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Coquilles St. Jacques


The scallop flutters through the water like a fan.  Its shell is dappled with coastlines that ripple with earthly colors – russet, gold, ivory and bronze.  It is pleated with ridges and striped with growth lines that mark its childish development.  The scallop also has the curious attribute of 100 blue eyes that are draped along its mantle like a string of Christmas lights.

The scallop’s muscle is a firm propellant, urging the mollusk on its erratic explorations.   It is also delicious, a dense and tender treat, with a sweetness that is tempered with the bite of the ocean.  It is not surprising therefore, that whenever I discover a scallop shell on the beach’s littered table, it always looks to have been licked clean.   On our own tables, under the moniker of Coquilles St. Jacques, it swims in butter and wine and then, with irony, is returned to the shell so recently vacated.

The literal translation of Coquilles St. Jacques is “St. James’ Shells”.  St. James is the patron saint of Spain, though he was born by the Sea of Galilee – site of miracles, sermons and battles. He was beheaded in 44 AD by Herod Agrippa of Judea, possibly the first apostle to be martyred.


Legend says that his body was then taken by angels and disciples then placed in a rudderless, untended boat.  Its bleak journey came to an end on a coast thick with rock and shale known by the ancient name of Galicia.  The remains were taken inland for burial in Compostela.


Centuries later the relics were rediscovered, sometime in the early 9th century.  Compostela became known as Santiago de Compostela (from the Latin ‘Sanctus Iacobus’) and as history progressed, would flinch under attacks from raiders that ranged from the Vikings to Napoleon’s armies.  Despite the danger, The Way of St. James became the most famous route of pilgrimage in the Christian world.


A tangle of paths, worn smooth by the feet of the devout, circulated through Europe to arrive at the gilded heart off the northern coast of Spain.


For an assortment of reasons, the scallop became a symbol of the saint as well as the journey.  With every step pilgrims rustled with the shells that were stitched onto the hems of their coarse shirts and caps.  The uprooted mollusks dangled from their walking staffs, their frothy outline was embroidered on their pockets.  The pilgrim would also carry a scallop with him – so that on presenting himself at church or castle, farm or shack, any tenant could fill the shell with food or drink without turning him away, sparing him the shame of declaring poverty.


Yet why the scallop?  Its pretty lines and patterns appear in both myth and symbolism, and explain the scallop’s status as a sacred metaphor. The grooves in the shell, arching from the blinking mantle to meet at the hinge are emblematic of the various pilgrimages that ultimately meet at a single destination:  the tomb of Santiago de Compostela.

Two closely related stories exist as well:  when James’ body was being shipped towards the Iberian Peninsula, the vessel was clouted with a heavy storm and the body was lost to the tall waves and deep troughs.  However, in time it washed ashore undamaged, covered in a protective cloak of scallops.

In another version, as the ship approached land, a wedding was taking place on shore.  The groom (some stories have dubbed him a knight) was on horseback, and on seeing the ship approaching, the animal spooked, plunging into the sea along with its rider.  But again, both emerged from the sea alive, covered in compassionate scallops.

The seashore is its own pilgrimage.  I follow the row of shells rooted in the sand, the cracked ribbon that continues to unwind for as long as the ocean’s generosity endures.  I am not a pilgrim, but many times at the end of my journey my pockets are rattling with shells, as if the Atlantic breaths of Galicia were sighing just around the corner.



A Tenuous Relationship

It has always been the case. Before I can take in the rest of the painting – the child’s scarlet suit, the zoological arrangement of pets at his feet, his lineage of names printed at the border – I can see only one thing: his fleeting yet arresting similarity to my brother. This simpatico of youth resides, I think, in the eyes: round and expansive; their gaze roaming like colts beneath a wide, pure forehead.


The child in this painting carries the weighty name of Don Manuel Rosario de Zuñiga. Pink cheeks and a face dusted with arsenic powder obscure his Mediterranean prettiness. He wears a short jacket buttoned to his trousers, for he has recently been “breeched”: graduating from the children’s frock coat to a man’s sartorial estate. The wide collars, the silk sash wrapped around a nebulous waist, the rosettes on his slippers are all the color of melting silver daubed with pleats of lace.

Francisco de Goya painted this portrait in 1787. He would shortly become the official painter for Charles IV and his stilted, vacuous court. Goya’s brutality and honesty found its appetites sated with such bland meat. In a portrait of Charles IV and his family, he fearlessly portrays the family as he saw them: stupid, bulky and foolish. But the gowns of golden thread, the coats embroidered in lace and diamonds were painted with great accuracy. They were delighted with the work and gave Goya many commissions – encouraging the viper in their midst.

