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Adorned Like A Bride For Her Husband… The Cartuja Monastery Of Granada

November 23, 2021 Featured Today No Comments


When we think of the Carthusian Order, the imagery that comes most readily to mind is that of a life of profound and utter austerity — a demanding life of self-denial lived in stark surroundings and in much silence. Yet within the Carthusian tradition, there developed over the centuries a recognition of the value of beautiful sacred art as a gateway to contemplation. The Carthusians have understood that embracing a life of personal poverty for the sake of the Kingdom of God does not mean impoverishing the House of God, and that even within the austere setting of a monk’s personal cell, beautiful religious images could have a very powerful role to play in raising the eyes of the soul to God.
Nowhere, perhaps, is this Carthusian interplay between contemplation and artistic beauty more evident than in the Baroque Era chapel of the Spanish Carthusian monastery of Our Lady of the Assumption, widely known simply as the Cartuja of Granada. Founded in 1506, this monastery underwent several waves of additional construction and renovation during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that transformed it into a veritable image of the Heavenly Jerusalem, bringing together the labors of eight particularly gifted artists and architects to form an amazing iconographic program of Eucharistic and Marian devotion.
Juan Sanchez Cotan (1560-1627) had been enjoying a successful career of “still life” painting in Toledo when at the age of 44 he decided to leave the world and enter the Carthusian Order, beginning his religious life in the Carthusians’ monastery of Santa Maria de El Paular, in what is now Rascafria, Spain. Having entered with a mind to consecrating his artistic talent to the service of God, he was to employ his paint brush innumerable times over the 23 years that followed to depicting scenes from the life of Christ, the saints and martyrs, and most especially the Blessed Virgin, first at the monastery of El Paular and later at the Cartuja of Granada, to which he was transferred around 1615.
Among the paintings that Cotan completed for the Cartuja of Granada is a series depicting the martyrdom of the three English Carthusian martyrs Saints John Houghton, Robert Lawrence, and Augustine Webster together with the Brigittine prior of Syon Abbey, St. Richard Reynolds (+May 4, 1535). Among these, Cotan’s canvas of the judge at the martyrs’ trial demanding their submission to Henry VIII’s supremacy oath is particularly striking, the judge shrouded in darkness on the left side gesturing with his left hand as the four martyrs stand in a solid row on the right, facing him with attentive eyes in utter stillness. Three of them are calm, while one with parted lips reveals a sign of fear in his face, but they all four stand ready to die for their faith.
Yet Cotan’s greatest legacy was his corpus of Marian paintings, scenes of her life and private apparitions that he created for his brother Carthusians both at El Paular and in Granada not only for the chapels but also for the monks’ personal cells. In virtually all these paintings, the face of our Lady is the same, the artist seemingly having a particular idea of how he imagined her.
But there is one painting of Cotan’s in which the face of Mary is unique, his depiction of the miracle of the seventh-century Spanish bishop St. Isadore of Seville receiving from the hands of the Blessed Virgin a chasuble she had sewn for him. It was a tradition among the Carthusians of Granada that while Cotan was working upon this painting our Lady herself appeared to him and actually sat for him, as is the custom with portrait painting, so that he could paint her as he saw her during the vision. When afterward Cotan’s brethren asked him why the face of Mary looked different in this picture, he answered that it was because in this case he had painted her from real life. It was fitting that this Carthusian portraitist of Mary was to die on the feast of her birth, September 8, 1627.
During his years at the Cartuja of Granada, Cotan was visited by an Italian artist who admired his work and was destined to make his own considerable contribution to the beauty of the Granada monastery, Vicente Carducho (ca. 1576-1638). After creating a vast collection of fifty-six paintings for the Carthusians of El Paular, Carducho produced twelve masterpieces for the Cartuja of Granada, including two depicting the Blessed Virgin personally appearing to Carthusian monks (The Madonna and Child Appear to Peter Faverio, and The Virgin Appears to Juan Fort). In the first of these the Blessed Mother is shown appearing to Peter Faverio over his deathbed, driving away the demons that had been tormenting him. In the second painting, Juan Fort is on his knees as he kisses the hand of our Lady appearing before him.
It was also during the first half of the seventeenth century that Miguel Jeronimo Garcia (+1639) and his brother Jeronimo Francisco Garcia (+1644) completed for the Carthusians of Granada a deeply moving life-size sculpture of Christ in His Passion, their “Ecce Homo.” Relatively little is known about the Garcia brothers, but significantly quite a few books of religious devotion were among Miguel’s possessions following his death.
In the second half of the seventeenth century, yet another painter would add to the splendor of the Cartuja of Granada, Pedro Antonio Bocanegra (1638-1689), completing for the walls of the monastery chapel a new series of canvases on the life of the Blessed Virgin, designed to create the illusion of being windows, with the grandest of these being his beautiful depiction of the Assumption of Our Lady in the uppermost reaches of the cupola directly above the high altar.
It was to be in the eighteenth century that the artistic transformation of the Cartuja of Granada was to attain its crowning glory, a glory directed most especially to the exaltation of the Holy Eucharist. In 1702 the construction of the Sagrario, the central tabernacle-sanctuary of the monastic chapel, was begun, a project that would take eighteen years to complete.
In 1709 Fray Francisco de Bustamente became prior, a man whose deep spiritual vision was to give this project a whole new intensity. A carefully worked out iconographic program for the Sagrario, the “Holy of Holies,” as well as the high altar directly in front of the Sagrario was developed with a cast of Spain’s finest artists of the period, with the overall design entrusted to the architect Francisco Hurtado Izquierdo (1669-1725). In 1711 Fray de Bustamente recruited the painter Antonio Palomino (1655-1726), who contributed to the project not only a series of canvases but most importantly the fresco of the cupola directly above the Sagrario.
The completed Sagrario for the reservation and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament had all the character of a true “Holy of Holies,” a massive architectonic structure wrought from a spectacular blaze of multicolored marble, with eight black spiral “Solomonic columns” framing the tabernacle, intended to evoke the symbolism of the ancient Temple of Solomon. At its heart was a silver and crystal urn enclosing the Holy Eucharist. The art historian Lazaro Gila Medina describes the Sagrario as “‘the symbolic cell’ of His Divine Majesty” in this monastery of monks living a hermitical life (Lazaro Gila Medina, “Manifestaciones artisticas en torno a la Eucharistia en la Granada Moderna: Ciborios, tabernaculos y manifestadores,” Cuadernos de arte de la Universidad de Granada, n. 32, 2001, p. 202).
At the base of the four corners of the Sagrario tabernacle sit four allegorical figures, large polychrome statue depictions of four characteristic virtues of Carthusian spirituality — truth, celibacy, examination of conscience, and frugality — produced by José Risueno in the form of four young women, each holding a symbol indicating the virtue represented. At the four corners of the surrounding enclosure of the Sagrario are polychrome sculptures of St. Joseph and St. Bruno by José de Mora (1642-1724), St. John the Baptist by José Risueno (1665-1721), and Mary Magdalene by Duque Cornejo (1678-1757).
Francisco Hurtado Izquierdo’s design for the retable of the high altar is on a similarly epic scale, likewise arrayed in multicolored marble that serves to frame a large and very beautiful blue and white polychrome wood sculpture of the Blessed Virgin being assumed into Heaven, the work of the sculptor José de Mora. Adding an aura of mystical wonder to this structure are its eight gilded columns studded with dozens of small Venetian convex mirrors that not only serve to scatter about the incoming light but also evoke the title of the Blessed Virgin drawn from the Book of Wisdom, that of Mary as the “spotless mirror” (Wisdom 7:26).
A massive partition of crystal separating the Sagrario from the presbytery of the high altar allows the Sagrario to be seen from the nave while at the same time visually sequestering it as a sacred inner realm, where it is flanked on either side by two lateral oratories within which the monks could adore the Blessed Sacrament in cloistered privacy, unseen by laymen in the nave.

