The Cistercians have a long history in the building of Barcelona, as well as throughout Catalonia. The impact of both Cistercian architecture and spirituality cannot be underestimated in the development of the clean-lined, geometric version of Gothic adopted by the Crown and by the Archdiocese. Unfortunately, perhaps in part because the Cistercian life is not an easy one, the Order itself has declined significantly and there are few members of this community left in Barcelona, even as tourists admire their ideas in stone form at places like the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar.
One of the few remaining communities of Cistercian nuns can be found at the Monastery of St. Mary of Valldonzella, located in the hills above the city. Although there are mentions of an early Cistercian religious community of women living here as far back as 1175, what is known for certain is that in 1226 the Bishop of Barcelona placed the community under the control of the monks at the Monastery of Sant Cugat, just over the mountains in what is now suburban Barcelona. By 1237 both the nuns at Valldonzella and the monks at Sant Cugat had formally joined the Cistercian community within the Benedictines.
The following centuries represent a series of some great highs but also some terrible disasters for the Cistercian nuns who, as a result of perils from robbers, wars, plague, and revolutions, ended up moving to and from the Valldonzella area and down into the city for protection numerous times. During better times, they were favored by royalty, as King Joan I maintained a residence nearby, and would come to stay here from time to time in private quarters to take advantage of the abundant game in the area. King Martin I came up here from Barcelona to get out of the cramped city quarters and recuperate from illness. When he eventually died, his widow Queen Margarida retired here to join the order of Cistercian nuns.
However, not all was pleasant on the hillside. The nuns lost their dwellings to decay and violence, became pawns in religious and political infighting, and had to flee to other neighborhoods in Barcelona or even to other cities in order to save their lives. Throughout their many wanderings and losses however, the nuns managed to preserve a 13th century image of the Virgin and Child known as “Our Lady of the Choir”, which has continued to inspire them, and they have brought the image with them wherever they have gone for the past 800 years.
In 1913 the nuns returned to Valldonzella, following yet another period of destruction and exile that began during the Leftist uprisings of 1909, and work began on a new home for the community. The resulting structure, with its chapel, cloister, and outbuildings, took nearly a decade to build, but the end result was that the nuns finally had a home back on the hillside where they were first founded as a community, and which – for the moment at least – seems to be secure. Bern Martorell i Puig, the architect of the complex, was a contemporary of Gaudí, Puig i Caldafach, and other great Catalan builders of the early 20th century. His design for the nuns is typical of the Catalan architectural style known as “Modernisme”, in that it has a mixture of Gothic, Romanesque, Moorish, and other historical influences, with dashes of Art Nouveau, that in combination create an interesting whole.