But when faced with this unknowing child – not to blame for his aristocracy – the coiled snake became subdued, its fangs swallowed, choking on its venom. My brother’s lookalike is portrayed as an innocent staring into his future adulthood: confused and stunned, but not necessarily afraid. We’re unable to perceive the abyss he sees; but it is perhaps reflected in the vaguely frightening playroom in which he stands. Full of shadow, lacking furniture, it is a lonely equation of geometric planes and shapes. Even his pets are delicately disturbing: the magpie (holding a card bearing the artist’s name) is fettered by a leash; the trapped finches are ogled by three Cheshire cat lookalikes – well-fed and emerging from the depths like savage ghosts.

But perhaps Goya took pity on the child for another reason. He might have had an inkling that Don Manuel would shortly become a ghost himself – he would be dead in five years.

“Imperfect Animal”

Her face curved with a creamy allure. Cheeks were pinched into a shocked rose, the blood rising towards a blushing palettte. There was a delicate valley beneath her full and coral-stained lips. It was dangerous, exotic country.

A galaxy of pearls sparkled throughout her hair in starry glamour. They hung from her ears and were wrapped around her neck in a tight, luminous collar. She wears a hat the color of early twilight that rides like a ship, tilting and brave with silk and feathers.

She is dressed in the style of the maja, a woman from the lower class of Spanish society whose exagerated style was equally charming and saucy. Her peasant silhouette is rich and exuberant, with ribbons cutting into her plump arms in tight bows. She plucks from her bouquet a flower the color of her lush skin; a garland she might have found during her rustic, luxuriant travels.


Earthy yet elegant, Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli, Duchess of Pastrana had the look of slow, seductive femininity. Her jungle poise was cat-like, with muscles that rolled like velvet. And her beauty was not marred, but rather accentuated, by a small, glossy square which covered one of her eyes. One eye was hooded by a heavy, languorous eyelid, but the other was covered in a silken shadow.


Stories vary as to how the Princess became came to be afflicted with this rakish flaw. Some say that she lost her eye in a mock duel with a page when young. But others say that the patch hid a squinting or wandering eye: a defect just as damning as an eye pierced by an overzealous opponent’s foil.

This pretty girl, this well-formed and dainty aristocrat, was a marriageable pawn, and any damage had to be covered with as much wit as possible. She was married in 1553 at the age of thirteen, on the recommendation of Philip, Duke of Milan – whom would be crowned King of Spain the very next year. Her husband, Ruy Gómez de Silva, had been page to the young Philip and rarely strayed from his black-clad, tightly ruffed master. He became a diplomat, and eventually was made a Grandee of Spain.

Because of his duties in England and the Netherlands – possibly brokering Philip’s unpopular union with Mary I – the Eboli marriage was not consummated until Ruy returned to Spain in 1558. Ana would endure 15 years of childbearing, bearing 10 children from 1558 to 1573.

Ana spent most of her married life at court, living in the Royal Alcazar of Madrid: Philip’s remodeling of the doughty Muslim fortress into a sparkling Renaissance aerie. It was there that she capered like a shadow, a pretty sprite that sparkled in cloth of gold and slippers embroidered in silks the color of gardens and forests.

After her husband died in 1573, Ana deserted her bright home, retiring to a Carmelite convent under the name of Sister Ana de la Madre de Dios. But the king was determined that she return to take charge of her children and the family estates.
At about this time, in 1576, Ana’s life once more became a reflection of her manic spirit and blithe intelligence. There was political intrigue – irresistible to her restless nature. There was romantic intrigue – with Antonio Perez, the royal secretary and possibly with Philip II himself. It was her relationship with Perez which led to her eventual imprisonment.

Under orders of Philip II Perez kept watch over the wayward royal half-brother, Don Juan of Austria. He employed Juan de Escobedo – a politician with a taste for deception – as his spy. It is also possible that during this time, around 1578, Antonio and Ana became entangled in secret negotiations with Protestant rebels in Flanders and the anarchic arguments over the Portuguese succession. Escobedo would have known about their conspiracies, and when he fell in with the mettlesome half-brother, Escobedo became a dangerous inconvenience.

