The construction of the monastery of San Jeronimo that changed the artistical and urban development of Granada.
It was founded in 1492 by the Catholic Monarchs as a part of their Christianisation policy for the newly conquered city. It is located in a district called Dar ibn-Murdi (the house of ben Murdi). With a generous amount of revenue and goods provided by the Monarchs, the construction of the ambitious building soon began, with the first main cloister completed in 1519 and the other side by 1526 at latest. In 1521 the monks could already start getting settled in the new building. Ambassador Navagero would take notice of the layout of the monastery in the early days when he visited it in 1526 while visiting for honeymoon of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Empress Elisabeth. The second courtyard, one of the first in the renaissance style in Granada, was set up as an emergency residence for Empress Elisabeth during their stay at the Alhambra after she was given a bad scare by an earthquake.
The figure of the Great Captain in the monastery of San Jerónimo
It was founded by the Catholic Monarchs in recognition of the individual who was their right hand man during the first christianisation of the city, the Order of St. Jerome monk friar Hernando de Talavera. Shortly afterwards, the monastery took on an innovative and historic character thanks to the family of the Gran Capitán (Great Captain) Gonzalo Fernández de Córdova. After converting the apse into a funeral chapel, Jacobo Florentino and Diego de Siloé replaced the initial gothic style with a renaissance one, feeling that the new style better expressed the values of the new Christian nobility in Granada. From the 16th to the 18th century, the spiritual and architectural development of the monastery turned it into one of the most important ones in the city, with it including numerous courtyards, pens, stables, cellars and guest quarters while enjoying large rural holdings. It rose to become one of the most important and aristocratic urban growth centres in modern Granada. At the turn of the turbulent 19th century major changes took place. First the monastery was plundered by French soldiers, the tomb of the patron was desecrated, its banners and objects stolen and the stones from the steeple were used to create the bridge known as Puente Verde.
However, more was lost in the ecclesiastical confiscations of Mendizábal and the social upheaval of the nineteenth century, as it was turned into a military headquarters; a sizable portion of its courtyards, pens and gardens were divided up and sold and its art treasure was reduced. However, the misfortune did not stop there. In 1926 it was damaged by a fire that mainly affected the covering of the second courtyard, destroying upon its collapse everything below it, with the Baroque dome of its main staircase as well as the north-east of the main cloister burning.
In recent decades its monasterial character has been restored, as nuns came here due to the closure of the monastery of Santa Paula, adding the art treasure from that monastery at the same time.
It is preferable to access the monastery by Calle Rector López de Argüeta, which lets you enjoy the best view of its cobbled courtyard, surrounded by acacias, cypresses, elms, orange trees, magnolia trees, etc. which has a way of letting us slow down and peacefully move back in time, gradually getting closer to the magical angle created by the gates of the church and the monastery, joined yet separate at the same time due to the slim tower.
The construction of the monastery of San Jeronimo
The church, most assuredly done by Enrique de Egas, based on to its similarly to the Royal Chapel was started in 1519, but when just four meters of the perimeter had been built a key event changed its artistic fate. María Manrique, the Dutchess of Sess and Terranova, and the Gran Capitán’s widow, made a request to Emperor Charles V to cede the largest chapel and its transept for the burial of her and her husband. Construction began in 1525, with Italian sculptor, painter, joiner and architect Jacabo Florentino, who with his work on the Capilla Real had shown himself to have a deft hand in employing the new renaissance elements.
Florentino died a short time after, in January 1526, and in order to continue to work Diego de Siloé from Burgos was brought in. His participation in the project, starting in March 1528, was a light which was to shine upon Granada’s artistic panorama in the following decades. According to the initial contract, Siloé had to design, apart from the apse, the grill, the main reredos and the tombs needed to complete the commemorative programme. While he oversaw the main chapel, work continued on the main body of the church.
Over time, inside the monastery many high profile Granada families established private chapels and patronages in the loop of the main cloister, with a series of façades bearing witness to it, along with those done for the monks’ rooms. They are an impressive collection, from the most ornate and plateresque to the ones of Mannerist design done at the beginning of the 17th century. In the 18th century the luxurious stairway was added as well as its stone doorway that joins the two floors of the main cloister.
Despite the great importance of preserving the complex, the monastery has lost two courtyards, the guest quarters and other rooms.
