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Sarcophagus of the House of Híjar

By | 23 July, 2015 | 0 comments

his sarcophagus is a clear example of the beginnings of the culture of humanism and Renaissance language in Spain and

dates from the first half of the 16th century. It belonged to the Ducal House of Híjar and according to María José Casaus was assigned to Luis Fernandez de Híjar y Ramirez de Arellano, 10th Baron of Híjar and 3rd Count of Belchite. He was son of Juan Fernández de Híjar y Enríquez (who held the title ceded by his father, whom he preceded in death) and Isabel Ramírez de Arellano y Mendoza, who bore five children. Luis, the firstborn, was the successor. The reluctance of the ruling Habsburgs meant Luis Fernandez de Híjar y Ramirez de Arellano could not use the title of Duke of Híjar as Carlos I had barred him from that privilege. It was not until 1599, with the permission of Felipe III, that the ducal series resumed in the person of the third duke, Juan Francisco Fernández de Hijar y Fernández de Heredia (1552-1614). With him the House of Híjar received the designation of Grandee of Spain for the three elevations to ducal dignity achieved by his ancestors, i.e. Lécera, Aliaga and Híjar. The 3rd Count of Belchite died in 1554.

Luis Fernández de Híjar y Ramírez de Arellano founded and endowed in 1519 the Franciscan convent of Híjar, Our Lady of the Angels, with the work completed in 1524. Existing documentation indicates that he was buried there in its church: “The remains of its founder were laid to rest in the convent’s church, in an alabaster sepulchre bearing the recumbent figure of an armoured warrior with two-handed sword along the body”. Only the front part of this arrangement is still preserved, on display at the Hotel Alcázar in Seville. Laws confiscating Church property forced the monastery to close in 1835, though not before

Hotel Alcázar Sevilla

all objects of value were safeguarded. In the early 20th century a community of Franciscan monks from the Capuchin Order renovated and restored the abandoned church, opening it to worship and reviving monastic life until the Civil War, during which the complex was subject to acts of hatred and pillaging. There is a prior image of the object, dated 1903, showing religious figures examining “some remains of old dukes’ sarcophagi which were ineptly sold to an antique dealer…” Other period documents provide information about this sarcophagus and mention the neglect of the current owners; they were written to on various occasions to report the existence of their ancestors’ remains.

Countering this attribution, another hypothesis links the sarcophagus to a different member of the House of Híjar that was not the firstborn in the line of succession. The absence of a crown over the shield would thus be well justified; the owner may have intended to make the helmet a tribute to his first ancestor, Pedro Fernandez de Híjar (+1299), first Baron of Híjar, natural son of Jaime I the Conqueror, King of Aragón, and of Berenguela Fernández. This first Baron, founder of the dynasty, accompanied his father on many military campaigns. In 1264 he was appointed Admiral of Aragon’s Navy, in 1267 lieutenant of the king in the Kingdom of Valencia and in 1268 that of Híjar and Urrea de Gaén, thereby forming the dominion of Híjar. In 1270 he was named Knight of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. He married Marquesa Gil de Rada, natural daughter of Teobaldo I of Navarre and Marquesa López de Rada; one son was born from that marriage: Pedro Fernández de Hijar “el Señalero” (signaller) (1263-1322). He also established the heraldry of the House of Híjar that his descendents still use today.

No matter who the Renaissance owner of this sarcophagus was, he wanted his eternal rest to be nobly represented before coming generations in line with the then-flourishing mindset which, compared to prevalent thinking in the Middle Ages, urged man freely decide his behaviour and destiny – an exaltation of individual freedom in the theological, cultural and social order. In the West this new culture marked the beginning of modern times. It originated in Italy and quickly spread to other European courts, each of which added its own particularities to this new wisdom. A prominent feature of this humanism (also noted in the object in question) is the exaltation of dignitas homini. The myth of glory then begins to develop, which appears linked to the ecclesiastical and lay elites eager to proclaim their fame, perpetuate their memory and seek redemption of their souls

In Spain some paintings and sculptures in the Kingdoms of Aragon and Catalonia already referred to Italian models in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. The second half of the 15th century benefited from a favourable economic situation, leading to social stability in which the nobles managed to consolidate their enormous economic and social power. Happiness and exaltation of power in 16th century Spain were reflected in the decorative extravagance of the early Renaissance. Early in that century, Italian models became a bastion of the noble families, one example being this Híjar sarcophagus. The most representative centres of this movement’s beginnings were Burgos, Toledo and Zaragoza.

