Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Barcelona: Monastery and Museum of Pedralbes

OK, so I'm still trawling my recent holiday in Spain for inspiration, but when you go somewhere as nice but relatively unknown as Pedralbes, I feel I should bring it to the attention of the wider world. Situated some way out in what is now a genteel northern suburb of Barcelona, this is one sight that it is well worth travelling out of the centre to see: the Monastery at Pedralbes is one of the most important Gothic monuments in Catalonia. Its cloister is famed for its delicate architecture, and it includes important frescoes by Ferrer Bassa, a student of Giotto.


The monastery was founded by Elisenda de Montcada in 1327, the young Queen of the Catalan King Jaume II. Married at just 13 years of age, when King Jaume was already an old man, the monastery was intended as a place for her to spend her widowhood. Elisenda was never a Nun, however; the early monastery included a small palace complex, which was to be demolished upon her death.

The monastery – actually a convent – was built for the _Poor Clares_, the female equivalent of the Fransiscans. Built in the Gothic style at the height of Catalonia’s Golden Age, Elisenda’s generous endowment (the Montcadas were one of Catalonia’s most powerful and richest families) meant that no expense was spared on its architecture: the three-storey cloister is one of Europe’s largest and most harmonious.

Most of main buildings and the church date from the 14th century, although it was extended and improved over subsequent decades, especially the 16th. Many of the Nuns came from wealthy families, and brought considerable endowments, used to buy religious art and other sacred objects: even the size and layout of the Nun’s cells reflected their social status.

After the 16th Century it entered a period of decline, although it continued as a convent except for a short period during the Catalan Republic in the 1930s, when the Nuns moved out to escape the attentions of the Anarchists.

As a closed order, few people were able to see its interior or Treasures. In the 1970s, the Nuns opened part of the Cloister for public viewing one morning a week, which led to the Catalan Government negotiating greater access in 1983, when the cloister and most of the original monastic buildings were opened permanently as a museum: the Nuns (still a closed order) now live in a newly-built annex.

The complex includes a Treasury representing seven centuries of religious art, sacred objects and books. The collection is both unique and important as – apart from its size and quality – it represents one of the few intact collections of mediaeval and renaissance art still located in the institution for which it was intended.

The tour

The reception leads straight onto the Cloister, in many ways the highlight of the visit. Each side has twenty nine gracefully arched sides, arranged in three storeys. The use of incredibly delicate clustered columns of marble (much stronger than stone) gives an unusually light and open feel. The columns capitals are decorated with the King and Queen’s coats of arms, a clear fusion of the secular and religious.

Immediately on the right is the chapel of St Michael, decorated in 1343 from floor to ceiling with frescoes by Ferrer Bassa, a student of Giotto. Giotto’s influence is tangible in features such as the bold use of colour, naturalistic postures and almond eyes, although it is likely that Bassa’s own students did much of the work. The themes reflect the life of Christ and the consolations of the Virgin Mary.

Next is the chapel of the tomb of Queen Elisenda. It is in the Decorated Gothic style, with the tomb itself under a large canopy. The tomb is double-sided: on the cloister side Elisenda is depicted as a widow and penitent, attended by saints and angels, on the church side as a Queen. Adjacent to this in the same chapel – and rather smaller – is the tomb of the first abbess, Fransesca ça Portella. Back in the cloister, a series of three more tombs of abbesses are set against a background of well preserved but rather more prosaic 14th century frescoes.

Next, at the beginning of the cloister’s west side, is the entrance to the Treasures of the Monastery, contained in the enormous vaulted space of the original dormitory (first floor level – there is a lift). The exhibition also describes the development and use of this space, which in the 20th century was divided into individual sleeping cells. At the end of the dormitory is another vaulted room, the Queen’s Hall, which may be the only part of Elisenda’s Palace rooms to survive. The small but impressive collection consists of paintings, alter-pieces, crosses, monstrances and a rare, complete collection of late mediaeval books of sacred monastic choir music. Flemish and Italian art are particularly well represented.

Back to the cloister, the next part of the visit includes a number of the Nun’s day cells at ground and first floor level. Most of these can only be seen through their windows, and contain altars and pieces of religious art as well as everyday objects. The size and decoration of the cells reflected the individual Nun’s secular status and wealth – somewhat at odds with the principles of monastic life, but reflecting the circumstances of its foundation. The most interesting rooms (which can be entered) are the store room (which leads to an artificial cave, used for storing perishable items), and the dispensary of herbal medicines.

The cloister gardens are worth visiting at this point: part have been laid out as a mediaeval medicinal and culinary herb garden. They contain a pool, an elaborate 18th well-head above a huge cistern, and a three-tiered fountain topped by an angel.

On the far side of the cloister is the impressive dining hall and kitchen: the latter has large stone sinks and no fewer than three cooking ranges: an early 19th century tiled range, an early 20th century coal-fired range and a modern butane stove. Further along is the huge complex of the infirmary, rebuilt in the 16th Century – one of the best preserved examples of a late mediaeval hospital complex, with four large wards, each with space for four beds. It was paid or by King Philip II and bears his Coat of Arms. Below this is the vaulted Procurator’s office, where food, wine and other goods would be stored, a passage leading to the base of the cistern, and a store room containing a series of charming 19th and 20th century dioramas of religious scenes: making such scenes for public is still widely practised in Catalonia.

Past the infirmary is the Abbey, the home of the Abbess, which contains its original 14th Century wall decorations (resembling wall hangings) and an impressive 14th Century mural of the Crucifixion. The next and final room is the Chapter House, which contains another mural of the Virgin and child, 14th Century glass windows, and an impressive ceiling boss of the Virgin with the 12 apostles.

The Church is a large but spare example of Catalan Gothic (characterised by its height and width, and lack of flying buttresses), with side chapels and an apse. Originally covered in whitewash and frescoes, its 19th Century ‘restoration’ scraped it back to bare stone walls, which lend it a rather bare feel, but highlights the scale and forms of the architecture. The most impressive monument is the other side of the tomb of Queen Elisenda, this time dressed as a Queen, under a Decorated Gothic canopy.

Opposite the main entrance is a 19th Century building, decorated with capitals and carvings – some copies - from mediaeval (mostly Romanesque) churches.


The Monastery is a 15 minute walk east along from Reina Elisenda station, the terminus of line L6 on the FGC service from Plaça de Catalunya: take the lift from the entrance hall to Passeig de la Reina Elisenda de Montcada, and turn right. Alternatively, buses 22, 63, 64 and 78 stop just outside. The entrance is through an archway and then up a short street.

There are lockers to leave bags, lavatories and drinks machines by the reception, which also has a small range of items books, postcards, etc – for sale. The ground floor of the cloister, its gardens and the Treasury are fully accessible, but some of the rooms, the Procurator’s Office and the upper gallery of the cloister are only accessible by steep stairs. The street outside is also rather unevenly cobbled.

Access to the church is not included in the price or subject to the same opening times: it is still used regularly by the Nuns. It can be seen on a more restricted basis – telephone in advance or enquire at the reception for details.

The entrance ticket is also valid at six other sites run by the City History Museum of Barcelona (MCHB), including the Park Güell Interpretation Centre, the museum-building complex at the Plaça del Rei, the Museum Verdaguer and the Santa Caterina Archaeological Interpretation Centre.

Barcelona is a wonderful city, but there's no doubting that the centre is hectic and can get oppressive in the summer heat. Pedralbes is the perfect antidote - an oasis of peace and calm. But don't just take it from me - go and see it yourself.

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