The Royal Monastery of St. Mary of Pedralbes is the finest standing Gothic complex in Barcelona. It includes a large monastic church, three-story arcaded cloister, chapter house, chapels, gardens, and other buildings. For me, it has always held a special place in my heart because my family has long had an historical association with this place. For example, the family has a chapel in the monastic church which we use when there for Christmas, and one of my great-aunts, who served as abbess during the Civil War, is buried in the cloister. As a small boy, when I lived in Pedralbes for a brief time, I used to run across the square to go visit the statue of the Madonna and Child inside the church, to keep them company and bring them treats.
Pedralbes was founded as a Poor Clares convent by Queen Elisenda of Montcada in 1326, who served as the community’s first abbess. The name of the location comes from the Latin “petras albas” – “pedras albas” in Catalan – meaning “white stones”, because of the unusually high quality of white building stone which was found here.
Elisenda de Montcada of the powerful Catalan noble house of Montcada was the third and final wife of King Jaume II, one of the greatest of the Catalan kings, who had such a robust constitution that he outlived his two previous wives. In 1325, Queen Elisenda sought permission from Pope John XXII to found a convent, which was granted and the community founded in 1326. King Jaume died the same year, and Queen Elisenda decided to retire to the convent herself, overseeing its construction. Since the establishment opened in 1327, it has remained a functioning convent in the hands of the Poor Clares, an order which was new to Catalonia at the time, but which the Queen thought would bring a new vigor to religious life in Barcelona.
When she retired to Pedralbes, the Queen kept many of her prerogatives, including living apart from the other sisters in a small palace or villa that was built for her in part of the complex. Because she lived for a considerable amount of time following the death of her husband, and because of her wealth and political connections, Queen Elisenda managed to make Pedralbes a very well-endowed monastic community, and her counsel was sought by kings, prelates and government officials until her death. To this day, the Abbess of Pedralbes enjoys certain privileges with respect to the city government that would be considered astounding in the United States, including the right to order the Mayor and the City Council to dine with her on particular occasions. As a result, the nuns at Pedralbes were usually drawn from the wealthiest and most prominent Catalan families.
The church itself was designed by the same architects who built the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, and features the same polygonal columns and geometric, Cistercian simplicity that came to exemplify the best of Catalan Gothic. Like Santa Maria del Mar, the monastic church of Santa Maria de Pedralbes was finished rather quickly, explaining its very harmonious interior. The three-story cloister was built beginning around the same time, and completed by the early 1400’s.
In 1346, the Queen commissioned artist Ferrer Bassa to fresco the interior of the Chapel of St. Michael inside the cloister, and today this remains one of the great artistic treasures of the monastery. Bassa’s biography remains something of a mystery, but art historians believe that he studied in Siena, which would explain the very Sienese-Cuatrocento looking figures which cover the inside of this chapel. By bringing this infusion of the latest style of Tuscan art into Catalonia, Bassa had an enormous impact on Catalan art of the period.
Following Queen Elisenda’s death in 1367, her residence was torn down as per her Will, although remains of it were re-discovered in the 1970’s. One of the more unusual aspects of Queen Elisenda’s burial is her tomb itself. On the inside of the monastic church, her sepulchre sits on one wall of the sanctuary, and we see Queen Elisenda in full royal regalia. However the other side of the sepulchre faces the cloister, and on that side she is dressed as a Poor Clare.
Pedralbes’ importance and holdings continued to grow however, for many centuries, and its relationship with the government in Barcelona kept it well-protected. Although the entire complex originally was surrounded by walled fortifications, today only two of the gate towers remain, at either end of the entrance to the square in front of the monastic church. It suffered scant damage during the Civil War, in part because of its long, good relationship with the city and the fact that it lay far to the north of downtown, although the Poor Clares had to be spirited away to France temporarily to escape the Leftists all the same.
Today, although sadly there are far fewer nuns left than their ought to be, Pedralbes is still a functioning cloistered convent. However many of the grander spaces have been converted into museum spaces to show daily life in the Middle Ages as well as the numerous artistic treasures brought to the convent as part of the dowries with which nuns originally came to join the community. If you visit, you may even see one of the nuns running back and forth getting ready for mass or the Divine Office.