Rattle and hum: the towers of the Obradoiro façade

The Obradoiro façade of the cathedral (Image by Yearofthedragon – Own work, CC BY 2.5).

Following on from my last post on the Obradoiro façade, where we looked at the central portion in particular, let’s now take a little closer look at the sides.  In fairness, as you face the façade, your eyes are drawn to the centre such that it’s sometimes hard to appreciate the two flanking towers that frame the central early modern baroque masterpiece.  Or rather perhaps it’s hard to appreciate them individually, because part of the beauty of Fernando de Casas Novoa’s design is the harmony with which the façade works as a unit. 

The north tower (to the left) and the south tower (right) now stand at 74m in height, and are taller than the central body of the cathedral is long; for most peregrinos they were probably the tallest manmade structures they ever saw in their lives.  The towers were parts of the original Romanesque design of the cathedral; sturdy monumental architecture that could also provide a place of refuge in times of trouble and were probably largely unchanged until the seventeenth century, when a series of interventions began that saw them heightened and altered in decoration.  Individual interventions are hard to spot at a glance, but what you might notice is that the bottom two-thirds of the towers look rather cubic, and then they begin to taper into a design that’s both ornate but quite ephemeral, with space for leaving light, wind and sound flow through.  Tip: If you draw a horizontal line to either side from the statue of Santiago in the centre of the façade, you will see a balustrade (stone railing) on both towers, and this marks the point of change, the point where the lower original Romanesque towers meet the early modern additions.  What are the towers’ functions?  Making noise!

Image: by Fernando – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=108259683

A question for you: what’s the loudest thing you’ve ever heard in your life?  Maybe it was the sound of a jet engine taking off?  Maybe you were at a high-intensity sporting event, like Irish boxer Katie Taylor’s 2012 Olympic gold medal campaign in London, when the decibel level at her first bout reached 113.7  ― above the average human pain threshold![1]  Or maybe you were at a concert by a band whose amps ‘go up to 11’ (you know who I’m talking about).  For most of us, the loudest things we hear are artificial sounds or electronically enhanced.  In the medieval and early modern world, unless you had been in battle, the loudest sounds you ever heard were probably thunder and church bells ― both of which could be signs of disaster.  The bell was the ‘background sound to life in the middle ages’, marking times of day, beckoning worshipers, announcing celebrations, deaths, and invasions (for example, in Britain, church bells were temporarily silenced in 1940 and only to be rung in the event of a German invasion), while as George Greenia and Xosé M. Sánchez Sánchez discuss in the journal Ad Limina, the Camino had its own particular soundscape.

The ratchet (carraca) of the left/north tower of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Image from La Voz de Galicia (20 March 2015).

In the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the right/south tower is the ‘bell tower’ and the left/north tower the ‘ratchet’ tower.  The ratchet (carraca), pictured above, is a giant wooden noise maker, shaped like a cross, that is used in particular during Semana Santa (Holy Week, leading up to Easter).  Ratchets for religious ceremonies come in a huge variety of designs, and here’s an example of a cross-shaped ratchet in action.  Its grating and eerie sound is used on Good Friday to mark the death of Jesus – a solemn and disquieting reminder to the medieval ear that even God had to die.

[1] Laura Bleakley, ‘Ireland’s most successful Olympics for almost 60 years’, BBC News  11 August 2012 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-19205892.  See this table of noise levels and effects, from the Department of Chemistry, Purdue University https://www.chem.purdue.edu/chemsafety/Training/PPETrain/dblevels.htm.

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