The Museum of Doubt

M. K. Cap



41.3842° N, 2.1768° E; Plaça Sant Iu, 5, 08002 Barcelona, Spain.

Simple enough. Paper map, plus overpriced phone, plus excellent touristic signage? We couldn’t get lost if we tried. The winter in northeast Spain was a delight for us. Back home, in the blistering cold, the Bears were losing to the Vikings and an icy vapor was rising on the shore of Lake Michigan. My knee still ached from a slip on the unsalted sidewalk as Ciara and I walked from our apartment to our taxi, leaving the taps on a slow-motion drip to keep the pipes from freezing. On the way to O’Hare I could feel an annoying and intermittent adhesion of my black jeans to a bloodied scrape at the lateral condyle of my right tibia. Teaching figure drawing had taught me something after all. Ciara taught History of Architecture at the well-known university four downtown blocks from my middling art college. She was also a partner at a boutique firm that had just won a lucrative competition for a pavilion in a northside park. We were solid citizens who had outgrown the wearing of all black, and the extra piercings in our ears had sealed, but we maintained a glancing affection for the grotesque and the distorted.

I had not read Don’t Look Now, the Daphne Du Maurier short story set in Venice, but I saw the movie starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. I even heard an audio version on the BBC drama stream. I had also been to Venice. Unfortunately, all in that order. I am not eager to return. I saw the movie in Contemporary Cinema I and due to conspicuously odd parenting Ciara had seen it on television when she was four years old. She has never since worn red. Venice was creepy and flooding at our wintertime visit. It seemed haunted and treacherous even without the troupe of sun-tanned Australians who seemed to appear every time we tried to wander off the tourist-beaten path—perhaps they were escaping from the summer heat just as we were fleeing the winter cold. It was still more crowded than we would have liked but a holiday break in a foreign country prevented any interaction with our families, so we tried to do it every year. For research purposes, we lied.

Barcelona didn’t possess the uncanny atmosphere of imminent collapse that shrouded Venice. We rolled our suitcases down the cobblestones. We ignored a child beggar. Our hotel room was large and ancient and shabbily luxurious, with an excellent front window view of a Gaudí building. In its vast and elaborately tiled bathroom was an Empire style double sink carved of dark pink marble. On the wall next to an early 20th century bidet was a small stained glass window.

“Max, come look at this view!”

I came quickly because Ciara is not generally effusive. Her head was out of the bathroom window when I entered. It was really too small for two heads but we gamely tried together. Below was a narrow alley typical of the city’s gothic quarter but the wall on the other side of us was hewn red stone unevenly peppered with small windows, no two of the same design. We couldn’t see our wall but we hoped it would be similar; we later found it was. The alley was empty, and we discussed the stonework of apparently different periods and the varied glass in the windows. There could not have been ten feet between the buildings. But suddenly, the alley was no longer empty. We noticed her at the same time, then looked at each other, then at her again. It was a woman dressed entirely in black. She moved soundlessly, down the center of the stone alley, slowly and carefully equidistant between the ancient walls. She was wearing a black gown and an elaborate mantilla, made more arresting by a tall peineta from which a cataract of black lace flowed down over her face and shoulders. When she reached a point just below us, she stopped. She stood motionless for a moment then abruptly raised her head. We could not see her face but we were certain her eyes were fixed firmly on us. We broke our gaze and looked at each other. By the time we turned to her again her head was lowered and she was in motion. Our eyes followed her until a bridge between the two buildings obscured our view. Wow, we both thought. That was fascinating, bizarre, macabre. Whatever jetlag we had was evaporated and we were ready to see as much as we could with the remaining daylight. We had a list. First on the list was the Museu Frederic Marès.

The museum wasn’t far and the walk would do us good. We walked briskly, jackets open, to the Placita de la Seu. There was a Christmas market in the plaza, just in front of the Cathedral of Saint Eulalia, a spikey gothic confection, its towers extravagantly prickly with crockets and finials. We walked toward and then away from the cathedral, arms extended to choreograph a photo of ourselves with our heads between its three pointed towers. Holiday trinkets, small and large, were displayed for sale on polyresin snow blankets and the smell of chestnuts seemed out of place in the warmth. The Marès Museum was just around the corner.

It was Ciara who cultivated my affection for eccentric museums; she was my mentor and tour guide in monuments that ranged from the merely bizarre to the definitively disturbing. She had taken me to the Wiertz Museum in Brussels, dedicated to overheated and oversized paintings of macabre subjects; the Gustave Moreau Museum in Paris, residence of the father of symbolism and godfather of surrealism; the Stazi Museum in Berlin, where the apparatus of the oppressive state is sadly and gruesomely articulated; and the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia—its delights being self-explanatory. The Marès Museum promised equal if not greater peculiarities. We passed by more stalls of Christmas kitsch, bought espresso-sized cups of bitterly satisfying hot chocolate, then turned left down Plaça Sant Iu, toward the museum.

