The Best Monasteries of Spain

Spain has very many monasteries that call attention for their beauty. The history of Spain is tied very closely to its monasteries. The Kings and Queens have lived in the monasteries and some of the most important historical events have taken place there. Here are some of the most beautiful and important monasteries in Spain.

1. Royal Monastery of Guadalupe

There is a legend of the origins of the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The legend says that St. Luke was the person who created the statue in the first century AD. When he died in Asia Minor, he was buried with the statue. In the 4th century, his remains were transferred to Constantinople in the 4th century. In 590 Gregorio Magno was elected Pope and he had a devotion to this Virgin and exhibited the statue in his chapel. One day the Pope was having a solemn procession with the Virgin in Rome and asked the Virgin to intercede to stop an epidemic in the city. An angel appeared to the Pope and the epidemic stopped.

Pope Gregorio Magno sent the statue to Seville to St. Leandro, who was the archbishop of the city, through his brother Isidoro, who was in Rome. During the boat trip, a sudden storm overtook the boat, but Isidoro prayed to the Virgin and the storm stopped suddenly. The Virgin was enthroned in Seville in the principal church at that time until the Moorish invasion in 714. Many priests in Seville fled the city during the invasion and went north with the statue of the Virgin and other reliquaries of the saints. They hid the statue near the river in Guadalupe.

At the end of the 13th century, a cow herder called Gil Cordero had a vision from the Virgin Mary beside the river. She indicated to him where her statue could be found. She told him to tell the priests where the statue was and for them to build a church in that place. The priests of Caceres then build a hermitage in that place and dedicated it to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Pilgrimages started to the hermitage and later in 1389 the monks of the Order of St. Jeronimo arrived and took over the hermitage. Many of the Spanish kings, especially the Catholic Kings, favored the monastery and many additions were made to it and many treasures were given to it too. The Catholic Kings made a pilgrimage to the monastery after their conquest of Granada.

The statue of the Virgin has been examined by experts several times. The statue was carved in cedar and polychromed at the end of the 12th century. Its style is Romanesque and today her image looks black, from the passage of time. The Virgin is seated and has the Child Jesus in her arms. The image measures 59 cm. Today the Virgin is venerated and on Sept.8 there is a celebration on her feast day. After Santiago de Compostela, the number of pilgrimages to Guadalupe is the most numerous in Spain.

On July 29, 1496, Columbus brought two Indians named Cristobal and Pedro to the monastery to have them baptized, when he met the Catholic Kings here. This was the first baptism of Indians from America. They returned to Mexico and many hermitages and churches in the Americas were dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Columbus named one of the islands he discovered Guadalupe, after the Virgin. Today there is a great devotion to this Virgin in all of the Americas and around the world, especially in Mexico.

In 1340 King Alfonso XI prayed to the Virgin of Guadalupe before the Battle of Rio Salado against

Sultan Abu al-Hasan Ali of the Marinid dynasty of Morocco and Yusuf I of the Kingdom of Granada. After he won a decisive victory against the Moors, he ordered the construction of the temple of Guadalupe. The Jeronimos (Hieronymite monks) took charge of the monastery in 1389 and stayed until 1830. Guadalupe became an intellectual center in Extremadura and people studied art, medicine, language, and letters in the monastery. In 1835 the law of Mendizabal confiscated the monastery for the government and the structure fell into disuse. In 1908 the Franciscan Order was allowed to take over the monastery by the government and restored the monastery to its present good state.

The monastery is primarily a Mudejar structure, but there are elements that are Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque. The facade has two towers, the Clock Tower and the Torre de la Porteria, and both were constructed in the 15th century. A rose window tops the facade. There are two large bronze gates that were created by Paolo de Colonia in the 14th century. The church has three naves that are covered by groined vaults. The dome of the transept was decorated by Manuel de Lara y Churriguera in the 18th century. The high altarpiece dates from 1617 and has the Baroque style. It was designed by Juan Gomez de Mora and executed by the sculptor Giraldo de Mero. In the middle of the altarpiece can be found the image of the Virgin. The lower section has the desk of Felipe II. The choir is situated in the loft and has Baroque chairs in black walnut that were created by Alejandro Carnicero in 1744. There is a very large organ from the 18th century.

The Mudejar cloister is very large and occupies 1680 square meters. It is dated to the 14th century. It has four galleries. In its center there is a small Gothic-Mudejar temple called the Templete, with a very unique style. This was constructed in 1405 under the direction of Fray Juan de Sevilla.

The monastery is famous for its museums, which can be seen only on guided tours, and which contain its treasures. The Museo de Bordados has a collection of embroidered garments used by the priests for Mass, and created by the monks. Some of these are extremely beautiful and there is documentation as to the author of each work. The embroidery is probably the best that can be found in Spain. The Museo de Libros Miniados has the second largest collection in Europe of choral books (the largest is found in El Escorial). They were all made on parchment and beautifully illustrated and bound. There are many miniature books too. The exhibition of the books in the museum is very impressive.

