Few paths to perdition are quite as pleasant as the one that weaves through the small town of Talaván, passing a 16th century church studded with storks’ nests and skirting lush fields of livestock before ending at a walled garden long abandoned to pokeweed, lovage and the elements.
There is no sulphur and no brimstone, only the scent of rain on grass and gravestone; no shrieks of the roasting damned, only the soothing muttering of sheep and goats.
But hell is just around the corner. Clamber over the graves, past the curtains of vegetation, and lift your eyes to the cracked, domed ceiling and your gaze will be returned by 20 blood-red, demonic faces whose bared teeth, malevolent expressions and general air of gleeful fiendishness has earned them the nickname of the Evil Angels of Talaván.
For as long as anyone can remember the Ángeles malos have guarded the inside of the Ermita del Santo Cristo de Talaván. The small church, finished in 1628, was expropriated by the state in the first half of the 19th century, and used as the town graveyard until it was abandoned in favour of a new municipal cemetery in 1928.
Today, after nearly a century of decay, the angels’ lair may finally get the protection it so desperately needs. Over the summer, conservation authorities in Extremadura – the southwestern Spanish region in which Talaván sits – approved the €200,000 project following a two-year campaign by a local historical society.
Rosa Rodríguez, the president of the Talaván Living History Association, hopes work will begin early next year once the town hall receives the project’s funding, most of which will come from the EU.
Like all the association’s 150 members, Rodríguez is proud of her town and keen to explain that Talaván also boasts Iron Age forts, two ancient fountains, and the fine, stork-haunted main church.
But the Evil Angels have been the main draw for visitors since the ruined church was featured on Spanish TV eight years ago.
“People round here didn’t really know what was here,” says Rodríguez. “It was as if we hadn’t bothered to look up”
After the cameras left, people began wondering whether the angels were original and what they meant. What, they asked, was the significance of their fangs and the pointed caps they wore? Were the angels souls in torment, heretics, or satirical digs at the church and the Spanish Inquisition?
Some of the mystery was solved earlier this year, when the association commissioned an analysis of the red paint. It confirmed that the paint was a later addition and had been daubed over the original, altogether more benign angels.
If the news disappointed those of a more macabre disposition, it came as little surprise to the experts. José Julio García Arranz, who teaches history of art at the University of Extremadura, points out that the original decorations were made using the sgraffito technique where patterns and images are made by scraping through contrasting layers of colour. The red faces and caps of the Evil Angels, he adds, are far cruder.
Besides, García Arranz reasons, why would anyone have decorated a shrine to crucified Christ with hellish images? “The angels are singing to Christ; it’s a celestial choir,” he says. “But some of those angels have been painted over in red, and they became the famous Evil Angels. They look very fierce with their teeth and their red pointy caps, which were worn by prisoners condemned to death – by burning – by the Inquisition.”
He thinks the devilry may have happened sometime between the expropriations – when the church became a burial place – and the abolition of the Inquisition in the 1830s. “I think that, at some point in those 30 years, someone got a ladder and some paint and went off to have a go at the angels.” he says.
“It suggests that it was about the eternal punishment meted out to heretics. It said: ‘This is a cemetery and if you’re a heretic, then you’ll be damned to the flames for eternity when you die’. I think those angelic faces were used and transformed into a kind of warning.”
Rodríguez meanwhile suspects the alterations were made decades later – and for less pious reasons. “Perhaps it was something mundane or a joke,” she says. “Perhaps it was just vandalism like modern graffiti. But whoever did it has brought people here.”
If the floor beneath the dome is anything to go by, Talaván certainly doesn’t appear to live in fear of the Evil Angels. The ground is littered with cans, bottle tops and cigarette ends, all of which testify to an adolescent, rather than paranormal, infestation.
“There were never any dark tales about it – that’s all from journalists,” Rodríguez adds disapprovingly.
She wants people to appreciate the church for what it is – and for what it could mean for the town. Talaván would welcome more tourists – “but not loads” – and the restored hermitage could bring them in, along with jobs and money.
The shop in Talaván’s main square has so far sold more than 700 t-shirts, some emblazoned with the fierce angels, others with the bizarre, bowler-hatted feline fellow whose face greets visitors from an archway near the church’s entrance. But like much of rural Spain, it is slowly shrinking and today its population hovers around the 800 mark.
A proper and professional conservation effort would show the outside world how deeply the people of Talaván care about their town and its heritage. But it will need to happen soon.
“I’d like there to be a proper roof over the angels in all their splendour,” says Rodríguez, pointing to a deep crack in the dome through which an oval of white December sky is visible.
“It would be nice to have an exhibition space inside, and we could have concerts on the grass outside. That would be pretty cool, wouldn’t it?”
Like Rodríguez, García Arranz is a little baffled by the suggestion that the church’s mystery has somehow been dented by the revelation that its hideous, glowering angels are not original.
“I think it’s absolutely the other way round: this is a remarkable piece of transformation; it’s the metamorphosis of a building’s iconographic elements to give them a different message. One individual decided to change the original meaning of the place. That makes it unique.”