Friday, September 21, 2012

A Colonial Yankee in a Spanish Church

Santa María del Campo, A Coruña, (source).
As some of you know, I am partially earning my keep this semester working as a research assistant for a professor who is writing a biography of John Quincy Adams.  My part in this project is to read through the Adams Family correspondence for letters referring to JQA.  Yesterday’s highlight was a letter from John Thaxter, a cousin to Abigail Adams and secretary to John Adams during his second diplomatic mission in Europe.

The letter, written to Abagail in December 1779 from A Coruña, Spain, gives a New England Yankee’s less-than-stellar impression of Spanish Catholic practice and architecture:

This Afternoon I visited one of the Churches in this place; and casting my Eyes into one Corner of it I spy’d one of the Monks of the Franciscan Order, laid out in a Case, with his Robes on, his Head reclined upon a Pillar,1 his Hands and Fingers embracing each other, and between his Thumbs a Cross. Around the Corpse was eight Candles, four of their largest Sort and four of the common. There was a perfect Blaze around this cold Lump. How long he is to be continued in this Posture, and how he is to be disposed of I should be very happy to be resolved in. This is the Custom of the Country; and it may be a very wise one.

First Parish, Hingham, MA (source).

The Churches are cold, damp, dull, gloomy and dark places. They are built of Stone. Their Exterior is very indifferent: but the Altars are superb and magnificent; being richly gilded and decorated. They are always kept open, and there are always more or less of the Devotees there. There is an awful Solemnity in them. The very appearance of the Sculpture and Architecture, the Temperature of the Air, indeed every thing is dismal. The Remains of the Franciscan increased the Gloom and deepened the Horror. You see Crosses wherever you turn your Eyes. They are upon the Roads over the Mountains and in the Valleys. We saw many of them Yesterday in our pilgrimage to this place.

One wonders what a Spanish grandee might have said of a December afternoon visit to the meeting house of First Parish, Hingham, where John Thaxter was christened.

(Source: The Adams Papers Digital Edition, ed. C. James Taylor. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008)