The Museum of Paintings and Sculptures is in a large room. There are three El Greco paintings, namely The Coronation of Our Lady, Apostle St. Peter, and Apostle St. Andrew. There are eight small paintings by Zurbaran. Juan Garcia de Miranda painted The Coronation of Our Lady. There is a small Christ Crucified sculpture in ivory that is attributed to Michelangelo. Another sculpture is Ecce Homo by Pedro de Mena from the 17th century. The Inmaculada Asunta was created by Alonso Cano in the 17th century. Another small painting was from Goya, called "Confession from the Jail". There are many other artists represented in this museum.

The sacristy is one of the most beautiful in Spain and is divided into five parts, ending in the Chapel of San Jeronimo. It was constructed in 1638. There are eight large paintings by Zurbaran, the most famous being "El Apoteosis de San Jeronimo", called the "Pearl of Zurbaran". These five rooms are profusely decorated in the Baroque style. Hanging from the cupola is the lantern from the main Turkish captain ship of Lepanto.

El Relicario is the Chapel of San Jose and dates from 1597. It was created by the architect Nicolas de Vergara el Mozo. It contains 34 relics of the saints. There are three crowns, one of them profusely rich in diamonds, donated by Alfonso XIII. One of the treasures is the Arqueta de los Esmaltes, a box that is made of gold and has enamels with 12 paintings of the life of Christ, and this was created by Fray Juan de Segovia. There is a gold crucifix that was donated by Enrique IV. There are many other gold and silver ornaments in this chapel, as well as many jewels.

The Camarin is the dressing room of the Virgin, finished in 1696. The room has the shape of a Greek cross in the shape of an octagon and is decorated in the Baroque style. There are many paintings and sculptures of the strong women of the Bible (Ruth, Judith, Mria, Sara, Jael, Abigail, Debora, and Ester). There are nine paintings by Luca Giordano. It is topped with a beautiful cupola that lets in light and a large chandelier hangs from it. At the end of one side there is a turntable that can turn and show the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe. This enables the Virgin to be seen in the main altarpiece and in the Camarin in turn, in close quarters.

Pope Pius XII declared the shrine a "Minor Papal Basilica" in 1955. In 1993 the UNESCO declared this as a World Heritage Site. This monastery really is a masterpiece and is probably the most beautiful monastery in Spain.

2. Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial

To go to El Escorial, one can take the Cercanias train either at the Atocha train station of the Chamartin train station. At Chamartin one can take the Cercanias train to El Escorial, buying round trip tickets. The trip to the town of El Escorial takes one hour and there seem to be an hourly service. In El Escorial, the train station is at the base of the hill where the monastery and town are. One takes the bus to the top of the hill to the downtown, and then one walks a little to the monastery. El Escorial is always cold, as it is in the mountains, so one should be dressed appropriately.

El Escorial was built by King Philip II between 1563 and 1584. The architects were Juan Bautista of Toledo and his assistant Juan de Herrera. Philip II wanted to have a mausoleum for his father Charles V. The building was also meant to remember the victory of the Battle of San Quentin in Picardy against the French king Henry II. The battle occurred on Aug. 10, 1557, the feast day of San Lorenzo. That is why the name of the monastery/palace complex contains the name of San Lorenzo. Philip II also wanted to have a necropolis to put the remains of his parents, his own remains, and the remains of his descendants. Today the pantheon contains the remains of the Spanish kings over the last five centuries. This pantheon is located under the floor of the Basilica. The monastery now has Augustinian monks.

Philip II took great interest in building the monastery/palace. He was the person who chose the site. The construction took 21 years and the King closely oversaw the progress of the project. He insisted that the best materials be used and he brought the best European artists to decorate the palace.

The building used gray granite and looks very austere, more of a fortress than a palace. The ornamentation is minimal. The place is huge, in the shape of a quadrangle, 224 m by 153 m. Each corner has a square tower, topped by a spire. In the 18th century King Charles III had one wing remodeled into the Palace of the Bourbons, which was decorated with tapestries and had lush furniture of that period.

The palace has a Gallery of Paintings, which is very good and you can see paintings by very famous artists, such as Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Luca Girodano, Ribera, Zurbaran, El Greco, and Van der Weyden (who painted the very moving painting of the Calvary). There are Chapter Rooms decorated with paintings by Titian, Bosch, El Greco, Ribera and Velazquez. The Royal Pantheon has the burial vaults of all the Kings of Spain since Charles V. What is interesting is the Polygonal Mausoleum in the 6th chamber, because it looks like the top of a wedding cake.

The Basilica is very impressive. The main altar is very high and is done in marble and jasper, with paintings by Tibaldi and Zuccaro. There are a total of 45 altars. One of them has a wonderful sculpture of Christ on the Cross by Benvenuto Cellini. There is an impressive vault fresco painted by Luca Giordano called the Exodus of the Israelites. There are also praying figures of Charles V and Philip II with their families, done by Leoni.

There is a Library which has 45,000 books from the 15th and 16th centuries, as well as 5000 manuscripts in Arabic, Latin, and Spanish. There are many windows, so this salon is full of light. The vaulted ceiling has beautiful frescoes done by Pellegrino Tibaldi in the mannerist style, similar to Michelangelo’s style. The Library is the most beautiful part of the palace. There is also a very long gallery called the Gallery of Battles, which has very long paintings of battles. The vaulted ceiling frescoes are done in the Roman style.

