Santa Maria de Valldonzella

Santa Maria de ValldonzellaMonestir de Santa Maria de Valldonzella
Built: 1913-1922
Founded: Before 1175
Function: Cistercian convent
Address: Del Cister 41-45

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.

Santa Maria de Montalegre

MontalegreEsglésia de Santa Maria de Montalegre
Built: 1888-1902
Founded: 1362
Function: Parish church; former monastic church
Address: Valldonzella, 13

While the present building is fairly new by Barcelona standards, there has been a church dedicated to Our Lady of Montalegre (“Mountjoy”) on this site for nearly 700 years. The Order of Canonesses of St. Mary of Montalegre was founded around a hermitage dedicated to Our Lady of Joy (“Alegre”) about the year 1100 in Tiana, a town some miles outside of Barcelona. As they community grew in size, the nuns were eventually able to build a priory near the town, which was completed by 1265.

Thanks to the generosity of a benefactor, in the 1362 the nuns were given land just outside of the then-city walls of Barcelona, and built a new priory to Our Lady of Montalegre there. The order continued to grow, and absorbed the sisters from two other priories into their numbers. Unfortunately, as happened with a number of religious orders during the Renaissance, the Canonesses eventually became somewhat lax in their following of the Augustinian Rule they had adopted at their founding.

As part of the reforms implemented after the Council of Trent, the Archdiocese came down rather harshly on the nuns, who refused to follow the rules of the cloister required by their rule. In 1573 then-Archbishop Martinez de Villar banned the entry of new women to the novitiate of the Order; this effectively sealed its fate. The Order was officially dissolved in 1593 by order of Pope Clement VIII.

In 1598 the old buildings of the monastery were converted for use by the Archdiocese as a seminary, a role which they continued to play until the premises grew too small and a new seminary was built in 1772. The complex then mouldered until the beginning of the 19th century, when it was sold to the municipal government and converted for use as the city’s House of Charity, or municipal almshouse. It continued to serve this purpose until 1957, when the city moved these facilities to a new location.

The old medieval church at the monastery, which was in a poor state of preservation, was torn down and replaced with the present structure; this was completed in 1902. As was too often the case, the Leftists got their hands on the church during the Civil War in 1936, and although the building itself was not harmed, any artwork that the Lefties could get their hands on, they destroyed. Restoration began in 1940, and the interior of the church was restored to much of its original beauty.

After the city had moved their charitable functions to another part of the city, the complex once again had lost its purpose and maintenance began to be deferred. The municipal government then gave the church back to the Archdiocese, which began to seek for a new tenant for the building. It found this in Opus Dei, who were given possession of the building in 1967 and inaugurated new restoration efforts.

Santa Llúcia

Santa LlúciaCapella de Santa Llúcia
Built: 1257-1268
Founded: Before 1000 A.D.
Function: Chapel
Address: Santa Llúcia 3

Santa Llúcia is probably the best-preserved Romanesque ecclesiastical structure still standing in Barcelona. While the redecoration of the interior occurred from time to time as tastes changed, from an architectural standpoint the survival of this beautiful little chapel in virtually pristine shape over the past nearly 800 years is truly marvelous. I would speculate this has something to do with its style: by the time the chapel was built, the Romanesque style with its barrel vaults, curved windows, and dark interiors was already nearly out of fashion, and the Gothic style was beginning to take hold. For example, only a couple of decades after the construction of Santa Llúcia, the old Romanesque Cathedral just down the street was torn down and construction began on the Gothic style Cathedral one admires today.

Because the cathedral cemetery was located in this area, just outside the northern end of the old Roman walls, there is evidence that some type of funerary chapel had stood here since at least the 10th century, if not earlier. The present building was constructed between 1257 and 1268 on the orders of Bishop Arnau de Gurb, whose tomb is located inside. When built, it was located to one side of the Cathedral cemetery, and the then-standing 11th century Cathedral was much smaller than the current structure. With the demolition of the old cathedral at the end of the 13th century and construction of the new, as well as the building of the new Cathedral cloister, the tombs were relocated into the cloister itself, and the chapel became physically attached to the north end of the cloister by the end of the 14th century, and is now considered a part of the Cathedral complex.

