Genuflect to the Sea
Off the coast of northern Spain near Bilbao lies a tiny promontory called Gaztelugatxe. (Say that once, really fast.) This section of coastline is a geologist’s dream, where the constant siege of waves in the Bay of Biscay carves solid rock into blocks of Swiss cheese. The island is connected to the mainland by a man-made bridge; at the top, you’ll find San Juan, a small Catholic church 241 stone steps up to the heavens. When you arrive, huffing and puffing, tradition requires you to ring the church bell three times before making a wish.
The church—actually a hermitage—is quite simple. A few rows of pews and an altar. But instead of the typical crucifix found above the altar, in its place is the bow of a boat sticking out from the wall, a portrait of Jesus affixed to the pulpit. The boat is real—just the first six feet of a local fishing boat, registration numbers and all—mounted there like a moose head wall trophy.
The symbolism of such décor would be confusing were you to ignore the rest of the place. Stained glass above the stone doorway arches depicts ships at sea and whale hunts rather than saints and apostles. Above the pews hang a half dozen model ships, many of plastic and contemporary design, swinging from invisible fishing line as they drift in currents of air moving within the church’s walls. Instead of the bronzed scallop shell indicating that this chapel is somewhat near a pilgrimage route to Santiago, the inlaid-stone mosaic depicts yet another sailing ship. Additional wall décor continues the theme: a large teak helm wheel, a three-bladed bronze propeller, a brass ship’s bell and barometer.
At first it might seem odd, but it actually makes sense. The origin of the Basque people and their unique language is a mystery to anthropologists. But what is well understood about the Basques is their seafaring skill, from fishing the Atlantic to exploring the New World (a Basque completed Magellan’s circumnavigation and Basque fishing encampments were discovered in Newfoundland). So it is little wonder that inside this church, sitting unprotected in the Bay of Biscay, that the prayers are as much to a higher power as they are to the safety of the boats, ships, and fishermen at sea. I find myself drawn to these places where people need to make sense of the oceans, where loved ones are mourned and remembered, and where explorers pray for the courage to change the world.