Mihaela Elena Man: At a Crossroads – Kersting’s depiction of the Almudena Cathedral

Audio Version

Text Version

One photograph that Anthony Kersting took during one of his journeys through Madrid reveals a site whose open roof, skeletal towers and central cavity would easily classify it as a plain depiction of an early twentieth century abandoned architectural project.

Front and back images of a Kersting print. The back side is annotated by Anthony Kersting.

A.F. Kersting. KER_PNT_H009971 and KER_PNT_H009971b, 27 April 1956. On the back Kersting has written: “The Madrid facade of the new Cathedral of Nuestra Señora de la Almudena as it now appears. The Cathedral was started in 1895, but only the Crypt was completed. Recently, however, the framework for the Twin Towers of the facade has been completed”.

As alluring as images of outmoded objects and sites are, they very often carry the intrinsic ability to make their viewers venture into a purely nostalgic cul-de-sac. American artist Robert Morris unsympathetically asserts “that all the great ruins have been so desecrated by the photograph, so reduced to banal image, and thereby so fraught with sentimentalising historical awe”[1]. I would’ve concluded with a similar statement had I not discovered the note Kersting wrote at the back of the photograph:

“The Madrid facade of the new Cathedral of Nuestra Señora de la Almudena as it now appears. The Cathedral was started in 1895, but only the Crypt was completed. Recently, however, the framework for the Twin Towers of the facade has been completed.”

In his caption, Kersting introduces the subject of the image, the Almudena Cathedral “as it now appears”, which was most certainly the moment when the image was taken in 1956. It also seems that at a later date he added two other details to the description, namely a note to say that 1895 was the year when the construction of the building began, and a more recent moment, when (to his seeming surprise) the twin towers of the façade were completed. This caption, attached to the image, pencils the troubling timeline of the Cathedral’s biography.

Postal de la maqueta del proyecto de Francisco de Cubas para la Catedral de la Almudena (Madrid, España).
(Postcard of the model of Francisco de Cubas’s project for the Almudena Cathedral)
By Unknown author – Memoria de Madrid, banco de imágenes históricas del Ayuntamiento de Madrid, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77758865

Due to insufficient funding, the building of the Cathedral was put on hold shortly after the laying of its foundations in 1895. The resumption of the project was further complicated by the death of Francisco de Cubas, the architect who drafted the initial plans. As such, only the Neo-Romanesque Crypt was finished and opened to the public in 1911. The following eruption of the Spanish civil war led to a more than a two-decade stagnancy.

In the 1940s, aesthetic criteria changed. Finalising the construction in a Gothic style was no longer suitable because of the stark contrast it may create with its urban surroundings. Therefore, the Directorate General for Fine Arts organised a national contest, which selected Fernando Chueca Goitia and Carlos Sidro to complete the Cathedral’s construction in a Baroque fashion.

Not accidentally, the exercise of visualising the Cathedral’s hectic timeline is interrupted by the skeletal towers, the centrepiece of Kersting’s photograph. At first sight, the moment of Kersting’s “now”, the “now” when he clicked the shutter, captures the absent façade of the building, which was not completed until the 1960s. This corresponds to one of the periodic moments in the Cathedral’s life when a cloud of uncertainty was hovering around its construction.

Closing the timeline of the Cathedral’s building is the completion of the Baroque cloisters and façade in the 1960s, and the subsequent embellishing of its interiors in 1993. Within a prevailing Neo-Gothic nave, “statues of contemporary artists, in heterogeneous styles, from historical revivals to pop-art decor”[2] are housed. The palimpsestic nature of the Cathedral’s architecture, coupled with Kersting’s ambiguous photograph, further highlights the tumultuous process of how it eventually came to be a fully functional site. Their association also proves that “the history of images is a history of objects that are temporally impure, complex, overdetermined”.[3] 

A photographic document like Anthony Kersting’s is deceiving. It demands us to flip the “inert” or “escapist” side of the picture and read its description to realise that the captured moment is the indivisible and decisive element of the monumental timeline which concludes with the Cathedral’s eventual unveiling. In “Iteration”, Robin Schuldenfrei mentions the “barely visible”, yet visceral nature of “iterative gaps”. She gives the example of a ship, whose sailing from one destination to another is incredibly physical, in its speed through water and in the mechanics of towing, yet the “iterative gap” lingers in the uncertainty as to whether it will reach its destination.[4] Natural or technical threats constitute some of the many dependencies that such a travel embodies. These conditions are, however, predominantly neglected once the ship reaches the shore. In the case of the Cathedral, a gap is closed as the completed a place of worship in unveiled. While capturing such an iterative gap, Kersting encourages the unhealed edges of the edifice’s history to surface. Rather than a standstill, we have reached a crossroads.

Side view of the cathedral under a cloudy sky.

Main facade of Almudena Cathedral.
By Little Savage – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27077669

 

[1] R. Morris, 1970. The Present Tense of Space, in Continuous Project Altered Daily.

[2] Almudena Cathedral – Madrid Tourist Attractions. (n.d.). http://www.madridtourist.info/almudena_cathedral.html

[3] G. Didi-Huberman, 2000. Before the Image, Before Time: The Sovereignty of Anachronism, in Compelling Visuality: The Work of Art in and out of History.

[4] R. Schuldenfrei, 2020. Iteration: Episodes in the Mediation of Art and Architecture.


Mihaela Elena Man

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant