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Travel and retreats: Strength and protection

24 January 2020

On a weekend to Seville with a girlfriend, Susan Gray goes in search of the city’s artworks to explore its female saints


The River Guadalquivir

The River Guadalquivir

A BRAD PITT look-alike is hopping from table to table on the terrace of Bar Santa Ana, rustling up chairs so that his 12-strong group can lunch in the sunshine together. Looking up from my plate of pavia (crispy slivers of battered cod and roasted pep­pers), I wave our table’s spare chair away in return for a flash of his megawatt smile.

He might not be the actual Hollywood A-lister, but his timing could not be better: he has bright­ened me up after news that my fel­low traveller, foot operation in the offing, intends to spend the after­noon by the hotel pool, while I go in search of the city’s first martyrs, St Justa and St Rufina: a fixation of mine since reading Jessie Burton’s The Muse.

I wave her off over St Elmo Bridge, to cross the Guadalquivir River back to Seville’s old town, and wander around the paint-peeled workshops and tiny bars in Triana, the historic ceramics district, for an hour, before the 750-year-old parish church of Santa Ana reopens at 4.30 p.m.

Triana was, by tradition, the home of the potters Justa and Rufina. The sisters were martyred in the third century for refusing to allow their pots to be used in pagan worship. They were tortured, and, on refusing to denounce their Christian faith, were eventually murdered. Justa died first, and her body was thrown down a well. Rufina was ordered to be fed to a lion, who refused to eat her. It is believed that she was either behead­ed, strangled, or had her neck bro­ken.

Although mentioned in medieval Aragon manuscripts on their feast day (17 July), the sisters crept into wider Spanish consciousness after King Ferdinand retook Seville from the Moors in 1248. Jessie Burton’s novel, mean­­­­while, centred on a fictional painting of Rufina and the Lion, and, partly set in Andalusia, has done much to bring their story to an inter­national audience: it has been trans­lated into 38 languages since its pub­li­­­cation in 2016.

THESE two Sevillian saints have beguiled artists from the 16th to the 21st century. Explaining to the pair of volunteers collecting the €2 en­­­trance fee to Santa Ana that I’m interested in Santas Justa y Rufina, one kindly takes me to the sister-saints’ chapel, to the left of the en­­­trance, where they are encased in an ornately carved golden altarpiece. They are sculpted in red (Justa) and green (Rufina) flowing robes, hold­ing a palm frond in one hand, the other extending to support the Giralda Tower (the cathedral bell-tower), which they are believed to have saved in the 1504 Carmona earthquake.

istock The golden reredos of 1728 by Juan de Dios Moreno, at a side altar in El Salvador church, that features 16th-century figures of Justa and Rufina

Santa Ana dates from the early- to the mid-17th century, and I had hoped that it contained something older. ”La pintura [the painting of] Justa y Rufina?” I ask the volunteers. I am ushered towards the back of the church, past St Joachim’s chapel and stairs, to the small crypt museum and a dimly lit diptych: Justa and Rufina appear in the bottom panel. The paint­­­­ing is dated 1515, and at­­­trib­­uted to a follower of Alejo Fernández. Offering a flatter per­spec­­­­tive than later Baroque portray­als, the gold-robed sisters tower above three tiny female figures. It presents a reassur­ingly hierarchical uni­­­­­­­­verse, protected by the saintly sisters.

The volunteer decodes the back­ground landscape: “Giralda, Triana, and bridge. But no bridge. Puente de Barcas: boats.” Artistic licence has given Renaissance Seville a proper bridge over the Guadalquivir, when, in reality, the river was crossed by boats lashed together, from the time of the Moors to the mid-19th cen­tury.

VOCAL artistry is in evidence the next day, as a plummy voice on the audio guide for the Hospital de los Venerables, located in the ancient Jewish quarter, instructs me to: “Lie on the floor and look at the magnif­icent trompe l’oeil ceiling.” The Baroque building, formerly a home for retired clergy and dating from the 17th century, now houses the Velázquez Centre, dedicated to the famous painter.

The sacristy ceiling of the chapel belonging to the hospital, dedicated to St Ferdinand and one of the city’s few remaining painted churches, was painted by Valdés Leal, part of the “School of Seville” artists together with Velazquez, Murillo, and Zur­barán. It looks as if cherubs and medallions have been sculpted into the plaster. But I have to go across the blazing red, bougainvillea-filled courtyard to find the painting I have longed to see: Velazquez’s 1630s Santa Rufina portrait.