The main cloister of the monastery is nearly square and impressively large, with two floors and galleries of nine arches on each side that enclose a central garden. The lower arches are semicircular, the upper ones are basket arches with capitals with a variety of decorative motifs based on a mix of animal and human figures. The coats of arms of the Catholic Monarchs and Archbishop Talavera are featured on the central arches. The central garden was replanted with orange trees during the modern restoration, as it was back in the 16th century according to what Navagero saw and described.
Surrounding the first cloister one finds the typical rooms of a monastery, such as the dining room and the anterefectory or the chapel antechamber, the chapter hall, as well as other rooms and chapels or altars for burial.
The second cloister is the current one for nuns and is therefore unavailable for tourism, but one can get a glimpse at it by looking down a hallway next to the main stairway. Completed prior to 1526, this can be considered one of the first renaissance courtyards in Granada. Those who want to see their private chapel, accompanying the nuns for daily mass must wake up quite early, since it takes place at the daybreak.
The Church of San Jerónimo
The church is one of the most important in Granada both artistically and as far as originality.
The apse is the most important part of it, both in expressive and dynamic power. As a public expression of title and ownership, the altar cloth features a large coat of arms for the Fernández de Córdova family, held up by soldiers, with a placard that reads: GONSALO FERDINANDO A CORDUBA MAGNO HISPANORUM DUCI GALLORUM AC TURCARUM TERRORI. The flanking walls feature medallions with idealised portraits of María de Manrique (Dutchess of Sesa) and the Gran Capitán.
The beauty of the apse is enhanced by an atmosphere of respect, small but pleasant, with orange trees which in May give off their unmistakable aroma.
The inside of the church, as far as the ground plan, is presented in Franciscan style, characteristic of late Spanish gothic. It includes a nave, transept that does not protrude from the walls and a polygonal apse. The upper nave houses four lateral chapels on each side and is covered in a simple ribbed vault. At its feet there is a large chancel.
Most of the side chapels were burial places for high profile families and now include many Baroque reredoses, altars and images such as La Soledad, a beautiful face credited to Pedro de Mena. Halfway up we can admire two Baroque organs on each side of the chancel, with their casing adorned with wooden carvings.
The masterpiece of the church is the main chapel and the transept, letting you appreciate this place as unique in the Granada art world and one of the most inspired of the Spanish Renaissance. On the sides of the transept there are stone reredoses with three alcoves that include soldiers and the large coats of arms of the patrons, rounded out with paintings of angels, masks and figures of the virtues: Faith and Hope, on the left, and Fortitude and Justice on the opposite side. Coming to the vaults, the sculptural and symbolic repertory enhances them and turns them into a heroic discourse.
The vault of the high altar is divided into two parts. The first has reliefs with saints who stood out due to their soldier-like and earnest character such as the patrons and lawyers of the Gran Capitán and his wife. Throughout the chapel and reredos the masculine-feminine duality is set out as an explicit discourse; always arranging the male figures on the left and the feminine ones on the right, as corresponds to the hierarchical protocol; the Dukes are also placed in the reredoses in the same fashion. All of this historically coherent, rhetorically impeccable, visually magnificent and the incomparable work of the great Diego de Siloé. Even though we have not captured its symbolic message, merely contemplating these vaults is always impressive to behold.
The main reredos is also noteworthy, done by Diego de Siloé along with the grill, the crypt and the tombs. Only the reredos remains as testimony to this great project. It can be considered the most grandiose and monumental of 16th-century reredos in Granada, due to its aesthetic qualities, iconographic complexity and size, with the only one that is comparable being in the Capilla Real. This reredos alone is reason enough for the visit and dignifies the monument that houses it even more.
Below on the sides, Gran Capitán and his wife stand in perpetual and serene prayer; with him wearing armour as a victorious soldier; and her with a veil, robe and cloak, as a modest and pious woman.
In the transept, at the foot of the stairway of the main altar, the few remains left of the founders are located, under a simple marble slab with the inscription: “The bones of Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, who with his bravery earned the title of Gran Capitán, lie here in this tomb until eventually they return to the everlasting light. His glory was by no means buried with him”.
The walls and vaults of the temple are decorated with paintings of great scenographic and theological value that came to complete the symbolic discourses of this boundless space even further. They form a complex and varied iconographic programme, that ranges from the motifs of the birth and life of Christ and the Virgin Mary, the lives of saints, the triumph of the Eucharist and the church, etc., to the personalisation in the transept with themes referring to the Gran Capitán.