In many parts of the palace, the base of the walls (zocalo) is decorated with beautiful ceramic tiles to a height of about 3.5 feet. The design is of acanthus leaves done in blue and white. It turns out that these are tiles from Talavera de la Reina in Toledo. The acanthus leaves were used for decoration since Roman times.

In conclusion, the palace is a very beautiful place with great artwork and something not to be missed. If one has time one should explore the downtown area and have lunch there.

3. Monasterio de la Cartuja de la Asuncion in Granada

A bit outside the downtown center of Granada and sitting on a hill is the Monasterio de la Cartuja de la Asuncion, which is a Carthusian monastery and is one of the most beautiful monasteries in Spain. The building was started in 1516 on land donated by the Gran Capitan and finished after 300 years.

The facade has a 16th century Plateresque portal with the coat of arms of Spain on the top and a statue of the Virgin in a vaulted niche. The entrance leads to the Claustrillo, which is a patio with arcades supported on Doric columns. Around the patio are the main rooms of the monastery.

The Refectory is a sober room that has Gothic vaults and a cross painted by Sanchez Cotan. There are many large paintings done by Sanchez Cotan and Vicente Carducho about the lives of the Carthusian monks. Some show the martyrdom of these monks in England during the reign of Henry VIII.

There is a room called the Sancta Sanctorum, with the most impressive tabernacle done in marble, jasper, and porphyry. On the walls are statues of the saints. There are many sculptures by Cornejo, Risueño, and Jose de Mora. Palomino painted the dome mural and several other paintings in the room. The dome has a painting of the Trinity, and below it is San Bruno with the world and the Four Evangelists are in the triangles formed by the arches. The remains of many saints are kept here and this room is one of the most beautiful religious rooms in all of Spain, a must see for the tourist. It was designed by Francisco Hurtado Izquierdo.

The church has only one nave and the architect was Cristobal Vilches, who constructed it in the first part of the 17th century. The stucco in the church converts La Cartuja into one of the master works of the Baroque. There is an iron railing that divides the space into two sections, one for the priests and the other for laymen. There are seven paintings by Pedro Atanasio Bocanegra about the life of the Virgin Mary. The High Altar has a canopy made by Hurtado Izquierdo in 1710. It is sustained by six gold columns with floral adornments. On top of the altar is a painting of the Virgin of the Assumption.

The sacristy has one nave and was constructed starting in 1727. It is the work of Luis de Arevalo and Luis Cabello, who took 37 years to complete it. The lower part of the walls are made of colored marble. The walls are covered with white stucco that has reliefs. The structure seems to change with the change of light. The altar is made of marble with many colors and has a statue of St. Bruno with a cranium in his left hand. There is a statue of the Virgin over the sculpture of St. Bruno. The figures of saints and angels adorn the cupola and the walls are decorated with paintings of the saints. The ceiling of the chapel is all white stucco, with elaborate designs, and there are gold colored medallions in the centers of the designs. The sacristy is 18th century Baroque and Napoleon’s army killed St. Bruno here.

The church is one of the best examples of the Andalusian Baroque. La Cartuja is considered the Christian answer to the Moorish Alhambra.

4. Monastery of San Jeronimo in Granada

The little known Monastery of San Jeronimo is located on the street called Gran Capitan. The monastery was founded by the Catholic Kings in 1492, but was finished in 1565. The style is a mixture of late Gothic and early Renaissance. Diego de Siloe was one of the major architects of this monastery. It has a Renaissance tower in front. The cloisters are huge and on one side there is a gallery on the 3rd floor, which is very unusual. In the entranceway there are two important paintings, one of the Immaculate Conception by Bocanegra, and another of the Last Supper by Sevilla.

The most impressive part of the monastery is the Capilla Mayor, or main chapel. It has a retable that is 5 levels high and almost reaches the ceiling. The predominant color of the retable is gold, and it is decorated with many sculptures and reliefs. The ceiling is a barrel vault, elaborately decorated. There are two important sculptures in the chapel, one of them of the Gran Capitan and another of the Duquesa de Sessa, the wife of the Gran Capitan. The Gran Capitan was a very important general who worked for Queen Isabel, and he turned Spain into a military power for the next 150 years. He was the most important military figure until Napoleon, because he revolutionized warfare at his time. His name was Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba, living between 1453 and 1515. He was the conqueror of Granada and Naples for the Spanish crown. The monastery has his tomb in a crypt, located below the Capilla Mayor. This monastery with its chapel is one of the best in Spain.

5. Monastery of Yuso in San Millan de la Cogolla

San Millan de la Cogolla is a small town with only 300 inhabitants. It has two monasteries, Suso is the one above and Yuso is the one below. These are the most famous monasteries in La Rioja and in 1997 the Unesco included them in the list of World Heritage Sites.

Emiliano was a priest who was born in Berceo in 473, died in 574. His name was later changed to Millan in Spanish. He started a hermitage in Suso in a cave. When he died, his body was buried in the cave. The cave became a hermitage and with the passage of time it became a church and monastery. In the Council of Toledo, San Braulio, the bishop of Zaragoza, wrote the life of Millan and he became the first saint of Spain. In the 17th century he was name as the patron saint of Castilla and one of the patrons of Spain.