As well as the symbolic palm fronds and pottery, Rufina has a well-defined, craftsperson’s hand, a rosebud mouth, and red earrings just visible under her hair. She looks so real on the wall, the expressiveness of her image enriched by the work of the artist, a court painter for King Philip IV, that I almost want to say audibly, “Goodbye.”

OUR hotel is only five minutes away from the hospital, and its rooftop bar has a splendid night-time view of Seville Cathedral, glowing bronze and gold under floodlights, the North Star shining directly above. By day, the cathedral turns into a rose-gold-stone mothership, swallowing queues of tourists, hundreds at a time. Built from 1434 on the site of Seville’s main mosque, one of its claims to fame is being the largest Gothic cathedral in the world.

My game plan is to make a beeline to the cathedral’s Sacristía de los Cálices (Sacristy of the Chalices) for Goya’s early-19th-century Justa and Rufina altarpiece, who turn out to be larger and more simply dressed than their Baroque counterparts. A dark furred lion is licking Rufina’s feet, and broken pottery lies on the ground. The canvas seems divided be­­­­tween the sombre lower half, de­­­­pict­­­­­­­­­ing their tribulations, and the shaft of light falling on their faces from above, symbolising divine hope.

istockThe chapel of the Hospital de los Venerables

Passing display cases full of gold­en copes with 3D embroidery, I reach the chapel of San Antonio, on the north side of the cathedral, where Justa and Rufina are depicted in stained glass. Dating from 1685, and made by Juan Bautista de Leon, the saints are the chapel’s source of light. Depicted as tall as the Giralda Tower itself, with a cherub flying over each of their heads, Justa and Rufina look more monumental and triumphant than Goya portrays them 250 years later (the diminution of Spain as a world power in the in­­­­ter­­­­vening centuries called for a more human representation of the saints).

SEVILLE Cathedral’s ability to ingest visitors seizes up at the Giralda, which gets congested on the way to the top. It was a relief to lo­­­­cate my friend, whom I had lost in the crowds around Columbus’s tomb. We leave, and head west to the old market district of Plaza de la Encarnación, now home to the artis­tic wooden struc­ture the Metropol Parasol, known as Las Setas de la Encarnación (Incarnation’s mush­rooms).

Opened in May 2011, and reached by Starship Enterprise-vibe silver lifts, the Mushroom is a walkway sup­­­­­ported on giant wooden cubes. And even my friend, dodgy foot and all, cannot resist the childlike fun of running along the curvy walkways while drinking in the breathtaking views of the city’s spires and towers.

The oldest bar in Spain, El Rin­concillo, is impossible to resist, too, on our last night in the city. Hams swing overhead, irascible bow-tied barmen chalk everyone’s bills on the counter, and offer top-ups on the house or withering looks, as the mood takes them. We elbow our way to a few inches of bar space, order plates of olives, chickpeas and spinach, Manchego and ham, and relax into the Sevillian party spirit buzzing in this place since the bar opened, in 1670.

On departure Sunday, I skip out for one final vision of Justa and Rufina, in the church of El Salvador: Seville’s largest church after the cathed­­ral. Refusing an audio guide in favour of my own reflections, I make my way to an 18th-century golden reredos, containing late-16th-century figures of the two saints.

Trying not to focus on the rakes and hooks carved into the surround­ing golden frame, representing their torture, I gaze past the golden robes and see two everyday women trying to do the right thing, according to their conscience. This is the struggle embodied by Justa and Rufina, a struggle on which every age can pro­ject its own concerns. It is this ele­ment of their story that has captivat­ed artists for centuries, and, I expect, will continue to do so.

Travel details

Voted Lonely Planet’s best city to visit in 2018, two years after The Muse’s publication, Seville throngs with weekend-breakers. Among its other drawcards are the Royal Alcázar of Seville, the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe (book ahead for entry to the royal apartments); the Lady of the Seafarers chapel, which contains the first European painting of the New World; Archivo General de Indias, a 16th-century merchant’s house and exhibition, which explains the effect that New World exploration had on Seville’s wealth and the Renaissance mind; and the Plaza de España, with its Disney architecture and mini bridges. The adjoining Maria Luisa Park is among Seville’s favourite Sunday strolls. To get there, the train from London to Sevilla Santa Justa station costs from £230, with an overnight stop in Barcelona (www.seat61.com). IMG Hotels have three hotels that are five minutes from the cathedral. I stayed at the Rey Alfonso X (www.imghoteles.com), where rooms start from €90. Hotel Goya has doubles from €38 per night (hotelgoyasevilla.com). For a group visit, La Banda Rooftop Hostel has an eight-room dorm from €19 per night (www.labandahostel.com).

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