The Beaten Church
By Ngaire Blankenberg
During a magical late night walk a few weeks ago in Barcelona- amidst the Roman ruins, the weird and wonderful Gaudi buildings, the secret lovers, the street vendors selling beer to the underage teenagers- I found myself confronted by a church in an almost hidden square that made me catch my breath.
The walls of the Sant Felip Neri church (built in 1752) bear the marks of a cruel attack during the Spanish Civil War. In the aftermath, it wasn’t repaired like other buildings around it. Rather it was left as it was- a memorial to the 20 children seeking shelter inside the church who were killed during the conflict.
I was unprepared by how much I was affected by the scarred and battered walls of the church- bearing the evidence of a war that happened over 70 years ago. I read the graffiti (‘always remember the victims of fascist regimes’) and the commemorative plaque. As I touched the deep grooves and holes, I felt sick. I felt the violence – I did not imagine it. It was incredibly powerful.
I was reminded of how rare it is to see such stark public evidence of historical violence. In public, violence from the past is recalled most commonly through history books, films, TV, documentaries and oral histories. Museums preserve bits of material evidence but no matter how powerful, they are mostly out of context- behind glass with mediating text or audio.
In images of more recent wars we see ravaged cities and bleeding people and blown up buildings, as ‘news’. Then, when the war is over – either the city is cleaned up (in richer countries) or it gets worse (in poorer countries). Walking through rubble you can rarely tell what has been destroyed through violence or through neglect- the stark evidence of violence disappears. Human beings may bear the evidence of violence on their bodies, and communities may remember through graveyards and memorials but they repair the world around them. Life does go on.
This little church with its battered walls quietly marking its place in a peaceful square showed a way to help people understand the violence of war. I think we are saturated by the pervasive images of violence in the media- it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between what is real and what is fiction- we become removed. But the evidence of violence on the facades of buildings, on landscapes- is somehow irrefutable. It was an experience I am not likely to forget.