“ In the fields with which we are concerned,
knowledge comes only in lightning flashes.
The text is the long roll of thunder that follows.”
[On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress]
Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project
The above photograph was taken from the bell tower in Burgos, Spain in 1925. This photo was included in a photo retrospective on Castilla Leon, published in the Spanish periodical El Pais, June 7, 2011. In Spanish, the bell tower is called el campenar and the bell-ringer is el campanero. Throughout Spain, bell towers are found in the central part of each town and city. While graphically striking, this photo also has strong symbolic meaning.
In the picture, you see the inside of the bell tower. A man is actively ringing one of the bells and gazing into what is being illuminated beyond the interior walls of the tower. An additional bell makes up part of the window frame directly facing the photographer. Through this window, the outline of the grand gothic cathedral of Burgos is clearly visible.
Traditionally, a tower is a symbol of hope and freedom. Throughout history, the tallest building within a community is also the most important. Originally, the church, or spiritual house, held this position. Then the government, or political power, strategically moved higher. Now, the economic skyscrapers reign from on high. One can easily imagine how hope and freedom have been executed and disillusioned by each institution. Ranging from existentialism to corruption, and the sustainability challenges of consumerism that now define capitalism.
However, in this photograph, we find that the church is still the central tower within the community. Symbolically a tower represents high hopes and aspiration. It strives to connect the earthly with the heavens. The individual who is looking out from the tower prevails over the environment below with a sense of superiority. However, in this image, the environment within the tower is dirty and broken, the face of El Campanero is not turned downward, rather outward, suggesting an alternative reading. To hear a bell, which is certainly a signified by the picture, represents a warning, or a call to order. It can also be the beginning of something new, both literally and figuratively as a method of the unconscious to prepare for the future. Finally, the symbolism of seeing the outside of a church denotes sacredness and spiritual nourishment. The church is equated with the things you revere and your value system.
While the initial instinctual response to viewing this photograph is positive, understanding the symbolic relationships reinforces this impression. Inside the tower of hope and freedom and man rings the bells as a call of attention to the future. El Campanero does not look downward in superiority, rather his face is fully illuminated and looks outward, slightly smiling into the intensity of the light. The church in the background reinforces the overwhelming feeling of optimism. However, the hope that is being discovered in the sound, light, and squalor of the bell tower is directly juxtapositioning with the distanced splendor of the church. In this image, the light that captivates the ringer of the bells asserts a greater authority.