The Triumph Of The Eucharist

It is the fresco of Antonio Palomino in the cupola of the Sagrario that serves as a compelling interpretive key to the iconographic program of this House of God. As Lazaro Gila Medina explains, this masterpiece entitled The Heavenly Jerusalem, is “dedicated to the total glorification and triumph of the Eucharist over the universe, through the Carthusian Order, whose members, fully devoted to prayer, must cultivate the virtues” (ibid., p. 203).
Like other Baroque ceiling murals, Palomino’s fresco creates the illusion of opening the sky and unveiling Heaven. At the center can be seen the Carthusians’ founder St. Bruno portrayed in a Hercules-like pose holding the Earth upon which is enshrined the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance. Gathered about this central image of the mural are groups of adorers, both human and angelic. Most prominent among them is the Blessed Virgin Mary, kneeling before the monstrance in humble and intense supplication. For centuries, the Carthusians have seen our Lady as the ultimate human model of the contemplative life, a concept found particularly in the writings of Denis the Carthusian (1402-1471).
Arrayed behind the Blessed Virgin in Palomino’s fresco are St. Joseph and other members of the family of our Lord and nearby the holy virgin saints. Elsewhere in the mural can be seen St. John the Baptist with the prophets and patriarchs, the Church Fathers, and other saints.
In 1835 the secularist regime of Spain expelled the Carthusians from the Cartuja of Granada, confiscating the property and later destroying the monks’ cells. But the Cartuja chapel, having been spared, stands as a lasting artistic testament to the glory of the Blessed Sacrament and the holiness of the Mother of God.

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