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The entrails and soul of a monastery. Heritage through use and function


Published in

Diario de Navarra

Ricardo Fernández Gracia

Director of the Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art

Cultural heritage is susceptible to different approaches to its understanding: from its purely historical aspects (dating, promotion, execution and price), to the aesthetic (how), technical (with what and in what way), iconographic (meaning and message) and use and function (what for). All these questions must be harmoniously integrated in the analysis of cultural goods and in the narratives in which they are protagonists.

In the same way that when visiting an old manufacture or a factory, the different spaces of the productive process are pointed out, in a palace, a domestic architecture, a cathedral or a convent complex, the use and function of its parts should never be forgotten. In the latter cases, it is usually the aspect to which less attention is paid, because the mere reflection on the sublime interior spaces and the historical or technical data are usually enough to grasp the reality of the ensembles, and even to be fascinated by so much surprise and wonder. 

In this partnership we will focus on the recreation of the monastic life of a Cistercian monastery, through the use and function of its buildings. We will take as a reference the monastery of Fitero, which, like others, experienced changes in the use of its buildings over the centuries, as well as the addition of new factories.

Ora et labora: life in a monastery

For centuries, there were people who decided to dedicate their lives to God, either in isolation, in complete solitude, or at group, in community. In the latter case, it was necessary to live under a rule and create a microcosm of their own, self-sufficient and well organized to enable divine worship and meet the needs of life. Thus, medieval monastic architecture was born and developed with the mendicant and later reformed orders in the different conventual typologies. 

In the case of the Cistercians, inspired by St. Bernard, they began a rapid expansion, with ideals of austerity and prohibition of all luxury subject in housing, clothing and food. The saint recommended the praise of God through lectio divina, the work, the following of Christ and the love of the Virgin, avoiding images and idleness.

Great specialists have wondered if a Cistercian style existed. In formal and structural terms the answer is negative, although from the point of view of the organization of a monastery, the answer is affirmative. Braunfels has written 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".

The church and the cloister

The interior of the church was conceived, first and foremost, as a place for the community, intended and dedicated to prayer and worship, both for laymen and monks. The majestic church, from agreement with the purifying and simplifying ideas of St. Bernard, is reduced to a pure structure illuminated by natural white light. Nothing could be more opposed to the Cistercian spirit than the Gothic space, illuminated for the sake of the transcendent with powerful beams of light sifted through stained glass windows. 

The Benedictine Rule invites us to offer: "praise to our Creator... at Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nona, Vespers and Compline, and let us rise in the evening to give Him thanks"

It is necessary to reflect on the existence of the ambulatory, the first of the Navarrese temples, since it precedes those of the cathedral of Pamplona and Santa María de Viana.

The ceremonial, the rites, the schedules of daily life and the liturgy can be recalled with different texts, both those of general character for the Cistercians, as well as others more particular to the different congregations and the monastery itself, such as the festive calendar, published in Pamplona in 1732.

The large sacristy is the best place to explain typologies of goldsmithery with its liturgical use, as well as other sumptuary arts such as textiles.

The cloister, a place for recollection and reading, is also a space organizer, the axis of community life, a place for meditation and the true nerve center of the entire monastery. The church and the rest of the rooms were accessed through its bays. Its four pandas were used for meditation in detachment from oneself and the world, as well as to evoke love for God and neighbor.

conference room chapter, refectory and dormitory

The capitularconference room , following the Rule of St. Benedict, was destined to deal with important matters under the presidency of the abbot. In it the community gathered, the rule was read, and each monk had to ask forgiveness and do penance for his faults. The Rule of St. Benedict states that "whenever matters of importance are to be discussed in the monastery, the abbot should summon the whole community and himself explain what is to be discussed".

The Charter of Charity, a regulation of the origins of the Cistercian Order, specifies that the monk should ask forgiveness there and fulfill the "penance imposed on him for his fault.... there obey in all things the abbot of the same and his chapter in the observance of the holy Rule or of the Order and in the correction of faults".

The refectory is also a place to remember food and drink, which evolved from medieval frugality to beans, meat and soup, regulated by the monks in 1801. The Rule prescribed silence and reading for the refectory. Other aspects can be recalled there, such as the secular custom of the monastery to serve lunch and supper at the place of the deceased monk for nine days and to give the ration to a poor person for 30 days. 

