One of the places we took my mum to see in Salamanca yesterday was the Dominican Monastery of San Esteban - Saint Stephen's. It was a lot like most churches and cathedrals - big stone pillars, plenty of marble, cloisters, huge wooden doors - lovely ceiling, where else are we going before lunch? - but somehow it was quite different.
It may have been that the monastery was much less dark and forbidding than most churches, maybe it was because it was simpler, though the altar in the main church would have to be the exception that proves the rule, or it may have been because there was a group of people dressed in their sports jackets and pullovers practising a Gregorian chant sitting in the farthest corner of the choir whilst we were there. Really though I think it was simpler than that; it was because there was information to say how different the place was.
The notices on the walls were droll, even ironic and amusing. There was a little room that had been used as a council chamber - so friars debated the course of action? and there were a few mentions of their support for Columbus and his journey to the New World but mainly, all around the cloisters, there were little sayings on the wall like: No state has the right to wage war only for territorial gain; Each person in all the World has similar and non negotiable rights - I forget the exact wording but they could have been on any one of those posters you get free with your subscription to the New Internationalist.
They made the case for the fact that Dominican friars, the Blackfriars, protected the indigineous peoples of South America against some of the worst excesses of the Conquistadores in the New World and generally they pushed their democratic organisation, their frugal lifestyle and their plain humanity. It would be nice to think it was all true. It was certainly a lovely place but I seem to remember that Torquemada, the first and most ferocious of the Spanish Inquisitors, the man who ordered countless tortures and was responsible for expelling the Jews from Spain, was a Dominican. Hey, ho.