Throwback Thursday

When I look at the pictures my blog buddy Mitchell posts over at Moving with Mitchell I am green with envy. Here in Charlottetown we are beginning that ecky time where it snow, then it rains, then it snows, then it thaws, then it snows. Whereas his recent pictures of their town, halfway between Malaga and Marbella on the Mediterranean basks in a Spanish spring. I know! I know! An unfair comparison but I’m tired of winter.  And if one more person reminds me that it’s been a short one they will get a snowball – if there is snow that day – square on the back of their head.  If there’s no snow then I will simply stick out my tongue at them.

His picture of the flower market in their town centre had me reminiscing about our visits to Spain.  We came to the Iberian peninsula late in our travels and regretted not having spent more time there in the past but god willing, the vaccine does its job, and the Hillsborough don’t rise we’ll get back there one day.

In the meantime I thought I’d wander down memory lane to our first visit to Barcelona and maybe do a little marketing.

Willy Or Won't He

(Keep in mind that a left click on any of the photos will “embiggen” them for a closer look.)

I often feel overwhelmed in markets, not the big sterile supermarkets but the European-style covered markets. There’s such a choice of things and the displays can be works of art unto themselves. There are many local markets here in Rome but the one nearest to us is a bit of a disappointment, doubly so after a visit to Mercat de la Boqueria on the Ramblas in Barcelona. I’m sure there are markets as splendid here in Roma but I just haven’t come across them. La Boqueria has a long history as a local market and even though it is now crowded with gawking tourists, like me, still serves the needs of the people in the area.
The glass, wrought iron and tin archway give only a hint about what’s…

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Una Joia del Gòtic Català* – Part IV

The title of  the posts I’ve done recently on the Monestir de Pedrables in Barcelona have been entitled Una Joia del Gòtic Català – A Jewel of Catalan Gothic.  And indeed it is!  But within that glorious Catalan Gothic frame rests many jewels of the Catalan Renaissance and Baroque.  The dormitor is a treasure casket of paintings, etchings, sculptures, carvings, fabric and furnishings of the great periods of wealth for the Poor Clares.

The Monastery attracted woman from many of the noblest – and wealthiest – families of Catalonia.  The Roman Catholic tradition of an unmarried girl – or girls – from a family being sent to the cloister was strong in the society of the time.  And it should be recognized that the Monastery was founded by a widow and many of the first sisters were wealthy widows like its founder.  Families were bound to give gifts as part of the “dowry” as their daughters/sisters were “wedded” to Christ.  As well as money the dowry would often include religious objects worked in gems, gold and silver and paintings of a religious nature – often celebrating the patron saints and piety of the donating family.  Royal and wealthy patrons would give gifts as votive offerings and thanks for blessings received.  Over the centuries a religious house could amass a wealth of art and artifacts.

And if the museum of the cloister is any indication the treasury of Pedrables was overflowing.  A favoured way of displaying the wealth was to enclosed several paintings, ceramics or reliefs within an elaborately carved and gilded frame.  These retables or retablos could serve as the backdrop for a portable altar or were hung in sisters’ cells as shrines and focuses for mediation.  The themes of the retablos are fairly common – patron saints, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, the Madonna – some with magnificent works of art will-you nil-you incorporated with what could be termed “religious schlock”. In some cases they were given to the Monastery as a completed piece but many were created after the fact, at the behest of the Order, from objects donated individually.  There are often stylistic differences in the paintings, ceramics or carvings that would suggest the later.

Amongst the many on display there was one retablo in particular that caught my attention.  Unfortunately I didn’t make note of the details and a request for information to the Museum at the Monastery has gone unanswered.

The format is fairly standard: a top piece (in this case the Crucifixion); two framing objects (St Anthony of Padua and, I believe, the Virgin – I can’t make out the attributes) and a central portrait of a young Madonna holding a distaff and spindle.  The whole is encased in an intricately carved and gilded frame. 

