Isaac Ben Jacob

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The Sanch in Spain

 

"La Reial Arxiconfraria de la Puríssima SANG de Nostre Senyor Jesu Crist"

                                                         "The Royal Archconfraternity of the Purest BLOOD of Our Lord Jesus Christ"

The Spanish branch of the Sanch occupies a prominent place amongst the confraternities of Girona, since documents place its creation as early as the year 1568, and for during the course of its history, it has appeared as a centre of attraction to be reckoned with, able to influence other brotherhoods of penitents, sometimes by submitting them, absorbing them, and sometimes on the contrary by favouring their emergence.

 

It was precisely on the 5th of October 1568 that an important meeting took place within the walls of the Carmelites' cloister and church in the aforementioned city (Girona). On this occasion were written statutes, the contents of which was aimed at defining the attributions as well as the organisation of the brotherhood, which was to wear the name "La Sang" (i.e. "The Blood" in English). The following year, on the 24th of October 1569, the foundation of the confraternity was ratified in Barcelona, through the favour of a royal privilege which was giving it as a primary task "to mercifully assist the convicts during their ultimate end, and to provide for their burial."

 

The mission thus attributed to the penitent brothers assumed from the very beginning a mortuary nature, identical to that which could be already be perceived in the statutes of the Sanch brotherhood of Perpignan (in the south of France), whose existence, it is noticeable, was anterior. The similarity of the attributions, as well as their exclusive and religious character, thus lead us to suppose that there was indeed a relationship between these two Catalan confraternities, and that the more recent La Sang of Girona, held its filiation from La Sanch of Perpignan. This point, as well as other elements concerning the origins of La Sang, will be documented in the next part of this study.

 

Regarding the foundation of La Sang (i.e. "The Blood"), one needs to note that its statutes were modified a few years after it was created. Indeed, the number of penitent brothers was counted in 1584, and in a quite similar fashion as what can be seen in Freemasonry, it was then fixed at 33, which is also the number of years in Christ's life. It was a symbolic number, the meaning of which, to the penitents, did not have anything to do with the life of Christ, but was only connected to astrological notions, the cycle of seasons, the Pagan hell and penitence. The number thirty-three (33) is indeed interpreted by them, in their own way, as the specific number for the fall of the angels, when they were cast down from heaven. To them, it represents at the same time the incarnation (1), death and reincarnation of fallen souls.

 

Around 1699, La Sang of Girona grew in importance and restructured itself, by enlisting a second confraternity which until then had remained autonomous. We are referring here to the Archconfraternity of the Cutting of the Throat of Saint John The Baptist (2), which immediately disappeared, disbanded in favour of La Sang. The latter, now renovated and boasting new recruits, equipped itself on the same year with a church, the Església del Carme (Church of the Carmel, located next to the Convent of the Carmel where La Sang of Girona was initially founded), whose slow construction process was launched with the Chapel of the "Purissima Sang" (the Purest Blood), and followed with a second one, the Chapel of the Saints Anna and Martha.

Eight years later, the Chapel of the "Purissima Sang" was extended through a small structure built exactly opposite it, and which was dedicated to Saint Julia. From 1720 to 1726, the whole entity was to be finalised with a choir, an altar and stalls, to which were quickly added the foundations and walls of the following chapels: "La Pietat" (The Pietà), "Sant Albert" (Saint Albert of Jerusalem), « Sant Pere de Luxemburg » (Saint Peter of Luxemburg), "Sant Cosme i Sant Damià" (Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian) as well as that of "Sant Eloi" (Saint Eligius, also known as Saint Eloi).

Not far from the church, there was also a cloister, still in existence today, besides, and yet which, during that era replete with unexpected strangeness, would find a rather repugnant use.

It had indeed the singular peculiarity of serving both as an ossuary and as a mass grave. The cloister had been rearranged in the manner of a ghastly tomb. Strewn with putrefying corpses, that place had the function of facilitating the communication between the penitent brothers of La Sang and the souls of the dead, to be a gateway to the world of the dead, and it also served as a "sacred land", where the penitents offered all sorts of ritual sacrifices and offerings so as to appease the tormented souls... The penitent brothers would roam across the place in all directions whilst uttering incantations, or whilst whipping themselves for the forgiveness of the sins of the souls imprisoned in Purgatory. Much later, this cloister will be deserted by the penitents, leaving it in the hands of the Napoleonian authorities. They set up their headquarters in these premises, and since then, any traces of the sinister use of this cloister have vanished.

 

 

The Cloister of the Hanged Ones

 

Once the death sentence was carried out against the convict, the penitents would gather around his body, and seized it in order to cover it with a shroud of their own making. They would also apply some sacred unctions to it, and then would take it to the cloister "of the hanged ones " (3), so that the corpse could become the object of the ritual of "death / reincarnation", which is an adaptation of the "Chaldean Mysteries", only ever celebrated in great secrecy by the penitent brothers.

