Cemetery of Olius
Address: Parròquia d’Olius OLIUS (Solsonès).
Quality of interest: xx (two on five). The star rating system applies only to works of recognized importance.
State of conservation: The cemetery and mausoleums are in good condition.
Visitation schedule: The cemetery is open year-round.
The decrees concerning hygiene put forth by Carlos III in the eighteenth century forcing the elimination of the old parochial cemeteries made it necessary to remove all of them from the urban centers in which they had been established. It took a long time to implement these decrees because of the obvious practical difficulties inherent both in relocating a cemetery from an urban area and establishing it in a more rural one. This dilemma gave rise to the Cemetery of Olius.
Bernardí Martorell i Puig, the architect of the diocese of Solsona (which covered the municipality of Olius), was charged in 1915 with the task of complying with the governmental decrees. He had then the confidence of the current bishop of Solsona, who was later named Cardenal Francesc d’Assis Vidal i Barraquer.
Martorell i Puig – a disciple of Gaudí and thus heavily influenced by his style – was an architect of the late Modernista (Catalan Art Nouveau) period, when this style was being superseded by Noucentisme. In fact, in Barcelona, the capital of the nation, during this time hardly a single Modernista building had been designed, not even by its most enthusiastic architects. But the force with which the Modernista movement had taken root all over Catalunya, a force based in the powerful national convictions of the Catalan people, ensured that this style had entered profoundly into the collective imagination, as if it were a synonym for national emancipation from Spain.
Martorell i Puig was also the nephew of another great Modernista architect, Joan Martorell i Montells (1833-1906), who proposed Gaudí as architect of the Sagrada Família. With this background, it is no wonder Bernardí preferred the Modernista style in which he had built several religious and lay buildings. While the Modernista style may have been falling out of fashion in Barcelona, the rest of the nation felt like the style was their own and continued employing it as an architectonic and artistic element in the realization of every possible kind of art. This was certainly the case with the Cemetery of Olius. Some documents about its construction have survived, such as Pere Melitó Perarnau’s petition of February 2, 1916 asking the bishop for permission to bless the new cemetery. Another document, from October 1, 1916, details the cost of the project: 2,431 pesetas (now about €14.61). It also documents the contributions various townspeople made toward the cost of the cemetery, all donated in proportion to their own ability to give.
The fact that residents of Olius have maintained the cemetery with love and respect since its construction more than ninety years ago, avoiding the introduction of foreign elements, has allowed its primitive style and beauty to be preserved.
Bernardí Martorell i Puig (1877-1937) was born in Barcelona, oddly enough on a street – Passatge Bernat Martorell – bearing the name of one of his ancestors, an illustrious politician and writer.
He completed his architectural training in 1902 and quickly finished his first works in 1904: the Col·legi de les Teresianes in Vinebre and Can Ferran in Arenys de Mar. Soon after, he took up his post as diocesan architect not only in Solsona, but in Barcelona and Tarragona as well. For Solsona, he took on projects for the churches of Puigreig in 1917, of Figols de les Mines in 1919, and of Mollerussa in 1928.
He had previously completed various projects for the churches of the bishopric, in addition to work for the seminary council of Solsona in 1918 and the church of Lladurs in 1921. Perhaps his most important work in the bishopric is the Cemetery of Olius.
He is the author of other religious buildings, such as the Convent of Valldonzella in Barcelona (1916), the church and convent of Les Oblatas in Bellesguard (1929), the church of St. Augustine of Sabadell (1932), church of Els Escolapis of Sabadell (1924), the Col·legi de les Teresianes in Tarragona (1926), the church of the Most Holy Redeemer in Barcelona (1926), and the parochial church of Navàs (1931).
His outstanding lay buildings include: the Schools of Capellades and the Cellar for the Cooperative of Cambrils (1921), Can Montal in Arenys de Mar (1921), and the house of Joaquim Duran i Barraquer in Sitges (1929). One very important work in Solsona is the Hotel Sant Roc, which, although begun by the architect Ignasi Oms i Ponsà, was continued and completed after his death by Bernardí Martorell.
The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) proved fatal for Martorell, as he was imprisoned early on, probably owing to his religious convictions and his work for the Catholic church. He died in 1937.
The cemetery occupies a space amongst fallen, weathered rocks which has hardly been altered at all from its natural state. Thus are combined a symbol of death – the fallen rocks – and a symbol of life, the evergreen holm oak (alzina). The alzina is a perennial tree typical of the Catalan countryside. These elements – life and death – are always symbolically present in a Christian cemetery.
The entrance is formed by a typical, Gaudí-esque parabolic arc of great simplicity and elegance, found at the top of a wide staircase of coarse stone. This gate is not an opening in the stone fence common to all other Catalan cemeteries, but is an element constructed between two enormous stones, which, along with other natural elements, serves to enclose the grounds.
The interior space is relatively wide and of an irregular plan, adapted to the terrain, where the tombs and mausoleums (for the most part carved straight from the rocks) continue the ascent up the mountain. A slender pile of small stones in a conical formation catches the eye; it terminates in a typical, four-armed Gaudí-esque cross at the highest point in the cemetery. At its base is the tomb of the rectors of Olius, very simply constructed with a circular star about one meter in diameter around which is declined in Latin the word “death.”
The grounds, as mentioned above, are marked throughout not only with mausoleums carved into the rock, but also with simple wrought-iron crosses, all of which carry the name of the buried loved ones and the date of their death as the only inscriptions. The most imposing mausoleum consists of a simple chapel built of coarse stone to the right of the cemetery entrance.
The Cemetery of Olius, integrated with nature and its surrounding countryside, is a model of imagination, expression, liberty, and fantasy – and a funerary expression of the Modernista style unique not only to Catalunya, but also to anywhere else in the world.
Comparison with other funerary Art Nouveau-style works
Many very interesting examples of Modernista tombs and mausoleums worth visiting can be found through Catalunya: in Arenys, Barcelona, Canet de Mar, Figueres, Lloret de Mar, and many other towns. However, as a group, the Cemetery of Olius is unique.
The same can be said of other funerary monuments in other countries – the Crematorium of la Chaux de Fonds in Switzerland, some of the mausoleums in the cemeteries of Milan and Genoa in Italy, the Cemetery of Comillas in Cantabria, Spain (a work by our, Lluís Domènech i Montaner), and many others in various European countries. There are also examples in the Americas, such as the mausoleums in the cemetery of Havana in Cuba, or in Brazil and Argentina. Generally, all of those spectacular examples of Modernista design display a more aristocratic character when contrasted with the simplicity and popular, rural spirit of Olius.
We are grateful for the collaboration of Mossèn Bartrina, Rector of Olius and Director of the Archive of the Bishopric of Solsona.
Photographs with ** published with permission of the Hotel Sant Roc of Solsona.
Translation to English by Catherine Phillips Crowe.