>St. Clare and the White Stones

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As yesterday I wrote a bit about El Escorial on the Feast of St. Lawrence, to whom that basilica-monastery complex is dedicated, it is only fair that today, on the Feast of St. Clare, I write a little about the Monastery of Santa Maria de Pedralbes, which has been in the hands of the Poor Clares since its founding in 1326. Clare Scifi, daughter of the Count of Sasso-Rosso, was born in Assisi in 1194, and died there on August 11, 1253. In the year 1212 she left home to follow St. Francis of Assisi, and later founded the Order of the Poor Ladies, renamed The Poor Clares after her death.

In the 14th century, Barcelona grew to the height of its territorial expansion across the Mediterranean, but it suffered a blip in its imperial efforts during the reign of King James II. In a somewhat unusual land swap, and not the only one of his reign, James got involved with fighting his brother, parleying with the House of Anjou, and meddling by Pope Boniface VIII, and decided to trade his rule of Sicily for rule over Sardinia and Corsica. This particular relinquishing of territory, among others, were later reversed by his successors.

When he died in 1327 his fourth wife, Queen Elisenda of Montcada, was still a young woman only 18 years old, and she could have married again. Instead, she retreated north of Barcelona to the village of Pedralbes (a Catalan name deriving from the locality’s original Roman designation of “Petras Albas” or “place of white stones”.) The year previously, in 1326, she had founded the convent of Santa Maria de Pedralbes for the Poor Clares, and she entered into the cloister there.

Being not only a Dowager Queen but also coming from an extremely wealthy and powerful Catalan noble family, the Queen had encountered little difficulty in constructing the resulting monastic complex. Elisenda not only had enormous wealth, but the will and the good taste to have things done exactly how she pleased. The large monastery church, for example, in pure Cistercian Gothic style, was built in the unbelievably short period of 13 months.

By 1343 the beautifully preserved Chapel of St. Michael in the three-story cloister, decorated with (for the time) highly contemporary Sienese frescoes, was completed. When Queen Elisenda died in 1364, the large majority of structures on the site were also finished. The detail I would like to draw my reader’s attention to is the unusual double-sided tomb of Queen Elisenda.

As was typical of monarchs for many centuries, Elisenda wanted her sepulcher to be as close to the center of things as possible. Her large and highly decorated tomb stands within the wall just to the right of the High Altar of the church. On this side, the recumbent figure of Elisenda is dressed as a queen, surrounded by gold and lavish decoration with a large architectural canopy. However, the other half of her tomb gives onto the cloister, on the other side of the wall, and on that side the figure of Elisenda is dressed as a Poor Clare in (comparatively) much simpler decoration.

Clearly, either Elisenda or her successors at the convent did not forget who she had been before she left the world for the cells of the Poor Clares. Whether this marble and alabaster monument was what she herself wanted for herself, to be honest, I do not know. We can be reasonably certain that the Foundress of the Order probably would not have approved – St. Clare, despite herself the daughter of a powerful noble family, would not have wanted her body put on display in a glass case, as it is today in Assisi. Nevertheless, allowing some license for beauty and its ability to draw us into contemplation of the Divine, Queen Elisenda’s exceptionally good taste brought about the completion of a superb and cohesive example of 14th century architecture that is well-worth the trek to the northern end of modern-day Barcelona.

Tomb of Queen Elisenda, inside the sanctuary of the monastic church.

Tomb of Queen Elisenda, inside the monastic cloister.
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