The chapel was originally dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Virgin Martyrs from the early period of Christian persecutions, of whom St. Lucy was one. Inside were altars honoring St. Agatha, St. Lucy, and other victims of the Romans. At one time it was popularly referred to, admittedly somewhat spuriously, as the “Chapel of Eleven Thousand Virgins”; today Lucy is the only one of these early Christian martyrs whose name is still attached to the structure. This is due to a miracle which supposedly occurred in 1298, when the parents of a girl who had lost her vision visited the chapel and prayed for St. Lucy’s intercession, and their daughter’s sight was restored.

St. Lucy is well-known as the patroness of the blind, but for some reason she is also revered in Barcelona as the patron saint of fashion designers, and both groups come to visit the chapel on her feast day of December 13th. Her feast day is also the beginning of the Feria de Santa Llúcia, which runs for ten days in the square and streets surrounding her chapel and the Cathedral. Here one can buy Nativity scene figures, as well as other traditional Christmas decorations (including the infamous caga tio and caganer.)

A curiosity on the exterior of the building is the medieval “cana barcelonesa”, which is a sort of attached column carved into the NE corner of the facade. During the Middle Ages the area around Santa Llúcia held a local market, and the City Council had this 5-foot column carved to indicate the official yardstick or meter stick of the city. If a dispute arose among buyer and seller as to the dimensions of a particular product, they could bring the product here for an impartial measurement.

Sant Pacià

Sant PaciàEsglésia de Sant Pacià
Built: 1876-1881
Founded: 1850
Function: Parish church; former religious community/school
Address: Monges 21

St. Patrick, or Sant Pacià as he is known in Catalan, is a saint whose popularity around the world as a patron for churches is well-known; Barcelona is no exception. One of the more interesting aspects of this pretty church dedicated to St. Patrick, lavishly decorated both inside and out, is the fact that its floor mosaic and significant parts of the interior were designed by Catalonia’s great architect, Antoni Gaudí. Surprisingly, perhaps because it is not in the center of town, it is not very well-known, even among Gaudí aficionados.

Today the neighborhood of Sant Andreu de Palomar is home to some 50,000 people, and an important transportation center. However the surrounding area was sparsely populated until Barcelona’s industrial revolution dramatically increased the size of the local population. Subsequently, it was formally absorbed into Barcelona at the end of the 19th century, along with many other formerly far-flung corners of the city.

In 1850 the pastor of the local parish church, naturally enough dedicated to St. Andrew, asked two of his sisters – both members of the RJM’s or Religious of Jesus and Mary – to come from Lyons and found a convent and school to serve the needs of young girls in the expanding neighborhood. The school quickly outgrew its original location in the center of the burgeoning district, and in 1857 the sisters obtained some abandoned farmland to build a new, larger complex.

The present Neo-Gothic church was built by architect Joan Torras i Guardiola between 1876-1881. It is a stately building in and of itself, but what is particularly interesting to the armchair architect is its interior. The decoration of the church was one of the very first important commissions awarded to the young Gaudí in 1879 and completed by 1880, several years before he received his first residential commission (his “Casa Vicens” of 1883.) Gaudí was responsible for the complicated geometric design of the marble mosaic floor, as well as elements of the side chapels, the high altar, and the choir. It is no accident that Torras i Guardiola was one of Gaudí’s professors, and probably helped his young pupil to obtain the commission for the church decoration.

Less than a decade after the complex was finished, the sisters decided to move to another part of the city, and the complex was sold to the Marist Brothers, who had only recently arrived in Barcelona. The Marists continued the educational efforts of the school, which was now changed to admit only boys and young men, until a Leftist uprising in 1907. The brothers managed to escape before the entire complex was sacked and torched in a fit of anti-Catholic violence, but because of the costly extent of the damage they never returned.