It was that central portrait that struck me:  Mary, almost a child, dressed in traditional Catalan garb and spinning as legend tells us she did while being prepared in the Temple for her tremendous task.

The Gospel of St James relates that St Anne and St Joachim had given up all hope of having children but were given a heavenly message that Anne would conceive and bear a girl child.  In thanksgiving for this miracle they vowed to dedicate the child to God.  (Always a little cynical where these things are concerned I wonder at longing to have a child in the house and then vowing to give the child up almost immediately – something doesn’t compute there!) At the age of three they presented her into the care of the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem and she was to remain there until she was twelve years old.   During that time she was prepared for her role as the Mother of God according to the both James and other pseudo-Gospels.  One of her duties in the temple was to make vestments for the priests which would account for the distaff and spindle in this lovely little painting and perhaps also serves as justification for the working of vestments that became the vocation of many of the sisters.

What I found marvelous about this, admittedly, minor oil painting is the way the subject is treated.  This could be any little girl from the countryside, freshly scrubbed and in her Sunday best – it is possible to see young girls dressed in exactly the same way at various religious and secular festival throughout Catalonia.  As was the tradition she has had her ears pierced and she wears a simple strand of coral beads.  At the time it was not uncommon for children to wear a coral necklace as it was thought to ward off illness and the evil eye.   But in Christian iconography coral has a deeper significance as it represents the blood and the sacrifice of Christ.  The painter was transferring what he no doubt saw in front of him to canvas but there was also an underlying message.  This simple little innocent peasant girl, serenely going about her work, was to become the crucible for the salvation of the world. 

Some how I find this more worthy of meditation and reference than all the bejewelled, velvet robed, silver crowned Queens of Heaven that populate the more revered shrines throughout Spain.

February 4 – 1936:  Radium becomes the first radioactive element to be made synthetically.

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Una Joia del Gòtic Català* – Part III

The Monastery Refectory and Kitchen

Though the sisters had their day cells – in some cases elaborately decorated with murals, tapestries and frescoes – much of the life in the Monastery was of a communal nature.  The second floor dormidor was a common sleeping room though it may have been subdivided by wooden or tapestry partitions to allow for some privacy.  Traditionally the sub-prioress would sleep closest the entrance to monitor what was happening in the dormitory and to take attendance.  The dormitory normally had – as it does at Pedralbes – easy access to the Nun’s gallery of the adjacent church as attendance at offices was required as part of the rule of the order.

The Refectory of the Monastery is on the ground floor and accessible from the North
end of the cloister through a carved wooden grill.

 Meals were also a communal activity and were taken in the ground floor refectory.  At Pedralbes it is accessed through a lovely wood grill; the benches and tables are against the walls and sisters sat in order of position and seniority.  Meals were served by the novices and postulants who ate after the professed sisters had their meal.  Meals were simple – meat was only eaten on major feast days – and taken in silence with one of the sisters assigned to read from a text for the day – perhaps a passage from the Gospels or Letters, The Lives of the Saints, a sermon or a theological treatise.

The sisters sat along the wall and the tables were fixed to the stone floor – you have to wonder
what purpose the rest of the wide open space served?  The lector for the day would read from
the pulpit high up on the left of the room.

There is no adornment in the room other than this crucifix against a wall fresco. The device
at the foot of the cross is the coat of arms of the Monastery.   The field was originally the
personal coat of arms of Queen Elisenda, and combined the striped crest of the counts of
Catalonia, into which she married, and the spotted crest of the house of Montcada.

If the refectory is much as it was and has been for the past 600 years the adjacent kitchen showed the advancements in cooking equipment over several centuries.   There is no sign of the open fireplaces that would have originally been used in the early years – possibly they were bricked up.  But a wonderful collection of old cast iron stoves, modern gas burners and an even older ceramic stove gave hints of how meals were prepared.  Even the tiles gave indication of the passage of time – large stark white tiling that suggested the 1930s, obviously factory made blue and white tiles of the late-19th early-20th century and most notably hand painted tiles from the 17th century.  The later creating one of the most fanciful and charming back splashes I’ve ever seen for the marvelous ceramic stove.

