The figures of Abraham and Isaac were carved into the famous Portal of Glory in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral at the end of the 12th century as fixtures of what came to be considered the artistic highpoint of the place of worship. Painstakingly chiseled by the medieval sculptor Master Mateo and his workshop, the Portal consists of 200 such Romanesque-style sculptures and has largely remained intact, but the Old Testament’s most famous father-and-son duo have been shunted from pillar to post since the 16th century, ending up in the hands of Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco in 1960 and remaining part of the family’s estate to this day.
Fifty-seven years ago, Franco was presented with the sculptures by the local authorities for his private use after expressing admiration for them. Now, the city’s left-leaning local authorities – who claim there is no written evidence of such a donation – are demanding that the sculptures be returned, giving Franco’s heirs 15 days to act before taking legal action.
Abraham and Isaac were removed from the Portal along with several others while the Obradoiro was being refurbished in the 16th century. They remained in storage until 1933, when they were unearthed by the historian Fermín Bouza Brey, who discovered them in the home of the Count and Countess of Ximonde – a Galician ‘Pazo’ in Vedra, A Coruña. According to the historian, they had been there since the 18th century.
This is the first time the Franco estate has been threatened with a lawsuit in relation to the figures
During the Franco years, the Count of Ximonde sold the figures to Santiago City Hall for 60,000 pesetas (€360) on one condition: that the figures should never leave the city. If, for any reason, they were donated and taken outside Santiago, compensation of €2,400 would be due – a sum that was never paid.
Now, with the Franco family embroiled in controversy over the closure to the public of Franco’s mansion, the Pazo de Meirás in Sada, the local authorities have grown determined to recover the artifacts, which the former dictator used to decorate first the Pazo de Meirás and later the Cornide Palace in A Coruña. After making several unheeded requests, the mayor Martiño Noriega sent a demand to the Franco family, headed by Franco’s daughter, 91-year-old Carmen Franco Polo. While the figures have been exhibited to the public since falling to the Franco family, they were initially flagged up as the property of “His Excellence, the Head of State.” Currently, in the Master Mateo exhibition that opened in the Prado Museum and is now showing in Santiago, they are described as belonging to the Franco family’s “private collection.”
This is the first time the Franco estate has been threatened with a lawsuit in relation to the figures. Shoring up the demand is a deed, drawn up in 1948, that speaks of an obligation to “prevent [the figures] disappearing from the City Hall” and to “preserve ownership” by “the people of Santiago.”
Meanwhile, pressure is being applied to the regional government to file a case and fine the family for closing the Meirás Pazo, which is officially an asset of cultural interest – known in Spanish as a BIC – and should therefore be open to the public.
According to the Galician authorities, a donation would provide the family with a chance of reconciliation with the public
The dictator’s daughter has decided to entrust the management of the Pazo to the Franco Foundation, which announced in early August that it would be taking the opportunity to “showcase the greatness” of the man who ruled Spain for 40 years. Since then, all political parties, including Galicia’s right-of-center Popular Party, have asked that the Pazo should be moved into the public domain, be it through means of dispossession or donation. According to the Galician authorities, a donation would provide the family with a chance of reconciliation with the public.
The Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG) has even taken the matter to the United Nations, asking it to impose a legal process ordering the return of plundered assets. They also requested that the UN outlaw the Francisco Franco Foundation.
The BNG-controlled City Hall in Pontevedra is also in favor of investigating the circumstances in which its municipal authorities saw fit to donate yet another item of public heritage to the dictator in 1938 – the stone cross that now decorates the gardens at Meirás – after it caught his wife’s eye. The cross is, in fact, a replica of the Carmen Polo cross, carved for the workers of Pontevedra. The left-leaning Galician party Marea Pontevedra is behind the initiative to recover this particular artifact which, according to a report at the time, “was particularly pleasing to the eminent wife of the Head of State.”
English version by Heather Galloway.