Almost everyone has heard of Isabel, the Catholic monarch who with her husband Fernando united Spain under one monarchy, drove the heretics (Jews and Muslims) out of Spain, and sent Columbus to the New World. Less universally known is her older brother Henry IV. However, Henry’s history provides the lynchpin for how Isabel gained power of the Castilian crown.
Henry was crowned King of Castile in a tumultuous time. The mid 15th century Castile found itself in the midst of civil strife with different ducal powers vying for power and a weak king who could not unite them all under his rule. To make matters worse, he did not have a heir because of supposed impotency. His first daughter Juana la Beltrana, was given her last name due to the rumor that her father was actually the King’s favorite Beltrán de La Cueva. Given the mounting evidence against the fact that the Queen had been unfaithful, a particularly the damning incident where she became pregnant by a bishop’s nephew, Juana was legally proclaimed to be illegitimate. Whether this entire history is accurate is hard to prove; records and histories were both written and revised throughout Isabel’s reign. Since Isabel was granted the throne by her brother after his death, it was of utmost importance that she and her historians maintain that she rightfully received the throne. By the time we reach the modern age, she and Ferdinand had already become legendary myths, proving the legitimacy and greatness of the Spanish kingdom.
As fascinating as this story is, at this point, you may be wondering why I am going into so much detail about this particular facet of Spanish History. Unbeknownst to us, Henry IV and his succession was the common unifying thread of our visit to Segovia last weekend. A professor mentioned that before I return to the US I should try to visit in person as many convents as possible and on the top of the list was the Monasterio de San Antonio Real in Segovia. And so, I asked two friends from my masters, Ana and Carlos, to travel with me to Segovia to visit the convent and enjoy the day in the city.
San Antonio Real was only open in the morning for visits; and therefore, we set out early in the morning by train. When we arrived in Segovia it was blanketed in a thin layer of snow, which would unfortunately melt throughout the day and turn into slush. Using the Roman Aqueduct, the main attraction of Segovia, as our guide, we walked along to its beginning where we found the monastery.
Mass had just finished by the time we arrived and the nuns were praying with a few parishioners in their choir. Since the Host would be on display throughout the day, one of the nuns would stay in the choir praying during its public demonstration. Walking through the church we arrived at the cloister of the Franciscan nuns. Henry IV founded the convent in 1455, which was originally destined to be a recreational palace. It was transformed into a monastery in 1468. Part of the royal foundation included the construction of a pantheon where Henry desired to be buried, which was never fully finished nor is it included in the tour of the convent.
Although the convent originally consisted of many diverse spaces, throughout the years many of the extra spaces have been annexed or converted to other uses. For example, the vicars’ cloister is currently a hotel and restaurant. Yet the main cloister and its patio have remained intact and allow a glimpse of the sumptuous religious life offered to these nuns. The ceilings made of interlocking polychromed wood highlight the spirit of the era. These are some of the few polychromed ceilings in Spain that remain in their original location and have not suffered the effects of war (bombs) or fire.
Of interest many of the walls are currently white, without “extra” decoration. Given the brilliance of the ceilings, the decoration of the refectory, and the fact that it was a royal convent inhabited by the daughters of the elite Segovians, I have a hard time believing that these walls were always so white. There are many transformations that occur within convent’s decorations, especially when the convent still has active members. Each generation of nuns transform small details of the space in order to suit their current needs. Our guide kept reiterating that it was a “simple” convent, but it would be remiss to equate their religious vows of the Order of Saint Clare with its decoration style. The high quality pieces of art, such as the moveable retables from Utrecht, and multiple relics hint that it was anything but a “simple” convent. However, without diving into the convent’s archive, this is just my speculation.
I have included below a few photos that give a global picture of our visit to the Monasterio San Antonio Real. There are examples of the distinct types of chapels that are found, along with the many ornate devotional objects housed within the chapels.
The sumptuous and intricate decoration of the cloister is also reflected in the embellishments found in this small church. Supposedly the entire ceiling was originally made out of interlocking pieces of gilded wood, which now only adorns the chancel. The altarpiece was commissioned during the Baroque period, with its golden columns and ostentatious design reflecting the aims of the period. Along the side wall in the nave of the church is a sculptural representation of Christ on the Hill of Golgatha. From the back of the church, the nuns have a privileged view of all of the main events that occur, either in the lower choir or the upper one, depending upon the event. Throughout the early modern period the two choirs would have demarcated the status of each nun, either a black or white veil, with the more prestigious nuns given the privilege of praying in the upper choir. However, due to age and the size of the community, they now pray together in the lower choir for better accessibility.
After touring the convent, we headed back out into the blustery Segovian streets. We stopped for a coffee in order to orientate ourselves before heading any further. We decided that since the other convents that we wanted to see, those that had seemed appealing online, were on the other side of the city outside the medieval wall, that we would stroll through the city center and look for a place to have lunch and then see the other sites later in the afternoon. Below are a few photos from our stroll.
We looked at about a dozen different restaurants, comparing their menus and tripadvisor ratings to decide where to eat. Segovia is known for their cochinillo, which I wrote about here when Andrew and I visited.
We were looking for a holistic meal, and finally stumbled upon the Convento de Minimos. The nave of the convent church has been repurposed to serve as the restaurant’s dinning room. The modern art that fills the walls serves to fully break with its religious past. That being said, it felt fitting that in a trip where we were primarily visiting convents, we ate in one as well. The food was absolutely delicious and we left extraordinarily full and satisfied.
From here we headed over to see the Alcázar palace, which is one of the most frequented sites in all of Spain, according to our tour guide at the Monastery San Antonio Real. We did not enter into the palace, which all of us have seen many times, but rather enjoyed the expansive views from its plaza.
We then descended the “mountain” and crossed the river to gain access to the Monastery of Santa María Parral. The monastery was also founded by Henry IV in 1454. The monks of Saint Jerome resided in the convent until the desamoritzation carried out in the 19th century when many religious communities lost both their land and monastic complexes. In 1925 the Hieronymus Order was granted the right to re-establish a community in the monastery.
Unfortunately, we slightly miscalculated our trajectory and missed the only tour of the day to the interior cloister. We were able to access two parts of the cloister: the first which was is a small courtyard with a pond overlooking the palace; the second was the first interior patio, which had many different lion shaped fountains. The lion is one of the main attributes of Saint Jerome, which explains this choice in decoration. We were extremely fortunate that the porter decided to give us a brief tour of the main church.
The main church is filled with many different tombstones, either lining the walls, or placed on the floors commemorating all of the wealthy benefactors who donated to the church. The two patrons of the church Juan Pacheco, camarero mayor to Henry IV, and his wife are placed on either side of the main altarpiece eternally praying to Virgin and Child. Prior to Henry’s death, Juan desired to augment the fame of his church by providing the space for the burial of the king. Much discussion arose, as many of the Segovian nobles did not favor the king and did not want him in the church. In the end, according to our guide, the roads were far too dangerous, filled with snow and ice, as is common in winter months and they chose to bury the king in Madrid, where he died, alongside his mother, and did not bring him to either Segovian monastery.
Despite all of his own efforts, and those of the members of his court, Henry IV was never buried in Segovia. Nevertheless, he left behind two phenomenal convents. As such, his story reminds us of the desire to build commemorative structures within religious settings that became part and parcel of the Spanish Monarchy, and the lack of control that monarchs had over their final earthly destination.