Lenten Veils from the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Segovia. A Reconstruction.

The hanging of painted Lenten Veils was a very popular and ancient custom in Spain. In many churches and cathedrals one may still see the hooks and mechanisms used to hoist up these immense curtains. For a few weeks a year, the interior of the church was completely transformed. In Spain the Lenten Veil receives the name sarga, which derives from the latin serica (silk). This might refer to the fabric itself, a type of serge or to its liturgical role, much like the tetravela serica that closed the roman ciboria.

Reconstruction of the Lenten Veils in place in the Church of the Monastery.
Sargas were considered a somewhat secondary form of art, accessories that were commissioned together with the altarpiece, and due to their limited use, ephemeral. The painted decoration was usually applied directly on the fabric, usually linen or hemp, without any preparation. Unfortunately, very few historic examples have survived to our days.

The Crucifixion.
A remarkable example, though incomplete, is the sarga from the Royal Monastery of the Holy Cross in Segovia, the first Dominican monastery founded in Spain by St Dominic himself. The monastery enjoyed the royal patronage of the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella and Fernando, who donated a precious relic of the Holy Cross obtained from the last moorish king of Granada and funded the reconstruction of the church. The altarpiece was donated in 1569 by King Phillip II. It was designed by architect Juan de Herrera and contained 6 paintings by Diego de Urbina (1516-1594). It seems that the commission included the painting of a monumental Lenten Veil.

The Crucifixion, Saints Dominic and Catherine.
The monastery was severely damaged during the Napoleonic invasion, during which the altarpiece was destroyed, and later confiscated by the state in the 19th century. Miraculously, of all the artwork only the sargas survived. They were taken by the exiled friars to Santo Domingo, the female Dominican convent in the city. The Prado Museum bought them in 1949, since they are displayed in the transepts of the Church of the Monastery of el Parral, also in Segovia.

Hypothetical reconstruction of the ensemble of the 3 veils.
The three extant fragments help us imagine what the ensemble might have looked like.The largest piece portrays Christ on the cross with a flagellant St Dominic and St Catherine of Siena kneeling at its foot. Beneath, a scene of the deposition. The second piece contains two scenes, the flagellation above, the epiphany and two half figures of St Thomas Aquinas and another Dominican saint (possibly Raymond of Penyafort) beneath. The third and smallest piece portrays the dead Christ. The grisaille scenes are framed by trompe-l'oeil architecture, resembling an altarpiece.

The Depositon.
These columns and architraves line up between the three fragments, allowing us to recompose the original disposition of each element. The half-cut cartouche with the inscription “Erit Sepulchrum Eius (Gloriosum)“ (Isaiah 11:10) clearly indicates that the dead Christ would be placed under the deposition, following the descending logic and situating it over the altar. Another symmetrical veil would cover the gospel side. Each veil is over 10’ wide and together they would cover the width of the sanctuary.

The Dead Christ.
The inclusion of the epiphany is an interesting deviation from the norm. Usually only scenes from the passion, and perhaps the resurrection are represented, except in those cases when a great multitude of scenes is included. The mystery of the epiphany relates to the scene above with the wise men adoring Jesus as king of the Jews, the Flagellation (and the crowning with thorns) where Jesus is humiliated and mocked as king of the Jews. It is also one of the prefigurations of the passion of Christ, the mhyrr connects the epiphany with the passion, when Christ is offered wine mixed with mhyrr (Mark 15:23), and his burial, when it used to embalm Him (John 19:39).

The Epiphany.
One may only speculate what the two lost scenes might have been. A plausible hypothesis, with a similar narrative and symbolic structure, would be the follwoing: Jesus meets his Mother on the way to Calvary in the upper register,  the Presentation at the Temple beneath it, the prophecies of Simeon coming to fruition. In all likelihood, an additional pair of Dominican saints would have been placed on the base, probably Saints Peter martyr and Vincent Ferrer.

Pictures: Museo Nacional del Prado, Jose Luis Filpo.
Reconstructions by the Author.

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