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The gargoyle of the photographer of the Cathedral of Palencia and another photographic mystery

Historic site
Historic site

Thanks to one of my students I have returned to remember one of the most mysterious stories in which a photographer is the protagonist. In a cathedral in Spain we can see a gargoyle photographer. They have always been curious and grotesque figures, like demons and devils, but in this specific case we can recognize a photographer of the early twentieth century.

The story that I will tell is developed in Palencia. Those who do not know this province do not know what art is, good food and beautiful landscapes. In the capital, Palencia, stands the Cathedral of San Antolín, patron of the city. It is of Gothic style, but as it happens in many occasions, it has Visigoth, Romanesque, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical parts… not to mention the great reform that it suffered in the 20th century.

Luis Javier Bañares took advantage of the Christmas holidays to travel through the beautiful lands of Palencia. And between different towns and places he did not hesitate to visit the cathedral. And there, thanks to a countryman who warned him, he managed to photograph the photographer’s gargoyle, wrapped in a thousand stories and legends. Let’s see if we unmask the truth that awaits us beyond our cameras.

The cathedrals are usually a perfect vestige of the history of the city. It was the place where everything was controlled, as we can very well read in that literary monument that is La regenta de Clarín, a novel that begins with the master observing, from the top of the tower, the city of Vetusta with its spyglass. And the most interesting thing, for us photographers, is one of the last reforms suffered by the Palencia cathedral, in which they put the aforementioned gargoyle.

The gargoyle of the photographer of the Cathedral of Palencia

In the renovation suffered by the monument in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Jerónimo Arroyo, one of the best modernist architects far from Catalonia, decided to bring certain elements of his time to the cathedral of his city. One of the most striking things for visitors are the gargoyles of the ambulatory.

At the top, if you are a little observant and have a telephoto lens, you will see a strange figure with a toga and a camera in his hands. With an open mouth, as it should be. We can not forget that the gargoyles are the end of the pipes where the rain water that falls on the roofs is dislodged.

Who is this photographer with a plate camera? Because it is there? What do you do next to the representation of death? There are many legends and stories around that piece of carved stone. It’s funny how you lose the reality with the passage of time and begin to imagine new stories that permeate the taverns and markets.

It seems that there is no documentation about the origin of the gargoyle photographer. It is not known for sure since when it is there , nor the reason. If we go to the town hall page we can read the official story:

Among the curious elements that can be found in the Cathedral of Palencia highlights the existence of a gargoyle, located in the apse, which represents the figure of a photographer and is a personal contribution of Jerónimo Arroyo, architect who led the restoration carried out at the beginning of the twentieth century. In this gargoyle the architect wanted to remember José Sanabria, a popular character who made a great number of photographs about the artistic heritage of Palencia.

But after the field work of my good student with the inhabitants of the city, the research through the network, an old article that I read in a photographic magazine (‘FV’ I remember) and the report of a major national newspaper that returned to bring this story to light in the early eighties, there are much more exciting stories that surely have a point of truth.

Gargoyle of the death of Luis Javier Bañares
Gargoyle of the death of Luis Javier Bañares

The stranger speaks of the death of a photographer who fell from the roof of the cathedral during the restoration of the early twentieth century. The architect, good friend of that man, known as Mr. Alonso, decided to commission a gargoyle in his honor to remember the exact point of his fall. And next to it he commissioned the figure of his skeleton to remember the ephemeral life.

Other locals say that just at that point a gargoyle fell that killed the photographer. And that it was decided to replace it with his figure in his memory. They also talk about the photographer Luis Rodríguez Alonso who published a book about the cathedral at the end of the rehabilitation. Or another popular photographer from the area, such as Albino Alonso…

The truth will never be known, but it is exciting to know that we have a sculpture in homage to our profession or hobby in one of the most beautiful monuments in Spain. Personally I am more excited to know that in this cathedral we can also find a tribute to ‘Alien, the eighth passenger’…

The unknown photographer of Las Hoces del Duratón

All this history has brought to my mind another photographic mystery that I have not been able to solve either. I wrote about it a long time ago.

In one of the best known routes of the natural park of the Hoces del Río Duratón in the province of Segovia, that of the Talcano bridge any traveler can find a plaque that remembers the following:

Let a playful breeze scatter its ashes wherever the flower dares. Oscar Naturalist photographer 5-2-66 13-5-89

Nobody knows who he is. Nothing is known about him. It is a mystery unknown to the workers of the park, the mayor of those years, the management department of the natural parks of Castilla y León… But the plaque is still there, like a monument to the unknown photographer. I have never received any news about the subject.

Duratón Sickle Plate
Duratón Sickle Plate

I hope that this article serves to solve some of the two mysteries related to the world of photography that we are passionate about and that serves to take us to these places with the healthy intention of taking photographs.


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