Retablo: a devotional painting, especially a small popular or folk art one using iconography derived from traditional Catholic church art. More generally retablo is also the Spanish term for a retable or reredos above an altar, whether a large altarpiece painting or an elaborate wooden structure with sculptures.
A few days ago I was reading a pre-release copy of a memoir written by a new friend and Camino pilgrim from Connecticut.* I love to read pilgrim travel narratives, because I love the chance to see places I’ve been through new eyes. So much of the Camino experience is subject to weather and mood and the people around us, not to mention pace and time of day. Thousands of people have walked right past the chapels and towns that I hold close to my heart, and I’ve read stories about their deeply meaningful moments in places I barely remember.
In this case, the writer mentioned in passing the Church of Santa María de la Asunción in Navarrete, the town in Rioja that’s just past Logroño. He and his companions popped in to explore, but found it all to be dark and uninspiring.
And I remembered…
I stopped in Navarrete in 2017 during my short return to the Camino with my friend Laurel. It was mid-August, and the sun was sharp and hot in mid-afternoon. The town was preparing for a festival of some kind, so the bars were busy setting up and moving tables around in the plaza. I set out with an American from Pennsylvania named John to explore the town a bit. The church was, surprisingly for this part of Spain, unlocked, and we ducked into its cool stone interior.
I remember the afternoon sun shone through a few windows set high on the walls, reminding me that these rural churches were as much defensive structures as holy places of worship. The artwork was ornate and Baroque, obviously heavy on the gold that Ferdinand and Isabella were bringing back by the shipload from the New World.
But I, too, found the place dark…until I found the coin box.
I’d seen something like it a few times before, in churches where congregations were small and maintenance was expensive. They would open their doors to tourists and pilgrims, but if we wanted the full experience, it cost a euro.
I knew that John was Catholic and interested in church artwork and history. I waited until he was near the altar and then, without saying anything, dropped the coin in the slot.
His gasp of delight was absolutely worth it.
The retablo of Navarrete was ornate to the point of gaudy, every inch covered with shiny gold, writhing demons, stoic saints, flowers, altars, and who knows what else. I could have spent a whole afternoon just examining just this one wall and still have not seen every detail. I could have spent days trying to imagine the lives of the hundreds of craftspeople who must have been involved in making it.
And all of that in a town of just 3,000 people.
And all for a euro.
Just another surprise from Saint James.