Thursday, December 12, 2013

Una Joia del Gòtic Català* - Part II

The Cloister of the Monastery of Pedralbes

Often I have found that in the midst of many a bustling city there is a place of quiet and peace:  as an example Ibun Tulun  Mosque in Cairo, the chapel of St Faith at Westminster Abbey or the Cloister of the Monastery of Pedralbes in Barcelona.  On the day of our visit, unlike La Sagrada Famillia, Las Ramblas and other sites in the city, there were maybe twenty other people who were wandering leisurely through the Monastery complex.  Though known it would seem that it is not on everyone's bucket list of "must-sees" in Barcelona - a shame in one way but a blessing in another.  It allowed us to visit the monastery and its precincts undisturbed and enjoy the peacefulness.

The tomb of Queen Elisenda: this is the Cloister side of her double-sided tomb.   Unlike the sculpture on church side, here she is divested of all symbols of royalty and wears the habit of a penitent.  She did not take holy orders but took part in the daily life of the Monastery after the death of her husband.
As I mentioned in my previous post the Monastery was built by Queen Elisenda on land she had purchased from Admiral Bernat de Sarriá.  The area - named after the good Admiral - was an independent township and remained so until 1927 when it was incorporated into Barcelona.  The Monastery itself remained in the hands of the Poor Clares - save for a brief period during Catalan Revolt of 1640 - until it was purchased by the corporation of Barcelona in 1971.  A new Monastery was built nearby for the small community that remained of this once great house.  The site had been declared a Spanish national monument as early as 1931 but was not opened as a museum until 1983.

There is no access to the monastery from the church - a separate entrance leads you through a small series of halls and opens up into the cloister, the largest in the world.   A spacious and graceful area, it is a three story structure with twenty-six columns on each of the four sides.  The main level was part of the original Monastery, the second level was added in 1419 and the third level later the same century.  The cloister garden was used to grow medicinal plants and flowers - the nuns were known for the elaborate bouquets of roses, orange flowers and jasmine they made for the celebration of holy days in Barcelona. 

The Cloister is three stories high, with twenty-six graceful Gothic columns on each side, making it one of the largest cloisters in the world.   The first level was part of the original building; the second story, in the same style, was added in 1419.  The third story, added in the late 1400s, is squatter and supported by thicker more widely spaced columns giving it an almost Romanesque look.
Following the suggested route the first enclosure off the cloister is St Michael's Chapel - one of the treasures of Pedralbes.  The chapel is decorated with murals by Ferrer Bassa and depicts the Joys of the Virgin and the Passion.  Painted between 1343-1346 they were contracted by  Francesca ça Portella, the niece of Queen Elisenda, who was Abbess of the Monastery from 1336 to 1364:
It is agreed between the lady abbess of Pedralbes and Ferrer Bassa that the said Ferrer shall paint in fine colours, with oil, the Chapel of St. Michael ........

And the abbess shall pay Ferrer Bassa two hundred and fifty sous, his food and that of those who help the painter in the said work; and out of the two hundred and fifty sous, the said abbess shall pay the said Ferrer Bassa one hundred sous in advance and the remaining one hundred and fifty sous when the work is finished.
Extract from the contract in the Monastery archives
There seems to have been some dispute between the good lady abbess and the painter and he many not have received all the money due him.  It has been suggest that much of the work was not by the artist himself but by his son Arnau or an Italian assistant.  Bassa was greatly influenced by the Italian school and followed the Gioto techniques of both "fresco" and "secco" painting in his work.  He also used many technical innovations that had been introduced in Tuscany in the early 14th century.

The tomb of Francesca ça Portella is in the same niche as that of her aunt, Queen Elisenda.  She was Abbess for almost 30 years and commissioned the painting of Capella Sant Miquel by Ferrer Bassa in 1343.  It is said she intended the chamber as her own day cell.
 It has also been suggested that Abbess Francesca's original intent had been to use the chamber as her day cell and it may well have served that purpose.  Over the 700 year history of the Monastery it has seen several uses other than that of chapel.  At some point it was the Monastery archive and between 1801-1870 it served as a cloakroom then as the Abbot's cell.   While it was being put to those different uses the murals were protected behind furniture and hangings until they were  rediscovered in the late 19th century.

A left click on this panorama of the Murals of the Capella de Sant Miquel will take you to an extensive website devoted to the project.  It is "worth the detour" for the rich animations and virtual tours its offers.  I'm still exploring it.