The Monastery of Yuso was started in 1053 during the reign of Garcia Sanchez of Navarra. Later it was remodeled in the 16th and 17th centuries. This was so large that it became known as the Escorial of La Rioja. It was constructed by the Benedictines, who lived in it until 1835. Since 1878 the Agustinians have lived in the monastery. The main doorway was constructed in 1665 with a Baroque design. The architect was Pablo de Basave and the sculptor was Diego de Lizarraga. It contains the image of San Millan. There is a Gothic cloister and a 16th century church with three naves with transept and an oval lantern tower. The sacristy has wonderful ceiling murals and a floor made of alabaster, and is considered as one of the most beautiful sacristies in Spain. The monastery has one of the biggest hymnal collections in Spain, written on parchment, and copied between 1729 and 1731.

There is a small casket that contains the remains of San Millan. The surface is covered with small carved ivory panels. These Romanesque panels are from the 11th century and are works of art. During the French invasion, the monks removed the remains of the saint from the casket and buried them on the mountain. The French arrived and stole everything in the church, including five of the ivory panels, which are now in museums in St. Petersburg, Berlin, Florence, Washington D.C., and New York. These museums have been contacted by Spanish government representatives for the return of the ivory panels to Spain, but the museums refuse to do this. This is unethical behavior on the part of these museums.

The Codex 46 was found in the library of Yuso, and was dated June 13, 964. It is a dictionary with more than 20,000 entrees with an order from A to Z, which explain the words in Spanish and Latin. The library also had a codex in Latin called Emilianse 60. In the margins of this manuscript, there were annotations in Latin, Vascuense, and Spanish. In November 1977, the Monastery of Yuso celebrated the 1000th anniversary of the Spanish language. Gonzalo de Berceo was born in 1196 and was educated in the Monastery of Suso. He went to the university in Palencia and returned to Berceo in 1226. He was a priest and also worked as a notary. In 1230 he published the "Life of San Millan". In 1236 he published "The Life of Santo Domingo de Silos". He is considered the first Spanish poet. That is why the monastery is known as the birthplace of the Spanish language.

6. Monastery of Montserrat near Barcelona

Santa Maria de Montserrat is a Benedictine abbey and basilica located in the Montserrat mountain, which is called Monistrol de Monstserrat. The site is located 38 km from Barcelona. From afar, the mountain looks very strange because of its rock formations. The monastery started as the Hermitage of Santa Maria, the Mother of Christ, in 1025. Very soon there were stories of miracles worked by St. Mary the Virgin of Montserrat, and pilgrimages started to the site. A bigger Romanesque chapel was built to be able to receive more pilgrims. It became one of the best known shrines in the Christian world and the most prestigious shrine in Catalonia. In the Napoleonic wars of 1811 and 1812, the French destroyed most of the abbey, but the statue of Our Lady was saved because it was hidden somewhere in the mountain.

The rebuilding of the abbey started slowly after the Napoleonic wars and has continued to the present. Today the mountain of Montserrat is a place of worship to God and a place where many pilgrims go, and is the most famous religious site in Catalonia. For people of other religions, it is said that the mountain is a source of great energy, one of the best in Europe, and people flock to it for the experience.

The statue of the Virgin is called “La Moreneta” because of the black color of her face. The statue is a wooden Romanesque statue from the end of the 12th century. The varnish on the statue has oxidized and because of the effect of candle smoke and the smoke of lamps, the appearance is now black. The Virgin has a crown of diadems and has a ball in her hand. On her lap is a statue of Jesus Christ. He also has a crown and His hand is making a sign of blessing, while the other hand is holding a pine cone. Many women in Spain are named Monstserrat and she is revered all over the world. One of the men who accompanied Columbus in the New World was a former monk from Montserrat and he started her veneration in the Americas.

In 2003 they opened the new funicular railroad, which goes to the monastery from a station way below. We took this railroad in a modern railcar and the ride takes about 20 minutes, with spectacular scenes along the way. They call this the “tren de cremallera”.

When one goes to the basilica, one sees a beautifully designed atrium floor, which was designed by Father Benet Martinez. There is a medallion in the center and there is an inscription around it with a message that only those baptized and born in the water like fish can understand the meaning of the fish of the Eucharist. People of many faiths and children like to balance themselves on one foot on this atrium floor, as it is a custom from way back.

The basilica has a neo-Plateresque design and was built in 1900. When one enters the basilica, one can see that way on top of the main altar is the statue of the Virgin and child, La Moreneta. The basilica’s style is a mixture of Gothic and Renaissance. To see it close up, one has to go through the portico on the right side of the basilica. This portico has beautiful designs in sgraffiti. There is usually a long line of pilgrims who want to see La Moreneta. One has to go through the Angel Door, which has designs of many angel musicians adorning it. Then one goes up many steps until one reaches the Shrine of the Virgin and Child and sees La Moreneta. The ceiling above the statue has beautiful mosaics designed by Josep Obiols and were produced by Santiago Padros in 1947. Everywhere one sees beautiful designs contributed by Catalan and other artists.

After seeing the basilica, one can go and see the museum, which surprises you with its quality and quantity. The museum is in a building across from the basilica and it is built underground, comprising of two stories. This was built by the architect Josep Puig I Cadafalch in 1929. There are many works of art donated by rich Catalans. There are archeology pieces from the Bible lands, gold and silver work from the 15th -20th centuries, and beautiful paintings from masters such as Caravaggio, El Greco, Sisley, Dali, and many Catalan artists from the early 20th century. There are also many paintings done by many artists with the subject of Saint Mary of Montserrat. This museum is among one of the best private museums in Spain.

