Convent of Las Descalzas Reales

See photo below

by Joan Saunders. May 2007

The Convent of Las Decalzas Reales in Madrid (Convent of the Royal Barefoot Nuns), Spain is not a traditional museum. It is a functioning convent for cloistered nuns that displays its works of art as an expression of the life of the religious community and
of the royal patronage it has received since its founding nearly 400 years ago by a member of the Spanish Royal Family.

The royal connection with the convent (then a private home) began there in 1535 with the birth of a daughter to Emperor Charles V and his wife, Isabella of Portugal. A generation earlier the Austrians and Spanish were joined politically when Charles’ mother Joan, daughter of the Spanish monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand, married Philip I, son of Emperor Maximilian I of Austria. When their son Charles V and his wife were expecting their fourth child, Charles advised her to leave her apartment in the old palace-fortress in Madrid for a more comfortable accommodation in the Renaissance palace of his bookkeeper
and good friend, Don Alonso Gutierrez. There on 23 June 1535, Joan of Austria was born in what her brother King Philip II was later to call “the cool rooms that overlook the garden.”

Twenty years later, when Philip II left for England to marry Mary Tudor, he asked his sister Joan to act as Regent of Castile and Aragon in his absence. Wishing to established a convent as a place of withdrawal and prayer, Joan purchased Gutierrez’s
palace as home for the convent she founded, the Convent of Las Descalzas Reales. Her plan was to create a religious and social complex which included a convent, a church for the people, apartments for the monarchs and a residence for other members of the royal family. The order of nuns who have occupied this convent since its inception are the cloistered Franciscan nuns, the Poor Clares, established in the early 13th century by St Francis and St Clare near Assisi, Italy. Joan wanted to be buried in the palace where she was born and the convent she established, so in 1573, per her wish, she was entombed in the church of the Convent Las Descalzas Reales.

The convent houses an extensive art collection, much of it donated by members of the Royal Family for their and the nuns’ spiritual edification. In addition there are 39 portraits of the Royal Family, including Joan of Austria, and several Royals familiar to Ringling Docents: Isabella Clara Eugenia, Philip IV, his brother Ferdinand, his wife Dona Maria Anna, and their three children Margarita Theresa, Philipe Prospero, and Charles II. Artists represented in the convent’s collection include Bruegel, Cano, Correggio, Dolci, Giordano, Luini, Piombo, Pontormo, Ribera, Rubens, Titian, and Zurbaran.

Of major interest to Ringling Docents are the Victory of the Eucharist tapestries, designed by Peter Paul Rubens and woven in Brussels by Jan Raes, Jacques Fobert, and Jacques Geubels. These were given to the convent by Isabella Clara Eugenia, Governor of the Spanish Netherlands, in thanksgiving for the Spanish victory at Breda in 1625.

Since 1970 ten of the tapestries have been installed in the largest space in the convent, a T-shaped room that was formally the nuns’ dormitory, and new cells were created for the nuns. The remaining ten tapestries are stored in an enclosed area; however, some of these are displayed to the public in the chaplain’s cloister on Good Friday. Four of the ten tapestries on display are from cartoons in the Ringling Museum: The Defenders of the Faith, The Four Evangelists, Manna in the Desert, and The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek. The other six are Allegory of Franciscan Asceticism, Charity Illuminated by Dogma, The Prophet Elijah Comforted by an Angel, The Triumph of the Eucharist over Idolatry, The Triumph of the Eucharist over Ignorance and Blindness, and Wisdom Inspired by the Holy Spirit. A portrait of Isabella Clara Eugenia, painted according to
Ruben’s model, hangs between two tapestries. She belonged to the Third Franciscan Order for secular vocations, and is dressed as a Franciscan Tertiary.

In 1960, with the permission of the nuns, the Patrimonia Nacional, the institution entrusted with administering royal patronage, opened certain areas of the convent to the public as a museum. Since then more areas were opened, and in 1988 The Convent of Las Decalzas Reales was awarded the Council of Europe ‘s Museum Prize. However, the convent is not a traditional museum. It is a working convent with a world class collection of art.

Principal source: Ana Garcia Sanz and M Leticia Sanchez Hernandez, The Convents of Las Descalzas Reales and La Encarnacion (Two Cloistered Convents in Madrid). Madrid, Spain: Patrimonio Nacional. 1999