This Híjar work is attributed by Zaragoza University Professor Carmen Morte to Juan de Liceyre, an Aragonese sculptor and student of Damián Forment who had his own master studio from 1546 on. His most prominent work is the tomb of Doña Ana de Gurrea for the chapel of St Bernard in the Cathedral of Zaragoza, also in alabaster.

The shield of the House of Híjar corresponds to the arms they used and identifies its first overlords (13th century) as Pedro Fernández de Híjar, natural son of Jaime I and Berenguela Fernández, and Marquesa Gil de Rada, natural daughter of Teobaldo I of Navarre, 4th sovereign Count of Champagne and Brie and of Marquesa López de Rada. Both Pedro Fernández de Híjar and Berenguela Fernández were therefore sons of kings; the direct consequence was that ties between the royal houses of Aragon and Navarre were narrowed. The son and successor of both, Pedro Fernández de Híjar y Gil, 2nd Lord of Híjar, was the grandson of kings on both sides. The shield is quartered. The first and the last gold with four bars gules of Aragon and the second and third gules corresponding to the bloca or shield frame in curved triangle with radial bars of Teobaldo I, King of Navarre (the arms of Navarre and Champagne are similarly represented on the capitals of Tudela Cathedral), although for a long time the frame was identified with the chains of Navarre earned by Navarre’s monarchy at Las Navas de Tolosa.

The shield figuring on the sarcophagus does not bear the ducal crown, because its owner was never a duke. It rather represents a helmet (an allusion to his military merits) crowned by the ratpenat, a heraldic bat which became common among noble houses starting in the 16th century, especially in coats of arms associated to the Crown of Aragon. According to legend, the bat was popularized by Jaime I the Conqueror, who wanted to commemorate this animal because it prevented an incident of misfortune and allowed the conquest of Valencia. However, it seems more likely that its origin lies in the dragon symbol on the crest of King Pedro IV of Aragon (1336- 1387), known as the Ceremonious.

Over time, use of bat or ratpenat replaced the dragon. Nobility again imitated the monarchy via its symbols. Also, it must be noted that the first title-holders of the House of Híjar married into noble lineages from those territories. In this case, the bat is carrying a knife or dagger, protecting against threats. Along with the helmet, all these are attributes referring to the honour of the hero knight who rested there. The arms and the original crowning are framed by a garland of plants representing the bond, dependence on the feudal system of hierarchies, ratified by the oath of honour and sublimating the concept of being “bound” by the superior.

The sculptural decoration of the sarcophagus shows how beauty is sought in this artistic moment as an earthly property of objects meant to please the senses. The rebirth of classical antiquity as a burst of fresh energy is seen in its elements, abandoning the dark medieval world. Nature is interpreted with joy and freedom and space is decorated with floral garlands (the flower as ephemeral beauty in a life-death dualism) that balance the composition of the sarcophagus’s front. A meticulous study of anatomy is appreciated in the two supporters and their harmonious contrapposto stance. These two male figures, one bearded and the other beardless, may well symbolise youth and old age respectively.

Armed elements play a dominant role in the iconography and extol the military and heroic merits of the deceased. Two symmetrically facing eagles appear as a symbol of height, spirit identified with the sun and the spiritual principle. The eagle is associated to the idea of male activity and also manifests the rhythm of heroic nobility. It is an animal associated to the gods of power and war in classical iconography. In the air it is the equivalent of the lion on earth.

It is the bird that flies highest. It is also a symbol of spiritualization and sublimation of material and regressive tendencies. Dante referred to the eagle as a bird of God. It is so represented on this sarcophagus.

A shield and armour appear below the birds. Both are warriors symbols not conceived outside the combat context. The armour is used for physical protection of the body and symbolises spiritual defence. In the Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians (6, 10-17) the apostle said: “Put on the armour of God to counteract the devil’s schemes… take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

The sarcophagus is made of alabaster. This marble-like material is characterized by its ductility, translucence and waxy sheen, properties that have historically led it to be highly valued for ornamental use. Alabaster objects have been preserved since antiquity. It is likewise the material used in the late 14th century tomb of Pedro Fernandez de Híjar y Navarra from the Monastery of Rueda which is preserved in the Museum of Zaragoza.

The restoration was carried out using inert materials of the same nature as the original ones, inert synthetic resins, following the advice of the restorer Fernando Gilabert Lorenzo. A layer of micro-crystalline wax with a higher melting point than common wax was finally applied to prevent softening by heat and accumulation of dust or dirt.

It rests on a 17th century walnut refectory table with three drawers from the Collection of José María del Palacio y Abárzuza, 3rd Count of Las Almenas and 1st Marquis of Llano de San Javier.

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