The Romanesque Monastery of St. Michael is one of those instances where the title of the building is just as complete a fabrication as the building itself. While the chapel of the building is dedicated to St. Michael, the structure is neither from the Romanesque period, nor was it ever an actual monastery. However, it is indeed a beautiful building, popular with locals and tourists alike, and a place to step away from the myriad of museums and entertainment venues on surrounding Montjuic in order to pray, or to collect oneself and reflect.
In 1929 Barcelona hosted the Universal Exposition, one of those World’s Fair-type events popular from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century designed to draw in tourists, politicans and business leaders, and thereby add to the local economy. The site for the fair was the mountain of Montjuic, the mountain which rises unexpectedly out of the city harbor and then falls back into the sea again. Holding the event in 1929 was not such a smart thing to do of course, since the worldwide stock market crash that year marked the arrival of the Great Depression. Nevertheless, a number of iconic and important buildings went up in Barcelona for the fair, including the Palau Nacional (now the National Art Museum), and Mies van der Rohe’s seminal German Pavilion, which had a profound impact not only on the direction of modern architecture but furniture and interior design as well: the iconic Barcelona chair, found in every hipster hotel and lounge around the world, was created for this structure.
Along more traditional lines, the great Catalan architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch came up with the concept of the “Poble Espanyol” or “Spanish Village” to be built on the site of the fair, which would allow visitors to take an architectural walking tour around the many different regional styles of architecture in Spain. Some critics have dismissed this as a kind of pre-Disney Epcot Center, but Puig i Cadafalch and the other architects who worked on the project took care to study details of moldings, balustrades, roof lines, sculptural decoration, paving stones, and so on. One does feel, in wandering about the complex, that one has suddenly come across a flower-garlanded, whitewashed street and patio in Andalusia, or a somewhat heavy and forbidding square in Old Castile.
Architects Francesc Folguera and Ramon Reventós, aided by art critic Miquel Utrillo and painter Xavier Nogués, developed the plan for the village along the lines Puig i Cadafalch had come up with. This was not going to be an exuberant, innovative design, for those times of experimental architecture had, by this point, more or less come to an end in Barcelona. Gaudí and Domènech i Montaner, the other two greats from Barcelona’s exuberant architectural period of 1880-1920, had died only a couple of years before, and despite having learned from them both, Puig i Cadafalch and those who followed him set off to explore more traditional, monumental forms of architecture, mixing the Romanesque with the Baroque to create imposing churches and public buildings of heavy stone rather than sparkling glass and mosaic.
The structure which dominates the entire complex is the Catalan-style building known as the Romanesque Monastery of St. Michael. Appropriately enough, it is not located in the nucleus of the village itself, but set on a hill inside the grounds, overlooking the complex, surrounded by trees and wildflowers. The building, oftentimes simply referred to as the “L’Església Romànica” or “The Romanesque Church”, is a hybrid of various Romanesque structures built during the Romanesque period of 1000-1200 around Catalonia, somewhat similar to the way in which The Cloisters museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City was created from elements taken from medieval monasteries or re-created in imitation of them.
The basic design for the building was taken from that of the Monastery of St. Sebastian in the town of Bages, outside of Barcelona. From the same town, the design of the cloister of the Monastery of St. Benedict was copied for the structure at the Poble Espanyol. The bell tower is a copy of the church tower in the town of Taradell in the Pyrenees, while the portal is copied from that of a monastery in the province of Girona, along the French border.
The entire thing is certainly built to last, with careful attention to detail, but what may stun the visitor is that the entire complex, including the mock-monastery and all of the buildings in the village, were only supposed to last for six months! The construction methods employed were so expert that, along with proper maintenance and upkeep, these supposedly temporary structures are now nearing their first century of age. (Who can predict as much for what the Cathedral of Los Angeles California will look like, one hundred years from now?)
Mass is not celebrated at the chapel regularly, in our increasingly secular times, so the Blessed Sacrament is not reserved here. If you are lucky, you may be able to attend mass in the chapel during certain times of the year: for example, the mass and blessing of palms on Palm Sunday is very popular with children, who can then play in the gardens after mass and picnic. In addition, if you bring your own palm frond – and Catalan palm fronds are very elaborately woven and decorated things that look more like medieval staves, then you get into the amusement park for free.
The Archdiocese continues to hold administrative offices in the structure for very good reason however, as although regular masses are not held here, from its opening the chapel quickly became, and remains to this day, a popular site for nuptial masses. This stems in part due to its photogenic nature, with reproductions of Romanesque wall frescoes, tranquil cloisters, and lush grounds. It is also due to the smaller scale of the structure, since the chapel is small enough to seat around 100 people, and its bucolic yet urban location overlooking the city (as well as having a separate entrance from the rest of the theme park), gives ease of access to both public transportation and parking for automobiles at the site.