The building then lay either abandoned or rented out as a storehouse for a number of years, until in 1923 the Archbishop decided to have the church restored and found a parish on the site. Masses resumed in 1924, and in 1929 the parish celebrated the construction of a new rectory and bell tower to replace those damaged during the 1907 revolt. Unfortunately, this was not the end of the church’s troubles.

In 1936 the church was confiscated by the Leftists at the start of the Civil War, and a number of the newly-restored interior elements were removed and stolen, burned, or otherwise destroyed. The church itself was turned into a public dining hall, but fortunately was not burned or vandalized, and did not suffer any structural damage. As a result, at the end of the war in 1939 it was able to resume parish life comparatively quickly.

Sant Agustí Vell

Sant Agustí VellConvent de Sant Agustí
Built: 1349-1700
Founded: 1309
Function: Currently civic arts center; former monastic community
Address: Comerç 36

The presence of monastic communities following the Augustinian rule in Barcelona is supposedly very ancient. Admittedly, the further one goes back into local history and legend one finds the two somewhat inextricably intertwined. However it is often the case that legends have a significant basis in fact.

What we know for certain is that the important early Church father Saint Paulinus of Nola (354-431 A.D.), who was married to a Catalan lady and had land holdings in Catalonia, was ordained a priest in Barcelona on Christmas Day 393 A.D. by Lampius, the then-bishop of Barcelona. It is said that during the year or so he spent in Catalonia before returning to Italy (where he later became a bishop), he founded a community based along ideas adopted from his friend and contemporary Saint Augustine of Hippo. There is some documentary evidence that this proto-Augustinian community continued until the invasion of the Moors in the 8th century, and possibly survived it at the site of what is now the Romanesque church of Sant Pau del Camp, about which I have written previously.

Whatever their origin, it is formally documented that the Augustinians established a monastic community on Carrer del Comerç in Barcelona’s Borne district in 1309. This was close to the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, which was the original resting place of Saint Eulalia, Patron Saint of the City, who is now interred in the crypt of Barcelona’s Cathedral. The cornerstone for the church of the monastery, dedicated to Saint Augustine, was laid in 1349, but construction on the enormous complex continued until around 1700. During their residence in the Borne, the monks at Sant Agustí assisted in pastoral functions for the parishioners at Santa Maria del Mar.

For centuries as the monks of Sant Agustí Vell ministered to the poor in the neighborhood, they simultaneously fostered good relationships with the wealthy merchants who built their medieval townhouse palaces nearby. For example, in 1529 several of the monks died while caring for victims of the black plague, which had hit the city that year. This combination of good will and good geography allowed the monastery to grow quite rich, and to commission works such as the magnificent Altarpiece of St. Augustine by the great Catalan medieval painter Jaume Huguet, completed in 1486, and which is now housed in the National Museum of Catalan Art.

The church and much of the monastic complex were destroyed by massive shelling on the part of the Bourbons in 1714 during the Wars of the Spanish Succession, when the Catalans backed the losing Imperial Austrian House of Hapsburg. The new Bourbon King of Spain, the former Duke of Anjou, took the title Felipe V and ordered much of what remained of Sant Agustí demolished, so as to build a massive new citadel to keep Barcelona in check. The monks were forced to find new quarters in the Raval district, in the western part of the old city, and founded the Baroque complex of Sant Agustí Nou, whose church still stands.

The remains of the old complex, now known as Sant Agustí Vell or “Old St. Augustine’s”, including part of one side of the cloister and part of one of the lateral aisles of the church, were converted into a military barracks and storage depot. More recently, the city government took over the site and established the “Centre Cívic Convent Sant Agustí”. In addition to a bar/cafe, gallery and meeting rooms used by locals, it hosts a series of concerts, discussions, and exhibitions throughout the year. Over the past decade the site has become particularly well-known internationally for its biennial Festival of Electronic Music and Sound, featuring dozens of internationally-known digital artists, musicians and DJ’s.