Lerma: the city fit for a DUKE.



A week ago I decided to get out of the city for the day. Both of my roommates were traveling for the weekend, which left me home alone. Now while I do enjoy some free time, I also want to explore as many Spanish cities as I can while I am here. Which brings me to Lerma.


My first semester at UAM, my professor Río Barredo (also my thesis adviser) suggested that I take a day trip to Lerma to see the Convent of the Clares, which could be considered as a complement to Las Descalzas Reales. About a year and a half later, I finally made my way to Lerma.


Although personally fascinating for its monastic structure, the city is better known for serving as a crystallization of the power achieved by Francisco Gómez de Sandoval y Rojas, the Duke of Lerma (given the title in 1599). Gómez de Sandoval secured his power courting the young prince, Philip III.  Such that, by the time Philip took the crown, he deeply trusted Gómez de Sandoval, entrusting him with most if not all of his political decisions. Quickly, the Duke of Lerma became the fountain of power in Spain, where nothing could be achieved without his consent. He even had the possibility to sign documents, as the King! Therefore, you can only imagine the types of gifts courtiers bestowed upon him attempting to impress the Duke and receive his favor. With all of the material and social wealth that he accrued he began the project of transforming the medieval city of Lerma into a spectacular site for court activities and recreation. In 17 years he was able to construct 1 Ducal Palace, 8 Convents/Monasteries and other important administrative buildings, all designed by the best architects and artisans of Baroque Spain. Even without entering into the political practices of the Duke of Lerma, for which entire books are dedicated for and against his rule) this city stands as a stellar example of the  social, architectonical, political and artistica glory of the past Baroque period.


Peter Paul Rubens, Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma, 1603

(To learn more about the portraits of the Duke of Lerma, see this article).


Lerma is situated in the province of Burgos, about a two and a half hour car ride from Madrid.  I arrived only half an hour later than scheduled, which is a rather amazing feat since there was an organized bus strike Sunday morning and all buses were running on limited schedule. For instance, my bus to Lerma was the only bus of the morning following that route. In many ways I was lucky to get on that bus, since I did not have any idea that there was a strike and my trip could have been canceled. I guess that shows that planning only helps us so much while traveling.


The bus dropped me off at the bus station located outside the original limits of the city. As I started the climb towards the center of the city the first bells for mass chimed throughout the brisk morning and people stepped out of their houses to attend morning mass.

IMG_5815 IMG_5816 IMG_5817

It is only fitting that my first stop of the morning was the Monastery of the Madre de Dios (1608- 1610). Francisco de Mora and Fray Alberto de la Madre de Dios, both official court architects for Philip III, designed the plans of the Monastery of the Descaled Carmelites. This monastery is strictly enclosed, meaning that the public only has access to the building during mass. Therefore, with the doors closed, my visit was limited to the facade, which demonstrates the Plateresque tendencies of the period.


Right next to the monastery is the medieval bridge, built in 1336 under King Alfonso XI to deliminate the space of the walled  Villa. Now it is more commonly known as the “Arc of the Jail”, due to the fact that the Duke of Lerma transformed it into the local jail in 1610.


As soon as I crossed through the gate I entered the medieval plaza, which has retained its original character and charm displayed in the typical collums supporting the buildings of the era.

IMG_5828 IMG_5827


Since I had no exact plans for the morning I started wandering towards the first large building which I came across which was the Ex. Colegiata de San Pedro. According to the tourist plaques, strategically placed throughout the city, the existing Church San Pedro was chosen for amplifications from 1613-1617. The three nave, choir, ambulatory, and radiating chapels emulate a Cathedral more than a traditional church, proving the desire of Lerma to create a sumptuous courtly city.

IMG_5917 IMG_5829  IMG_5832

I continued wandering through the city as a voice over a loud speaker interrupted my thoughts. A man kept announcing a tour that was about to commence. (Now would be a good time to mention that the city mainly lives on tourism, from people like me who want to see the physical manifestation of the power of the Duke of Lerma) The problem was that I had no idea where it was leaving from, nor was I sure that I wanted to join said tour. I decided that I would not hurry and fate would decide whether I went on a tour that day. Instead I passed by Franciscan Convent, the Monastery of the Ascension, the one that I was recommended to visit. The only opening to the building was to their pastery shop where they sold baked goods. The facade should seem rather familiar since it was also designed by leading architects de Mora and de la Madre de Dios. It was the first convent constructed by Lerma between 1604 and 1610.

