For the past seven years, the Belgian photographer Sebastian Schutyser has spent his winters wandering through northern Spain taking pictures of small, ancient churches and chapels – hermitages, or “ermita,” which stand isolated and sometimes ruined in the surrounding landscape. To capture the “aura” of the buildings, Schutyser found it necessary to abandon his “expensive cameras and sophisticated lenses” and instead use a simple pinhole camera. The resulting images are mysterious, beautiful, and moving, and I find that they also carry considerable metaphorical weight. Schutyser has given me permission to share a few of the photographs with Rough Type’s readers; many more of the images can be seen here. Following the images is a brief essay by Schutyser in which he describes his “ermita” series.
[From the top: Nuestra Señora de los Dolores; Mare de Déu de las Neus; Mare de Déu de la Pertusa; Nuestra Señora del Barrio; San Esteban de Viguera; San Pedro de la Nave; Santissima Trinidad de Iturgoyen; Virgen de la Lagunas. Photographs by Sebastian Schutyser. All rights reserved. Displayed with the permission of the photographer.]
The Spanish word ermita [English: hermitage] has a similar structure and meaning in all languages derived from Latin. It always refers to an uninhabited or isolated place, a location for spiritual retreat. In Romance languages it comes from the Latin word eremus, tracing back to the Greek eremos, which means deserted.
In Spain, where the hermitages presented in this preview have been photographed, their use has shifted throughout the centuries, but they have always been isolated sanctuaries or chapels. Hermits inhabited them in seclusion, or in other times, in small groups. Other hermitages were built by pilgrims, who tried to invoke divine protection on their journeys. Finally, some hermitages were erected for pastoral cults, or to house religious brotherhoods. At present many still have the cult of a saint celebrated in them once a year.
Underneath lies a history of cultural blending and fierce struggle between Christians and Muslims. The Moorish invasion in 711 abruptly severed the early artistic development of the Visigoths on the Iberian Peninsula. Only a few Visigothic sanctuaries have survived, but they are remarkable for their restrained beauty. The Reconquista, when Christian kingdoms fought to eliminate Islamic rule in Spain, began soon after and would take more than seven centuries to be completed. During that time a new impulse in religious architecture became known as Mozarabic. This was the name given to Christians living under Moorish rule. Under rising Muslim pressure they increasingly migrated north to reconquered territories. Their skills were strongly influenced by the Islamic arts and culture, and they built some of the most refined hermitages in Spain. From he eleventh century the triumphant birth of Romanesque architecture would leave a far more monumental mark, and become an architectural reflection of a conquering church. Hermitages often served as links in military strategies, or as vectors of repopulation in captured territories.
Today what we hold to be a hermitage is an idealized concept. Most of us still think of it as a hermit’s dwelling, and even imagine a saintly and bearded man living in it. Of the 575 ermitas I have visited and photographed, only one was actually occupied by a present-day hermit: a young fellow wearing an “I love New York” T-shirt, and yes, a modest beard. Many of the structures depicted in this work were not intended to be a hermit’s cell at the times they were erected. The truth is more plain. Flourishing medieval communities built their churches according to their numbers and economic strength, decaying ones ended in abandon. The rural exodus in modern Spain has left thousands of ghost villages behind. Very often only the church -built to last- remained while the other housings crumbled to nothing. These churches de facto became ermitas in the proper sense of the word.
It seems that what really has withstood the erosion of time is a mental construction: the hermitage as the ultimate refuge of modern madness. In an era in which people feel isolated if the battery of their cell phone has died, the notion of spending years without anything but incidental contact with the world is staggering. In Spain this idea has crystallized into an unequalled number of isolated sanctuaries. Vast stretches of thinly populated land and the ruggedness of the terrain have prevented their urban absorption. In the last few decades too many of them dropped into a terrible state of abandon, or worse, became subject to destructive theft and vandalism. For all that the spiritual resonance of these ermitas has survived.
These millennium old constructions have been the waypoints of my quest for a contemporary view on the concept ermita . For seven winters I have roamed the innards of rural Northern Spain in a basic camper. The solitude and harsh weather conditions taught me more about a hermit’s life than the bibliographical research for this project. It was a profound experience, allowing me much better to understand the transformations these architectural volumes in desolate landscapes undergo by winter light. The absence of company and all other diversions sharpened the senses…
The transcription of the word ermita into a visual language is the axis around which this work has evolved. It forced me to keep it simple, and discard anything redundant. My expensive cameras and sophisticated lenses were the first to go. There is no need for analytical sharpness while trying to make an abstraction perceptible. Instead I used the most primitive form of a photographic device, the camera obscura or pinhole camera. The choice of this tool, in fact no more than a wooden box with a tiny hole in it, was essential to find the right visual texture. The resulting photographs have the sort of clarity that comes from staring at an object for a long time, while also slightly blurring and distorting the world around the edges—an almost hallucinatory feel that one might get from long periods of isolation.
The hermitages in these photographs were all chosen for their aura rather than their cultural-historical importance. Some of them are cracked open by time, but still remain hermetic and austere. The almost complete absence of windows gives the buildings a sepulchral quality which is often at odds with the open nature of the land. They seem both alien and organic at the same time. Others are overgrown with vegetation, retreating even more into their surroundings. They become a fusion between nature and the spiritual footprint of man. As they blend with the empty landscapes in which they stand, the original meaning of the word ermita emerges.
But the real key to the success of this work was the light. Nothing is as plain as a sunny day under a blue sky. Something more complex was needed to express the emotional charge of the subject. It had to reflect desolation but not desperation. A wide palette of meteorological conditions was at my disposal. Northern Spain is a cold place in winter! Just as the tough physical conditions were leading hermits to a higher spiritual awareness, photographing with long exposures during rain or snow spells made a certain radiance become apparent in the images. While infinite grey skies set the canvas of their isolation, this luminescence is bringing out the true spirit of these humble sanctuaries.
I have often wondered what I was hoping to achieve, while I was balancing in icy wet winds on a small ladder holding on to my tripod with one hand and clutching an umbrella over my equipment with the other. The answer lies of course in these photographs, but I believe it also matters in what manner they were created. The use of a pinhole camera was not merely a technical option, but also a philosophical choice. Indeed, a poor man’s camera for a poor man’s church.