Monday, 29 April 2013

A thought-provoking chapel

Anyone who has seen the beautiful feature film A Journey to Eden’ will immediately recognise the 11th century Santa Sabina chapel of the Remelluri winery (more on the winery in my previous post here). Not that I expect there to be many as the film is not for the masses and hasn’t even been released on CD. It is directed by the celebrated Finnish writer, photographer and filmmaker Rax Rinnekangas and tells about two artists travelling through the wine region of Rioja in winter searching for some peace of mind. They end up at the Santa Sabina chapel we were lucky to visit last November.

In the early 1990s, the Remelluri owners commissioned a painting of San Vicente or Saint Vincent, the patron saint of winemakers, from Vicente Ameztoy, an artist and fellow Basque born in San Sebastián. What started as a plan to portray the early Christian martyr who died in about 304 AD, however, turned into a 7-year project to paint several saints from the early centuries of Christianity, saints whose legends were known in the Remelluri valley at the time the chapel was built. Moreover, Ameztoy shows us his vision of the relationship between the sacred and the worldly in an ironic work called ‘Paradise on Earth’. The paintings were so fascinating I had to dig deeper into them.

Vicente Ameztoy’s style is somewhat surrealist reminding of that of René Magritte, for example. Each of the Remelluri works includes both historical characteristics and hints to the modern world as you will notice when you study the details. Moreover, the facial features of the saints are loaned from people close to the artist.

San Vicente shows the features of Vicente Ameztoy himself. Saint Vincent served as a deacon under a bishop in Zaragosa. He was so outspoken that the Roman governor ordered him to be killed while the bishop was only exiled. According to legend, Saint Vincent was burned to death and ravens came to protect his body from vultures so that his followers could recover the body. He is often depicted holding a martyr’s palm.

The painting of Saint Vincent serves as the altarpiece of the chapel. The sort of cloak he is wearing showing the drawing from the Remelluri bottle label is, in fact, a double door that can be opened revealing an old Madonna and Child.

San Esteban or Saint Stephen, the first martyr of Christianity, is recognised by all Christian churches. He was stoned to death in about 35 AD because of his teachings and is often depicted with both stones and a martyr’s palm. He was a deacon in the early church of Jerusalem and often wears a deacon’s outfit in portraits. A gospel book is another feature connected with him.

Santa Sabina is stepping out of the doorway of the chapel she lent her name to. She was the widow of a Roman senator and was martyred in 125 AD. Her unforgivable crime was to rescue the remains of her beheaded slave – who had converted her to Christianity and was later called Saint Serapia – and to have her buried in the family mausoleum.  She is the patron saint of housewives but I couldn’t figure out the symbolism behind the test tube bottle she is holding. It might have something to do with the art of winemaking or perhaps with extracting fragrances out of the lavender grown by the Remelluri vineyards.

San Cristóbal or Saint Christopher is believed to have been either an unknown man from Canaan or a man called Menas from the present northern Africa. According to legend, he wanted to serve the greatest king there was. Being a big and strong man he ended up serving Christ by carrying people across a dangerous river. One day when he was carrying a little child the river got swollen and the child felt heavy as lead. When they finally reached the other side he told the child had put him in great danger as the whole world couldn’t have been as heavy as the child on his shoulders. The child replied that he had been carrying not only the whole world but Him who made it as he was Christ, his King. Then the child vanished.

Christopher, or ‘Christophorus’ meaning the Christ-bearer, started converting people. Despite all kinds of persuasions he didn’t abandon his faith and was killed at about 250 AD. Saint Christopher and Saint Menas probably refer to the same historical person and they both are patron saints of travellers. Although not properly visible in my photo, the painting shows a modern delivery van in the distance.

Santa Eulalia is standing on the Remelluri necropolis carrying her name. According to legend, she was a girl in her early teens who refused to worship Roman gods and was tortured and stripped. A dove appeared at the moment of her death and even though it was spring snow fell miraculously to cover her nakedness. This happened in 303 or 304 AD depending on which of the two almost identical legends of the Spanish Saint Eulalias you read about. (More on the necropolis in my previous post here.) 

San Ginés or Saint Genesius was a martyr from the late 3rd or early 4th century. There are several saints called Genesius with the common feast day of August 25, implying that their legends may have derived from the same source. Ameztoy’s Saint Genesius must be the one from Rome who was an actor and comedian mocking Christianity on stage. While performing he had a vision and was suddenly converted demanding to be baptised at once. He was convicted and beheaded. He is the patron saint of actors, comedians and other kinds of entertainers.

According to another legend, Genesius was a notary from Arles who was horrified by the prosecution of Christians and was therefore convicted and beheaded. This Saint Genesius is the patron saint of lawyers, hence the sword I believe.

El Paraíso Terrenal, the Paradise on Earth, hangs on the back wall of the chapel close to the entrance. It is a surrealist and ironic portrayal of Adam and Eve’s last day in paradise seen as a reality TV show. I find it both humorous and deeply saddening. Ameztoy has revealed that the 7-year project was full of doubt and despair. I feel some of the desperation can be seen in his interpretation of the present-day worldly paradise that has been lost behind mindless trivialities.

The Remelluri paintings were released in 2001. Tragically, they remained Vicente Ameztoy’s final works as he died later the same year at the age of 46. This series of paintings is considered his masterpiece.

PS. We have been travelling in Italy for almost a fortnight now but meticulous as I am I can’t help completing the Rioja wine tour before entering new travels. So it will be one more winery post and then I will set myself free to jump into Tuscany and Liguria, at least I hope so.

