"Religious craftsmanship: the hands occupy the fundamental place" is the title of the report that the magazine Palabra has recently published on the artistic work that has been developed in our workshops since 1891.
The goldsmith Enrique de Arfe made the Eucharistic monstrance of the cathedral of Toledo between 1515 and 1523. The recent restoration of this great piece of goldsmithing, in the flamboyant Gothic style, has required the dismantling of its 5,500 pieces, including a total of 260 statuettes. The restoration also coincides with the fact that the Madrid workshops in charge of this work - Talleres de Arte Granda, founded in 1891 by the Asturian priest Félix Granda - are celebrating 125 years of existence. PALABRA has talked to several of its artisans to bring our readers closer to the world of religious craftsmanship, without which the liturgy would lose its splendor and devotion would suffer. This is what Juan Carlos Martínez Moy, sculptor, suggested to us: "Religious images and objects of worship should not be seen as idols, but as windows to heaven."
Embroiderers and garment makers
One of the fundamental crafts is that of embroiderers and makers of chasubles, rain capes, albs, tablecloths, etcetera. In the workshop of Los Rosalesin Villaviciosa de Odón, dependent on Talleres de Arte Granda -explains designer Pilar Romero-, "We carry out three types of embroidery: appliqué embroidery; nuanced embroidery, which reproduces images with natural silk threads; and classic Spanish embroidery in gold thread, which is used to decorate the Virgin's mantles, so characteristic of Andalusia"..
The embroidery on tablecloths is usually done by machine, but it is handmade because the drawing is guided by hand. "Everything we do is handmade, as the hands occupy a fundamental place."Pilar emphasizes. She recognizes that machine embroidery is increasingly used, by computer, which transforms the digitized design into stitches. It is more economical, but the ideal of the craft is quality, beauty and that the product is liturgically appropriate.
The mentality has changed in recent years and the future is here, says Pilar, "I do not believe that hand embroidery and handmade tailoring will be lost, it is not even technically convenient. Good workshops, like ours, put a lot of effort into the quality of their handicraft work.". A sign of this is, in his opinion, that the young seminarians continue to order good chasubles for their first Mass. Not long ago "a Spanish seminarian ordered a chasuble from the catalog, but quite rich, with hand embroidery. And since he had no money, he proposed to his family and his parishioners that, instead of giving him other gifts, they should all participate in the purchase".
In almost all trades that serve the sacred, there is a great shortage of artisans and the average age of the embroiderers who know the trade is high. The workshop itself, says Pilar, "has become a training school over the past 58 years. Now, our quarry comes from vocational training schools with which we collaborate. Students of pattern making, dressmaking and fashion do their internships in the workshop".
Pilar is an art historian, but she is a "I always wanted to work in something manual, because since I was a child I have had a knack for it. The career has given me aesthetic training and helps me a lot when it comes to design, which is my main job.".
On another matter, he comments that "people of faith have a more complete view of that work." The work is similar to making a good civilian dress, but "Our destiny is the Mass, the worship, the liturgy. I don't think we will ever fully understand what this means".
At the end of our conversation he shows us the chasubles he has designed for the last three Popes. Showing me the photo of Pope Francis with the most recent one, sober and with machine embroidery, he concludes with pride and a broad smile: "Yes, the last three Popes have been my best customers."
Juan Tardáguila is a silversmith and makes goldsmith pieces: chalices, monstrances, viriles, navetas, incense burners... He works with brass, silver, gold and steel for the stems of sacred vessels, all of them materials of a certain purity that do not rust. He explains that he got into the trade at the age of 15, more out of necessity than vocation, and that the apprenticeship has been a long one: "Managing it all is very difficult; it takes almost a lifetime. It also requires a great deal of creativity.
He is concerned about the future because it is difficult to train young people. There are schools, but the training they provide is insufficient and has to be completed in the workshop. There used to be more places to work, but now the market has shrunk. Andalusia is where there are more silversmiths.
For Juan, the quality of a piece, apart from the materials, is in its design. An exclusive piece, out of the catalog, is different from one that is reproduced in series. In the former, no molds are used and it is made to measure. It requires more dedication and is more expensive.
Juan is proud to have worked on the restoration of the Toledo monstrance: "I was impressed by how they were able to make it in the 16th century. Today technology helps us, but back then they had to make the same raw material in the workshop itself: sheet metal, thread, silver screws and nuts... That's where so many goldsmith procedures come from." He is motivated by doing his job well and having people appreciate it: "Sometimes we get compliments from customers, and it's a great satisfaction.".
