Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On Looking at Columbus’s Bones in the Cathedral of Seville

There he is, exalted, carried upon the shoulders of the righteous, a hero of the once great Spanish Empire, forever honored in the great Cathedral of Seville. He opened the door to the New World, to rich lands and clean water, to silver and gold, to the founding of my nation, the United States of America. In that little box is a pile of bones and dust, nothing more, and five centuries ago when those bones and that dust were up walking around, it was, he was (who can deny it) the gateway to the greatest butchery in the history of the world.

This is not about Spain, or about Christianity, or about Columbus, the man. This is about humanity, all of us, and the darker side of what we do.

The “discovery” of the New World meant riches for Spain (and England, Portugal, France, etc.), but it also meant the destruction of a thousand cultures and a thousand languages, the murder of millions of people over hundreds of years. The New World was not empty, but inhabited by people whose ancestors had come upon the Americas 15,000 years earlier.

Is this not the most astonishing hypocrisy?

Columbus’s “discovery” meant murder (thou shalt not kill); it meant pillaging (thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not covet); it meant slavery (love your neighbor as yourself).That Columbus’s bones are sanctified here in the Cathedral of Seville, one of the largest and most beautiful tributes to the passion of Christ, whose message was a single and simple truth: to love. Is this not an outrage? Does this not make you weep?

But I’m not saying anything new.

The cathedral is sinking. Apparently, so massive and heavy is the Cathedral of Seville that within 100 years or so the roof will probably collapse. How do you save a cathedral from itself? You take the weight off, of course, you bore out the center of these massive columns and fit them each with a steel sleeve. Then you wait 100 years to see what happens.

If you happen to be at the cathedral on the right day, you might have a look at the incorruptible body of Saint Ferdinand III. This Castilian king won Cordoba (1236) and then Seville (1248) from the Moors. As a saint, his body will not decay, so there he is, almost like new, in his silver sarcophagus, opened three times a year for public viewing.

And while you’re here, don’t miss your opportunity to ascend the Giralda, the 90-meter tower at the east side of the cathedral. Built by the Moors in the 12th century, it’s a remnant of the mosque that once stood here. The great stones at its base were carved by the Romans (but used by the Moors), then comes the Moorish brick-work, and finally the Christian bell tower at the top, added when the mosque was razed and the cathedral built in the 15th and 16th centuries. Culture on top of culture. Religion on top of religion. It’s an easy climb, and an amazing view from the top.

Look! There is the city of Seville, built on the destruction of the New World.

Look! There is the roof of the cathedral that might soon collapse.

Look! There is the River Quadalquivir. And somewhere far to the east, the Sierra Nevada.

Whenever I’m feeling angry and inconsolable about the way we built this world, it’s good to remember that it’s not people or nations that are incorruptible, but mountains and rivers.

At the end of our long day, as if smiled upon by providence, my friend said, “Let’s have a walk down to the river. I think it’s always good to look at water.”


  1. Well said!!!!! Life continues but the history of us, all of us, is reason for pause.
    Your cousin with a conscience,

  2. I'm glad you have a river you can walk too. I look forward to glazing at a river in Utah together.


  3. Don't even get me started on the sins of the church and what has been done in its name for God...I think not. For Country and to enrich a few of the political and the proud...well that saga goes on and on...

    your cuz...chris