IMG_5835 IMG_5836 IMG_5837 IMG_5838

To the right of the convent church is a beautiful arcaded building that forms part of the passageway (pasadizo) from the Duke’s palace through the Convent into the Ex Colegiate of San Pedro. These were typical features of Habsburg architecture allowing the members of the royal family, along with their servants and visitors to move throughout the different building complexes without adhering to the court etiquette procedures that were required in public. This was the moment when I decided that I wanted to go on the tour, just for a chance to get inside the passageway.

IMG_5839 IMG_5840IMG_5842  IMG_5933IMG_5843

I did not have far to walk to reach the tourist office, which is housed in the Monastery of Saint Theresa (1617). Until the desmortization of the 19th century, it housed the Carmelite Friars and is also connected to the palace through the extensive passageway. (All of the male foundations have left the city; however, their female counterparts have remained integral parts of the society) That being said, I still missed the first tour, leaving me another hour of wandering throughout the city.


IMG_5844 IMG_5845 IMG_5848

This small side street quickly opened up onto the expansive plaza that sits in front of the Ducal Palace. Lerma took advantage of the primitive castle built by the family Lara to construct his monumental ducal residence. Through the facade and architectural formats, the palace strongly evoked the Alcazar Real (Royal Palace) in Madrid. If I am not mistaken was one of the few sites that was allowed to have four towers, which were reserved only for royal buildings. It housed Napoleon’s troops during the 19th century and fell into extreme disrepair. Currently, it is the National Parador of Tourism. In essence, it has transformed into a hotel, with historic tendencies. As the pictures demonstrate, it does not have very much resemblance to the original decoration of the palace, but it is important that the building has been mostly restored to its original state.

IMG_5849 IMG_5853 IMG_5854 IMG_5861 IMG_5856 IMG_5855 IMG_5858 IMG_5859 IMG_5860

Look closely at these collumns. Are they all the same hight?


The answer is no. The columns mark the passageway that the Duke and members of the Royal Family used to access the convents on the other side of town. Strategically, the columns descend in height to connect to the access point in the palace.

At eleven that morning another set of bells pierced the silence of the city. These were coming from San Blas located to the far right of the palace (If you look to the third photo you will see the change in color of stone where the palace once connected to convent). This time, I entered into the service in hopes of seeing the interior of a church in Lerma. This church’s altarpiece by Juan Gómez de Mora has a copy of the three main figures of the interior of the Ghent Altarpiece, Mary, Christ, and John the Baptist, along with many of the angels and sibyls depicted by Van Eyck. It is worth a trip inside, just to see a rather crude copy of the famous Ghent Altarpiece.  The Ghent Altarpiece appears in many different forms throughout Spain. On his trip throughout the Netherlands, Philip II fell in love with this work of art and attempted to have it brought to Spain. However, the citizens of Ghent denied his request and would not sell the work at any cost. Therefore, Philip II sent his master copier, Michiel Coxie to copy the entire altarpiece so that he could have a copy of the masterpiece in Spain. (Of interest, Coxie painted his self-portrait in the copy where it was rumored that Van Eyck painted himself.) Thus began the renditions of the altarpiece throughout Spain and it is no surprise that Lerma, who had his palace modeled after the Escorial, the famous palace of Philip II, desired to have such emblematic pictorial representations in his new city.

Sitting through mass I was able to better contemplate the different techniques Gómez de Mora utilized in his version. It also was the first time that I was able to watch nuns sing a mass, since usually they are kept out of sight of the parishioners in the choir. Instead they sat in front of us on both sides of the altar, exemplifying the type of religious practices described in the primary sources for my thesis.