Perez seized reports and documents, doctored them until they became indictments, leaving the king with no choice but to recommend the death of Escobedo. He left no further instructions. Perez recruited swordsmen for the assassination, turning away from the subsequent, fatal act.

A death in secrecy; the general murkiness of Perez’ motives; gossip and suspicion led to the arrest of Antonio Perez and the Princess in 1579. Perez escaped prison numerous times; ending his days in England, trying to make a rogue’s living by selling state secrets to Elizabeth I.

Ana spent the rest of her life under house arrest in her place in Pastrana, until her death in 1592. Legend has it that she was allowed to stay in the Palacio Ducal for an hour each day, where she could gaze, with eloquence and resentment, from its single window onto the town square which came to be known as La Plaza de la Hora (“the square of the hour”).

Like all women of dangerous talents, Ana de Mendoza was described with hostility as well as admiration. Antonio Perez referred to her as a “Cyclops”, but Don Juan – possibly out of disgust, possibly out of regret at such a wild perfection spoiled, called her an “imperfect animal”.

“Our Lady Cannot Govern”

Although born to proud and devious parents, none of her portraits beheld a lady of any haughtiness – there was no richness, none of the sumptuary honor which only a royal child could wear.  Instead, her eyes were shadowed with religion and the various arts of an heiress.  Her face was as round, as meek, and as pale as a saucer of milk.  And in time that milk would sour:  for history – with all the cruelty of the schoolyard – would always know her as "Juana La Loca."

What lurked beneath that white modesty?  What monsters in her DNA traveled down a weakened ancestry, down broken and diseased stairs?  Did sickness and incest weave through her lineage, a worm eating at a threadbare tapestry?

But maybe the myriad condemnations of birth weren't to blame – and names could be given to the people who drove Juana, the trained Iberian Infanta, to despair.

In 1496, when she was 16, Juana married Philip, the Duke of Burgundy.  Her flaxen, Flemish husband was called "The Handsome" – and although only a teenager like his bride, there was already a cruel seduction in his lush mouth and swollen eyes.

Juana had to accept the courtly abuses inflicted upon a woman born into royalty:  infidelity, political resentment…a jealous husband.  Soon stories of her depression and neuroses – dark, invisible wings beating in her ears – began to circulate.  It was even said that she was  imprisoned by hyer husband – annoyed and embarrassed by such a petty annoyance as a wife in torment.

By 1506 Philip was dead.  But Juana would live for almost 50 years more.  Affairs of state coiled about her like snakes – a Medusa's head of government and greed.  When her mother, Isabella I of Castile, died, Juana became Queen, but found herself battling with both her husband and her father for control of that arid and medieval province.  Her father, Ferdinand II, convinced the Castilian Cortes to admit that Juana's "illness…is such that the said Queen Dona Juana our Lady cannot govern."

But she remained defiant – her thoughts cloudy and dim, a vague storm.  Juana would not sign the Cortes' demands, and for her courage was confined to the Santa Clara convent by her father.  All of her servants were dismissed.  She was alone, save for one person – she still kept her faithless husband's corpse with her.  It was 1509.

In 1516 her father was dead.  The following year, Castile went to Juana's son Charles I.  Officially it was his mother's, but a kingdom can't be given to a woman who is unable to change her own clothes.

Juana, raised on the rules of religion, the grace of languages and the gentility of her birthright, now found it difficult to eat, sleep or bathe.  She tasted poison in her food, felt it in her subconscious – her body was awash with it.  She even believed that the convent nuns wanted to kill her.  Charles confided in them, "It seems to me that the best and most suitable thing for you to do is to make sure that no person speaks with Her Majesty, for no good could come from it."

Juana died in 1555, at the age of 75.  She was still in her holy prison.  She had been betrayed by her father, her husband, her son…her heredity.  No good had come from it. 

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The Wanderer

It was found off the coast of Panama, nacreous and irresistible, glowing with a soft, pale temptation.  It was shaped like a tear, weeping into the ocean, the birthplace of currents, the blueprint of tides.

Gems, like women, will make men sentimental.  They give their treasures nicknames – small proofs of private and affectionate ownership.  At this time, Spain was mistress to the New World, showing her love in unwanted Catholicism and demanding payment in land, in people, in valuables.  By the time this grieving pearl had become part of the Spanish Crown Jewels, it had already acquired the name 'La Peregrina' – 'The Pilgrim', 'The Wanderer'.

