[N.B.: For updated fotos I took during a recent trip, please see below…]
Sant Pere de les Puel.les is perhaps one of the saddest architectural losses to the Church in Barcelona, for it was not only a very ancient monastic community, but a large and beautiful Romanesque complex. The Catalan style of Romanesque art and architecture was, without exaggeration, among the best in the world, and this royal institution was lavished upon by a succession of monarchs. The remaining church is only a dim shadow of what the original monastery which stood on this site for over one thousand years must have looked like.
A church dedicated to Saint Saturninus (martyred in Zaragoza, Spain in 303 A.D.) originally stood here, located just outside the old Roman walls of the city, as early as 801 A.D. according to some preserved inscriptions. It was expanded under the patronage of the Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious (known as Lluís El Piadós in Catalonia), King of France from 814-840, who was the son of the Emperor Charlemagne. At that time Catalonia was, in a sense, a part of France, as the Counts of Barcelona were vassals of the King of the Franks, who ruled the city in the King’s name. It was only later that the Counts of Barcelona asserted their independence, beginning in 985, and began to build their own empire and royal dynastic traditions without deference to the Frankish throne.
Tradition says that a community of Benedictine nuns took over the church in the 800’s, thus accounting for the expansion of the original church building at that time. During reconstruction after the 1905 sacking of the church, some inscriptions indicating a presence from that 9th Century period, as well as examination of several of the columns in the northern end of the building, have led some scholars to believe that the Church of Saint Saturninus and its gravestones had been torn down and used in the construction of the new church. However other scholars think it more likely that the community was founded between 900-925 A.D, and construction of the church began about this time.
Whether new or old, once the Benedictines arrived the church was re-dedicated to Saint Peter, but eventually acquired the moniker “de les Puelles”. “Puel.les” is Catalan for either “novices” or girls”, since the young ladies of the convent were supposedly great beauties from the nobility or wealthy merchant classes. Some stories say that a few of these women deliberately scarred themselves or altered their appearance, so as to enter the convent and escape rape or marriage without their consent.
The first documentary evidence regarding the community is a report which, amazingly, is still preserved in the monastic archive. It recounts the ceremonies for the dedication of the monastic church dedicated to St. Peter the Apostle in 945 A.D., over which presided Count Sunyer and Countess Riquilda of Barcelona, as well as Barcelona’s Bishop Guilará, and Adelaida, the first Abbess of the community – who also happened to be the daughter of Sunyer and Riquilda.
During Al-Mansur’s raids a few decades later, the monastery and church were sacked, and had to be restored. Building projects continued through the 11th and 12th centuries. The city walls were expanded in the 13th century by King Jaume I, as a result of which the monastery was then protected inside the city, with the adjoining fortress bastion named for Sant Pere de les Puel.les.
Like other medieval monastic communities with royal favor, by 1072 the monastery had become so powerful that the nuns were given independence from episcopal control in Barcelona and came under the direct control of Rome via a Papal bull. A supplemental Papal bull reconfirming the nuns’ independence from diocesan control was issued in 1193. This was probably much to the chagrin of the diocese, which no doubt coveted the monastery’s substantial income. This tension reasserted itself over the years, such as in 1756, when Sant Pere’s then-Abbess Teresa Sans was excommunicated by the Bishop of Barcelona after she was shown to have appropriated certain powers of the bishopric to herself.
The decline of the community began under Napoleon, when the nuns had to flee the convent from 1808 until 1814. Eventually they were able to return, and spent several years trying to recoup their losses. By 1835 however, the nuns were expelled from the monastery during an anti-clerical uprising, as indeed were numerous other communities throughout Spain. Regrettably, the monastery then became a prison.
After this expulsion, the Benedictines briefly returned, but occupied the remaining archive of the monastery until a new home could be found for the community. The nuns decided to move to the then-village of Sarrià, in the north end of Barcelona, which was much safer than remaining downtown. Construction of their new convent was completed by 1879, and remains the home of the community today.
In 1873 the cloister and most of the outbuildings of Sant Pere de les Puel.les were destroyed during an anti-clerical uprising. In 1909, during the aptly named “Tragic Week”, when many of the city’s convents were burned and looted by Leftists yet again, the monastic church itself was burned. The church was partially restored two years later, in a somewhat haphazard fashion, and eventually became the parish church of Sant Pere de les Puelles. Following the Civil War from 1936-1939, the church was restored and returned to its parochial functions in 1945.