Thursday, December 05, 2013

Una Joia del Gòtic Català* - Part I

  It is a "jewel of Catalonian Gothic*" according the Barcelona tourist website and it would be difficult to argue with this description of Reial Monestir de Santa Maria de Pedralbes. On our first visit to Barcelona several years ago we had wanted to visit it but time just ran out - we weren't about to let that happen a second time. The route on the Hop-on Hop-off bus isn't the most direct from Plaça de Catalunya - its a rather circuitous trip via La Sagrada Familla, Park Guell, The Tramvia Blau and several sights in between. But it was worth both the hour it took us to get there and the three year wait.
Il Reial Monestir de santa Maria Pedralbes is approached today through one of the medieval
gates between  the defense towers of the old walls.  Its position outside the city made
it vulnerable to attack and the Barcelona civil guard were charged with its protection.
  Founded in 1326 by Queen Elisenda de Montcada as a house for the Poor Clares, it remains a working monastery for the order today but on a vastly reduced scale.  The Order is housed in a small part of the original complex; the major buildings have been a museum since 1983.  The church is still used by the Sisters for their daily worship and serves as a parish church for the local residents.

The cobblestone street leads up past buildings that are currently used by the order - greatly reduced
in size to a handful of nuns.  The order has been expelled several times from Pedrables but has returned each time. 
  In 1328, a year after the death of her husband, James II, Elisenda moved into a palace next to the monastery and lived there until her death in 1364.  Though she did not take religious orders she was closely involved in the workings of the monastery; her presence encouraged the nobility to send their daughters - those that they couldn't arrange advantageous marriages for - to the monastery and endow it with votives and gifts of the finest workmanship and highest value.

Santa Maria de Pedrables faces a large and pleasant square which is now part of a residential complex. 
At one time it was monastery grounds which occupied much of the area.  The building is a considered one
of the best examples of Catalan Gothic.

A broad expanse of stairs once led to gardens and the palace of Queen Elisenda - it now leads to a residential area of Sarrià.  The sector has always been considered one of the more desirable places to live in Barcelona.
  When the church and monastery were built they were on a royal estate in the township of Sarrià a good distance from Barcelona.  Under orders from the Queen the complex was under the protection of the city and the civil guard was charged with it care.  Because of its position it was originally encircled by defense walls and towers - only remnants remain today.  The approach is through one of the original defense gates, up a steep cobblestone road lined with white stone (pertas albes - Pedralbes) buildings that included guest houses and monastery outbuildings.

  Queen Elisenda chose the site for the new monastery herself on one of the royal estates in the area of Pedralbes - a name which derives from the Latin Petras Albas or white stones.  The first stone was laid by the monarchs in March 1326.  By May of the following year work was sufficiently advanced that the first community of nuns - from the Convent of Saint Antony in Barcelona - took up residence. 

  The church is attached to the monastery but only accessible to it through the upper cloister passages leading to the Nun's gallery.   The nave is spanned by ribbed arches and the sanctuary has a retable by the Catalan painter Jaume Huguet.  The austerity of the interior is broken by glorious 14th century stained glass in the chancel and a rose window window at the gallery end.  Unusually for the time there are three choir levels:  upper, lower and a separate Friars' choir.

Unusually the tomb of Queen Elisenda is double-sided and depicts her in the two periods of her adult life. 
Facing the church is the Queen (below) while it is the widow and penitent that faces towards the cloister.

  An unusual feature is the tomb of the founder - Elisenda's resting place is two sided.  One side is built into the wall of the chancel of Santa Maria and the other into the wall of the cloister of the Monastery. The two tombs are mirror images save one important detail:  the figure of Elisenda facing the church is that of a Queen, the figure facing the cloister that of the widow and penitent.   The two phases of her life commemorated equally.

  As impressive as the soaring and solemn Gothic splendor of the church is what caught my attention were a simple row of  pews** at the back of the nave.   It would have been easy to miss them as the church was dark and my camera had been acting up but I was able to get a few photos of the charming, and in at least one case amusing, grotesques that were carved into the pew ends.  They are the work of an anonymous wood carver and the pews themselves are not in the best of shape - showing the marks of five centuries of worship.

  I have no idea what these creatures symbolize - if indeed they are anything other than the fantasies of the carver's imagination but I found them beguiling as so often these easily overlooked little details can be.

  These two creatures have a slightly Jurassic Park look to them - dinosaurs? Probably not but whatever they are they are very unhappy with each others presence in the pew. Sort of like a few people I remember from my church going days.

  These two are casually ignoring each other.  The one on the left seems to be grooming his rather lush tail; while the one of the right is just preening.  Again I am reminded of people I've seen sitting in pews like this of a Sunday morning.  Could the carver have been making a satirical jab at church goers?

  This bird - a peacock? - and what appears to be a squirrel are pairing off against each other.  My money's on the rodent - it looks pretty vicious from here.

  But the most delightful of these fantasy images has to be this marvelous carving of a dog tugging on an old man's beard.  Did it have some sort of meaning that is lost to us today?  Does it record some bit of local folklore in Sarrià?  Was the carver getting his own back at someone he disliked?  Or again is it just a little piece of artistic fantasy meant to intrigue - and in this solemn place bring a smile? 

  It is little details like this that have always fascinated me - that and the incredible talent of the wood carver in creating this small - easily overlooked - treasures.

 **Until I was writing this post I hadn't thought much of the etymology of the word "pew"; apparently it comes from the Middle French - "puwe" which means a seat.  It was first used to refer to seats in a balcony but later came to refer to benches or seats. 

05 December - 1766: In London, James Christie holds his first sale.

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1 comment:

Debra She Who Seeks said...

Those pews are one of a kind alright! The first couple of animals look like rats to me, but surely not?