It just takes one step to walk into a new century. Go up the narrow stairs, by the Cathedral, in the same atrium,in the heart of the eastern Cuban province of Santiago de Cuba.
The place is characterized by elegant coffered ceilings, inclined and intertwined joists, traditional tiles. Under its Spanish-Mudejar architectonic legacy this place is unique: it is the Monsignor Enrique Pérez Serantes Arquidiocesano Museum, which was created in 1963. Every object there has a story of life or glory, both inseparable.
One of the most precious objects at the Museum is the Santo Ecce Homo, an oil painting over wood by Colombian painter Francisco Antonio. The image of Jesus is tied up to a column after having been flagellated. Painted in Cartagena de Indias, it arrived in Cuba in 1610 and it is considered to be the oldest religious painting in Cuba.
In addition, there is its miracle nature. Precentor Juan Lizando y Luyando states that more than once he has noticed the painting was sweating blood. In fact, the solemn ceremony of Santo Ecce Homo began by the midst of the 17th century.
The Crist in this cedar planks is only 14 inches, but it still preserves something unfathomable.
“In my opinion, the museum aims to preserve, exhibit and restore the historic and religious patrimony not only of the Catholic Church but also of the Cuban people; hence, its relevance. This is Cuba’s First Cathedral and it had a lot to do with the rest of the churches, bishoprics, archbishoprics in the country”.
Antonio López de Queralta Morcillo, graduate in Museology from Madrid’s Complutense University and director of the institution since 1995, along with museologists, Rogelio González Lago, Alberto del Val and José Fernández Cano, confirm it and reveal other hierarchic values.
The room is small. The lights are turned on…
History, art, religion
There is barely room in the walls for portraits of bishops and archbishops. A collection of crosiers and crucifixes says a lot about the preaching of faith. The Escena del Calvario y el Purgatorio allows us to appreciate the imprint of the School of Quito Los cuatro evangelistas (oil painting over wood), and the Italian School as well.
The Virgen del Carmen (oil painting over canvas) by Nicolás de la Escalera (1734-1804) and the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (oil painting over cardboard) by Víctor Patricio Landaluze (1830-1889), are some pieces by the founders of plastic arts in Cuba.
It is exciting to observe the original scores by Esteban Salas (1725-1803). He was the first great Cuban musician, who, in Alejo Carpentier’s words, “turned the Cathedral into a true conservatory”. The ink holds tight to the old paper. I start singing fragments of a lullaby,Claras Luces.
In silence, I watch Cuba Libre’s first mass. The museum treasures the chasuble, the stole, the cover chalice and the bag of coporales, a cloth knitted with golden threads used in that event, held at El Cobre Santuary, on September 8, 1898.
Close to the entrance there is a sturdy piece of furniture: San Antonio María Claret’s Archiepiscopal Venue. It was used during the Mass for crowning the image of the Virgin of La Caridad del Cobre (1936), and also during the pontifical crowning performed by Pope Juan Pablo II on January 24, 1998 in Santiago de Cuba.
Which artists worked on polychromatic wood or plaster in order to provide such perfect pieces? Art from the 18th century: Santa María Magdalena penitent, Santa Eduvigeswith the poor, Santa Rosa de Lima, the sculpture group of the Sacred Family. There is not a single detail missing in their faces or clothes. Their devotion is squashing.
An image of Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre, taken to the war speaks about an indomitable and religious people.
Let’s take a look at the Cristo Crucificado del Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca (1838). It is remarkable considering its dimensions. It was carved in Burgundy and witnessed the prayers of those doomed to die. We can also appreciate one of the fronts of “CarrozaTriunfal” of the Corpus Cristi, which was premiered in a procession back in 1883 in these streets.
The former Secretary of State of the Vatican, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, visited the place in 2001. In that occasion he said: I have never seen so much richness and history in such short space. He is right. We have just mentioned a few pieces here.
By the Cathedralof Santiago de Cuba, in the same atrium, the Arquidiocesano Museum welcomes visitors from Monday through Saturday, from 9:30 to 5:00. Go up the narrow stairs. Art, history and religion wait for you.
It just takes one step to walk into a new century.