 

One after another, the penitents would lay their hands on the cadaver, and utter a prayer intended for the deceased. Then, they would throw the corpse into the grave made within the cloister for this purpose, and which extended from the surroundings of the central staircase, up to the cloister's well. The closeness of the corpses to drinkable water threatened to make the water unsuitable for consumption, and had some people worried about epidemic risks. Nevertheless, the accumulation of bones and skeletons not far from a subterranean water source was not done without reason, since it had a specific religious character, the well having the property of symbolising the very notion of "mortuary baptism", which is a renowned Chaldean ritual (4). Therefore, there was little concern about the risks on the part of the penitents, who would merely scatter here and there a few shovelfuls of quicklime on the cadavers, in order to burn their rotten bits.

Garrote Vil by Ramon Casas i Carbo, the Sanch

'Garrote Vil' 1894 Ramon Casas i Carbó

It must be admitted: such ritual and magical practices appear as curiosities, and it would seem uncertain, at first glance, to consider them as a general principle common to all penitents. And yet, we can read in the « Almanach Catholique Français de l’année 1921 « French Catholic Almanac of the year 1921 (5) », that in a very widespread manner, following the example of the red penitents of Limoges (in France), the brothers were allowed to enter "two by two [...] in the place where the convicts sentenced to death were to be, in order to console them [...] to guide and accompany them up to the location arranged for the ordeal, and there, after having watched them expire in agonising pain, to take their bodies, unless otherwise ordered, and to bury them. […] The corpse, untied from the gallows or from the wheel, was put in the coffin by brothers who had won in an auction sale the right to perform this function."

 

The very same practice is described in the 1876 magazine entitled (6)  « Le Magasin Pittoresque » ("The Picturesque Storehouse"), in which the penitents are again saddled with the "special mission of assisting the convicts sentenced to death. Upon the news of a condemnation to the capital penalty, the confraternity would appoint twelve visitors. These, covered with the sackcloth of penitence, would wander across the city, and beg for alms (i.e. charity donations). […] It is assured that in this brotherhood, things went as if there was a contest as to who would volunteer to perform the most repulsive task, the most painful ministry. In the same way, the right to detach the tortured corpse from the gibbet, to inter it into the shroud, was put up for auction, and sold to the highest bidder."

 

It is remarkable, following these two accounts, that the religious activities of the penitents do indeed conserve, in all circumstances and all places, the mortuary nature which makes them so picturesque and typical. Let us add likewise that the notion of "money", of "selling salvation for money" recurs systematically, as associated with the "ultimate end", i.e. death. This specific point, along with others, shall draw our attention, for these few elements are precisely the ones which we will meet again, banned, in the Bible, on account of their constituting the keys to the Chaldean ritual of the dead.

Footnotes

 

 

(1)  Incarnation is attributable to Christ, who became a man. Christ, whom the heretics wrongly considered as being himself a "fallen angel", of a nature different from the Father's.

 

(2) The exact name is "Archconfraternity of the Beheading of Saint John The Baptist".

 

(3) That is to say the penitents' very own cloister, the Cloister (Convent) of the Carmel.

 

(4) The best description of the strange rituals of mortuary baptism performed by the Manichean, Arian and various Marcionite heretics has come to us by the pen of one of their most famous adversaries, the Father of the Church Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople (refer to "De Natura Incomp.", his 40th Homily, on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, IV).

This description screaming with authenticity has been cited and commented by the Abbé J. B. Bergier in his book entitled: « Doctrine de l’Eglise, sa vie, ses œuvres, son siècle, influence de son génie » - "Doctrine of the Church, its life, its works, its century, and the influence of its genius" (Ambroise Bray, publisher, Paris, 1856):

 

"The Arian (ancient name of the Manicheans), Anomean and Sabellian heretics were not the only cultists against whom the zeal of Chrysostom had to fight. The Church of Antioch was desolated from all of the errors which are begotten by pride. Marcionites, Valentinians, Gnostics, Manicheans, Macedonians, […] every sect, every error old or new, had its followers in the patriarchal city. […] Chrysostom was fighting them […]. Thus, in his 40th homily (De Natura Incomp., Homil., IV), on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, he exclaims:

"Do you want me to tell you how the disciples of Marcion interpret Scripture about the necessity of Baptism? […] Amongst them, when it comes to pass that a catechumen dies suddenly without having received baptism, some have found a way to baptise him/her after his/her death. They come near the deceased person's bed, they talk to him/her, question him/her, ask him/her if he/she wants to be baptised; and since the corpse does not reply, someone else hidden under the bed takes charge of answering for him/her, and says that he/she wants to be baptised. The deceased then instantly receives baptism in the person of the one who has given the answer."

 

(5) In the article entitled « Les pénitents et frères de Charité » ("The Penitents and Brothers of Charity").

 

(6) Source of the text: Charton Edouard, in the magazine « Le Magasin Pittoresque » ("The Picturesque Storehouse"), – Issue no. 04 – « Les Pénitents » ("The Penitents"). At the subscription and sale offices in Paris, Quais des Grands Augustins, on January 1876.