IMG_5867 IMG_5864


Upon the conclusion of mass, it was time to head back to the tourist office to sign up for the tour, which began with a brief history of the enigmatic figure of the Duke of Lerma. From there we headed inside the Ex Coligiata de San Pedro, where we were reminded once again of the Duke’s aspiration to aggrandize himself through the creation of this city. In the second photo there are two passageways clearly present. The upper one leads from the cloister of the Monastery of the Ascension to right above the main altarpiece. The nuns would leave the cloister to participate in mass and accompany the five other choirs present for the King. Look for the green boxes in the fourth and fifth photos. Additionally, the lower register connected to the other buildings allowing for access of non-religious members of the court.

IMG_5878 IMG_5879 IMG_5882  IMG_5886 IMG_5881

The sculpture by leading artist Leone Leoni is not of the Duke of Lerma, as many believe, but rather his uncle, the Cardinal of Sevilla, who is buried in the church and helped Lerma obtain all of the papal dispensations necessary for its construction.

IMG_5889 IMG_5890 IMG_5891 IMG_5892

From here we walked along the outside of the passageway, to see the extensive view that it provides. And then passed through the Church of Monastery of the Ascension, where the young nuns were also celebrating a service. Of interest this is the largest community of nuns whose average age is 28 years old. Almost all of the nuns are young Spaniards, which proves an exception to the trend that young people no longer desire the religious life. They no longer strictly follow the model of the Saint Clares, but rather a new community called Iessu Comunio. They tend to have more contact with the public, according to our guide, inviting different groups of the community into the cloister. There was an important relic housed in the church donated by Margaret of Austria (Philip III’s wife), but I cannot remember exactly what it was, I believe True Blood.

Finally, I did not get my wish to enter into the passageway. Instead we passed into the plaza once more where we learned about the types of festivals held in Lerma. One in particular was a favorite of the King where they would close off all access points to the Plaza and then poke and prod the bull driving him mad, but of importance they would not kill him. Instead, when it looked like he had had enough they opened the doors to where the Morcilla shop now sits, and he in desperation would run out. The problem is that this is underneath the passageway and since the city is upon a hill, in his hope for freedom the bull fell to his death.  Although it seems horrendously cruel, we must not judge them based upon our own prejudices, there are things that as a society we partake in and that future generations will find cruel and unnecessary for styles and trends of what is acceptable and not change through the passing of time.


With the tour complete, there was still one last monument to visit: The Monastery of San Domingo. It is located further away from the other convents, and like the other monasteies of the city was evacuated during the desmortization of the 19th century. There is a large stepped plaza that sits in front of the builing; however, all of the buildings surrounding it have lost their splendor and are completely in disrepair. Currently, it is the seat of cultural events and was not open to the public on Sundays and so I walked back towards the heart of the city looking for a place to eat lunch.

IMG_5906 IMG_5911 IMG_5912


I stumbled upon the Asador Fonda Caracoles, which offered a Menu of the day with traditional dishes from the region of Burgos. It was the perfect place for me to pass a few hours, since I was seated with perfect access to the outside window and to the oven where they cooked the Lechazo (suckling lamb). The meal featured morcilla (blood sausage), a salad and Lechazo along with dessert, and of course red wine from the Ribera del Duero region (nearby Lerma). I particularily enjoyed the meal because, although there were many customers waiting to enter, they did not hurry me along and allowed me to enjoy the meal at my own pace.


When I was in the tourist office I fell in love with a postcard that depicted a view of the entire passageway from the ex-coligiate to the palace and since I had about an hour before my bus headed home, I set out to the medieval bridge on the outskirts of the city to try and capture the view for myself. This is what I believe is the best of my approximately thirty takes, proving how difficult it is to capture decent photos of architecture.



On his deathbed King Philip II remarked that he feared his son, Philip III would be ruled instead of rule the people.  This city constructed in merely 17 years exemplifies the actuality of his fear, especially with the amount of power one person, such as the Duke of Lerma could amass.

However, power quickly gained is never sustainable. The Duke of Lerma formally fell out of power in 1618 in part due to financial discrepancies, commemorated in a popular saying “in order to not be hung, the greatest crook of Spain dressed himself in red” (Para no morir ahorcado, el mayor ladrón de España se vistió de colorado). It means that he became a cardinal so that he could not be hung like other the other contemporaries, who were found guilty of embezzling funds.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s