In 1554, Philip, future king of Spain, was betrothed to a sad queen.  England's Mary I - thin-lipped, jaws tightly muscled, graceless and  intolerant - had never met Philip.  But she stroked the painted cheek of his portrait and waited with a doomed devotion for her Spanish lover across the Atlantic.

Philip arrived in England with chests of presents for Mary and the ladies-in-waiting who followed her silently on hidden footsteps.  There were bolts of satin – in coiled, simmering colors – yards of silver and gold tissue; black and white lace; linen veils; and gems from the empty veins of the New World.  Amongst these royal baubles was La Peregrina, wrapped in velvet perhaps, to protect its sublime light; the moon that slept within its layers.

Mary loved the pilgrim that had traveled to far to reach her.  She ordered her jewelers to create a setting worthy of her egg-sized pearl.  They brought to her a brooch of diamonds, surrounded by a filigree that swarmed like a golden vine.  And La Peregrina dangled like a planet beneath that glittering sky.

She wore it always.  It lay across her flattened breast, against the wooden corset.  Beneath it Mary's heart beat, an undesired spark kept alive in its lonely chamber.  But La Peregrina was round and nubile – a ripe fruit blooming from a barren tree.

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“The Orient In Her Hips”

Agustina Otero Iglesias was born in western Spain, into a childhood pocked-marked with poverty and abuse.  Her parents – a Greek officer and a Spanish gypsy – gave her an insolent, passionate heart, but little else.  Her proud inheritance lept unbidden from them to her mysterious blood, which flowed like rapids to their destiny over the cliffs.

When she was ten – in 1878 – she was working as a servant.  In that same year, she was raped.  Four years later she ran away with a lover to Lisbon, and began her dancing career in the local taverns and clubs.  She was young, charming and careless in those dark and dangerous places, her skin glowing like a lost pearl.

She escaped to France with another lover when she was twenty.  Within the year she was free once more, and had reinvented herself as La Belle Otero, swathed in silken shawls hung with silver coins and black roses, her hypnotic feet tracing Spanish patterns on the stages of Marseilles and Paris. 

She was very soon the star of the Folies Bergere and one of the most desired courteseans of a generation that devoured beauty with eyes hidden beneath heavy, lavender colored lids.

Her "followers" were legion.  Stories of madness and desire flashed above her like lightning sparking above a velvet landscape.  The suicides of the men she had turned away.  The duel that was fought over her.  The cupolas of the Carlton Hotel , modeled after her famous breasts.  A writer, Hugues le Roux, observed in the language of education and dissipation, "All the Orient was in her hips."

Whad did he mean?  That all the secrets and danger of an unknown continent curled within her muscles in a seductive implication?  That the exoticism of The Silk Road traveled along the bends and curves of her body?  When he watched her, did he see things that exceeded the dreams of respectable men?  In her luscious prime, Otero must have been magnificent. 

Le Belle Otero died in 1965, aged 97.  The world by then must have become offensive to her:  sloppy, rude and loud.  Reputations were no longer gracefully destroyed in whispers, in the shadows, but in the street for all to see.  Fifty years earlier she had purchased a home for $15,000,000 – now she was shamed by a monthly rent.

She had her memories:  of the lives she ruined, of the underworld she ruled; of the jewels that glittered from her neck and arms – passion's decorations.  Perhaps she rested her hands on her hips and marveled at their once singular power.  She remembered that their slightest movement inspired words as brilliant as a diamond dropped into a glass of champagne and raised to her lips.

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Still Waters

There's no background here, no gradation of color, no obstacles to the handful of objects in the foreground.  Just a velvety, warm, black surface extending to embrace the fruits, flowers and porcelain in fluid, graceful shadow.  It is simple, yet rich.  It doesn't overwhelm, but it has depth and power – a perfect balance.  This still life was painted by the 17th century Spanish painter Francisco Zubaran and perhaps only he could have manipulated such a contentious color so effortlessly.

The objects in this still life humble.  Lemons, oranges, a flower, a porcelain cup.  They could be the favored possessions of any Spanish peasant family. But the simplicity stops there.  The spacing of these things are a mathematical reckoning.  Each grouping is its own galaxy, with its own axis, its own living geometry, its own starless sky.

There is solitude and solemnity here.  Quiet reverberates around each object – a vibrnt atmosphere.  The little tray holding the lemons reflects their cadmium image like a still and silver pool.  The sea pink was placed on the edge of the saucer with such care, it might have been a religious icon.  The leaves crest the group of oranges like a Roman consul's laurel wreath.  Motionless, yet stirring with beauty and meaning, these objects are a blaze of silent glory.  The composition is an intellectual exercise, and example of stunning precision.  The painting's serent asceticism challenges the richness of color and detail – and portrays their tranquil confrontation.

