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  • Writer's pictureSonia Cuesta Maniar, PhD

A Brief History of the Monestir de Pedralbes in Barcelona

What is the Monestir de Pedralbes?

The Monestir de Pedralbes, or The Monastery of Pedralbes in English, is a 14th-century Gothic monastery founded as a convent for Franciscan nuns that now houses permanent exhibitions on its own art collection and history.

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Monestir de Pedralbes History

Today, the Monastery of Pedralbes sits in one of Barcelona's most exclusive neighbourhoods, just on the outskirts of the city; 700 years ago, however, it lay surrounded by uninhabited countryside. Queen Elisenda de Montcada, the wife of King James II of Aragon, personally chose this location to build a convent, to whose nuns she would entrust the recital of prayers for the health of her ailing husband. Built in the early 14th century, the monastery is a beautiful example of Catalonian Gothic style. Shortly after its completion in 1327, the Franciscan nuns of the order of Poor Clares took up residence at the monastery. Composed of daughters from Catalonia's wealthiest families, the sisters often brought with them a dowry that allowed for the institution’s upkeep.

The Clares are an enclosed religious order. Accordingly, the sisterhood kept a vow to separate themselves from the external world, warding off distraction from prayer and maintaining an atmosphere of peace and harmony. For seven centuries, abbesses presided over a community organised around these continuing ideals. Although Queen Elisenda never joined the order, she did take an active role in the community following her husband's death in 1327, and remained here for nearly 40 years until her death. Today, the monastery offers visitors a glimpse into the austere, purposeful lives of the nuns who have committed to religious retreat here.

The monastery was built from the locally quarried white stone (or petras albas in Latin) that gave the entire neighbourhood its name. Its church is a structure of great unity with a single nave (the area intended for the congregation), ribbed vaults, and an imposing octagonal belltower that was greatly admired by the modernist master architect Le Corbusier for its geometrical regularity. In a vaulted niche to the right of the High Altar you’ll find the double-sided sarcophagus of Queen Elisenda. Rather unusually her tomb is divided in two: the side facing out depicts the queen as a mourning widow, praying for the forgiveness of her sins; the second represents Elisenda as queen-in-public, dressed in full regalia.

Also notable is the Chapel of Saint Michael, decorated in the 1340s with magnificent frescoes by Ferrer Bassa, one of Catalonia’s earliest documented painters. The series of detailed murals, reminiscent of 14th-century Italian art, depicts episodes from the lives of Jesus and Mary, as well as a number of Saints.

Outside this vibrant chapel, the remainder of the monastery rests in a demure, peaceful spirit. Around the cloister you’ll find the rooms and private cells where nuns lived and prayed; the utility rooms, such as the dining room, the kitchen, and the storerooms of the monastery; and a well-preserved Renaissance infirmary. These days the nuns’ dormitory serves as the monastery museum that houses sacred art and everyday objects found on the site, with some items dating back to 14th century.

In 1949, part of the monastery was opened to the public and in 1975 a new adjoining convent was built in order to transform the majority of the site into a museum. (A small community of Clarissine nuns continues to live there to this day.) The Monastery of Pedralbes is not only an architectural and artistic marvel; it also allows visitors to step into the lives of the women who voluntarily separate themselves from worldly society and devote their lives to God.

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