Set in Stone

Carved heads on Valencia Cathedral

Life as a medieval stone mason must have been a bit boring at times – so it’s no surprise some of them had a mucky sense of humour.        

A couple of years ago I stayed in a beautiful ancient city in La-Mancha, which will remain nameless to save embarrassment, and was being shown by a long-time English resident. He told me that five years earlier the cathedral had undergone a major restoration, which had brought skilled artisans from around Spain to work on it.

Around the bell tower were twelve escutcheons, the heraldic shields of the señorial families of the city, some of whom had been part of the discovery and exploration of the Americas. Given the weathering of centuries, some of the stone carvings were very badly worn, but in-depth research provided the stone masons with the coats of arms of all but one of the famous families of the times. 

The head stone mason approached the clerk-of-works, or whoever is the top sahib on a cathedral restoration, and told him they were one short of a dozen, and could he suggest what to do? The boss was probably up to his eyeballs at the time because he told the head stone mason to make something up that looked suitably original. So the stone mason did. It wasn’t until a few months after the inauguration that someone spotted that the twelfth historic escutcheon was in fact the emblem of Real Madrid, the head stone mason’s favourite football team. I don’t care if the story is true or not, but it tickled me to death.

Couple kissing on Valencia’s La Lonja

From the perspective of the 21st century, all the religious statuary of the great cathedrals and even some of the smaller churches can look a bit samey, but you can occasionally find something that tells a slightly different story.

For example, above the west door of Valencia Cathedral, the smaller, gothic door around the back, are seven pairs of sculptured heads, male and female, with the names of the seven families, the first burghers of the city. However, as ancient as the names may be, no-one tells you that these fair ladies where the equivalent of the mail-order brides of the wild American west. There was such a dearth of eligible women that they were bought in from Aragon, or at least enticed here on the promise of a darn good life and the handing over of a few quid to the families.

 While religious edifices were reasonably sacrosanct in their stone decoration, monuments to mamon were another matter. The master carvers of La Lonja, the 15th-century silk exchange seem to have had a bit more leniency in their choice of decoration, and you can just imagine one of them on a particularly boring day of carving acanthus leaves and sheep, thinking, “I think I’ll carve something a bit naughty today.” 

Grabbing onto a dog, La Lonja Silk Exchange

On the left arch of the front door is the small carving of a naked couple having a good old snog. One figure is positioned above another, holding the head of the person below. We assume it’s a couple, but as we can’t see any bosom’s it might well have been an early homosexual stone encounter. The lower person’s legs are raised and bent at the knee, and just parted enough to leave you with the teasing, “Will she or won’t she?” 

One the opposite side of the arch is the figure of a crouched man reaching out for the hindquarters of a dog. There could well be a perfectly honourable explanation of the carving, but in the way of lonely shepherds (supposedly) quitting themselves of their pent up passions on their flock, it tempts one to think that this is one canine that is about to be more than just a man’s best friend.

And I’m told there are even more lurid carvings inside.

Edvard Munch is best known for his painting The Scream (in fact, that’s about all he is known for) ‘a haunting rendition of a hairless figure on a bridge under a yellow-orange sky’, as the Museum of Modern Art in New York describes it, although there were actually for versions made by Munch between 1893 and 1910. There’s no record of him visiting Valencia during his lifetime, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he had made a sneaky visit and taken the idea from a water spout on the Torres de Serrano, one of the two remaining 14th-century gates to the city.

The Scream by Edvard Munch

Torres de Serranos gargoyle

Look up to your left on the city-side of the Torres and you will see a gargoyle. We think of gargoyles as being ferocious beasties that were put on churches and cathedrals to scare devils away or allow Quasimodo types to have a bit of a swing on a quiet day. They were, in fact, simply an ornate way to disguise the overflow from a roof, and admittedly do seem pretty nifty when during a heavy storm when you see rain water pouring from the gargoyles mouth.

The gargoyle on the Torres de Serrano appears to be dressed as a haggard old woman of the period. Her head may be covered so we don’t know if she’s is bald or not, and there is no yellow sun above her head, but the pained terror in her face, the hands clasping her cheeks, and the open wide mouth of a six-hundred-year-old scream is as near to the tortured imagery that Munch portrayed in his famous painting as makes no difference.