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.


  1. El Paraíso Terrenal has the all seeing eye from 1 dollar bill :o

    1. You are so young you didn't know that's the old symbol of God. An all-seeing eye, indeed.

    2. Suggest you forward your Rioja pages to Rax to persuade him into organising the session in August. Thank you for sharing the Eternal beauty with those you never find the time to ...

  2. Ihan mielettömän ihania kuvia, niin paljon katsottavaa :)

    1. Se tässä digikuva-ajassa onkin parasta, että kun kuvia vain näpsii tarpeeksi, on paljon mukavampi ja helpompi palata ja perehtyä asioihin jälkeenpäin.