9 November 2010


Heritage, Art and Architecture

Cloisters of Seville. History and Heritage

D. Alfredo J. Morales Martínez.
University of Seville

The city of Seville possesses the greatest monumental, artistic and cultural heritage in the field of the cloistered monasteries in Spain. Away from the hustle and bustle of contemporary urban life, the cloisters are small islands of peace and tranquillity. Despite some specific publications and the occasional television programme, the cloistered monasteries of Seville remain one of the city's great secrets and most important hidden treasures. The complex reality that lies behind the walls of the cloisters remains unknown even to those who live in the vicinity and listen to the daily tolling of their bells. Only the sweet confectionery products made in many of them and purchased throughout the year through the lathes, or in a exhibition-sale in the days before Christmas seem to be the only testproof of their existence. In fact, for the vast majority this is the only connection with the cloistered convents of Seville. However, for those who are regulars in the conventual churches when it comes to fulfilling religious precepts and taking part in liturgical celebrations, the reality of the cloisters is the distant voices of the monks chanting prayers and the fleetingness of a series of blurred shadows behind the grilles of the choirs. In any case, these are always fragmentary visions, almost intuitions about the enclosed world of the conventual cloisters.

Of the thirty or so women's convents that existed in Seville until the 19th century, only sixteen survive today, and it should be noted that one of the oldest, that of Santa Clara, has recently been lost, as its dwindling and ageing community has had to join the convent of Santa María de Jesús of the same Franciscan order. The large women's convents of the origins competed in proportions with the men's houses of the same order. Some of them housed more than a hundred nuns and even more than two hundred professed nuns during the 16th century. Such a high number issuecontrasts with the twenty-one that by constitution were and still are in the convent of San José del Carmen, founded by Saint Teresa of Jesus. issueIn contrast to the large number of communities in past centuries, there has been a drastic reduction in the number of nuns in the present day, with a large number being elderly, which has resulted in the withdrawalof some convent areas and in the progressive deterioration of the buildings due to lack of maintenance. Novices from different American and African countries have arrived in many convents, the case of those from India being exceptional. With them, some enclosures have been revitalised, while at the same time the features, ways and customs of other cultures have appeared. Despite this, time continues to be marked by the recitation of the canonical hours and by a rich spiritual life which does not imply ignorance of what is happening beyond the convent walls. Mobile telephony and the Internet have entered the cloisters.

Conventual architecture incorporates both the monumental and known for its condition as a public space, as in the case of temples, and the more domestic, interiorised and less obvious, which corresponds to the cloistered areas. It is in these small universes, which are articulated around courtyards, where the nuns spend their lives, in a retreat that is sought after and enjoyed. The old foundations correspond to Gothic and Mudejar buildings, some are Renaissance and almost all of them were renovated at the beginning of the 16th century. The more modern ones are Baroque and even historicist, and in almost all cases the quantity, variety and importance of their movable heritage is remarkable, despite the confiscations, plundering and sales. Maintaining and preserving such assets would be a difficult task to explain, were it not for divine providence and the hard work of communities aware of their responsibility. That is why for some time now, in addition to the prayer that is the focus of their contemplative lives, they have been working on various tasks. Some convents have embroidery or bookbinding workshops, dry-cleaning or laundry and ironing services. Others have opened guesthouses and in many cases they make sweets using old recipes, sometimes with contributions from other parts of the world, resultfrom these varied communities that have become more and more widespread. Fortunately, they also have the support of financial aidof benefactors and devotees who are aware of the hardships and needs of daily life in the convents. Thanks to all this, the cloisters are still alive and kicking, although new vocations will be necessary for their survival. The nuns themselves are already praying for this, although the contributions and prayers of the whole Christian community would not go amiss.