Some of the buildings we see in Madrid’s city center did not necessarily belong to this area in the past, since the capital has not stopped growing since the day it was born, when it was still called Mayrit. The monastery of Las Descalzas Reales is a good example of that. We can currently find this building at the very heart of the city, only five minutes away from the square of Sol. However, the former palace used to be located in a suburb known as San Martín.
Throughout history, many infantas—i.e., daughters of Spanish monarchs—have stayed in the monastery in order to escape from the city’s hustle and bustle without having to move too far away from Madrid. Moreover, they used to donate artworks in the process, and this is how the monastery of Las Descalzas Reales came to be a valuable museum and an Asset of Cultural Interest.
The history of the monastery of Las Descalzas Reales goes back to the reign of Carlos V—that is, to the 16th century. Alonso Gutiérrez, the royal treasurer, lived in a palatial house in the suburb of San Martín. Gutiérrez carried out a series of reforms which transformed the medieval-looking building into a more modern one. This is how the palace, which is believed to be one of the first ones in the capital, became the most luxurious palace in Madrid as well.
In 1535, the empress Isabel of Portugal, wife—and also cousin—of Carlos I of Spain, also known as Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, left the magnificent Alcázar of Madrid to give birth to Juana of Austria in a more comfortable place. This place was the already mentioned palace of San Martín, which, years later, the infanta turned into the convent of Nuestra Señora de la Consolación, or the monastery of Las Descalzas Reales.
But before that, Juana, sister of Felipe II and María of Austria, had to get married. She would do so at the age of 17, with prince Juan Manuel of Portugal. Nevertheless, the prince died only two years after the wedding, just before Juana gave birth to her only son: Sebastián. After the death of her husband, Juana, who was in grief and felt constantly attacked by the people around her, left Lisboa and never came back. Juana’s brother asked her to sit on the Spanish throne between 1554 and 1559, while he was in England acting as king consort with his wife, the queen Mary Tudor.
It was during this period of time that Juana of Austria founded the current monastery of Las Descalzas Reales. It happened partly thanks to her keen confessor, San Francisco de Borja, who sent there a group of nuns from the convent of Santa Clara de Gandía—that is, nuns of the Order of Santa Clara. Despite the fact that the construction of the church did not finish until 1564, the monastery was inaugurated in 1559, the day of the Assumption of Mary, with a great opening ceremony attended by all members of the royal family, including Felipe II.
The founder of the monastery of Las Descalzas Reales, named after the fact that nuns used to walk in light sandals throughout the year—and “descalza” means barefoot, died in 1573 in El Escorial. However, her remains rest in the monastery of Las Descalzas Reales, buried in one of the chapels.
Juana of Austria was not the only female member of the royal family who had a history with this building. Years after her sister’s death, and shortly after her husband died, María of Austria moved to the convent in 1580 with her daughter Margarita, who decided to become a nun. María began to act as a patron in the monastery, and she supported one of the most important music composers in Europe back then: Tomás Luis de Victoria. María died in the room called Cuarto Real in 1693.
Isabel Clara Eugenia, daughter of Felipe II, grew up in these rooms as well. The infanta greatly contributed to the museum’s art collection. In fact, she donated a series of religious tapestries by the notorious baroque painter known as Rubens. Some of them hang in the Prado Museum, while others remain in the monastery.
Many women of the House of Habsburg walked through the rooms of the monastery of Las Descalzas Reales. All of them left an imprint of generous donations that make up the museum we can visit today. There we can find works of Sánchez Coello, Tiziano, Gaspar Becerra or Antonio Moro hanging on the walls like witnesses of their royal past.
Throughout history, the monastery of Las Descalzas Reales has been subject to many changes; the most important reform might be the one carried out by Diego de Villanueva in the 18th century. However, some of the original elements of the palace still remain: the plateresque façade, the stairs of the entry and some of the rooms.
Said staircase is perhaps the most outstanding aspect of the old building. Indeed, it is decorated with paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries. The painting on the ceiling is attributed to Claudio Coello. The church, whose authorship has been widely discussed, was built under the reign of Felipe II, although it was reformed in 1755 after a fire broke. The current main altarpiece, which was sent from Italy by order of Felipe V, replaces the original wooden structure that belonged to Gaspar Becerra. Additionally, the cloister of the monastery has become famous due to the Holy Week processions that take place there.
The exterior look of the monastery does not reflect at all the artistic treasure it holds inside. We can visit it every day except Mondays, always accompanied by a guide, at a price of six euros. During the guided tours, the nuns move to other parts of the building to let visitors enjoy the wonders of this monastery which was labeled a European Museum in 1987.
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