As Gothic as the refectory may be the adjacent kitchen reflects modern (?) advancements in cooking equipment. 
I wonder if the hot water tank is still fed by the cistern in the cloister?
I can only imagine the heat that this enormous cast iron stove must have given off.  You can almost see the sister wiping the sweat from her brow as she stirs up a steaming pot of vegetable stew to be ladled out and born by a novice into the refectory.

This marvelous ceramic stove probably dates from the 16th-17th century.  It was an efficient way of getting the maximum amount of heat from a minimum amount of fuel.

But the colourful ceramic was more than a decorative element on this early masonry stove.  It was an even and long lasting conductor of heat.  Masonry stoves were fuel efficient – hay, twigs or  split logs could be burned in them and burned at a high temperature.  A small fire could give heat that would last up to six hours after the fire had died down.  This meant that a single fire could handle much of the cooking needs for the day.

The decorative tiles on the back splash would have also retained and reflected heat as well as being a source of both religious contemplation and, possibly,  amusement. 

I recently found a great little free programme which creates mapping links on photos in a few easy steps.  I’ve used it to allow close ups of the charming primitive tiles on the back guard of the Monastery stove.  As you move your mouse over each tile a left click or use the links at the bottome of the picture to enlarge the tile in another window for a closer look. Thanks to for a very cool tool.

 December 14 – 1287: St. Lucia’s flood: The Zuiderzee sea wall in the Netherlands collapses, killing over 50,000 people.

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Una Joia del Gòtic Català* – Part II

The Cloister of the Monastery of Pedralbes

Often I have found that in the midst of many a bustling city there is a place of quiet and peace:  as an example Ibun Tulun  Mosque in Cairo, the chapel of St Faith at Westminster Abbey or the Cloister of the Monastery of Pedralbes in Barcelona.  On the day of our visit, unlike La Sagrada Famillia, Las Ramblas and other sites in the city, there were maybe twenty other people who were wandering leisurely through the Monastery complex.  Though known it would seem that it is not on everyone’s bucket list of “must-sees” in Barcelona – a shame in one way but a blessing in another.  It allowed us to visit the monastery and its precincts undisturbed and enjoy the peacefulness.

The tomb of Queen Elisenda: this is the Cloister side of her double-sided tomb.   Unlike the sculpture on church side, here she is divested of all symbols of royalty and wears the habit of a penitent.  She did not take holy orders but took part in the daily life of the Monastery after the death of her husband.

As I mentioned in my previous post the Monastery was built by Queen Elisenda on land she had purchased from Admiral Bernat de Sarriá.  The area – named after the good Admiral – was an independent township and remained so until 1927 when it was incorporated into Barcelona.  The Monastery itself remained in the hands of the Poor Clares – save for a brief period during Catalan Revolt of 1640 – until it was purchased by the corporation of Barcelona in 1971.  A new Monastery was built nearby for the small community that remained of this once great house.  The site had been declared a Spanish national monument as early as 1931 but was not opened as a museum until 1983.

There is no access to the monastery from the church – a separate entrance leads you through a small series of halls and opens up into the cloister, the largest in the world.   A spacious and graceful area, it is a three story structure with twenty-six columns on each of the four sides.  The main level was part of the original Monastery, the second level was added in 1419 and the third level later the same century.  The cloister garden was used to grow medicinal plants and flowers – the nuns were known for the elaborate bouquets of roses, orange flowers and jasmine they made for the celebration of holy days in Barcelona. 

The Cloister is three stories high, with twenty-six graceful Gothic columns on each side, making it one of the largest cloisters in the world.   The first level was part of the original building; the second story, in the same style, was added in 1419.  The third story, added in the late 1400s, is squatter and supported by thicker more widely spaced columns giving it an almost Romanesque look.

