Friday, April 10
Hiked over to the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales (Convent of the Barefoot Noblewomen), Plaza de las Descalzas, 3, just six minutes away. Tours are limited to 20 people and only two tours in English daily. I arrived at 10:45, and was issued a ticket for noon. Perfect! I wandered through the streets in search of my daily caffeine fix. I avoid the large plazas – side streets have better service and lower prices. Meandering paid off. Five minutes later I had a table and a café con leche and a croissant. The croissant was fresh and tender. The best I’ve eaten, with the exception of Bob Bon’s which cannot be surpassed.
Fortified, I was waiting by the forbidding, grim entrance doors by 11:45. The guards were turning people away, sold out for the day. A better option is to book online, but only Spanish language tours are offered.
We waited in an anteroom lined with paintings of angels. The mood was quiet and respectful, something I like to see in my fellow tourists. Photographs were forbidden, and I didn’t cheat because, you know, nuns. I pulled these off Google Image. I watched a clueless older man who considered himself an exception get his knuckles rapped.
A dignified man of quiet authority with a particularly beautiful Spanish accent led the tour. If words were music, he spoke in glissandos. The Grand Staircase brought to mind the Benozzo Gozzoli chapel in the Palazzo Medici in central Florence.
Every inch painted with dazzling frescoes covering walls, arches, ceiling, and balustrades. Added in the 17th century, the colors were still brilliant.
I was struck by a trompe-l’oeil balcony scene beside the staircase with King Felipe IV, Queen Mariana, and their little floss-haired infanta Margarita Teresa, looking much as she does in Velázquez’s Las Meninas. Here’s a brightly lit photo – look on the wall to the left.
Joanna of Austria founded this convent in 1559, and for 100 years the convent attracted young widowed or spinster noblewomen who brought their lavish dowries with them. Clearly, these ladies were more noble than barefoot. Not that I doubt their devotion, but I can’t help wondering if they chose Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales over being bossed around by men at court. The convent was ruled by women, their own world of wealth and privilege, art and music. Spain’s finest Renaissance composer, Tomas Luis de Victoria, worked at the convent for 25 years. How dreary could it have been?
We followed our guide, and were followed by his assistant, a young, doe-eyed, dark-haired woman, who looked like half of the portraits of Virgin we passed. Her task was to move the stragglers along the wide hallways of the upper cloister. Mullioned windows overlooked a sunny, grassy courtyard, planted with orange trees. Fruit hung in the green boughs. To quote another visitor, one fully expected to see a unicorn canter by.The guide explained about the founding of the order, and what made various paintings or sculptures noteworthy. Except for the occasional bench, the rooms of the cloister we saw were empty, but so embellished that they felt replete.
Some pieces I keep thinking about:
The Virgin of Guadalupe shrine enclosed by a pair of riotously rococo gilded and carved doors. The altar was made of stacked mirrored panels, and the 68 panels feature matriarchs of the Old Testament painted by Sebastián Herrera Barnuevo. Girl power!
Tapestries designed by Rubens and made in Brussels in the 17th century. Displayed in the former nuns’ dormitories, they curved up into the high ceiling and swept the floor.
The Flemish room of paintings, including one of a ship sailing for heaven while sinners sank in the seas, pulled down by demons, and a Deësis of the Virgin Mary, Christ Blessing, and Saint John the Baptist. Very like one I just saw in the Prado.
The many, many portraits of Juana.
Little robes for altar figures made by the nuns – like divine doll clothes.
A carved and painted wooden statue of the grieving Magdalene wearing a garment that looks like woven basketry – such intricate carving.
A shrine, set low in the wall, with miniature figures made of silver. It was for the edification of the children of women who came to the convent after marriage.
And, of course, at every turn there were virgins virgins virgins, Mary depicted in all her different aspects. It’s worth mentioning one of Fra Angelico’s Annunciations was taken from the cloister to the Prado. According to our guide, it took a royal edict to override the nuns’ protest. Note the unusual depiction of Adam and Eve leaving Eden fully clothed.
I wondered if the richness and the beauty, the might and power these acquisitions represent distracted the nuns or was a conduit to the divine? Or maybe it faded into background noise after a few decades of prayer and service. I was only there an hour and a half. I could’ve stayed a week.
Afterward, it took me a minute to return to the 21st century. Decided to go in search of that tee shirt place I’d found and lost. Success! Picked up a portable lunch from a bakery. Walked through Retiro Park towards the Prado. I planned to sit on a bench and eat little sausage-stuffed croissants and squares of tiramisu. Note: there is no cholesterol in Spain. This fact is well known.
The park is large, the trees leafed out in pale spring green, and the paths broad, well laid out, and a pleasure to walk. The problem was there were very few people. Two runners in 20 minutes, no children playing, no families, no one eating lunch. I expected it would be well populated on this beautiful day. I saw a few men sleeping on benches, and three burly men on either side of a path that gave me hard stares. So, no. I kept going, and ate as I walked.
I returned to the Prado. That’s another great thing about the museum pass, it’s reasonable to drop by for a couple of hours. I went to the earliest section, which made me wish I had a Bible to consult. I know the basics, of course. A Presbyterian childhood is all about the bible stories. I can spot a Magdalene or Noah or Christ confounding the doctors from across the room, but I mostly know my expurgated, childhood version of the stories.
I sat for an hour and drew details of demons being slain by the Archangel Michael (and his footwear) on postcards for my family. The Prado: where the wild things are. So satisfying. I am starting to miss the act of painting.
Ducked into a room on the way out that had a vibrant Sorolla painting of boys lying in surf that makes me determined to visit his museum. The next door room held four enormous narrative paintings on a grand scale; a blighted lovers tale, a betrayal and mass execution, a despairing prince in exile, and a knight’s conversion to Christianity when confronted by a rotting corpse. Thought of contemporary realism painters that have no place now. What a loss.
Did a bit of shopping in the Prado gift store. You didn’t expect me to pass by a tee shirt with Velázquez’s signature on it, did you? Walked back via Calle Cervantes and picked up my dinner en route.
Tomorrow, Belle Arte and lunch at the avant-garde restaurant, Al Trapo.