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18.01.08, Luciá Gómez-Chacón, El monasterio de Santa María la Real de Nieva

18.01.08, Luciá Gómez-Chacón, El monasterio de Santa María la Real de Nieva

Until recently, the Monastery of Santa María la Real de Nieva had not received much attention. On one hand, its architecture presented an archaic character that puzzled and discouraged art historians. On the other hand, part of its sculptural ensemble had been considered marginal and without interest. Diana Lucía, however, decided to approach the artistic study of this religious house from an innovative point of view: the hypothesis that guided her doctoral thesis, which is at the origin of this book, is that these particularities did not result from the fact that this monastery was distant from the main Iberian artistic centers but rather from an active desire from its patrons and builders to create an appropriate environment for the monastic reform that was under way at that moment. The arguments that she gathered to support this statement seem convincing, despite a few inconsistencies.

The first chapter of the book ("Context") is dedicated to explaining the foundation and early development of the monastery. Informed that an image of Our Lady of Soterraña was found by a shepherd near the village of Nieva, in the bishopric of Segovia, Queen Catalina of Lancaster (r. 1393-1418), the daughter of the Duke of Lancaster and the Castilian princess Constanza, decided to erect a chapel there in 1392. As pilgrims started to arrive in ever greater numbers, both the noblemen of Segovia and the priest of Nieva began to covet the image and the riches it generated. Thus, the queen obtained from her husband King Enrique III, in 1395, the right to create a new town there, Santa María la Real de Nieva, and from Pope Benedict III, in 1399, consent to donate the church she had founded to the Order of the Preachers. From 1414 on the church was enlarged, and the necessary monastic buildings were erected under the patronage of Queen Catalina and her daughter-in-law Queen María of Aragon (r. 1418-1445).

The second chapter of the book ("Architecture") is dedicated to the construction of the monastery and the transformations and restorations it underwent until the present day. The chapel of Santa Ana, the first temple built to shelter the image, has now completely disappeared but archaeological excavations and architectural studies made prior to a restoration in the late 1990's revealed for study some remains of the primitive church of Our Lady of Soterraña and of its first enlargement around 1399. There is also evidence that the church was enlarged again between 1414 and 1432. As to the monastic buildings and cloister, Diana Lucía did not find enough evidence to decide whether they were built from scratch or just improved during the same period. At some point she argues: "If we take into consideration that since 1399 the sanctuary was under the custody of the Order of the Preachers, it is quite probable that all these spaces, necessary to the correct development of conventual life, already existed and the main purpose of this constructive impetus was in fact their reform and monumentalization" (79/80), but later on she is much more peremptory on the opposite direction: "Therefore, in 1434 the cloister and the rest of the conventual buildings started to be built, and they were finished before 1445, year of the death of the first wife of Juan II" [Queen María] (85).

It is also in this chapter that the author underlines the archaic character not only of the cloister but of the whole monastery, built in Romanesque style while almost everywhere else in Iberia Gothic architecture was dominant. After reporting the explanations that other scholars have given for this peculiarity, Diana Lucía argues that this does not derive from the peripheral situation of the monastery but rather from a deliberate effort to reclaim old architectural forms and techniques with a clear symbolic intentionality: to immerse the friars in the spiritual atmosphere that surrounded Saint Dominic and his companions in the beginning of the 13th century, to help them return to that primitive way of life. From her point of view, the enlargement of the monastery after 1414 had as its main purpose to build architectural spaces that recreated the conventual environment in which the first friars of the Order had received their spiritual and intellectual training. Art was therefore used as an instrument for spiritual reform.

But did the monastery need to be reformed? Founded while the Dominican observance was taking its first steps, was it entrusted to the Claustrals or the Observants? Diana Lucía discovered that Santa María la Real of Nieva was the only Hispanic monastery whose spiritual reform was ordered in a General Chapter of the Preachers in the first half of the 15th century: this happened in 1439, under Bartholomew Texier's generalship and it meant that, previously, it had been under the Claustra. Yet, in 1432 Queen María--a supporter of the reform as most Trastámara kings and queens were--declared in a letter that she had commanded the friars "to be in observance" (58). When did the reform start, then?

This is what the author attempts to establish in the third and longest chapter of the book ("Sculpture"), where she analyzes the sculptures that decorate the North portal, the interior of the church and the cloister. In the cloister, reserved to the friars, several scenes picture the novices: they are admitted to the monastery and change their clothes for the Dominican habit, they purify themselves in a fountain, they receive the Constitutions, they take lessons from their teachers. Other scenes concern professed friars: they receive instructions before leaving for a mission, they preach from a church pulpit or to a peasant in a field, they sing around an organ, they watch the construction of the monastery. Even to scenes that were formerly interpreted as fantastic figures or drôleries Diana Lucía finds a sense in accordance with the purpose of instructing the friars on the vices they should avoid and the virtues they should practice, supported by biblical texts, writings of Dominican authors or the Liber consuetudinum. She thus argues that the motives and scenes that decorate the cloister were created to edify the members of the religious community, especially the youngest.

The same can be said of the sculptures that decorate the choir of the friars. They represent mainly Dominican friars either showing laziness and disrespect or an exemplary behavior that should be followed by the community. Among the former, there are brothers sleeping during study, distracting others from praying and showing unbecoming behavior at church. According to the Liber consuetudinum, these were light misdoings that could be amended by a few prayers or a small penance. Other faults were much more serious, though: one friar is biting a bone and another one is stretching a vase to a third brother, as reminders that meat was forbidden, and wine only tolerated if mixed with water, as they both could awake the senses and lead to the breach of chastity. Opposing these sinful friars, others engage in virtuous activities such as studying, singing, preaching, flagellating themselves. Some scenes from the lives of Saint George and the Dominican protomartyr Saint Peter of Verona are also represented, showing their fight against the enemies of the Christian faith. For the author, this iconographic program was created intentionally to promote among the community, and especially the novice, contempt for the Claustral spirit and obedience to the Rule and the original Constitutions of the Order.

As to the sculptures in the North portal, Diana Lucía argues that they were mainly directed at the laypeople who participated in the liturgical feasts in honor of Our Lady of Soterraña and came to hear the friars' preaching. Most of these sculptures have a narrative character, picturing New Testament episodes--the Annunciation; the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ; and the Last Judgment. As such, they are the visual representation of the catechetical message that the friars disseminated in their sermons. However, a few of them--animal-like figures, war scenes--were related to other motifs inside the church or in the cloister and could only be understood by the friars, who had access to the whole message.

All told, Diana Lucía fails to provide unquestionable dates for the construction and the enlargement of the cloister, the introduction of the monastic reform in the monastery, and the creation of the novitiate. Her conjectures are challenging but insufficiently proven. Yet she does demonstrate convincingly that the iconographic program patent on the friars' choir and the cloister expresses the ongoing fight between Claustra and Observance, and aspires to lead the friars--young and old alike--to choose the latter. As such, her book is useful to those engaged in the study of the monastic reform in general, and especially among Dominicans.