A visit to this Jeronymite monastery just outside Barcelona between Badalona and Santa Coloma de Gramanet proved a rare delight. Currently in private hands, access is restricted, added to which there are only dirt tracks up to and from the monastery, so a certain amount of planning is required. But it is absolutely worth it. The earliest Jeronymite foundation in the Barcelona region was built nearby in 1413, but only three years later, with the financial support of the Barcelona merchant Bertran Nicolau, it moved to its current location. The architecture is, for the most part, late gothic, and the monastery was expanded and refined architecturally and decoratively over the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, largely thanks to substantial royal donations, notably from Juan II of Aragon, Ferdinand the Catholic and Charles V, all of whom were particularly devoted to the Jeronymite order. One curiosity is that patrons and donors were commemorated by having their busts or their coat of arms carved in stone in the modillions and mouldings of the rib vaulting of the cloister. The arms of the Catholic Monarchs pre-1492 (ie: without the pomegranate that symbolised Granada) feature several times in one side of the cloister, while the face of Christopher Columbus is purported to be found in another section. The monarchs took refuge in the monastery following the attempt on Ferdinand’s life in Barcelona in December 1492, and Columbus met them there some months later on his return from his first journey to the Americas. Another curiosity is the impressive, centuries-old myrtle (‘murtra’) that occupies a central place in the cloister. The refectory is also of great interest – the painted legend ‘Rex Joannes [Juan II] me fecit’ indicates the principal benefactor – and both the vaulting and walls were painted at various points in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The library, on the first floor, was also originally impressive, though the books have been dispersed, particularly through the desamortización of the first half of the nineteeth century. (Our guided tour did not include the library building.)
The monastery exudes history, but the tranquility of the location and the proportion and beauty of the architectonic spaces exert a timeless magnetic pull; one can imagine King Ferdinand recuperating here, allowing the calm to heal his wounds (the monks also had a substantial herb garden), and listening to the Office celebrated constantly – in accordance with Jeronymite tradition – in the church. That church, which had a single nave and six side chapels, as well as a substantial organ, has not survived the ravages of time and historical vicissitudes; all but a small part of the walls, including the apse, originally with five faces each with a window, survives following an arson attack in 1835. That was the year, thanks to Mendizábal’s disestablishment of the monasteries, that the monks left for good, and the building was subsequently put to various uses, inluding the keeping of livestock. Thus, the church was never rebuilt, and much of the building could use further restoration, despite the fact it was declared a national monument in 1974. Being in private hands, and used essentially nowadays as a spiritual retreat, restoration on a large scale is not likely to be forthcoming, and access will remaind restricted.
Tess Knighton, June 2015
Tess Knighton will be speaking about music at the monastery of Sant Jeroni de la Murtra at the Medieval and Renaissance Music Conference in Brussels on 8 July 2015 with a paper entitled: ‘What was Francisco Guerrero doing in Sant Jeroni de la Murtra, Barcelona, in 1581? Daily musical life in a sixteenth-century Jeronymite monastery’.