Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, Madrid

Category: Madrid

Situated in the city of Madrid, the capital and largest city in Spain, the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales is a must-see tourist attraction for visitors. This royal monastery, which is now administered by the Patrimonio Nacional, dates back to the 16th century and is now open daily for tour groups to explore. Below we will describe this historical landmark in a bit more detail, including its history and the various features that make this attraction such an interesting and enlightening place to visit.

Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales: History

The Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, which translates literally to the Monastery of Barefeet Royals, resides in the former palace of King Charles I of Spain and his wife Isabel of Portugal. The monastery was founded in 1559 by Joanna of Austria, the daughter of Charles I and Isabel. It was founded as a convent—the Convent of Nuns of the Poor Clare—and throughout the last part of the 16th century and into the 17th century it regularly attracted young widowed or spinster noblewomen, each of whom brought with her a dowry. As a result, the riches rapidly accumulated and the convent became one of the richest of its kind in Europe.

Over time, the demographics of the convent would slowly change, and by the early 1900s all of the sisters of the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales were living in poverty. Although the riches of the past remained in the convent, the sisters were forbidden to auction off any of these valuable items or spend any of the money from the dowries. However, when the State realized the sisters were living in poverty, they asked the pope to grant a special dispensation, which ultimately led to the convent being converted to a museum in 1960.

Among the many people who worked at the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales through the years was Tomas Luis de Victoria, Spain’s finest and most renowned Renaissance composer, who worked there from 1587 until his death in 1611.

Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales: Features

Once the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales opened to the public in 1960 it quickly became one of Madrid’s most cherished historical sites. Naturally, the treasures accumulated throughout the convent’s early existence were not visible to the public, but today only a few nuns remain in the monastery, and the site is now well-visited by locals and tourists alike.

One of the most popular features of the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales is the museum, where many of the treasures of the past are now proudly on display. Many of the noblewomen who arrived at the convent many centuries ago had brought with them dowries which were invested in priceless relics and dazzling exhibition pieces. Among those on display today are putatively pieces from Christ’s cross and the bones of Saint Sebastian, as well as artistic masterpieces, including the painting Caesar’s Money, by the renowned artist Titian, tapestries woven into designs by Rubens, and works by Hans de Beken and Brueghel the Elder.

The church on the grounds of the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales is also a splendid site. It was designed by the Spanish architect Antonio Sillero, but over the years many other architects also contributed to this 16th century masterpiece. The facade, for example, was designed in 1559 by Juan Bautista de Toledo, who also helped with the roofing of the church; and parts of the altar, choir and sacristy were designed by Juan Gomez de Mora in 1612. A fire in 1862 destroyed the main retablo of the altar, along with many paintings and frescos by Juan Pantoja de la Cruz. This altar was replaced in 1863 with an altar previously commissioned in 1716 by King Philip V of Spain to commemorate the beatification of the French Jesuit Jean-Francois Regis, including canvases by Michel-Ange Houasse. The new altar features a sculpted relief of the Apotheosis if Juan Francisco Regis, by Camillo Rusconi, with lateral panels sculpted by Jose Bellver. Finally, within the chapel of the church is a marble statue of Joan of Austria, founder of the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, a work completed by either Pompeo Leoni or Crescenci.