Why's This Man Wearing Fava Beans?

Why do the Spanish love painted sculpture so? And why does this saint have fava beans hanging around his neck?

These are unanswered mysteries here in northern Spain. We ran across Saint Fava Bean in Briones, a sleepy village on the Ebro River in Rioja. The plaza is encircled by ornate palaces that once belonged to wealthy landowners, and these rulers of the roost wanted to ensure that their church bespoke their wealth. Their names are long forgotten, but the golden sandstone cathedral is a real jaw-dropper. Inside are soaring ribbed arches, illustrated manuscripts, and sculptural altarpieces aglow with gold leaf and radiant saints twisting and turning to show their mortal wounds and instruments of martyrdom. Saint Fava Bean stands placidly nearby; he too is made of polychrome wood, like centuries of Spanish sculpture before him. Why this, rather than the white marble so beloved by Italians?

I cannot say. But it’s easy to guess that our saint was recently carried in procession to bless the spring crops. In addition to his gaudy bean necklace, he carries a cluster of grapes and a tuft of wheat, and stands astride a platform that can be hoisted onto the shoulders of four sturdy Spanish men. Clearly, he’s done a good job, because Rioja is now is lush with green fields of young wheat and emerald buds pushing forth from gnarled grapevines.

I find more polychrome sculpture in the Museo de Bellas Artes, or Fine Arts Museum of Bilbao. While our clients visit the Richard Serra and Anish Kapoor exhibits at the Guggenheim Bilbao, I roam through this traditional art museum, which also has its jaw-droppers. There’s Goya’s affectionate portrait of his best friend Martin Zapater, whose big nose and honest gaze are immediately endearing; El Greco’s crazy Annunciation, where a whole chamber-music ensemble is up in the clouds playing harpsichord, cello, and lute while the Virgin and Gabriel conduct their business below; plus works by Ribera, Zurbaran, Murillo and other Spanish masters.

But my socks are knocked off by the medieval sculpture room—usually ignored by time-strapped art-goers beelining to the Goyas and El Grecos. Here is a crucifix unlike any I’d ever seen. Christ is on the cross ready to rule, sporting a fabulous, cherry-red Syrian robe dotted with Imperial eagles inside giant blue tondos. The birds looked like white cormorants drying their wings, and the whole thing had a primitive, folk-art feel that I positively adore. I learn that this is Christ in Majesty and the cross here is a symbol of royalty, more throne than instrument of torture—a popular theme among anonymous Catalan artists in the late 12th century, it seems. Great stuff.

But duty calls. We’re off to the standard-bearer of traditional Riojan wines: Lopez de Heredia.