Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes, Toledo, Spain

Category: Toledo

The city of Toledo, Spain is just as beautiful as it is historic, a city high on a hill, surrounded by the meandering Tagus River, and one that dates back at least to Roman Times when it was an important urban center.  Those who visit Toledo are usually amazed and awed by its abundance of historical structures and commemorative monuments, not the least of which is the Monasterio de San de los Reyes, or the Monastery of Saint John of the Kings.  Below we have provided a brief overview of this one-of-a-kind site, including some detailed information regarding its history and design.

The Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes is a deeply revered monastery in Toledo, Spain, built by the Catholic Monarchs (1477-1504)—the name used throughout history to identify King Ferdinand II of Aragon and his wife Queen Isabella I of Castile.  It was founded to honor the birth of their son, Prince John, and to commemorate the victory won at the Battle of Toro (1476) over the army of Alfonso V of Portugal.

Interestingly, the victory at the Battle of Toro, claimed by the Monarchs, was a point of dispute with the Portuguese.  Prince John of Portugal also celebrated his victory over the Castilian army and marked the day with a solemn procession held each year on the anniversary of the battle.  According to historians, the reason for this confusion is that, while the forces of Alfonso V were indeed broken on that day, the forces led by Prince John of Portugal defeated the Castilian right wing and remained in possession of the battlefield.  Nevertheless, the battle represented a decisive political victory for the Catholic Monarchs, assuring them the throne and paving the way for the consolidation of the two most important Peninsular Kingdoms in Spain.

Toledo was selected as the site for the new monastery, largely because of its centralized location, but also due to the fact that it had once been the capital of the Visigoth kingdom, a kingdom symbolically recreated by the Catholic Monarchs through the union of Castile and Aragon.  It originally bore the name “San Juan de la Reyna,” and although it was originally intended to be the burial site of Ferdinand and Isabella, those plans changed and Granada was chosen instead for this purpose, after its re-conquest in 1492.

Construction of the monastery began in 1477 under the designs of French architect Juan Gras, and was completed in 1504.  Following its completion it was dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist for use by Franciscan friars.  It was badly damaged by Napoleon’s troops in 1809 during their occupation of Toledo, and abandoned in 1835.  Reconstruction commenced in 1883, but due to funding shortages and other unforeseen complications, it was not totally completed until 1967.

From an architectural standpoint, the Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes is a fine example of the Gothic style, with Spanish and Flemish influences.  Its church was designed much like a Latin cross, with short arms, an elongated nave (roughly 50 meters in length and 30 meters high), and side chapels located between the domed arches:  three chapels on either side of the nave, and two more under the choir.  Tourists to the church will surely notice its great Coat of Arms, depicting the Catholic Monarchs held by two eagles, as well as its chancel, decorated with a mid-16th century altar—the work of former Santa Cruz Hospital sculptor Felipe Bigarny and painter Francisco de Comontes—depicting scenes from Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, as well as two scenes of the Santa Cruz legend.

A small garden is featured in the lower cloister of the Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes, and its upper cloisters, initially built in 1526 and restored in the 1800s, contain splendid Mudejar-styled ornamentation, including a ceiling made of larch wood, painted with the great Coat of Arms and the motto Tanto monta, mant tanto.