In the small hours of Monday morning, Spanish law enforcement officials arrived at the Museum of Lleida in Catalonia to stand watch as experts packed up 44 religious artworks for shipment to the neighboring region of Aragón. Hundreds of people gathered outside the museum to protest the transfer, which has become a point of contention in Catalonia’s bitter bid for independence.
As Sam Jones reports for the Guardian, the fight over the relics—which include a number of paintings, alabaster reliefs and wooden coffins—stretches back several decades. Catalonia and Aragón are both autonomous communities in Spain. In 1986, nuns at the Sijena convent in Aragón moved their order to Barcelona and sold the artworks to the Catalan government for about €60,0000 ($70,000 USD), according to Javier Pes of Artnet News. Later on, Catalonia and Aragón would both maintain that the works were part of their cultural heritage, sparking years of legal squabbles over which region had the right to hold the artifacts.
In 2015, a court in the Aragón region ruled that the nuns had sold the artworks illegally and ordered the works be repatriated. Catalonia maintained that the works had been lawfully transferred to the Museum of Lleida and refused to heed the order. Catalan officials instead filed an appeal that has not yet been ruled on in court, reports Hannah Strange of the Telegraph.
With a verdict still pending, the issue came to a head several weeks ago during events tied to the so-called “Catalonia crisis.” The region, which views itself as distinct from the rest of Spain, boasts its own language and unique traditions. Some segments of the population have been pushing for independence, the movement spurred by the recent Spanish economic crisis. On October 1, Catalan separatists won a full referendum that was declared illegal by Spain's Constitutional Court, which the BBC contextualizes in detail. That month, Spanish ministers activated Article 155 of the country’s Constitution, a never-before-invoked section, which allows the central government to implement control over a region’s autonomy. The Catalonia government was dissolved, and many of its leaders fled into exile.
This void in Catalan leadership created an opportunity for Spain’s culture minister to step in and authorize the return of the 44 contested objects held by the Museum of Lleida. The minister, Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, maintained that he was simply complying with the court order issued by the Aragonese judge in 2015, according to Strange of the Telegraph. But former Catalan officials say that Madrid is taking advantage of the chaotic political situation to target Catalonia. Some, like past Catalan culture minister Santi Vila, pointed out that other museums have not been forced to return items purchased from the Sijena convent collection.
“Aragonese authorities have a great interest in recovering pieces in Catalan museums, but have no desire to recover other objects from Sijena that are, for instance, in the Prado in Madrid,” Vila said earlier this year, according to Gareth Harris of the Art Newspaper. “Why? For political reasons.”
Around 500 protestors converged at the museum on Monday, chanting “Hands up! This is a robbery!” reports the Guardian’s Jones. Some scuffled with police, who had cordoned off the museum so the artworks could be transferred to the truck that soon after carried them off to Aragón.