the building.

it’s not nice to say, but all of these proceedings have political implications borne of the deepest anti-Catalanism that exists in Aragon. Hating your neighbor. Particular the neighbor who wants to become independent and that some have accused on multiple occasions of Pan-Catalanism and expansionism just for wanting to be able to speak a language in the Franja that has always been spoken there. For wanting to be able to live normally as they have always lived, that is looking culturally towards Catalonia. This isn’t hard for someone from Reykjavik to understand, but it won’t be so easy for people in Zaragoza, the capital of Aragon. It is the same behavior detected in Valencia—another Catalan speaking area—with its so-called “blaveros” [blue flaggers] who ferociously hate anything that smells of Catalan, and who accuse Catalonia of wanting to annex their country. Unfortunately, there are too many people who think like that.

In the case of Sixena, this atmosphere has become evident through repeated declarations by Aragonese politicians who have no compunctions about using terms like “war booty” and “plunder” to refer to the frescoes. One of the high points of the dialectical battle of scorn and ideological excess towards their Catalan neighbors came when the mayor of Vilanova de Sixena, from the Partido Aragonés, who are somewhat to the right of Spain’s conservative ruling Partido Popular, and also a professor at the University of Zaragoza, at a low intellectual point, swore repeatedly that the monastery at Sixena had been set afire during the Civil War by Catalan militias, who were on their way to the Aragon front, and it was all the fault and responsibility of Lluís Companys, the president of the Catalan Government at the time. That’s pretty bad to start with, but it should be added that Companys is the only European democratically elected president to be executed by firing squad.

The truth is that it was the local anarchist Committee, the townspeople, of Vilanova de Sixena that burned the monastery down, according to all of the known sources to date. Despite documentary evidence, on a sign outside the monastery, they blamed it all on “Catalan militia”. A sign, one might note, that bore the logos of the Government of Aragon, the Spanish Ministry of Culture and the European Union. And despite the fact that they have been shown evidence to the contrary, they have kept repeating it. It’s just more proof that the wounds from the war remain open and festering. More proof that behind blaming Catalans for Aragonese mishaps with respect to the litigation of the art, there is more than just a simple demand to recover their heritage.

The litigation for the art from the Franja and the monastery of Sixena are the cultural representation of something that broke long ago and could not be repaired. The Church fanned the flames with the separation of the Lleida Diocese in 1995, a schism that made it clear that Aragon was not Catalonia and Catalonia was not Aragon. Despite the fact that this differentiation might seem administratively obvious, from a cultural, religious and social point of view, it is not. The historic territory of the Lleida Diocese is a frontier, an umbilical cord that allowed the language, art, beliefs and human relationships to flow back and forth. Some might say that the separation in two dioceses need not have broken these nexus and relationships, and they would be right. We Catalans still go mushroom hunting in Benavarri, and folks from the Franja come to Lleida to shop. And in the end, I’m sure we’ll find that breakups are less traumatic than we think.


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