Following the suggested route the first enclosure off the cloister is St Michael’s Chapel – one of the treasures of Pedralbes.  The chapel is decorated with murals by Ferrer Bassa and depicts the Joys of the Virgin and the Passion.  Painted between 1343-1346 they were contracted by  Francesca ça Portella, the niece of Queen Elisenda, who was Abbess of the Monastery from 1336 to 1364:

It is agreed between the lady abbess of Pedralbes and Ferrer Bassa that the said Ferrer shall paint in fine colours, with oil, the Chapel of St. Michael ……..

And the abbess shall pay Ferrer Bassa two hundred and fifty sous, his food and that of those who help the painter in the said work; and out of the two hundred and fifty sous, the said abbess shall pay the said Ferrer Bassa one hundred sous in advance and the remaining one hundred and fifty sous when the work is finished.

Extract from the contract in the Monastery archives

There seems to have been some dispute between the good lady abbess and the painter and he many not have received all the money due him.  It has been suggest that much of the work was not by the artist himself but by his son Arnau or an Italian assistant.  Bassa was greatly influenced by the Italian school and followed the Gioto techniques of both “fresco” and “secco” painting in his work.  He also used many technical innovations that had been introduced in Tuscany in the early 14th century.

The tomb of Francesca ça Portella is in the same niche as that of her aunt, Queen Elisenda.  She was Abbess for almost 30 years and commissioned the painting of Capella Sant Miquel by Ferrer Bassa in 1343.  It is said she intended the chamber as her own day cell.

 It has also been suggested that Abbess Francesca’s original intent had been to use the chamber as her day cell and it may well have served that purpose.  Over the 700 year history of the Monastery it has seen several uses other than that of chapel.  At some point it was the Monastery archive and between 1801-1870 it served as a cloakroom then as the Abbot’s cell.   While it was being put to those different uses the murals were protected behind furniture and hangings until they were  rediscovered in the late 19th century.

A left click on this panorama of the Murals of the Capella de Sant Miquel will take you to an extensive website devoted to the project.  It is “worth the detour” for the rich animations and virtual tours its offers.  I’m still exploring it.

Unfortunately the Chapel is currently closed and a massive restoration project is underway.  However there was a fascinating exhibition on the current two stage project: first a detailed investigation of the work and techniques involved then stabilizing the paintings and restoring them to their original splendor.  A feature of the exhibition was a short film showing how the murals were painted – I suggest that you use the expand symbols on the control panel to get the full effect.

If we could not view the “jewel” of the Monastery there was still enough to fascinate in both cloister and in the rooms accessible to the public.  As well as the Cloister side of Queen Elisenda’s doubled-sided tomb the wall adjacent to the church was lined with the tombs of women who had served as Mother Abbess or were influential in the history of the life of the Monastery.  The final resting places of Abbess Francesa,  Beatriu de Fenollet, Constança de Cardona and Elionor de Pinós are examples of Catalonian Gothic sculpture, decoration and architecture at its peak.

The south wall of the Cloister contains the tombs of several of the women who were influential in the foundation and workings of the Monastery in the 13-14th centuries.  Their resting places are amongst the finest  examples of Gothic sculpture, painting and architecture in Catalonia.

The passageways on two levels give public entrance to a series of day cells, which provided the sisters with their own personal retreats, as well as the offices, an infirmary, the refectory and kitchen, chapter house and dormidor or the nuns’ sleeping quarters.   The later – a enormous timbered-ceiling room – is stunning in its simplicity and looks almost modern in its design.  It now houses many of the votive treasures given to the Monastery as well as the day to day furniture and utensils used by the Poor Clares over the 700 year history of the complex.

This large second floor room was the Dormidor – or common sleeping quarters – and now houses many of the Monastery treasures.  Built to display the artwork the contemporary pop-art coloured walls cannot hid the clean, austere lines of the original stone and wood work of the room.  An almost modern (it is in fact from the 15th century) spiral staircase leads to the the third floor and the quarters of the Lady Abbess.