Just as shadow threatens to take over, at the same time it highlights the prey it is about to envelop.  This is the essence of chiaroscuro, using the dark to emphasize the light that is in danger of flickering out.  But the candle remains lit, and it does not curse this magnificent darkness.

Never was life so still, and never was stillness so alive. 

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Planned Childhood

At first, the painting is confusing.  The room is crowded.  You feel as if you're crashing a party.  There is a flood of faces; shadows flow across the walls and pool in the corners. 

But then as you continue to look – as you do, held by the still, yet animated life within it – the composition seems to resolve itself.  And you can make out three subjects:

There is the tiny ball of light, surrounded by her maids of honor, the infanta Margarita, small and grim, crushed inside her laced bodice.  Her voluminous skirts obscure her feet, so she appears to hover over the ochre floor.  Her farthingale is in the Spanish style, extended and clumsy.  This style made the lives miserable for sensitive infantas living in foreign courts – their skirts were considered ugly and outlandish, and they were the subjects of many cruel taunts whispered behind the hands of their attendant ladies.

There is the painter himself, Diego Velasques, in a self-portrait that exudes an almost military confidence.  He stands at attention in front of the towering canvas:  chest out, moustache spiked, one arm holding his palette like a shield, the other holding his paintbrush like a knife, delicately but threateningly – ready for one more stab into color.

Then, there is the final, stunning yet subtle effect:  the mirror hanging on the back wall.  Though its edges are fogged, the center has been rubbed clear, revealing two faces:  Philip IV and Marianna, King and Queen of Spain.  Seeing this bruises one's ego, since the characters of this painting – Margarita, Velasquez, the maids, the dwarf Maribarbola, the courtier Jose Nieto de Velasquez pausing at the open doorway – are in reality gazing at the royal couple and not at the viewer trespassing into a foreign century and an unfamiliar dimension.

This painting is known as Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) and was done in 1656.  I have always loved it for its wayward reality, its many centers of gravity.  I loved its roundabout approach towards portraiture.  I loved how easy it was to imagine standing inside that cavernous room, possibly even to the side of the sumptious couple.  One shivers to think of living inside the unhealthy, stifling climate of the 17th century Spanish court:  weak, defeated; crippled by tradition.

So much has been written – and rightfully so – about this painting.  It is a lesson in light and composition; a study in human contact.  But what about its royal subjects?

In 1646, Philip IV married his 14 year-old niece, Marianna of Austria.  A cheerful, happy girl, as a married woman she became cold and distant, her sunniness dimmed by responsibilites undeserved.  The Hapsburg family of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire had a history of inbreeding and Marianna's only son – Charles II – bore the full brunt of this ignorant coupling.  He was called "The Bewitched", he was said to be cursed by sorcery – rather than abused chromosomes – he was treated by the kingdom's must devout exorcists.  A youthful portrait of Charles is one of a miserable, yet knowing, child:  a damaged intellect trapped behind a pale face, staring through hooded, haunted eyes.  In the words of a contemporary historian, he "repeatedly baffled Christendom by continuing to live."

Marianna must have believed that it was her fault.  She finally died – of breast cancer – in 1696, during a total eclipse of the moon.  After the funeral, a white dove flew over her coffin, eventually melting into the heavens.  It was considered to be a sign of miracles to come:  a nun who had waited on Marianna begged for her cloak as a momento.  She slept in it and in the morning was free of a life-long paralysis.  However, a woman living at court, not afraid to be known for her sharp tongue, said, "the Spaniards don't deserve miracles from her, since they embittered her existence."

Marianna's daughter – and Charles' sister – little Margarita, somehow escaped these genetic threats.  She was her father's favoarite, who referred to her as "my joy" in his private letters.

When she was still a child – possibly even as she stood for this painting – she was betrothed to her uncle, the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I.  Leopold was slow and grim, with a Hapsburg underbite that was so excessive, he was called "The Hogmouth".  As he waited for his fiancee to grow up, he was fed a steady stream of portraits from Spain, and was soon in love with the bright, innocent girl.  These images of childhood, so soon to be lost within the sad dignity of a princess, were irresistible.

They wed in 1666, when she was 15, and he 26.  She bore him six children, and died at the age of 22.

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