Finally, he is skeptical about the mechanization of his trade: "In exclusive parts, machines can't go in too much. Almost everything has to be done by hand. In the repetition of pieces, yes, but there is a danger of displacing the craftsmen. This is what has happened with engravers: there are very few left and we depend almost entirely on machines, which, however, are not valid or profitable for some jobs, such as engraving a date. And by not combining men and machines, we end up losing the artisanal techniques.
Juan Carriazo is a bronze artist specialized in making tabernacles. He explains that they are normally made of brass, but have parts covered with 24-karat gold or silver, and usually have two shells: an inner one, where the Blessed Sacrament will be placed, and the outer one. Then the decorative elements are added. The lock is also installed. "We are increasingly being asked for safe locks and steel reinforcement plates for security reasons."
A good tabernacle is good because of its exclusive and beautiful design, and because of the enrichment that is added to it: enamels, engravings, columns, jewels..., although these are usually provided by the client. And there is also the workmanship: "There are tabernacles that require more than three months of work: about 400 hours."Juan assures.
Juan comments with great satisfaction: "I have tabernacles made by me on five continents. I have a photograph of all of them. The best one was the one for the Alabama Cathedral, Gothic style, with silver interior brilliants and enamels: spectacular! It took us two years to complete the cathedral commission. And he explains that he works on this "By family tradition, I didn't learn it in school. My father worked here for fifty years, and an uncle of mine also worked here for fifty years. When I started working when I was 14 years old, I liked the trade, and I still do today"..
And to give me an idea of the challenge of each tabernacle, he tells me about the case of a customer who came with a peculiar tabernacle door -it had an opening mechanism-, and he asked for a tabernacle for that door.
Juan is retiring soon, but says the future of his work is secure with his two apprentices. But he warns that "Craftsmanship has to be liked a lot. If you don't, you end up leaving it. And you have to get involved. But it's a beautiful craft that I'm very proud of.".
"Enameling is a very ancient craft technique. Its origin is not very well known, but as the main elements of enamel are metal and glass, they require a significant degree of civilization."explains Montse Romero.
The first traces of enamels, he adds, appear in Mesopotamia, but it was the Egyptians who developed colored glass and initiated this technique to decorate metal with color. It was also done with precious stones, but the enamels give much versatility to the decorations. That is why enameling has always gone in parallel with religious goldsmithing, although enamels are also made for jewelry and decorative (with religious motifs or not), such as the picture of the Virgin that Montse points out to me in front of where we chat.
Nowadays, fewer enamels are made, because it is an expensive technique, especially because of the skilled labor required. Because of its great technical difficulty, there are very few people who know how to do them. A good artist must also be a good craftsman, since these are processes in which "You either master the materials or they master you. You have to master the fire, with furnaces over 800 degrees, glass and metal. And although metal and glass seem very different materials, have similar expansions and adhere by the action of heat without melting. I think that in time this craft will be valued more than it is now".
"What makes an enamel valuable is the skill of the craftsman and the expressiveness he achieves. The materials are not expensive: copper, silver and glass, which is silica with pigments. And keep in mind that we do not do anything standard: all enamels are handmade. I can be commissioned to make a chalice with enamels of the evangelists, but in the end each evangelist I make is different. There are no molds with which to reproduce the same enamels. It is something like painting by hand, but on copper and glass.
Montse recognizes that religious craftsmanship is an extra motivation. "I once painted a Madonna and was invited to the blessing of the image. I was very impressed when I saw a whole village lined up to kiss the image. I sat in a corner and was moved. I imagine that God will take into account a work that is for his service. Even those who do not have faith realize that there is something more, that they have to do the work very well because we have a very special client: the Church".
My endeavor, Monte observes, is to "to get each image to transmit something. And that, today, is not done by the machine". But the trade "Logically, it has to evolve. Machines can be introduced that take away the hard work, such as shaping the pieces, or sanding the metal, but the essence of craftsmanship will continue, I am convinced.".
The crisis has greatly affected the pool of enamelists and it is the workshops that function as a school for apprentices. Today, except in Catalonia, there are few people inclined towards the trade. Montse, who is an interior architect, learned it in the workshop, in these 18 years that she has been working as an enameler and polychromator in Granada.
José Chicharro explains his craft by indicating that, in the end, all goldsmith pieces must pass through his hands: "I give them life; without my work, no matter how well the goldsmith works, they would not look good.".
