A Conservator’s View of Las Descalzas Reales

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Last week I had the good fortune of meeting with the Conservator of Las Descalzas Reales, Ana García Sanz to examine some of the spaces that are not included within the general tour and are essential to my thesis.

We began with the principal staircase, discussing my various doors and where each one leads to give a better idea of how it connects all of the essential components of the convent. The mirroring effect between the fake and real doors became even clearer after the clarification of each real door’s purpose.

I had even been fooled by the artist! One is set back into a stone frame, which caused me to believe that it was indeed real. What an illusion! This just goes to show that you really must pass many hours examining the space to uncover all of its particular intricacies.

Additionally, we visited the three chapels located on the other side of the dormitory. These chapels are constantly referenced as the destinations for the various religious processions. There was no coherent building plan between the three, and each reflects how the women employed the space available to create another religious site within the convent. I especially enjoyed seeing these chapels, which demonstrate the prevailing spatial theory held here throughout the 17th century.

Towards the end of my tour, I was able to enter the most prized possession of the convent: the reliquary. Here all of the bones and vestiges of saints are housed in beautiful boxes. They are placed on ascending steps, assuring that the viewer does not miss a single one! As the home of many Habsburg women, this room served as the visible proof of their fight against heresy through the collection of holy relics. And therefore, it was not uncommon to bring leading state guests or other dignitaries through this room before meeting in the Salón de los Reyes. I have read much about this room as it formed the most common site for a procession (due to all of the saints’ bones) and was thrilled to have a chance to see it in person.

Personal experience always gives a new perspective and is essential in architectural projects such as mine. García Sanz and I spoke a lot about how this convent was, and still is, the property of the nuns who live and worship there. This means that they changed spaces according to the particular needs of the community. For instance, some of the doorframes are carved into very thick walls, proving that they were not part of the initial palace plan, but rather built to serve a specific need within the new convent. In this sense, the current space can give indications of how it was, but it must be combined with textual references because like an onion, there are many layers to the building. I am ever grateful for the opportunity to examine the convent with its leading expert, which has given me the last bits of information necessary for a phenomenal final thesis.

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