The royal monastery of Sant Jeroni de Cotalba sits proudly on a small hill outside Gandia, in the district of Alfauir (Valencia). It is surrounded by nature, orange groves, hiking trails and picnic areas. Today it is a private estate open to the public at weekends, but over the last 600 years it has been a very special place for kings, queens, nobles and the Hieronymite order. Let's take a look....
* Report by art historian and educator , Karla Darocas, Hons. B.A. (KarlaDarocas.com)
* Copyright Karla Darocas 2018* (no part of this text or photographs may be reproduced)
The Hieronymite Order has its origins in Jàvea. In 1374, Pope Gregory XI authorised the foundation of a monastery in Jàvea for the Hieronymite Order. Duke Alfonso of Aragon granted the site for this monastery, but it was attacked by Barbary pirates in 1387, and the monks feared to return. For this reason, in 1388, Alfonso of Aragon bought the area of Cotalba from the Muslims, which was safer, and gave everything to the Hieronymite monks of Jàvea.
The monastery itself is a complex of architectural wonders representing Spain's long, creative and devoted past. In 1994, it was declared a Site of Cultural Interest because its original construction dates back to 1388, and it contains important Moorish, Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical elements.
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It had been on my radar for a while, but finally we, my husband and I, took a morning trip, and early, because I do not like people in my historical photos.
As we walked up to the main gate of the monastery, we were greeted by several early morning reflections on white plaster. Saint Jerome, the patron saint of this institution, looked down on us and was writing his famous Latin version of the Bible, the "Vulgate", which appeared at the end of the 4th century.
Also emblazoned on the head of the entrance is a stone coat of arms designed for the grandson of King Jaime II and the benefactor of the monastery, Alfonso IV of Aragon. In this coat of arms are all the tributes, including the bars of Aragon, French lily flowers for his grandmother, Blanche of Anjou, the fierce lion symbolising the resident monks of the Hieronymite Order and also the eagle's claw or talon with a sword to represent the Marquis of Villena, a noble title of which Alfonso was the first.
Once you have passed through the main gate, the bell tower attracts your attention. It was built in the 14th century and is located next to the ecclesiastical part of the monastery.
It has a rectangular shape and was built of stone in four parts with "ashlars" or raised bricks as bands around each part. The upper part is crenellated and underneath are classical Gothic "ogival" arches. The bells are housed in this upper part.
The main façade of the building is austere and formal. It has three floors, small windows and wrought-iron balconies added in the 18th century. The main portal of the monastery, which leads directly into the building, is a plain, stunted pointed arch, above which is the founder's coat of arms in a "roundel", which has a circular shape, and decorative royal chains adorning the frame of the portal.
The backbone and communication channel of any monastery is its cloister. Four buildings date back to the covered cloister of Sant Jeroni de Cotalba, which extends on two levels around the patio.
The lower cloister is a true marvel with its jazzed-up ribbed vaults and ogival arches made of natural clay bricks and white lime mortar in the Mudéjar style, a term that refers to the Muslims who continued to practise their religion and customs in the area that became part of Christian rule after the Reconquest. Stone was used for the bases of the arches and the round keystones, which have insignias.
A highlight in the south-east corner is a unique spiral staircase in Flamboyant Gothic style, built towards the end of the 15th or beginning of the 16th century by Pere Compte, the architect of the Llotja de València. It is covered with stucco with plant decorations in high relief and leads to the upper part of the cloister.
The staircase and the upper cloister were donated by Maria Enríquez de Luna, who as Dutchess of Gandia, was the real driving force behind the economic, social and cultural transformation of Gandia from 1497.
The chapter house, now a chapel dedicated to the Virgin of Health, is used by the private family that now owns the monastery. In its time, however, the chapter house was an important place in monastic life. This is where the monks held their daily meetings. The abbot sat on his high seat and everyone else had their own place, from the oldest to the youngest.
High on the north wall of the chapter house is a Gothic tomb of Prince Juan, grandson of Alfonso the Old. This tomb was built by Maestro Xàtiva Pere Andreu in 1380, before the construction of the monastery began. This tomb is a great example of a mediaeval sarcophagus, and it is also extremely small!
The chapter house has a neo-Gothic altarpiece with a replica of the Virgen de la Salud or Virgin of Health. The original is in the neighbouring village of Rótova.
The room next to the chapter house is full of olive oil storage containers and 32 large jars for olives. In the 14th century, this room was actually the sanatorium, the oratory and the refectory. The only part of the primitive refectory that is preserved is a wall with a grisaille (charcoal, egg tempera and white gouache) of the Last Supper by Brother Nicolás Borrás, which is now a replica of the monochrome art painted on canvas to preserve it.
The southern wing of the monastery is occupied by the church. It has a rectangular floor plan with 8 chapels between its original buttresses. In the 18th century, the church was transformed from Gothic style to a neoclassical design. The roof and the Gothic pointed arches had to be demolished in order to raise them and cover the nave with a barrel vault and lunettes. These arches are supported by capitals bearing the coat of arms of the first Duke of Gandia, Alfonso I of Aragon, and are decorated with figurative, vegetal and pastoral motifs.
The upper choir has a rectangular floor plan and is covered by a star vault with lunettes decorated in the corners with paintings and shell corners, devotional symbols of Mary.
Unfortunately, this church fell victim to the ecclesiastical seizures of Mendizábal, often referred to in Spanish simply as la Desamortización. This was a series of decrees that led to the expropriation and privatisation of monastic properties in Spain between 1835 and 1837. The sculptures went to the Valencia Museum of Fine Arts. The monstrance went to the Collegiate Basilica of Gandia, the organ to the Pias Schools of the same city, the large bell to Xeresa and the image of the Virgin of Good Health to the church of Rotova. This church then became a warehouse. Now it is used for music concerts and other special events.
The 15th century kitchen with Moorish oven is a rectangular room supported by four cross arches, with four groined vaults in the corners. The earthenware, woven willow mats and wooden spoons look like the items we still use today.
On the other side of the kitchen is an 18th century living room with Renaissance vaults and period furniture.
On the west side of the monastery is a 20th century Romantic-style garden created by the Trénor family, who acquired, among other things, the monastery of Sant Jeroni de Cotalva in Alfahuir, which had been expropriated during the Spanish Desamortización. The family still owns the monastery today and the rooms, which are not open to the public, are private spaces for their personal use.
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