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  • Writer's pictureSonia Cuesta Maniar, PhD

A Brief History of Sant Pau del Camp in Barcelona

What is Sant Pau del Camp?

Sant Pau del Camp is a peaceful 10th-century church and former monastery in Barcelona that has been brilliantly restored in recent years.

Sant Pau del Camp claustro romantico

Sant Pau del Camp History

Nestled unobtrusively in the heart of the Raval neighbourhood, this church and former monastery offers visitors a welcome respite from the city’s bustling streets. The church originally stood beyond the city walls, in the large expanse of farmland to which it owes its name (Sant Pau del Camp means ‘Saint Paul of the Field’). It’s hard to believe when nowadays it’s surrounded by busy bars, restaurants, and shops.

Sadly, not much is known about the building’s origins. It’s suggested by the commemorative headstone of Guifré II Borrell (Count of Barcelona) that he founded it between 897 and 911, making it one of Barcelona's oldest surviving churches. Nothing more is recorded about it until 985, when Al-Mansur's troops looted it during the Al-Andalus period during which much of the Iberian Peninsula was under Muslim occupation. It was eventually rebuilt by nobleman Geribert Guitard and his wife Rotlendis in the early 12th century.

The church is constructed to a simple Greek-cross floor plan, featuring three apses (the semi-circular recesses) and one larger dome. However, the most significant part of the building is the cloister, built in the 13th century. The tiny cloister square is characterised by lobe-shaped arches, inspired by traditional Moorish architecture (‘Moors’ being the European name for Muslim settlers of the Iberian peninsula). The 48 Corinthian columns are decorated with plant motifs, lions, birds of prey, mermaids and monsters. Two are particularly eye-catching: one depicting Adam and Eve standing by the forbidden tree, where the serpent is tempting her to eat the fruit; the second featuring a woman being tormented by two toads who are devouring her breasts.

The monastery suffered a series of reversals of fortune during its history. During the French occupation of Barcelona in 1808, the army forced the monks out of the church so as to use it as a hospital. Although the religious order was allowed to return to the monastery in 1814, the building had been damaged during the invasion. Eventually, in 1835 the monks were made to abandon it for good due to a wave of anti-clerical riots. Despite the socio-political climate, Sant Pau del Camp was declared a national monument in the late 19th century.

Sant Pau del Camp sunset

In July 1936 the monastery was again damaged during the Spanish Civil War when anti-clerical Republicans burnt large sections of the sanctuary. The blaze destroyed the altars, ornaments, and many of its artworks. Some of the carvings were damaged by fire. Though the Spanish government restored the monastery throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, its misfortunes did not end there. In 1981, the building was flooded in a heavy storm. The water rose 1.5 metres above ground level, damaging large sections of the building.

Despite its age and turbulent past, the cycle of damage and reconstruction endured by this jewel of El Raval has done nothing to diminish its charm. Today, Sant Pau del Camp is in excellent condition after its latest restoration and remains a place of great beauty and tranquillity that anyone visiting the Ciutat Vella (or Old City) district should not miss.

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