The Hotel Abat Cisneros is a hotel is where many pilgrims stay and where one can have lunch. There is the Montserrat Boy’s Choir, which usually performs at noon. The boys who perform in the choir live in a separate part of the monastery and go to school there. There are about 80 monks who live in the monastery today.

The visit to Montserrat is very unforgettable and the views of the monastery and surrounding mountain are incredible. Really a very beautiful place.

7. The Monastery of La Rabida in Palos de la Frontera

Palos de la Frontera has a population of about 8,000 and is steeped in history, because it was here that Columbus started his plans to find the new world and where he took sail. The port no longer exists by the river.

The Monastery of La Rabida is a Franciscan monastery where Columbus found refuge about 7 years before he sailed for America. After not finding financial support for his voyage in the Portugese court, Columbus went to La Rabida with his son. Columbus had just been widowed from his Portugese wife. In La Rabida, Fray Antonio de Marchena gave him refuge and support. He interceded with the Catholic Kings to grant Columbus a hearing, which happened in Cordoba. Columbus wanted 10% of the riches he found in his voyage for himself and his descendants, which the Catholic Kings did not like to grant him. So Columbus stayed at La Rabida making his plans and waiting for the Catholic Kings to fund his voyage. Fray Juan Perez in 1492 helped Columbus by getting him an audience with Queen Isabela. After the Catholic Kings defeated Granada, they finally decided to fund Columbus. The Pinzon brothers (Martin Alonso and Vicente Yañez) in Palos de la Frontera helped Columbus to find the experienced crew he needed for his trip.

There are extensive gardens in La Rabida, and at the entrance to the site there is a bronze monument to Columbus. The exterior of the monastery is not impressive, but once one enters the monastery, one is impressed. There is a room near the entrance that has frescos done by the artist Daniel Vazquez in 1930. The paintings depict Columbus and the men he found to sail with him, the paintings done in the cubist style. Daniel Vazquez was one of the art teachers of Dali. There are two different cloisters in the monastery and these are beautiful, one with many plants and flowers, and the other cloister with a geometric design on the brick floor and potted flowers plants in the small windows of the gallery. The chapel is beautiful and has a very impressive Mudejar wooden ceiling with painted panels. There is a sculpture of Christ on the cross done in alabaster and made in Andalusia in the 14th century. Upstairs there is the sala capitular, which was where Columbus worked and where he discussed his project with the Catholic Kings. There is a big room that is like a museum and which explains the voyage of Columbus.

Near the monastery is the Muelle de las Carabelas (Pier of the Caravelles), which has a big modern building that contains a museum about Columbus. There is a video room which has a video lasting about half an hour explaining how Columbus made his first journey. Outside the building is a small lagoon that contains the replicas of the three ships of Columbus, namely the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Niña. One can go aboard the ships and explore them. One is amazed at how small they were, to have made that long journey to America. Around the lagoon are recreations of an American Indian village, which has life size figures of the American Indians that Columbus found in his first journey to America.

8. Monastery of Santa Maria La Real in Najera

Najera is a small town with a population of 8,300, that is located 27 km from Logroño. It is on the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago de Compostela. The town is divided by the Najerilla River, which has very clean water. The Monastery of Santa Maria La Real is adjacent to the mountain. The monastery was founded in 1052 by King Don Garcia Sanchez III and his wife Estefania de Foix.

Santa Maria la Real is the name of the monastery of Najera, a small town of La Rioja. It contains the largest pantheon of Spanish kings (Navarre, Castile and Leon), after El Escorial. There are more than 30 royal family members buried here.

The legend says that the king was hunting beside the mountain and ran across a cave with the mysterious statue of the Virgin Mary. The king then conquered the neighboring town of Calahorra from the Moors. The king later founded the town here and constructed the monastery to honor the Virgin Mary who had helped him in the war. The king also founded the Orden Militar de los Caballeros de la Terraza. In 1079 Alfonso VI of Castille allowed the Benedictines to use the monastery. Since 1895 the Franciscans use it.

The monastery was remodeled in the 15th century. The outside of the monastery looks like a fort. Inside one can find the beautiful Cloister of the Knights, which has very intricate window designs, each one different from the others. There are many stone sculptures of saints in the cloister, but only one has a head, the statue of the Virgin. When the French troops invaded Spain early in the 19th century, the soldiers used the statues for target practice and destroyed most of the heads. The church was constructed in 1516 and there are three naves in it. At one end of the nave is the cave where the Virgin was found, and her small statue of Santa Maria la Real is located there today. At the entrance to the cave are two standing statues that represent Don Garcia and Doña Estefania. Beside are some of the royal tombs. There is also the mausoleum of the Dukes of Najera. The church has a choir with admirable wooden carvings. The main altarpiece is gilded and has a wonderful design and dates to 1692 and has a Romanesque image of Santa Maria la Real. There is a beautiful tomb of Doña Blanca de Navarra in the church, with magnificent sculptures on the stone surfaces of the tomb.