Unfortunately the Chapel is currently closed and a massive restoration project is underway.  However there was a fascinating exhibition on the current two stage project: first a detailed investigation of the work and techniques involved then stabilizing the paintings and restoring them to their original splendor.  A feature of the exhibition was a short film showing how the murals were painted - I suggest that you use the expand symbols on the control panel to get the full effect.

If we could not view the "jewel" of the Monastery there was still enough to fascinate in both cloister and in the rooms accessible to the public.  As well as the Cloister side of Queen Elisenda's doubled-sided tomb the wall adjacent to the church was lined with the tombs of women who had served as Mother Abbess or were influential in the history of the life of the Monastery.  The final resting places of Abbess Francesa,  Beatriu de Fenollet, Constança de Cardona and Elionor de Pinós are examples of Catalonian Gothic sculpture, decoration and architecture at its peak.

The south wall of the Cloister contains the tombs of several of the women who were influential in the foundation and workings of the Monastery in the 13-14th centuries.  Their resting places are amongst the finest  examples of Gothic sculpture, painting and architecture in Catalonia.
The passageways on two levels give public entrance to a series of day cells, which provided the sisters with their own personal retreats, as well as the offices, an infirmary, the refectory and kitchen, chapter house and dormidor or the nuns' sleeping quarters.   The later - a enormous timbered-ceiling room - is stunning in its simplicity and looks almost modern in its design.  It now houses many of the votive treasures given to the Monastery as well as the day to day furniture and utensils used by the Poor Clares over the 700 year history of the complex.

This large second floor room was the Dormidor - or common sleeping quarters - and now houses many of the Monastery treasures.  Built to display the artwork the contemporary pop-art coloured walls cannot hid the clean, austere lines of the original stone and wood work of the room.  An almost modern (it is in fact from the 15th century) spiral staircase leads to the the third floor and the quarters of the Lady Abbess.

The Chapter House was constructed in 1419 however it is believed that part of the stain glass dates from the 1300s when the Monastery was first constructed.  Sadly my camera would not pick up the glory of the stain which includes the personal coat of arms of Queen Elisenda.
The Gardens of the Cloister follow the standard pattern of four quadrants surrounding a central fountain.  Each quadrant serves its function within the quadrangle:  orange trees in one, herbs in another, flower garden in the third and well-head in the fourth.  As well it serves as a cool, quiet place to spend the day during the heat of summer.

The Cloister quadrangle followed the pattern of the time - a central fountain surrounded by four quadrants each serving an important function in monastery life:  An herb garden, a flower garden, a rest area of shade and a well-head.

Looking at the artistic wealth of the Monastery it is perhaps easy to be slightly cynical about the "Poor Clares" however it must be kept in mind that many of the sisters of the congregation came from privilege.  Most were noblewomen and the founder herself was royalty and they practiced the arts of the gentlewomen of their time as well as observing the rules of their order.

A gentlewoman of the period would be expected to excel in the art of needlework and the good sisters of the Monastery were no exception.  They worked vestments for both their Church of Santa Maria and for other parishes in the region of Sarriá and nearby Barcelona. The red chasuble was meant for a festive mass while the black figured with the symbols of the Passion was possibly for an event during Holy Week.

It is interesting to note that in the early years of the 19th century, the victim of the French Revolution and advancing secularization, the Order of Poor Clares declined everywhere in Europe except Spain.  In an 1909 census there were 247 monasteries with 5543 confessed sisters in Spain - nearly a third of the order at the time.  A search for the current state of the Order has produced no numbers but in the past decade there has been a resurgence in Spain of entry into the novitiate.  Many of the women are mid-aged, well-educated, professionals - a historical pattern set by their predecessors.  

As a side note: In one of those strange traditions, its origins lost in the fog of history, on the Feast Day of Saint Eulàlia the Alicante of Barcelona brings a dozen eggs as a gift to the sisters of the Monastery.  This may be because it is believed that the Saint (who is the patron of Barcelona) was born in  Sarriá.  But why eggs, why a dozen and how exactly this guarantees good fortune in the following year has not been explained.  Nor is it mentioned if the Mayor stays for a breakfast frittata.

December 12 -1915: President of the Republic of China, Yuan Shikai, announces his intention to reinstate the monarchy and proclaim himself Emperor of China.

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1 comment:

Ur-spo said...

I enjoyed this series: thank you for posting them.