The Chapter House was constructed in 1419 however it is believed that part of the stain glass dates from the 1300s when the Monastery was first constructed.  Sadly my camera would not pick up the glory of the stain which includes the personal coat of arms of Queen Elisenda.

The Gardens of the Cloister follow the standard pattern of four quadrants surrounding a central fountain.  Each quadrant serves its function within the quadrangle:  orange trees in one, herbs in another, flower garden in the third and well-head in the fourth.  As well it serves as a cool, quiet place to spend the day during the heat of summer.

The Cloister quadrangle followed the pattern of the time – a central fountain surrounded by four quadrants each serving an important function in monastery life:  An herb garden, a flower garden, a rest area of shade and a well-head.

Looking at the artistic wealth of the Monastery it is perhaps easy to be slightly cynical about the “Poor Clares” however it must be kept in mind that many of the sisters of the congregation came from privilege.  Most were noblewomen and the founder herself was royalty and they practiced the arts of the gentlewomen of their time as well as observing the rules of their order.

A gentlewoman of the period would be expected to excel in the art of needlework and the good sisters of the Monastery were no exception.  They worked vestments for both their Church of Santa Maria and for other parishes in the region of Sarriá and nearby Barcelona. The red chasuble was meant for a festive mass while the black figured with the symbols of the Passion was possibly for an event during Holy Week.

It is interesting to note that in the early years of the 19th century, the victim of the French Revolution and advancing secularization, the Order of Poor Clares declined everywhere in Europe except Spain.  In an 1909 census there were 247 monasteries with 5543 confessed sisters in Spain – nearly a third of the order at the time.  A search for the current state of the Order has produced no numbers but in the past decade there has been a resurgence in Spain of entry into the novitiate.  Many of the women are mid-aged, well-educated, professionals – a historical pattern set by their predecessors.  

As a side note: In one of those strange traditions, its origins lost in the fog of history, on the Feast Day of Saint Eulàlia the Alicante of Barcelona brings a dozen eggs as a gift to the sisters of the Monastery.  This may be because it is believed that the Saint (who is the patron of Barcelona) was born in  Sarriá.  But why eggs, why a dozen and how exactly this guarantees good fortune in the following year has not been explained.  Nor is it mentioned if the Mayor stays for a breakfast frittata.

December 12 -1915: President of the Republic of China, Yuan Shikai, announces his intention to reinstate the monarchy and proclaim himself Emperor of China.

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Una Joia del Gòtic Català* – Part I

  It is a “jewel of Catalonian Gothic*” according the Barcelona tourist website and it would be difficult to argue with this description of Reial Monestir de Santa Maria de Pedralbes. On our first visit to Barcelona several years ago we had wanted to visit it but time just ran out – we weren’t about to let that happen a second time. The route on the Hop-on Hop-off bus isn’t the most direct from Plaça de Catalunya – its a rather circuitous trip via La Sagrada Familla, Park Guell, The Tramvia Blau and several sights in between. But it was worth both the hour it took us to get there and the three year wait.

Il Reial Monestir de santa Maria Pedralbes is approached today through one of the medieval
gates between  the defense towers of the old walls.  Its position outside the city made
it vulnerable to attack and the Barcelona civil guard were charged with its protection.

  Founded in 1326 by Queen Elisenda de Montcada as a house for the Poor Clares, it remains a working monastery for the order today but on a vastly reduced scale.  The Order is housed in a small part of the original complex; the major buildings have been a museum since 1983.  The church is still used by the Sisters for their daily worship and serves as a parish church for the local residents.

The cobblestone street leads up past buildings that are currently used by the order – greatly reduced
in size to a handful of nuns.  The order has been expelled several times from Pedrables but has returned each time. 

  In 1328, a year after the death of her husband, James II, Elisenda moved into a palace next to the monastery and lived there until her death in 1364.  Though she did not take religious orders she was closely involved in the workings of the monastery; her presence encouraged the nobility to send their daughters – those that they couldn’t arrange advantageous marriages for – to the monastery and endow it with votives and gifts of the finest workmanship and highest value.