9. Monastery of Santa Maria de Valvanera

The Monastery of Santa Maria de Valvanera dates from the 9th century and is located in the San Lorenzo Mountains, in a heavily wooded place in La Rioja. It contains the image of the patron saint of La Rioja, the Virgin of Valvanera. There are many pilgrimages to this monastery to see the image of the Virgin.

The legend says that there was a man called Nuño Oñez in the 9th century who lived a dissolute life. He later repented and decided to change his life and retired to a cave in Trombalos, where he lived until his death. One day an angel appeared to him and told him to go to Valvanera and look in the interior of an oak tree for the statue of the Virgin and to bring the statue to a cave on the mountain. He did that and started a hermitage with other men. They later became Benedictines and the first abbot was Don Sancho in 990.

The church in the monastery dates from the 15th century and has a late Gothic design. The main altar of the church has the statue of the Virgin of Valvanera. The saints beside the image of the Virgin are San Pedro, San Pablo, San Benito, and San Atanasio. There is a valuable library with an illustrated 10th century codex.

10. Monastery of Santa Maria de San Salvador in Cañas

Cañas is a small town of 95 inhabitants and is located 40 km from Logroño. It contains the Monastery of Santa Maria de San Salvador. The monastery was started by the Cister order of nuns. It dates from 1170. The land was donated to the nuns by Don Lope de Haro and his wife Doña Aldonza Ruiz de Castro. The monastery was remodeled several times until the 16th century. The church of the monastery has a large amount of light because it has large windows made of alabaster, which is very unusual in a church. The main altarpiece was the work of Andres de Melgar and Guillen de Holanda in 1523. The sala capitular (chapter house) is beautiful and has three pointed arches that are decorated with plant motifs. It contains the Gothic tomb of Doña Urraca Lopez de Haro and dates to the 14th century. She was the daughter of the founders and became the fourth abbess of the monastery. This is one of the best examples of funerary art of the 13th century. There is a relic room has many relics since the monastery was founded. One important relic is the Mudejar box from the 11th century that came from Cordoba. There is a museum that contains several altarpieces, sculptures, reliefs, and paintings. The Romanesque style Virgin with Child is one of the principal statues found in the church and dates from the 13th century. The nuns have been in this monastery since its founding and are dedicated to prayer and manual work, such as making pastries and sweets, decorating porcelain, and making rosaries.

11. The Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Pedralbes in Barcelona

Elisenda de Moncada was the wife of King Jaime II, king of the Crown of Aragon. She wanted to redeem her sins and those of her family by founding a monastery. Pope John XXII gave her permission in 1325 to found a monastery. The site chosen was Pedralbes, an unimportant area in the 14th century. Some of the most important architects of that time took part in the building of the monastery. These included Ramon Despuig and Berenguer de Montagut, builders of the Santa Maria del Mar Basilica. Reinard des Fonoll was another architect, who created the sculptures of the Cathedral of Tarragona. The monastery was finished in 1327. Queen Elisenda turned the monastery over to the Poor Clare Nuns, an order of nuns formed by the daughters of the noble classes. This order is the female branch of the Franciscan Order. The monastery is one of the best examples of Catalan Gothic, both for the church and the cloister, which is three stories tall and is one of the most spacious (40 meters in length) and graceful. The church has the beautiful pantheon of Queen Elisenda, which stands out. The church has stained glass windows and three choirs, the upper, the lower, and the friar's choir. Around the cloister one can see examples of the day cells, where each nun had her personal retreat. The kitchen can also be seen. There is a very good museum in the cloister, which includes donations from the nuns through the centuries. These include art, religious objects, paintings, sculpture, gold and silver works, and manuscripts. The monastery was declared a Historic and Artistic monument in 1991. Today the barrio of Pedralbes is the most upscale barrio in Barcelona and the home of the Princess Cristina.

12. San Esteban Church and Monastery in Salamanca

This is a Dominican monastery built in the 16th century in the Gothic style, but with Plateresque and Baroque decoration. The Cardinal Juan Alvarez de Toledo ordered the church to be built, as he had been a monk at San Esteban (St. Stephen). The Monastery was started in 1525 with the architect Juan de Alava, and it was completed in 1618. The facade of the church was constructed in 1660 and looks like a tapestry in stone, Plateresque in style, with an arch divided into three sections. The ground section has the church door and the second section has a stone figure of the Martyrdom of San Esteban by Juan Antonio Ceroni, created in 1610. The top section has a Calvary scene by Cellini. The ground plan of the church is the Latin cross with one nave. The high altarpiece has spiral columns and this was constructed by Jose de Churriguera. The main panel is a painting by Claudio Coello with a scene of the martyrdom of San Esteban. There are three cloisters, the most beautiful being the Royal Cloister. There is the Pantheon of the Theologians which has tombs of prestigious Dominican priests.

13. Monastery of San Isidoro del Campo in Santiponce

Santiponce is a small town across the river and 7 km away from Seville. It contains the ruins of the Roman town of Italica. Also in Santiponce is the Monastery of San Isidoro del Campo. This is a huge monastery that was heavily fortified and built in 1301 by Alonso Perez de Guzman and Maria Alonso Coronel. Tradition said that this was the place where San Isidoro had been buried. His remains were transferred to Leon in 1063. The huge monastery was built in the gothic style, but has the Mudejar influence. The wall and ceiling paintings are beautiful and impressive, but the monastery needs much more restoration.

14. Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes in Toledo

The Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes is located at Calle San Juan de los Reyes, 2, and

was built by Queen Isabela to hold the mausoleum of the royal family and was dedicated to St. John the Evangelist, whom the queen admired. However after it was built, the queen changed her mind and decided that the mausoleum would be placed in the Cathedral of Granada. The Franciscan order occupies the church today.

Juan Guas was the architect of this church. The church has a polygonal form with buttresses topped with pinnacles that are decorated with royal coat of arms and life-sized heralds, showing the Catholic King's shield on their clothing. There is a cimborium over the transept that is octagonal and this is crowned with gothic pinnacles. Above the side door there is the Stations of the Cross, showing the Virgin Mary and St. John, but not Christ. He is symbolized by the pelican on the cross. There are many Mudejar designs in the church.

The patio has a cloister with two tiers and is one of the masterpieces of late gothic art, and this combines gothic and Mudejar elements, one of the signatures of the architect Juan Guas. The length of the sides with five spans is half that of the nave of the church. The upper cloister has a Mudejar coffered ceiling. The columns, arches, and pilasters have animal and vegetable motifs, each having a symbolic meaning. There are sculptures of biblical figures on pedestals. The steps going to the upper cloister have Renaissance motifs and were done by Alonso de Covarrubias. There are chains that hang on the exterior walls and these mean that many Christian prisoners were freed during the Catholic Kings campaign to conquer Granada. The chains were hung in 1494 and symbolize the triumph of Christianity. Unfortunately the church was almost destroyed in the War of Independence against France and was only partly rebuilt.

 

15. The Royal Monastery of La Encarnacion in Madrid

La Encarnacion is located near the Royal Palace. It was founded in 1611 by Philip III and Margaret of Austria. It was Queen Margaret who was very interested in building the monastery, after seeing the results of the Las Descalzas Convent. The royal architect Juan Gomez de Mora was given the job of building the monastery. Queen Margaret was the one who chose the nuns to occupy it.

When one visits the monastery today, one has to be guided by the official guide in a group and one cannot go wandering by oneself. What is very noticeable in the monastery are tiles on the bases of the walls, in a blue and white pattern, with the acanthus motif. They are the same Talavera de la Reina tiles from Toledo that can be seen in El Escorial, since both buildings were built around the same time.

The Hall of the Kings is an impressive room with full length paintings of many kings, queens, and their children. It is unsure who some of the less important people are. There was a very strict protocol when artists painted kings and queens. They had to have a serious mien and the clothes depicted had to be very elaborate to show their regal status. The dresses of the queens seemed to be very rigid because of this protocol. Now one can understand why all the other paintings of royal people in other museums follow the same protocol.

The Relics Chapel is the most interesting part of the monastery. It contains the relics of hundreds of saints. During the Reformation, many countries that became Protestant did not want to keep the relics of the saints, since they no longer believed in them. So this monastery collected all that they could. There are display cabinets around the room that contain compartments and caskets containing the relics. The room has a beautiful painted ceiling and also contains 700 items, including reliquaries, oil paintings on copper, polychromed wood, ivory and alabaster carvings, medals and rosaries. St. Pantaleon was an early Christian martyr during the Diocletian persecution of 303 AD. There is a reliquary that holds a flask with his blood, according to tradition. The blood supposedly liquefies on July 27 of every year. Interesting, isn’t it?

The church of the monastery is one of the most beautiful in Madrid. It was refurbished by Ventura Rodriguez. The ground plan of the church is in the form of the Latin cross. There is a dome which lets in a lot of light. The paintings on the high altar and two side altars were done by Vincenzo Carducci in 1616. The center painting is The Annunciation and the side paintings are of St. Philip and St. Margaret, in memory of the founders of the monastery. This monastery is a must see for people interested in art and history.

16. Cartuja de Valldemossa Monastery of Mallorca

Valldemossa is a little town in the mountains on the island of Mallorca. It is famous for its monastery, called La Cartuja de Valldemossa. A palace was built in 1310 by King Jaume II so that his son Sanc could rest there because of his asthma. In 1399 King Marti the Humane donated the palace to the Order of Carthusians so that they could start a monastery there. In 1751 a Neo-Classical church was built and it has frescoes painted by Manuel Bayeu, the brother-in-law of Goya.

In 1835 the Spanish Ministry of Finances confiscated all church property in Spain, under the Law of Mendizabal. The monastery was converted into a residence for tourists and visitors. Two people who rented the cells were the writer George Sand and the composer Chopin, who stayed here in the winter of 1838-1839. Today one can find on display the piano that Chopin used to compose some of his finest works. George Sand wrote her novel "A Winter in Majorca", which was an unflattering view of the place.

There is a Municipal Museum that contains an encyclopedia written by the Archduke Luis Salvador. Also in the museum are works by Miro, Francis Bacon, Picasso and Henry Moore.

17. Descalzas Reales Monastery in Madrid

Descalzas Reales means Barefoot Royals and the monastery is a convent of Franciscan nuns. The daughter of Carlos I and Isabel of Portugal was the Princess Juana, and she founded the convent in 1557. Juana married Juan Manuel, who was the heir to the Portugese throne, but he died early and Juana had to return to Madrid.

