Just a brief addendum.
The cathedrals and churches of Granada were, as you’d expect, a definite highlight, especially those in the mixed Spanish-Moorish style. Not all of them were open to visitors. Of those that were, the interiors were often very splendid as in this quire:
Sometimes they were slightly gaudy and over-gilded, as this from Guadix cathedral:
And sometimes they were downright terrifying, as this from the church in the Barrio de las Cuevas just outside Guadix (picture taken from the web):
I am not sufficiently informed to know whether or not this is a particular flavour of Spanish Catholicism, though my hunch is that to some extent it is. Either way it’s trivial to run down someone’s faith simply because I find its symbols aesthetically unappealing, so I won’t.
Nevertheless, I am interested to know why I find this style unappealing. There are lots of descriptions I could throw at it – macabre, kitsch, un-self reflective and so immune to irony – but these feel unexamined and therefore unfair.
Maybe what makes me uncomfortable is an extremity of belief which holds that it is impossible to overstate or hyperbolize what is absolutely and infinitely true. And, similarly, which holds that these images need no moderation or circumspection – Mary is absolutely full of grace, Christ absolutely having a shitty day up there on the cross – because there is no other alternative truth that could undermine or ironize it. You can only have irony where a plurality of truths is possible; to insist on its impossibility is to claim that there is just one, crushingly victorious truth. Which is probably why we respond antagonistically by emphasizing their kitsch value – we insist on reinstating the ironical potential we think has been peremptorily ruled out.
But even then, I’m not sure this is getting me any closer to why I was put off at the gut level – this is all a number of rationalizations down the line. And my immediate feeling wasn’t one of oppression. Maybe the problem is in over-exemplification – in her grace and lovingness and innocence Mary is, or poses as, the final and undiluted instantiation of those things. Again, this can be immoderate and oppressive: a claim that this is the highest, most perfect manifestation and therefore cannot be hyperbolized. But the real kicker is that it has a sense of the uncanny – they are human figures but with an inhuman idealness and unreality, and this human but somehow-not-quite aspect (see this) is what disturbs and alienates.
On an incidental note, and I am not sure in what way, if any, this is related, some of the Moorish décor of the Nasrid palace in the Alhambra has a similar impossibility-of-excess style. All over the walls are repeated passages from the Koran and Islamic catechism, like this:
As the guide pointed out, if you are an Arabic speaker the effect is of entering a room with the same words written all over its walls. If I wasn’t so afraid of the repercussions I’d compare it to that bit in The Simpsons taking off The Shining, where Homer scrawls ‘no beer and no TV make Homer go crazy all over the walls’.
I found the effect beautiful, though as a non-Arabic speaker I suppose it was mainly decorative for me. The same principle seemed to hold: that an uncontestable truth cannot be overstated. It reminds me of the only passage of the Koran I know, in fact not from the Koran (I just found out) but from one of the Hadiths, recounting Muhammed’s vision of the Sixth Heaven. This is quoted from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (notoriously flaky, apparently) but from having a snoop on Google it seems the Hadith definitely says something very much like this:
I saw there an angel, the most gigantic of all created beings. It had 70,000 heads, each had 70,000 faces, each face had 70,000 mouths, each mouth had 70,000 tongues, and each tongue spoke 70,000 languages; all were employed in singing God’s praises.
Not sure what I’m doing with this. I suppose what immediately crossed my mind was some sort of cross-cultural historical link between Spanish Catholicism and Moorish Islam. But there’s no basis for that, and this is all getting a bit thin. I’ll just call it an interesting parallel and leave it at that.