The Locksmith Who Opens the Theme of “Lazarillo de Tormes”

This is a translation of a paper I wrote in college. It’s especially worth a read if you’re interested in Catholicism and social justice or Golden Age Spanish Literature. The picaresque novel Lazarillo de Tormes was published anonymously in 1554, back when Charles V was King and Spain was the SPAIN so frequently brought up in religious debates.

The Locksmith Who Opens the Theme of Lazarillo de Tormes
The encounter between Lázaro and the locksmith in the second chapter of Lazarillo de Tormes is one of the most important scenes in the novel. Through metaphor and intertextuality, the author criticizes the practices of the Catholic Church, an audacious act in his era. He equilibrates bread of wheat and the Bread of Life to reject the Church’s position that the spiritual is more important for the poor than the physical. In addition, when the locksmith leaves the key to the safe to Lázaro to use when he wishes, the author implies that the common people can have as much access to God as the clerics.

There are three important characters in this scene: the locksmith, Lázaro, and the cleric, who isn’t present but who is the catalyst for Lázaro’s actions. The locksmith, to borrow a term from our textbook, is an “actant”: a minor character character used to advance the plot. He doesn’t have much of a personality beyond the religious terms used to describe him (which I’ll write about later). Lázaro is a poor servant. Necessity is his constant companion, including in the house of the priest, where he is dying of hunger[1] (51). He can’t leave his master because he doesn’t have enough energy in his legs to move that much (54). Like any other poor person of that period, Lázaro’s life depends on God, to the point where he prays for people to die so he can eat at their funerals (52-53). Lázaro thinks that God is responsible for both his spiritual and physical food.

Like the majority of the characters in the novel, the cleric does not have a name. The author presents him as a character type, and his faults constitute a criticism of his class. The cleric’s personality is truly brutal. A priest, by oath and by occupation, is a man of God, and he has a special responsibility to imitate Jesus Christ. Since pastors live on the donations of their townspeople, and it’s reasonable to demand them not to take advantage of their flock. Unfortunately, we soon see that the priest with whom Lázaro lives is not an example of Christian generosity. He cannot take his eyes away from the money in the offering basket (51). He gives an onion to Lázaro every four days but eats meat himself every meal (48-49). He eats the eyes, the brains, and all the other valuable parts of the meat and leaves the bones for Lázaro (50). He fusses over giving Lázaro just a little food, saying ironically, “Take, eat, triumph, because this means the world to you. You live better than the Pope” (50).

I would have been surprised if this portrayal were the limit of the author’s criticism of the clergy, but really it is just a prelude for the scene with the locksmith. Lázaro is living desperately, and the cleric, his master, is not honoring either his commercial or his religious duty to support his servant. Enter the locksmith. In his appearance, the author uses intertextuality and metaphors constantly. For example, Lázaro calls the locksmith “an angel sent…by the hand of God” (54-55). Angels appear many times in the Bible, but this occasion is most similar to Acts 5:19, when an angel frees St. Peter from prison. As that angel broke the jail bars and chains for St. Peter, this locksmith opens the ark of bread to liberate Lázaro from hunger. Lázaro says that when he asks the locksmith to open the ark, his question is “filled with the Holy Spirit.” In the same way, the Holy Spirit gave the powers of rhetoric and speaking in multiple languages to the Disciples of Christ (Acts 2:4).

It’s very important that the bread is inside an “ark,” not a box. The ark has great religious importance: during the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments stayed inside the Ark of the Covenant, and God lived there in a manner so intense that simply touching the Ark resulted in death (1 Chronicles 13:10-11). Catholics consider the tabernacle that contains the Eucharist to be a new Ark of the Covenant[2], and this is clearly the parallel the author intends in this scene. It makes the bread inside the ark of the cleric, which is necessary for life, the equal of the Eucharist, the “Bread of Life,” to mock the disinterest of the Church in the poverty of its believers.

Lázaro sees the face of God inside the Ark, as it was inside the Ark of the Covenant and as it truly is inside the Eucharist according to the Church [3]. For his part, the locksmith takes a bodigo or an oblada of bread (56). These are two words used to describe Eucharistic bread in Spain. With every phrase the parallels are more obvious: the ark is the paraíso panal (“heavenly honeycomb” or “breaded paradise”) of Lázaro (56). After he takes the pan in his mouth, “in two Creeds[4] it becomes invisible” (56). (When the disciples in Emaus recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, he disappeared.) Like all monks, and like all churchgoing Catholics on the night of Holy Thursday, Lázaro participates in “adoration of the bread,” contemplating it and giving it a thousand kisses (58). The only thing the author doesn’t do is spell out his point in capital letters.

The other revolutionary argument in this scene is that the ordinary people can commune with God as much as the priest. This occurs when the locksmith leaves the key to the ark with Lázaro (56). Afterwards, he opens it whenever he can to adore the bread, but he doesn’t abuse this right: he is so careful that the priest does not realize for a long time who is eating the bread in the ark (56-59, 70). In this way the author says the poor not only have the right to communicate with God; they have the maturity to do so, as well.

The Catholic Church has existed for two thousand years with innumerable cycles of decline and reform. Lazarillo de Tormes was written during one of these periods. The comparison of bread with the Eucharist isn’t subtle; it’s shameless and intended to challenge the Spanish Church. In addition to this episode, Lázaro tells us of a corrupt indulgence salesman, a perverted friar, a lecherous priest who is the lover of Lázaro’s wife, and a meeting with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, but these criticisms were not sharp enough to kill. After this came the Counter-Reformation, and the evolution of the Church has continued for centuries with council after council. The great majority of priests already live at the same level as their followers. Catholic charities are very active: the Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa of Calcutta are known throughout the world, for example. The church is much more open to its believers, who can now read the Bible and hear Mass in their own languages, and the consecration of the Eucharist now takes place in front of the believers rather than behind the priest [5]. Regardless, a problem can’t be solved until it’s identified, and Lazarillo de Tormes was essential. Although it was considered dangerous in its time, ultimately its ideas helped revitalize the Church.


[1] Rico, Francisco, Ed. Lazarillo de Tormes. Catedra: Madrid, 2005.

[2] “The Baltimore Catechism: No. 3, Lesson 8.”

[3] Another interesting parallel is Luke 24:35, in which the disciples recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread in Emmaus.

[4] The creed is a traditional prayer that includes all the essential beliefs of the church.

[5] …although this change did not occur until the Second Vatican Council in 1950.

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