While Frederic Marès was a successful sculptor, primarily of public works, he was most famously a relentless collector. He was, predictably, a collector of sculpture but he also collected other things, many other things and of a variety that seemed less an attempt at classification than the unquenchable desire of obsession; seashell collages, ladies’ fans, belt buckles, ball masks, crossbows, porcelain dolls, penny-farthing bicycles, reliquaries, cameos, music boxes, meerschaum pipes, opera glasses, sewing scissors, and most memorably to us, crucifixes; scores of them. There are life-sized crucifixes and half-sized ones, and the collection descends all the way to some so small they could be hidden in one’s fist. Some are crudely carved and others stunningly realistic, several are blissfully sublime while others writhe contrapposto. In one gallery there are at least one hundred, none shorter than a half-yard. It’s a delightfully oppressive room, the walls are covered in green watered silk, and the crowded crucifixes crawl up the fabric then loom over the viewer as the walls barrel into the ceiling. It was while we revolved at the center of the room, surveying the upper row of crucifixes declining toward us, that we saw her again. First just a glimpse, beneath our direct gaze, of her black lace crown, and then lowering our heads, fully in our sight; there she certainly was. She was much taller than we imagined. She was silent and appeared fixated upon a single crucifix. The small gallery had been empty when we entered, we only saw her as we turned toward our third wall of crucifixes—wooden, brass, silver, ivory, lead—but now we focused on her. She didn’t turn toward us. We turned toward each other. That seemed to be a signal, just as when we were watching her from our bathroom window. She pivoted, turned her obscured face haughtily in our direction, then just as quickly turned again and soundlessly left the room.

Of course, we were startled. Then we settled down. There must be a festival of some kind. We laughed at ourselves, though it was a nervous laughter, and poked fun at each other, deciding it was time for a glass of wine. It had been overcast all day and by 4pm the lights were coming on in the nick of time. We didn’t say much over our wine. We both pretended we were too tired, or too hungry. We walked slowly back toward the hotel but by a slightly different route. Neither of us admitted we were a bit afraid of encountering the widow again. We talked about sleeping late, of the next day’s agenda, of possibly going to a proper museum, but both of us kept avoiding the admission that our penchant for the grotesque and the morbid had finally bitten us back, and deeply.

The next day was surprisingly sunny. We woke late and chose leisure and surprise, simply to wander with little or no expectation. No itinerary; to go where our feet took us. No map, no plan. We left our hotel and boldly turned right, up the alley where we had first seen the mysterious woman. Neither of us bothered to comment on the path. We looked up at the walls to appreciate the varied styles and sizes of the windows that we had seen from our bathroom above. We knew that El Pont del Bisbe, the Bishop’s Bridge, was nearby and dared ourselves to happen upon it. Ciara had a particular interest in Gothic Revival architecture but the bridge and the gothic Saint Eulalia were well after that period of architectural romance. They were simply follies, fanciful imitations created wholly from vanity and deceit. We were disappointed when we hadn’t wandered four-hundred yards before encountering the famously magnetic tourist attraction. The Bishop’s covered bridge has a vague structural similarity to the Bridge of Sighs in Venice—though the former only mimics the Gothic style while the latter is genuinely Renaissance—but without any of the tragic association. While far from Lord Byron’s notion of a pathway for the condemned, the Bridge of Sighs did indeed connect two buildings that detained prisoners. The Bishop’s Bridge, however, was constructed essentially as a tourist magnet for a world’s fair in 1928.  We navigated the small clusters of tourists taking photographs with the faux gothic bridge in the background. We wandered. Took a small coffee here, bought a trinket there, ate a few tapas on the way. We didn’t realize it until we were upon it but we had come again, from the opposite direction, to the Marès Museum. We both glanced at it sidelong, pretending not to see it and determined the incident to be like the bridge, a fake, a foolishness, a folly. We had already decided before bed the previous night that our encounter there was something amusing to recount in a postcard, nothing more. 

 We arrived again in the Placita de la Seu. It was busier, more festive. More like Christmas although the weather was sunny and warmer than the previous day. The plaza was alive with tourists photographing themselves and one another. We decided to embrace our tourism and I removed the phone from the zippered pocket inside my jacket—it had a half dozen interior hiding places in order to discourage pick pocketry. When I opened the phone’s photo application we both became a little nervous. I scrolled through yesterday’s images but neither of us was looking at ourselves in the photos. We were looking behind us. Looking for her. Two photos. Seven photos. Eleven photos of yesterday. Of Barcelona. Then Chicago, mercifully, Chicago. All of our photos of Barcelona were empty of the woman in the mantilla. We were relieved. We were delighted. We smiled at giant marionettes. We dropped money into the hat of a juggler. We embraced while a chorus in front of the cathedral sang a moody minor key hymn that neither of us understood.

One of the reasons Ciara and I are so compatible is that we seem to anticipate each other’s thoughts. Almost invariably that is a comforting coincidence but now, simultaneously, we had the same uneasy thought. We still had four more days in Barcelona. We looked at each other. We looked up at the cathedral. We went inside. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness we saw a priest glowing white at the altar, his arms outstretched to parishioners—dozens of black-clad women. We thought: It could be any one of them. A tree hiding in a forest. And we had four more days.

We lit a candle.

We crossed our fingers. 





A former Chicago firefighter, M. K. Cap is an arts writer and visual artist who lives in Los Angeles. His work has been seen in galleries and museums in Vienna, New York, Stuttgart and numerous other cities in Europe and the US. He co-edited, with MacArthur Fellow Claudia Rankine, The Racial Imaginary. Among several awards, he is the recipient of Creative Capital and Artadia grants, and was most recently a finalist for the Andy Warhol Arts Writers Grant. He earned his MFA from the University of Chicago and his doctorate from USC.