Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 19, 2005
St. Thecla's chaste ways revered
Spanish house of God includes an admission-charging art-filled museum
St. Thecla — September 23
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Despite its position low in a valley, golden Burgos Cathedral towers above the little city, almost too exuberant for this modest northern Spanish pilgrim and tourist destination.
The first cathedral constructed in the Hispano-Gothic style, the enormous house of God dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also honours the popular first century martyr St. Thecla of Iconium.
Most visitors approach the cathedral by way of the Puente de Santa Maria (bridge) and the colossal historic Arco de Santa Maria (arch). They are then in the open Plaza del Rey Fernando and staring up at the soaring twin spires of the 13th century masterpiece.
Entry to the main body of the church is via the ornate Sarmental door, a work of art in its own right.
Once inside, people find that the church has become more of a museum than a place of worship. Admission is charged and pilgrims are directed to follow a prescribed, signed route. It’s an amazing place and would require several visits just to begin to absorb the details of the thousands of artworks that adorn the building’s interior.
Today, daily Mass is celebrated in the large chapel of Santa Thecla. It’s entered separately though the great west Royal or Santa Maria main doors and is available for the use of pilgrim groups.
The story of St. Thecla begins with a scriptural reference in the Acts of the Apostles (14:1) where it is recorded that Paul and Barnabas made many converts at Iconium in Asia Minor.
Beyond this, the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla takes over and explains that among those baptized there in AD 51 was Thecla. Highly regarded by many early Church fathers, she was well versed in literature, well-spoken, modest and devoted to Christ.
Her promotion of a chaste lifestyle angered the authorities and attempts were made to kill her by exposure to wild beasts and burning, but she miraculously survived and ended her days as a hermit.
Santa Thecla is usually portrayed in Church art as a young woman carrying the palm frond, symbol of martyrdom, since she would have died but for divine intervention. Some images of the saint show her holding an arm-shaped reliquary, possibly symbolizing her carrying a relic of the right arm of St. Paul, her mentor.
Since earliest times, Thecla has been celebrated in the Eastern Church as the first virgin martyr. She is a popular patron in Spain’s northeastern Catalunya region where chapels are dedicated to her in the great cathedrals of Barcelona and Tarragona.
In Canada, the parish and village of Sainte-Thécle in Quebec’s Trois Rivieres Diocese recognizes this early martyr and her feast day appears on calendars in France.
Her baroque chapel in Burgos is an impressive, church-size venue, created in 1735 to replace a smaller church and several chapels.
Surrounded by cherubs
The attention of participants at Mass here is diverted by the spectacular gold-covered reredos that dominates the wall behind the altar. Here, the saint is portrayed experiencing the failed attempt to burn her. In anticipation of martyrdom, she clutches a decorative woven palm frond and is surrounded by cherubs.
Higher on the reredos, another scene shows Spain’s heroic patron Santiago on horseback, wielding his lance in the war against non-believers. Many other saints are portrayed here and elsewhere in the chapel.
Although Thecla’s cultus was suppressed (because of extravagant stories) by Rome in 1969, Spaniards seem in no hurry to disown this favourite Church personage, or to remove her cherished and inspired images from the many churches in which she’s honoured.