Santa Maria de Pedrables faces a large and pleasant square which is now part of a residential complex. 
At one time it was monastery grounds which occupied much of the area.  The building is a considered one
of the best examples of Catalan Gothic.

A broad expanse of stairs once led to gardens and the palace of Queen Elisenda – it now leads to a residential area of Sarrià.  The sector has always been considered one of the more desirable places to live in Barcelona.

  When the church and monastery were built they were on a royal estate in the township of Sarrià a good distance from Barcelona.  Under orders from the Queen the complex was under the protection of the city and the civil guard was charged with it care.  Because of its position it was originally encircled by defense walls and towers – only remnants remain today.  The approach is through one of the original defense gates, up a steep cobblestone road lined with white stone (pertas albes – Pedralbes) buildings that included guest houses and monastery outbuildings.

  Queen Elisenda chose the site for the new monastery herself on one of the royal estates in the area of Pedralbes – a name which derives from the Latin Petras Albas or white stones.  The first stone was laid by the monarchs in March 1326.  By May of the following year work was sufficiently advanced that the first community of nuns – from the Convent of Saint Antony in Barcelona – took up residence. 

  The church is attached to the monastery but only accessible to it through the upper cloister passages leading to the Nun’s gallery.   The nave is spanned by ribbed arches and the sanctuary has a retable by the Catalan painter Jaume Huguet.  The austerity of the interior is broken by glorious 14th century stained glass in the chancel and a rose window window at the gallery end.  Unusually for the time there are three choir levels:  upper, lower and a separate Friars’ choir.

Unusually the tomb of Queen Elisenda is double-sided and depicts her in the two periods of her adult life. 
Facing the church is the Queen (below) while it is the widow and penitent that faces towards the cloister.

  An unusual feature is the tomb of the founder – Elisenda’s resting place is two sided.  One side is built into the wall of the chancel of Santa Maria and the other into the wall of the cloister of the Monastery. The two tombs are mirror images save one important detail:  the figure of Elisenda facing the church is that of a Queen, the figure facing the cloister that of the widow and penitent.   The two phases of her life commemorated equally.

  As impressive as the soaring and solemn Gothic splendor of the church is what caught my attention were a simple row of  pews** at the back of the nave.   It would have been easy to miss them as the church was dark and my camera had been acting up but I was able to get a few photos of the charming, and in at least one case amusing, grotesques that were carved into the pew ends.  They are the work of an anonymous wood carver and the pews themselves are not in the best of shape – showing the marks of five centuries of worship.

  I have no idea what these creatures symbolize – if indeed they are anything other than the fantasies of the carver’s imagination but I found them beguiling as so often these easily overlooked little details can be.

  These two creatures have a slightly Jurassic Park look to them – dinosaurs? Probably not but whatever they are they are very unhappy with each others presence in the pew. Sort of like a few people I remember from my church going days.

  These two are casually ignoring each other.  The one on the left seems to be grooming his rather lush tail; while the one of the right is just preening.  Again I am reminded of people I’ve seen sitting in pews like this of a Sunday morning.  Could the carver have been making a satirical jab at church goers?

  This bird – a peacock? – and what appears to be a squirrel are pairing off against each other.  My money’s on the rodent – it looks pretty vicious from here.

  But the most delightful of these fantasy images has to be this marvelous carving of a dog tugging on an old man’s beard.  Did it have some sort of meaning that is lost to us today?  Does it record some bit of local folklore in Sarrià?  Was the carver getting his own back at someone he disliked?  Or again is it just a little piece of artistic fantasy meant to intrigue – and in this solemn place bring a smile? 

  It is little details like this that have always fascinated me – that and the incredible talent of the wood carver in creating this small – easily overlooked – treasures.

 **Until I was writing this post I hadn’t thought much of the etymology of the word “pew”; apparently it comes from the Middle French – “puwe” which means a seat.  It was first used to refer to seats in a balcony but later came to refer to benches or seats. 

05 December – 1766: In London, James Christie holds his first sale.

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