In 1926, an Italian antiquarian -Leone Leví- started and moved most of the wall paintings from a Mozarabic hermitage in Soria after a bureaucratic, political and judicial vicissitude – a judgment of the Supreme Court included – that lasted four years. The frescoes in the hermitage of San Baudelio (Casillas de Berlanga) were partially looted and sent abroad. Today they are in the possession of several museums in the United States.
According to the former director of the Numantino Museum Elías Terés, 16 paintings were looted in 1926. Only six panels have returned to Spain and are now exhibited in the Prado Museum. The fragments entered in 1957, and constitute an indefinite deposit of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, which in return received the apse of San Martín de Fuentidueña (Segovia) for 99 years. “To this day, the exact whereabouts of some of them are still not known,” says Terés, who specifies what paintings are in each museum: The Falconer is in the Cincinnati Art Museum; the dromedary, the rampant dogs, the healing of the blind, the resurrection of Lazarus and the temptations of Jesus are in the Cloisters Museum of New York (Managed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art); The Three Marys and the Last Supper are at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; and the Wedding at Cana and the Entry into Jerusalem at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. According to the Indianapolis museum, the two images in his possession are not currently on display.
It all started in 1920. After several interviews with representatives of the Church, Leví discovered that the true owners of the hermitage were a dozen residents of Casillas de Berlanga, who agreed to sell the interior frescoes for 65,000 pesetas. When the director of the Numantino Museum learned of the sale, he informed the high authorities of the Heritage.
The Commission acknowledged that it lacked “effective” means to guard the hermitage because it was “uninhabited” and recalled that the proposal to hire a curator of the monument had already been rejected. The hermitage is 8 kilometers from Berlanga de Duero, a municipality that then had about 2,000 inhabitants – today it has almost half.
On July 1, 1922, work began to remove the paintings. Two days later the captain of the Civil Guard of El Burgo de Osma found out, who went to the hermitage, ordered the suspension of the work and took over the key to the hermitage. Levi acknowledged to the local press that, if the captain had been delayed a few hours, the paintings would already be “many leagues” from Spain.
The judicial and political events followed one another for four years, which ended a sentence of the Supreme Court and the looting of a large part of the paintings. The matter ends in the Court of Almazán, which ordered the arrest of some owners of the hermitage. The antique dealer tried to legalize the sale before a notary public, but he refused. Shortly after, the Civil Guard also arrested Leví, who was released without bail -as the owners-.
The Ministry issued several orders that held Leví and his team responsible and that were successively disregarded. Meanwhile, the cold in Soria damaged the paintings, which remained half torn despite the requests of restorers and historians. The Hearing of Soria dismisses the case, while the National Monuments Commission takes months to learn of the orders and judicial decisions.
A lawsuit initiated by the Cabildo of the Cathedral of Sigüenza
The Bishop and the Cabildo of the Cathedral of Sigüenza filed a lawsuit against all the “holders” of the hermitage and claimed that it had always belonged to the Cabildo: in their eyes, it was a temple destined for Catholic worship and, therefore, could not be privately owned. The Bishop wanted to declare the nullity of the property registry and the sale of the paintings.
After new royal orders and judicial appeals, the sale of the paintings of San Baudelio ended in the Supreme Court: the sale of the paintings was legal, but the building was protected and any modification required express authorization from the Ministry.
The owners demanded that they be given the keys to the hermitage, which the authorities had to deliver in compliance with the Supreme Court ruling. The Monuments Commission warned that it had no legal means to monitor and preserve the monument, but it was of no use. The workers hired by Leví resumed preparations to tear off the paintings, although they did not have the permission of the Ministry.
On July 23, 1926, the hermitage guard observed that a window was open to dry the canvases, as he deduced. That night the paintings were being torn off. The guard saw how the mayor’s son came down with two caballerias carrying “clothes”, but could not check if the canvases were there. By July 25 the paintings had disappeared. Police detained de Leví, but did not say where the paintings were and he was released.
The former director of the Museo Numantino Elías Terés has studied in depth the entire process in The Expolio of the mural paintings of the Mozarabic hermitage of San Baudelio and in The Expolio of the mural paintings of the hermitage of San Baudelio. An unpublished document: the judicial file of the lawsuit brought by the Bishop and the Cathedral Council of Sigüenza against the owners.
An 11th century hermitage “discovered” at the end of the 19th
The hermitage of San Baudelio had been “discovered” in 1884, when the first reference was dated as an object of study. This hermitage, “attached” to a cave carved into the rock -according to Juan Zozaya specified in 1976-, had served as a refuge for shepherds and livestock. Manuel Aníbal Álvarez and José Ramón Mélida showed their “amazement” at this “architectural jewel” in the Bulletin of the Spanish Excursion Society.
The paintings are executed in fresco, dry fresco and tempera, according to Antonio de Ávila Juárez in the article San Baudelio de Berlanga: Sealed Fountain of Paradise in the Duero Desert. “On the plaster plaster that covers the interior in all its parts, and its conservation, except in the vault where part of the plaster has detached itself or forms baggies; it is quite good, generally offering vivid colors”, they reported in 1907. The The architect and the historian did emphasize that the altarpiece was “very deteriorated” and pointed out that some paintings had been “erased by the action of time”. In 1917 the hermitage of San Baudelio was declared a National Monument, but it hardly had any practical consequences for it.
For Leone Leví, the paintings were of great value because otherwise he would not have persisted in buying them for so many years. In 1922, he reproached the “abandonment” of the hermitage in statements to El Debate. “The hermitage was without doors for a long time, cattle entered and served as a farrowing pen for sheep, (…), gaps were opened [en la puerta que después se instaló] and the boys in the area damaged the paintings with stones and sticks. “This is the exhibition that Levi detailed.
“A sacrifice for a brighter future for Heritage”
It was of little use, in the end, that the hermitage was declared a National Monument in 1917. After the fiasco of the hermitage of San Baudelio, the Government of Primo de Rivera issued a Royal Decree for a special commission to draft a relative Decree-Law project to the preservation of Heritage. In 1925 the export of works whose departure from Spain would constitute serious damage and notorious damage to History, Archeology and Art was prohibited.
“Perhaps one of the roles that history reserved for the Hermitage of San Baudelio was its partial sacrifice for the sake of a more promising future for all Spanish Heritage”, assesses Terés, director of the Numantino Museum from 1999 to 2018.
In Decree-Law it established the precepts to make effective the state protection and to achieve the conservation of the Heritage (prior to 1830), regardless of owner, matter and form. Municipalities, Provincial Councils, Architects of Public Instruction, and Cadastral Architects and Engineers had to draw up a detailed list of castles, walls, monasteries, hermitages, bridges, arches and their ruins, with information on their situation and owners, whether or not they were considered National Artistic Treasure.
Terés is clear that the looting of the paintings in the hermitage of San Baudelio was a before and after for Spanish Heritage: “The protection that a declaration of Monument entailed was an administrative procedure, which placed it under the umbrella of the Administration. As was evident, it had large leaks that were only covered by the personal efforts of those who concentrated their efforts on its conservation and preservation. ”