IN THE green Basque countryside around Vitoria in Spain lies the tiny village of Antezana de la Foronda, containing no more than 100 inhabitants and only one public building, a 16th-century church, St Michael the Archangel.
Not long ago, a planned expansion to Vitoria Airport threatened its existence; but grim persistence of the villagers succeeded in averting this. The ravages of time were steadily taking over, however, and morale was low until the Mayor, Jose Luis Alonso, came up with the “revolutionary” idea of covering the 50-foot-high interior walls of the church with murals to make it an inspiring place of religious worship where art, music, dance, and other events could also take place.
It was a formidable project. How could any modern artwork possibly be reconciled and in harmony with the beautiful Baroque gilded altarpiece, vaulted ceiling, and fine 16th-century carvings? Which artist or artists would observe spiritual values, and be sensitive to local feelings and traditions without compromising his own artistic integrity? There was also the question of a fee for such a huge undertaking.
Xavier Egana seemed to meet these very particular requirements He is a Franciscan friar living in the monastery of Arantzazu, in the neighbouring Basque province of Gipuzkoa, one of the few examples of Spanish modern religious art of the latter half of the 20th century, and where Egana had painted murals in its Basilica. He is Basque himself, and an artist, and exhibited not only in Spain, but Germany and South America. At nearly 70, he was partly retired, and refused to take any money for the work.
He was philosophical about the prospect of this Herculean task. “You take steps sometimes with assurance and other times with doubts,” he said in an interview.
Over several years, he sifted through images from poetry, films, music, and novels, filling eight note books with ideas and sketches to create an overall narrative “in which each has a purpose — a reason for being — a relationship to everything else”. When official approval from the Bishop and municipal authorities seemed a long time coming, Señor Alonso and he started a “pirate art project”, painting on the portico walls a procession of the local Virgin of Armola and people dancing the romeria and playing traditional Basque instruments, as a taste of what was to come. They also invited anyone who wanted to paint a scene on the wall.
This produced great enthusiasm from the congregation, who, as a team, supported him by putting up scaffolding, preparing the surfaces, supplying and carrying paints, and doing any job needed. They also welcomed him to stay in their homes and eat with them over the working period, and it became a happy purposeful community.
Egana communicates the drama and humanity of life in bright rainbow colours, using silicon paint on the white plastered walls. He portrays lively narrative scenes full of people reproducing the natural spontaneous choreography of their movement in both everyday and unusual situations. His figures are sometimes realistic, wearing timeless garments, but more often unclothed symbolic shapes expressing emotion. Although influenced by Picasso and Chagall and his own teacher, the sculptor Jorge Orteiza, who carved the magnificent 14 apostles on the façade of the Arantzazu Franciscan monastery, Egana’s work is simple, almost naïve.
In the huge triptych on three levels of the last days of Christ which crowns the choir, the scenes of the Last Supper, Crucifixion, and Judas Betrayal have spaced grouping of characters; but in the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane the dark symbolic shape of Christ kneels alone in the corner of the contrasting bright-green grass and trees to portray loneliness and suffering.
Many other biblical events are pictured, including Adam and Eve and the Apocalypse, while the Conversion of St Paul is represented as a man being knocked down by a horse. Our Lady is represented in three overlapping shapes of mother, wife, and woman. Other scenes of the struggle of good to overcome evil in modern times include tombs in the old Jewish cemetery in Prague and the five labour organisers murdered in a church under Franco’s repressive dictatorship.
There are also unpleasant but necessary aspects of modern life, including a nuclear power station and planes flying directly overhead, but balanced with the traditional wine-growers and wine potters’ fiesta, and the not uncommon sight of an old lady in black sitting pensively on a chair.
The scaffolding has now come down, and, to celebrate the new permanent exhibition, a classical concert took place in church on Boxing Day.
His work finished, Egana observed: “My intent was not to preach but to inspire reflection. I hope this becomes a spiritual space where anyone of any religion or any faith can contemplate the mysteries of life.”