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Liébana: The Spanish valley of the Apocalypse

The road that leads to the valley of Liébana, in Cantabria (northern Spain), crosses the steep Hermida gorge, high above the Deva river. Its beauty is borderline scary –a feeling that the noted Flemish landscape painter Carlos de Haes perfectly grasped in his works, as if the steep mountains were about to collapse. Its almost vertical walls attract climbers and mountain experts from all over the world. The valley, peaceful and fertile, is nestled among these cliffs, with the imposing Picos de Europa literally peeking behind.

If getting there is not easy nowadays, imagine what it must have been like in ancient times, or even in the Middle Ages. When the road was not blocked by snow, travelers would have to deal with wild beasts –or, in the very early days, Cantabrian tribes.

And yet, Liébana is one of the very few holy cities in Christianity, exactly like Rome or Jerusalem. Thousands of people, for centuries, dealt with this extremely hard passage to get there –meaning that, despite it all, Liébana has constantly been connected with the rest of the world. It is no wonder, then, that one of the first best-selling books in history was made there.

Liébana, the resistant

Because of its inaccessibility, Liébana has always been synonymous with resistance. The Cantabrian fought the Romans there, keeping them from conquering the valley, for centuries. A legend claims that Don Pelayo, the Hispanic hero who defeated the Muslims in Covadonga, was born in these lands, then considered part of the kingdom of Asturias. It seems that his son, King Fávila, died in Liébana, as he fought a gigantic bear.

And still, the valley of Liébana, with its rather benevolent microclimate, is a perfect place to get away from the world. Indeed, by the 8th century there were already up to a dozen small convents (cenobios) there. Among them, that of Saint Martin of Turieno, later renamed Saint Toribio, was soon to stand out: according to tradition, Toribio, who was the bishop of Astorga in the 5th century, managed to bring the largest known piece of the Cross of Christ to his diocese –the very same cross that legend claims Saint Helena found just a century earlier.

Caravaca: An Eastern Cross in Western Europe

When the Muslims invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711, Liébana once again became a center of resistance and a refuge for fleeing Christians. The numerous Christian relics that were already spread throughout the region were taken to the most inaccessible places –as happened with the Sudarium in Oviedo, or the Grail in the Pyrenees. Thus, the Lignum Crucis originally kept in Astorga was taken to Liébana and left under the custody of the flourishing monastic community.

Naturally, the relic soon became a magnet for pilgrims. Being close enough to the Camino de Santiago, Liébana soon had its own camino: the Camino Lebaniego, comprised of four different itineraries. The best known of them, the vadiniense, was the one used by pilgrims who visited both Compostela and Liébana in a single trip. It is known that even St. Francis of Assisi himself passed through Liébana, at least once.

The Apocalypse and the tomb of Saint James

In the convoluted 8th century, a monk simply known as Beato, took up the banner of spiritual resistance, and fought against adoptionism –a theological, heretic school of thought that Mozarabic Christians oftentimes embraced while living in Muslim territory. Adoptionists understood Christ as a Greek-style hero, denying his divine nature. This, historians claim, in order to make their own situation as non-Muslims living in the Emirate of Cordoba more bearable. The matter went all the way to the court of Charlemagne himself, who convened the Council of Frankfurt in 794 to discuss it.

Beato de Liébana
The four horsemen of Beato’s Apocalypse.
This 10th century copy is preserved in the University of Valladolid.

Beato composed the first best seller of the Middle Ages –his noted Commentary on the Apocalypse. Although the original is not preserved, there are at least 24 handmade copies of the book spread throughout Europe. His is a work of the highest caliber, theologically erudite, illuminated with amazing miniatures that try to explain the most enigmatic book of the Christian Bible. More importantly, Beato’s commentary highlighted one of the fundamental promises found in the Apocalypse: that Christians were to triumph against “the kingdoms of this world” –something that, in the 8th century, was pretty hard to swallow.

Jacques Fontaine, one of the greatest experts on Late Antiquity and Medieval times, described Beato’s work as the “hopeful Gospel” of Mozarabic Christians. The most striking thing about its illuminations, Fontaine pointed out, is that, setting aside all apocalyptic beasts and monsters, the human figures he included all convey a sense of serene, hopeful contemplation.

Beato is also is credited with the creation of the Mozarabic liturgical hymn O Dei Verbum, in which Saint James is mentioned, for the first time in history, as the patron saint of Spain. The hymn would soon be sung in all the churches of the Peninsula, north and south.

O most worthy and most holy Apostle [Santiago],

golden refulgent head of Hispania,

mighty defender and most special patron

Attend the pious flock that has been entrusted to you.

The monk died in 798. Only a few years later, in 813, the bishop of Iria Flavia announced to the world the discovery of the Tomb of the Apostle in Compostela. Soon enough Saint James (that is, Santiago) would become a symbol of rebirth and hope not only for the Mozarabic Christians, but for all of Europe.

The first pilgrim to ever walk the Way of Saint James

Today, the Monastery of Santo Toribio is guarded by a community of Franciscan friars, the same religious order that watches over the Holy Sepulcher, in Jerusalem –where, according to tradition, the Lignum Crucis was found. It still remains a place of peace and contemplation, amidst its legendary rugged mountains.

This post is also available in: Español Italiano

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