>Feast of St. Clare

>Today is the Feast of St. Clare of Assisi – and today also happens to be a day when The Courtier has to be in court rather early. Therefore only a brief post this morning, directing your attention to his other blog and the historic Monastery of Pedralbes, home of the Poor Clares, the religious order founded by St. Clare, since 1326. Longer posting tomorrow, dear reader!

A 16th century altarpiece or “retaule” from one of the cells at Pedralbes

>Architecture as Therapy

>I hope that all of my readers had a very Happy and Blessed Easter. As usually occurs when one has been out of the office for a few days, things have piled up to the point where the thought of leaving again for another extended break is very tempting. However, as this is not practically possible, the goal then becomes trying to find some element of tranquility even as the pursuit of catching up from where things were left off gets underway. One of the best ways to do so is to find a physical space that lends itself to quiet, and if you happen to be in a city with some great architecture, you can take advantage of a respite among some quiet stones.

One of the major Barcelona dailies is carrying an interesting article today regarding one of the benefits of beautiful architecture: specifically, how beautiful buildings, and the art within them, can be used as therapy for those suffering from illness or disability. El Periódico de Catalunya reports that the Barcelona City History Museum (known as Muhba), is working with local hospitals and clinics to bring the aged and the infirm to the Monastery of Santa Maria de Pedralbes for visits which, it is hoped, will help to provide therapeutic benefits. “The cloister, the austerity of the architectural forms and the density of silence,” explains the paper, “radiate a serenity that calms the spirit.” I can state from personal experience that even if you are not physically ill, a visit to the cloister at Pedralbes is deeply refreshing to the soul.

For those like myself who are in other cities, of course, other options have to be chosen. One option of which I like to avail myself is a walk along the urbanized stretch of the C&O Canal as it passes through Georgetown. As the towpath heads out of the village and up toward the Maryland border, things get a bit too weedy and insect-y for my taste, but the few blocks which run through the village with their bricks and cobbles, and the small houses and old factories converted to new uses which line both sides, provide a shady respite from the noise of the city and in one’s brain: architecture and natural elements work in harmony to lend a sense of peace. Particularly given the fine weather we are having at present, as well as what I have to get through at work today and tomorrow, I am looking forward to an evening stroll along the canal on my way home.

>St. Clare and the White Stones

>REMINDER: Gentle reader, you have until midnight on August 15, 2009 to enter your submission in The Courtier’s Birthday Contest!

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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.