Another dependence that speaks of another vital need, such as sleep, is the dormitory. About it we read in the Rule: "if possible, let them all sleep in the same room... in this dormitory let a lamp burn constantly until dawn... let them sleep dressed and girded with belts or cords... the younger brothers should not have their beds next to each other, but interspersed with those of the elders .... and let them get up at night to give him thanks". The celebration of Matins, in the middle of the night, explains the existence of the staircase on the north Wayside Cross , whose layout is still visible.

Over time, the monks were provided with individual cells, especially since the construction of the new dormitory (1585-1589). And if castles and cathedrals never lack a goblin, we should remember that the legendary and marvelous story of the death of Friar Juan de Ledea, a layman from Roncal, took place in a Fiteran cell in 1631, preceded by enormous rumblings that frightened the entire community. In this respect, it is necessary to insist on the importance of recovering, together with the material, all that which is immaterial, such as customs, traditions and legends.

Other units

The rest of the rooms, such as cillas, kitchen, prison, parlors, latrines, followed precise norms, in relation to the uses and functions described by the monastic rule, insisting on silence and meditation. 

The scriptoriumscriptorium, like the Benedictine one, is located with access to the cloister. On the north side there is still a continuous bench -mandatum- for monks who wanted to read, without leaving the book cupboard.

The building of the great Library Services is the oldest of its type preserved in Navarre. It was erected between 1607 and 1614 and was the work of Fray Ignacio de Ibero, a learned abbot, bibliophile and writer who even installed a printing press in the monastery. 

Its walls, empty today, are no reminder that it was the richest bookshop of the Cistercian monasteries of Navarre, as Professor Isabel Ostolaza has shown in her study A , in which she catalogs 1,759 records, which are an excellent way to look at the culture in the centuries of the Modern Age.

In 1800 his books were quantified between 7,000 and 8,000. One of his codices, that of Anelier de Toulousse, which narrates the War of Navarrería in 1276, preserved in the Royal Academy of History, is a work that, according to José Goñi Gaztambide, "would be sufficient to justify the existence of the monastery of Fitero".

The image of the Library Services transcended to universal literature, thanks to the legend of El Miserere by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, which begins as follows: "Some months ago, while visiting the famous abbey of Fitero and while I was busy rummaging through some volumes in its abandoned Library Services, I discovered in one of its corners two or three very old music books, covered with dust and even started to be gnawed by mice...".

The monastic quarters were renovated and enlarged in the Modern Age with a splendid hostelry, the large sacristy, the prior's chapel , the porter's lodge, the abbey palace and the Order's place . All these pieces can be recreated with texts and stories of the arrival of travelers, of the abbey protocol - designed to praise the image of the abbot -, of the ordinary and extraordinary life (celebrations of all kinds subject), of the distribution of the daily pot to the poor, the popular missions or the banns that always had to begin with the mandatory "By order of the Lord Abbot".

The current 17th century tower replaced the old medieval belfry and its bells were able to fulfill their multiple functions of praise, lament, call or incantation, as recalled in its inscriptions: "Laudo Deum Verum, voco populum, congrego clerum, Satan fugo, defunctos ploro, festa decoro".

Images and sounds

With time, the internship proscription of the images of the Cistercians because of their distraction and Withdrawal to sensory pleasures, was left behind, especially since the village of Fitero was a reality and the catechization of its people needed them as a fundamental element in a mostly illiterate society.

Altarpieces, canvases and sculptures populated the walls of the church, once white, like the monks' coats of arms. Those images were meant to exemplify before the faithful models of life and holiness, naturally changing over the centuries. Suffice it to compare the saints of the main altarpiece, restrained and classical, with the theatrical Transverberation of St. Teresa in the sacristy. The purpose of the interesting iconographies of the rich movable heritage of the monastery is well worth it, if we also consider that it is the only one of the great male monasteries of Navarre that was saved from the Disentailment.

A special chapter to keep in mind in the choir loft or under the spectacular organ case is that of the music. Moments to evoke the sounds of the voices that would intone the melodies of the 13th century contained in the Sacramentary coming from the monastery, kept in the file General of Navarra. It is also necessary to suggest the sounds of the old realejos and the Renaissance organ, today in the Merced of Tarazona, next to the scores that were guarded in Fitero since 1600 of the great masters like Palestrina, Cristóbal de Morales, Tomás Luis de Victoria, Fernando de las Infantas and other Italian composers of the first line. 

In the face of all this, today immaterial, the pipes of the spectacular organ in the nave and the choir loft, recently acquired thanks to the Gondra-Barandiarán Foundation, can still transport and elevate us as only music can in certain environments and contexts.