Get Thee to a Nunnery!

Things you might want to do in Madrid and Asturias: go an visit a convent.  The Reformation destroyed the monasteries in England, but they had a long after-life in Spain, surviving intact until Mendizábal closed them down in 1835.  There were survivals too.  this makes Spain a top country to get thee to a nunnery!

In this post I want to suggest two visits, one in Madrid and the other in Asturias.

In Madrid, the Convent of the Descalzas Reales is brimful of history and artwork.  Right in the centre of Madrid it has been closely connected with the aristocracy and royalty of Spain for centuries.  Set aside your prejudices and think whether, at a time when marriage was a kind of slavery and there was  a general idea that the “fair sex” were chattels to be traded and breeding machines for giving descendants, it might not have been a good option to be shut up with other powerful women.  And powerful they were!

descalzas realesIt was founded in 1559 by Doña Juana de Austria, the sister of Philip II, who sent the Armada in 1588 and governed his empire from his own monastic complex of San Lorenzo de El Escorial.  The royal connection made it popular with aristocrats and highly born ladies, but the rich decoration of the former palace should not deceive you into thinking the women led an easy life.  The strictly followed the rule of St Francis.

There are many references to monastic culture in Shakespeare.  By his time the connection of monasteries with continental Europe was strong, though buildings and remnants of cloisters would have been evident throughout the landscape.  When Shakespeare includes a Friar Laurence, for example, it is a cultural marker of Catholic Europe.   Even in the histories he rarely includes monks and nuns, although pre-Reformation they were as much a part of English tradition as European.

My second proposed visit will take you right back into the depths of European monastic tradition.  It is the monastery of Santo Toribio in the mountains of Cantabria on the eastern border of Asturias.  I had never heard of Santo Toribio before I came to Spain.  He was an early saint who brought one of the largest fragments of the True Cross that were discovered by Helena, the wife of Constantine, in Jerusalem to Spain.  It was in Astorga until the 8th century when the monastery at Santo Toribio was built by Alfonso I.  I know they say you could build the Eiffel tower out of all the many fragments of the True Cross in the world, but the church gives this monastery a peculiar prominenece: Rome, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela… and Santo Toribio, have the privilege of perpetual indulgences.

santo toribio
Santo Toribio de La Liébana in its beautiful setting.  The image from here

The way the monastery weaves itself into the early history of Christian Spain is fascinating and it is deeply entwined with the cult of relics that gave rise to the Camino de Santiago.  Alfonso II, who was king when the tomb of St James was found in the ninth century, is closely associated with Santo Toribio.  His chief advisor, Beato, was a monk here.

This is not the only reason you would make your way to Potes to see this monastery, however.  The natural beauty of the setting is attraction enough.  And you will be able to meditate on two different versions of the Franciscan ideal: one set in the turbulent heart of the city and the court; another isolated among natural beauties.  They are both resononant.  They are both worthwhile.



As a postscript I should add that nunnery in Shakespeare’s time had two meanings.  Although it seems more likely to me that Hamlet was telling Ophelia to shut herself up in a convent, the Elizabethan taste for irony would have left a twist in the ear for his contemporary listeners.  Nunnery also meant a brothel, going to your prayers meant having a bit of hanky panky.  If you are driving along the highway and see a neon sign that says CLUB, you will be driving past a nunnery of this type.  These are not places to visit.  But there are plenty of brothels in modern Spain unfortunately.  Here is an article that discusses the problem.



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