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Ricardo Fernández Gracia, Director of the Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art.

The works and days in Navarrese art (18). Patrimony, monasticism and convent life

Fri, 02 Feb 2018 11:32:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

For centuries, there were people who decided to dedicate their lives to God either in isolation, in complete solitude, or grouped in small communities. In the latter case, it was necessary to create their own small, self-sufficient and well-organized microcosm to enable divine worship and cover their vital needs. This is how monastic architecture was born throughout the Middle Ages average and developed with the mendicant and later reformed orders in the different conventual typologies.

Braunfels' book on Monastic architecture in the West is fundamental for understanding and comprehending the whole phenomenon. In the Modern Age, with the emergence of numerous foundations, Pamplona and Tudela became convent-cities, obeying one of the characteristics of Hispanic urban planning in the 17th century.

What is fundamental to recreate conventual life are the great architectural ensembles that tell us of a common life with its refectories, kitchens, libraries, dormitories, churches, parlors and gardens. Even photography is scarce in a context that, in general, considered it unedifying and modest, rather banal and at odds with the ideals of humility and detachment of religious life.


Monumental witnesses: from Cistercian ensembles to Baroque convents

Navarre has great architectural ensembles of the sons of St. Bernard. Great specialists have wondered if a Cistercian style existed. In formal and structural terms, the answer must be in the negative, although from the point of view of the organization of a monastery, the answer must be in the affirmative. Braunfels has written precisely about the plans of his abbeys: "The plan of the ideal Cistercian monastery represents a very mature organism, in which everything has been foreseen, where every superfluous detail has been avoided, capable of being built by elements of equal characteristics and where the temple only occupies a place of honor thanks to its larger dimensions. Severity and clarity dominate the structure of the plan".

Austerity and a balance between prayer, reading and work guide marked the life of the white monks, who from Portugal to Catalonia created 75 male monasteries. Navarra occupied a prominent place in this panorama, with the houses of Fitero (1140), La Oliva (1149), Iranzu (1178), Leire (1237) and Marcilla (1407), together with the female monastery of Tulebras (1153).

Of the groups of mendicant orders that existed, the most outstanding is the group of the convent of Preachers of Estella which, in the opinion of Professor Martínez de Aguirre, is not only the most important work of Navarre's medieval mendicant architecture, but also the most important Dominican convent in the peninsular panorama of the 13th century.

The other great group of conventual architecture is constituted by the baroque buildings, fundamentally of discalced Carmelite nuns in their masculine and feminine branches. The Recoletas of Pamplona, with plans by Juan Gómez de Mora himself, the Discalced Carmelites of Pamplona, the Benedictines of Corella, the Conceptionists of Tafalla, the Dominicans of Tudela and the Franciscans of Viana, among other examples of the 17th century, stand out with repetitive schemes. In the following century, outstanding examples were erected, such as the Poor Clares of Arizcun, the Franciscans of Olite or the Carmelites of Lesaca, of which we preserve the original plans of the architect of the order, Fray José de San Juan de La Cruz.

The organizing element of all those microcosms that were the monasteries and convents, from the typological and organizational point of view, was the cloister, present in monastic architecture since the second half of the eleventh century and that was configured as the nerve center of the monasteries, since it gave way to the church, the chapter, the refectory and the great stairs that communicated with the rich libraries, dormitories and other rooms located on the upper floor.


Ora et labora: the canonical hours and the work guide

The editions of the monastic rules and some manuscripts with precise indications about the daily routine, give an account of schedules, meals, vigils and services of the common life, in winter, summer and in the different liturgical seasons, particularly in Advent and Lent. The different charisms made the regular life adapt to them. Thus the Capuchins of Extramuros of Pamplona, dedicated a great part of their time to confessions, to help people to die well, to preaching and missions. From the Augustinian Recollect Nuns of Pamplona we know that in the XVII century they got up from the Holy Cross of September to May at five o'clock and average, making the official document Parvo of Our Lady, mental prayer, meditation, mass, terce and all the canonical hours alternating them with the work guide . In summer the rising time was four o'clock and average, but there was siesta from twelve o'clock to one o'clock. The fasting time was from the Holy Cross of September to Christmas and from septuagesima to Easter. In Tulebras the workshop went from 4.40 to 20.45 in a workshop perfectly replete with prayers, work and a rest.

Chairs, musical instruments, shelves full of books in their libraries, cupboards with sheet music, trousseau and liturgical furnishings have been part of the medieval and modern ensembles and speak to us of material and immaterial heritage. Part of it is still preserved, something that is striking, if we take into account the disastrous consequences of the disentailment of the nineteenth century and the precariousness of means with which many of the communities have had to survive.

The small bell with its yoke located near the porter's lodge marked the rhythm of prayer, work, visits, calls to a religious man or woman with tolls that any member of the community knew perfectly well, differentiated by issue of bells and their sequencing. The Capuchin nuns of Tudela, following a custom of the order of great austerity, used instead of the bell a tile that with its more hoarse sound put its particular grade to the community life.


