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November 03, 2005

the monastery of the royal shoeless

Yesterday, before my conference began, I explored Madrid and took a tour of El Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales. This is actually a Franciscan convent, which is why the nuns are "shoeless." They were originally "royal" because the institution was created to house princesses and other aristocratic women who (thanks to dynastic politics) were not destined to marry, or were widowed, or needed to retreat from court scandals.

Franciscan nuns are called "Poor Clares" after their founder, Chiara of Assisi, the daughter of Favorino Scifi, Count of Sasso-Rosso. Chiara (or Clare) renounced all her considerable worldly goods in order to follow the example of her personal friend, Francis of Assisi. In her struggle to become poor, she had to contend first with the hostility of her father and then with a series of popes who wanted the nuns who followed her to hold property in common. Other orders held vast quantities of joint property, but radicals of Clare's day believed that such wealth, even if it technically belonged to the group rather than to individuals, corrupted the Church. Clare persuaded Gregory IX to change his own prior written instructions and grant her the Privilegium Paupertatis, the "privilege to be poor." He knew this was a radical and subversive idea. For if the "Clares" were poor, why might the Church be rich?

Anyway, the Royal Shoeless of Madrid, although Poor Clares, have certainly held some collective wealth. Their monastery contains numerous chapels and halls arrayed around a tranquil, two-story cloister. Practically every inch of the interior is covered in religious art: paintings, sculptures, frescos, reliquaries, gilt altarpieces, and dioramas made of porcelein figurines. Most of the art is distinctly second-rate, although there seems to be a fine Titian and some magnificent Flemish tapestries executed to designs ("cartoons") by Rubens.

I am very accustomed to religious art and love a great deal of it. I have also been in nunneries built for aristocratic women, such as the Beguine-houses of Bruges. But I must admit that the sentimentality of the art at the "Descalzas" put me over the edge. Picture cloistered virgin princesses spending their lives worshipping before images of the Mother and Child. I presume they see Mary as the ideal woman because she represents motherly charity without sex. Then notice that underneath several of the Madonnas in the Descalzes are wounded babies laid out on crosses or tombs. In each of these images, a Baroque putto has been crucified to foreshadow his tragic end.

The "Descalzas" also contains an extraordinary collection of saintly relics in elaborate containers. They are said to be the body parts of tortured and murdered Christians, displayed for adoration. Then there are whole rooms full of Hapsburg portraits--the men depicted in armor--and some elaborate allegories of Catholicism versus heresy.

Sentimentality, opulence, aristocratic pedigrees, vows of poverty, military violence, images of torture in a home walled off from all worldly evils ... the mixture is hard to take. Not that I envy the nuns of the Descalzas. There was something about the walls--scrubbed clean but last painted a long time ago--the bare electric lighting, the stern signs, and all that didactic art that made me think of a hospital, a scary old boarding school, or even a reformatory. We never saw the nuns themselves; they hide away while the tours go through.

Posted by peterlevine at November 3, 2005 02:31 AM


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