This trade is also learned in the workshop: "I started when I was 18 years old. I learned a lot in a family silversmith shop. In this trade you need a lot of strength, because you have to press and because of the weight of some pieces. And you have to know some tricks, especially for flat pieces.".
Warns that "The automatic machines are profitable when it comes to many of the same pieces, but religious goldsmithing is very different and the machines do not compensate. A tabernacle, for example, has about a hundred pieces and each piece has to be polished by hand. That is why it is expensive. But that's where the quality and the art lie".
He also comments on his satisfaction when he enters churches and sees things related to his trade. He recently saw in the cathedral of Granada a tabernacle that had come out of his workshop. He enjoyed boasting to those who were there that he had polished it. And above all, "I am very happy with the silver templete I polished for a monstrance in Vigo. When you see people seeing your work you feel a great satisfaction".
José is only a few years away from retirement. That's why he comments: "I think I have left a very important legacy to my apprentice. Young people are needed to keep the craft alive, as many of us artisans are nearing retirement."
Sculptors and carvers
The "imaginero" or carver, explains Juan Carlos Martínez Moy, is a type of sculptor dedicated to wood carving, polychrome and religious themes. Something very specific. He, however, considers himself a sculptor: "I have done some direct carving, but few in comparison to clay, which is what I work on the most. Almost everything I do is figurative and religious, because these are the commissions that come to the workshop the most". In his opinion, "The blank page of sculpture is clay. By dint of working with it, for me it has become the noblest material: it has an expressiveness that no other has. I start with a clay sketch and then I make the mold from which the piece is taken, or it is digitized and then reproduced in the size I want. The digital world facilitates a multitude of steps, although in the last ten years I have repeated very few things".
Notes that "The face of the figure is where I turn to the most, because it is what transmits the most, especially in sacred art. You can take a tree trunk without debarking, make a beautiful face and hand, and that's all it takes". It also stresses that "My greatest hope is that the Church will be the artistic vanguard, as it once was, and that the language of modern art will serve as an expression of the Gospel, which is what sacred art is. Joseph Ratzinger wrote that the icon is meant to stir the echo of the sacred that we all carry within us. And that is my goal: that a work of mine should move, because it is the window to heaven. That's why I try to take care of my spiritual life: I need it for my work. Many times I have had artistic ideas while praying".
Juan Carlos regrets the few sculptors who dedicate themselves to sacred art: "Some make inroads, but not always fortunate ones.". Where there is more imagery is in Andalusia, in Seville specifically. And there are not more artists because it is difficult to make a living from sculpture.
Begoña Espinos is dedicated to polychroming religious art objects: "This craft is very ancient. And already in the Romanesque and Gothic the technique of stewing appears, which is the queen of polychromy. It is a difficult technique that requires a great deal of skill and, above all, many hours. It is not only expensive because of the material, but also because it has to be done by hand. At the moment it is not possible to mechanize polychromy, because to give that touch that favors the expressiveness of an image, the artisan's hands are needed". Although he explains that now a more neutral polychrome is used. Even the images are left as they are.
There are good polychromators in England. They also abound in the south of Spain and in Madrid. She came to the trade out of a clear professional vocation and emphasizes that "When it comes to religious imagery, you do it with more affection, because you know that there is something sacred behind it, that you have to do it very well so that people will be devoted to it. I also pray a lot to the images I am working on".
Dulce Piñeiro explains that "I have always liked art, but I didn't see myself as an artist, but rather as a doctor of works of art.". And the restoration, he adds, "It is a very necessary profession. It is important that people think about the conservation of their most valuable pieces. Many times they do not know their historical-artistic value and, rather than acquiring new ones, perhaps the best thing to do would be to restore them and return them to worship. We take care of assessing whether it is appropriate to repair or restore, and what would be the appropriate cleaning.
Explains that "there are many works of art that have been spoiled by ignorance".
And he points out that "A good restoration is the one that respects the original, is documented, photographed, is reversible and gives clues to the restorers who come after it. This is the case of the restoration of the monstrance of the cathedral of Toledo: the indications of the previous restorers have been of great help to us. They worked very well and now the monstrance has been able to recover its splendor, which does not mean that it shines more. Polishing it again would have meant removing material. Scratches, imperfections and dirt have been removed.".
Finally, Dulce insists that the main difficulty in her work is to make customers see that sometimes it is not convenient to make the piece look as if it were new.
Sheets from the paper edition of Palabra magazine. October 2016, p 64-67