Two cells seen by a painter and a text by a visionary Carmelite nun

Among the collections of the Diocesan Museum of Pamplona there is a painting on a tin sheet support, probably imported from Flanders. It represents the cell of St. Francis of Assisi, who appears prostrate on his bed accompanied by the angel and other friars who witness the scene. A table with a Crucified Christ and a window on the left and some shelves on the right, together with the bed and the doors mark the vanishing lines. Numerous objects from all over subject, birds, garden produce and a lamb complete the scene. The Crucified and the skull, essential elements for the meditation on death, are also present. Several small animals, such as doves and a sheep or lamb, also recall the Philosophy of the Franciscan saint in relation to nature. Nothing could be further from an austere Franciscan cell than this 17th century pictorial vision, very much in keeping with the naturalism and rhetoric of the Baroque.

Regarding the abundance of objects, we can recall a text by Mother Francisca del Santísimo Sacramento, a Discalced Carmelite of the convent of San José de Pamplona and author of a book with numerous visions of souls in purgatory. Referring to a conventual Augustinian of Pamplona, she states that he was "of great virtue and supposition" and died, after having enjoyed a high income of 200 ducats for life that he used in "reliquaries, paintings and curious things to decorate his cell... but he was so engrossed in this that he spent a lot of time and death found him in the house of a layman in search of two chests that were brought to him from Castile full of these curiosities. He then appeared to Mother Frances, in great sorrow, surrounded by all those reliquaries, pyramids, paintings, flowers and curiosities, made fire, in which he so disorderly occupied his heart to degree scroll that would result in the use of his house; and then they were those that most tormented him. He asked her to entrust him to God because he was in great need and work, and disappeared saying what we all say: How deceived we live and how dearly it is paid ....".


Group and individual portraits

The oldest of the groups is located in a tomb in the present parish church of the Virgen del Río in Pamplona (mid-14th century), formerly the church of the Augustinian nuns of San Pedro de Ribas, in which a knight and some groups in the background are painted, with four nuns praying and commenting among themselves standing out.

The Carmelites of San José de Pamplona and of Araceli de Corella keep two canvases that reproduce in collective portraits the whole community in the mid-17th century and the beginning of the 19th century, respectively. Both paintings obey, from the iconographic point of view, the image of the Virgin of Mercy or of the sponsorship, whose origin lies in a passage of the Dialogus miraculorum, written around 1220 by the Cistercian Cesáreo de Heisterbach, where he narrates the vision of a monk who saw the Cistercian order in the kingdom of heaven under the mantle of Mary. From that vision, different versions followed one another in the figurative arts tending to express the effect of the Virgin's mercy towards her favorite children. From the Cistercians it would pass to other religious orders and from these to confraternities, to the faithful in general, the sinners and the souls in purgatory.

In the one in Pamplona, the Virgin is accompanied by Saint Joseph and Saint Teresa. It was made during the priesthood of Mother Fausta Gregoria del Santísimo Sacramento (Arbizu Garro Xavier), related to San Francisco Javier and died in 1678. In her obituary letter it is stated that "she had a painting made and in it she placed the image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, assisted by our Father Saint Joseph and our Mother Saint Theresa and under the mantle or cloak of the Virgin all the nuns of this house, at the feet of the great Queen, the prioress giving her the hearts of all the daughters". The painting is related to some letters of the then bishop Juan de Palafox addressed to the community and its prioress in 1659.

The one in Corella was signed by Diego Díaz del Valle of Cascantino in 1816 for the convent's porter's lodge. It is as naïve as it is interesting for incorporating the portraits of the twenty-one nuns, three of them novices with white veils.

The aversion to be portrayed by the religious, particularly, was based on reasons of incompatibility with the modesty and humility of convent life. Those of religious are more abundant than those of nuns. Among the few examples of the latter are the Augustinian Recollect Nuns of Pamplona, the foundress of the Capuchin nuns of Tudela and the famous Discalced Carmelite nuns of San José de Pamplona. Causes of fame of sanctity, visions or foundresses justified those individual portraits. The Capuchin nuns of Tudela kept the portrait of Sister Lucía Margarita Cerro, who was one of the foundresses who came from Toledo to the capital of La Ribera in 1736 for the foundation of the house. A delicate watercolor attributed to Valentín Carderera of Mother Ángela Urtasus, a nun from Tulebras, which is kept at the Library Services Nacional, dates from the fourth decade of the 19th century.



A special chapter in the Hispanic conventual world and in a special way in New Spain is constituted by the portraits of virtuous deceased crowned nuns. In Navarre we have an exceptional example, that of Mother Josefa de San Francisco of the Augustinian Recollect Nuns of Pamplona, who died in 1665, at the age of seventy. The painting focuses on the wake of the corpse in the habit of her order, embracing a crucifix and a palm, as signs of victory over bodily death and the crowned head. Following other models, the corpse lies on a table dressed with rich fabric and illuminated by candles of rich flames placed in seiscentist candlesticks with a wide base and molded shaft. The portrayed, Josefa de San Francisco (Elejalde Idiáquez), always in poor health, was a professed nun of the convent of Eibar, "of lively talent and good understanding", according to the chronicles. She was one of the founders of the convent of Pamplona and its prioress between 1637 and 1665. The chronicler Villerino, in 1690, wrote about her gifts for handicrafts, pointing out that "she was the first one who taught to make flowers in her convent and likewise taught her daughters to make the coats and other things of the service of the sacristy and to cut the clothes that they wear and sew them, since all this is done in the convent...".