Monday, 15 April 2013

At the gates of a paradise

Back to our November winery tour in Rioja, Spain. I found tackling this post very challenging because I knew whatever I wrote and showed I would never be able to give proper credit to the Remelluri bodega, officially Granja Nuestra Señora de Remelluri, in Labastida, again in the Álava province of the Basque country. As far as I can tell, it may very well be a piece of paradise on Earth.

The more I spend time looking at the photos the deeper I get lost in the beauty and serenity of the place. Some visitors have described they felt as if they were suddenly in Tuscany. I must protest. As magnificent as some regions in Tuscany are I do believe it is not fair towards the other spectacular places to regard Tuscany as the highest standard against which every other setting is measured. Ultimate rural beauty can be found in countless locations. In my view, each and every one of them, including Tuscany, should be appreciated in its own right, not in comparison to the views in any other place. To me Remelluri certainly is a unique place of breathtaking beauty and fascinating history.

Remelluri is one of the oldest wine-growing estates in Spain. The title derives from a Count Erramel of Alava thanks to whom the location was called Erramelluri. It is situated at the foot of the Toloño mountain and dates back to the 14th century when monks from the Toloño monastery started a farm there, hence the Nuestra Señora or Virgin Mary also in the present title. The monks left the place in the 15th century but hermits continued to maintain the sanctuary, whereas a local community organization started to take care of the farm to provide food and drink for the pilgrims that came to visit the shrine.

In the early 19th century, the Santa Sabina chapel was burned down in one of the civil wars. A few years later, everything including the chapel was sold to the highest bidders. The core of the estate and the chapel went to a landowner in Labastida. This farm of some 20ha (approx. 50ac) remained undivided for more than a century and was acquired by the present owners in 1967. Since then Remelluri has been regaining its former lands. The estate currently comprises some 150ha (370ac), 100ha (approx. 250ac) of which are vineyards in three small valleys of the Toloño mountain.

The average size of a vineyard plot in Rioja is only 0.5ha (1.2ac). (We have a vacant plot of that size behind the row of spruce trees sheltering the garden. Too bad a vineyard will not survive here in our time but with the current speed of global warming this may happen sooner than we care to believe...) Also at Remelluri, the scenery is patched with some 200 plots that are cultivated using traditional ecological methods. Some of the vineyards are at 800m, which is the highest elevation where vines are grown in Rioja. The area provides a unique microclimate: the mountains protect it from Atlantic winds and temperature variation between night and day is greater than elsewhere, which favours a mild and late maturing of the grape.

If you saw my post on our visit to the winery of Marqués de Riscal (here) you must have guessed by now that this visit was completely different. On a visit to Remelluri, the technicalities of winemaking are not the main point but you are allowed, or rather invited, to take a walk around the estate. There are three suggested tours to choose from. If you like you can take them all as long as you book in advance. The walks are free but they want to keep the capacity limited to guarantee all visitors an enjoyable and one-of-a-kind experience.

The 30 to 90-minute walks will lead you through the vineyards, to the Santa Sabina chapel (more about the chapel in a separate post here) and to an impressive necropolis. There was a village of Christian settlers in the valley in the 10th and 11th centuries. The tombs carved in stone, called Tumbas de Santa Eulalia, form the graveyard of those settlers. There are 300 of them in all sizes. Some are clearly visible open holes in the stone, some are now completely filled with soil and are growing grass.

The necropolis makes you wonder why these Christians living under Moors buried their dead in this manner. Was is because of a contagious disease the survivors tried to avoid infecting the soil with? Were they not allowed to utilize land for their cemetery? Or did they simply bury everyone this way? Whatever the reason, it was imposing to step by the tombs that had already been there for centuries when the monks started their farm there – that have been there for every traveller to see for a thousand years now.

You could spend days at a place like Remelluri. In fact, you could spend there a lifetime and be happy. Or so I thought until I read that Telmo Rodríquez, the son of the man who created the modern bodega, only returned to his family winery after his father’s death a few years ago. I suppose when you are raised at a place like this you will have wine in your veins ensuring you will want to become not only an excellent winemaker but a celebrated winemaking star with a brand of your own and a name known to everyone within the trade. Sometimes this may mean you will need to leave the place to conquer the world and let your old man have his way with the family estate.

We did walk through the Remelluri cellars, too, and found them more spacious than the narrow old cellars we were shown at Riscal. And the tastings of Remelluri’s Rioja Alavesa wines? In the state of blissful happiness reached during the peaceful and uplifting walk around the vineyards bathing in all the colours of the peak of autumn, I would say: heavenly.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Suncatcher without sun

Here it is, the stained glass project I announced a few days ago; a framed rose suncatcher I made using the Tiffany copper foil technique soldered in tin. I am not completely happy with its rough look, especially because it will be a present for someone who has always been very clever with her hands and has done almost everything from woodworking to oil painting (but lucky for me, no glass work).

Starting to take shape.
This was the best I could do in the present time frame. As it is hand made by me it will have to do. After all, this is only my fourth Tiffany work ever and the three earlier pieces were made several years ago. I had forgotten all about cutting glass and soldering, not that there was much to forget yet. However, I’m determined to continue with this hobby so one day I’ll show you something I’m actually proud of, I hope.

On a gray day such as today even this poor little rose will make rather a nice bright spot against a window, I must admit. (If any of my ex-in-laws are reading this: hush-hush, this is for grandma.)