The convent building is a 16th century Renaissance palace in the heart of Madrid. It has an impressive façade and was remodeled in 1556 and 1564 by Anonio Sillero and Juna Bautista de Toledo.

When women joined the convent, they had to bring a dowry with them. If they had to leave the convent, their dowry would be given back to them so that they would have a means of subsistence. If they died in the convent, they left their dowry to the convent. Since many young noblewomen joined the convent, the convent accumulated a lot of riches, much of it in art.

In the 20th century, the majority of the nuns were poor, but they could not sell the treasures of the convent. The government intervened and the Pope granted the nuns a special dispensation to open the convent as a museum. The museum opened in 1960. Today there are still nuns living in the convent, so tours are given at hours that do not interfere with the lives of the nuns. Visitors have to be accompanied by the tour guide and cannot go exploring by themselves.

The art treasures include floor to ceiling frescoes and paintings by Rubens, Titian and Murillo. There are beautiful Flemish tapestries designed by Rubens. Other artists found in the convent are Sanchez Coello, Brueghel and Luini.  

18. San Marcos Monastery in Leon 

The San Marcos Monastery started out as a hospital for pilgrims who were going on the Road to Santiago de Compostela. Doña Sancha was the person responsible in the 12th century for the construction of the hospital. Later the Order of Santiago took charge of the hospital. In the early 16th century this building was demolished when the Catholic King Fernando asked Pedro de Larrea to design a new monastery, which was completed in 1541. Other architects who worked on the project were Juan de Orozco, Martin de Villareal, and Juan de Badajoz, "El Mozo". The monastery has a Plateresque facade with medallions that have Jacobean motifs and the building is considered as one of the best examples of Plateresque architecture in Spain. The church has a Latin cross plan. Juan de Badajoz el Mozo was the architect of the sacristy and the medallions that decorate the cloister. Juan de Juni and Juan de Angers were sculptors who did the floral decoration of the cloister. The choir, which was done in walnut, is a masterpiece among the Spanish choir stalls of the time.

San Marcos is considered one of the most impressive examples of the Spanish Renaissance. The facade is framed by the church on one side and a tower on the west side that is decorated with the Cross of Santiago and a lion. Today the building is considered as one of the best paradors in Spain. It is lavishly furnished with paintings from the Flemish school, wooden carvings, furniture recovered from churches and ruined mansions, tapestries, sideboards, and period furnishings, as well as works by contemporary artists such as Lucio Muñoz, Vela Zanetti, Redondela, Álvaro Delgado, Ochoa, Macarrón, and Vaquero Turcios. 

19. Monastery of Santa Maria de El Paular in Rascafria 

Sunday: 11:00-13:30, 16:00-18:30h.  It is best to visit on Sunday because that is the only time the church is open and there is a Mass at noon with Gregorian chants, a beautiful experience.   

King Juan I, King of Castille, laid the first stone in 1390 for the Carthusian monastery. This was the first one in Castille and the sixth in Spain. The construction took many hundreds of years. The monastery life was interrupted during the War of Independence of 1908 against the French. Later monasteries were expropriated in 1835 by the Spanish government. In 1844 the monastery was sold to Rafael Sanchez Merino, who later resold it back to the state in 1864. Franco made a trip to Montserrat in 1942 and enjoyed his stay there. So then he chose the Cartuja de El Paular to have a similar monastery near Madrid. The monastery was at that time abandoned by the Carthusian monks and when Franco offered it back to them, the monks decided not to accept the offer. So Franco gave it to the Benedictine Order from Valvanera, in La Rioja. This order arrived in El Paular in 1954 and has been there ever since.  

The Benedictine Order was founded by San Benito (480-528). The first few years at the monastery the monks worked very hard to rehabilitate the buildings. The monks earn their living by producing various liquors, such as the Benedictine Liquor. They also produce various types of cheese. They sell these items in their store, adjacent to the entrance. They also work on a trout fish farm and they have a school for boys who are interned in the monastery. Support the hard working monks who preserve Spanish art, patrimony and customs by buying some food or remembrance at the store.  

The enclosed cloister has 52 large format paintings of the History of the Carthusians. These were originally 56 paintings, done by Vicente Carducho (1576-1638). This was the most complex pictorial cycle commissioned by the Carthusian Order and the order was given in 1626. Vicente Carducho at that time was the most highly regarded artist in the Madrid court. The first 26 paintings illustrated the life of St. Bruno of Cologne, the founder of the Order. The other paintings showed the important events in the life of the Order around Europe. In 1835 when the monastery was expropriated, the paintings went to other places owned by the government. In 2002 the Prado decided to restore all the paintings that had survived and this was completed in 2006. These were then returned to El Paular.   

The church is the most beautiful part of the monastery. It took final shape during the reign of Isabel la Catolica. There is a railing that separates the monks from the public and this was the work of the monk Francisco de Salamanca. The beautiful choir seats are made of walnut and were made in the 16th century by Bartolome Fernandez of Segovia. The most beautiful part of the church is the main altarpiece, made of polychromed alabaster, created at the end of the 15th century. It was designed by Juan Guas and his school worked on it. The retable has 17 Biblical scenes with much detail. This retable is unique in Spain and is a great work of art. It is hypnotic.