Postcard from Burgos, Spain: A powerful abbess and underfoot devils

Above: Monastery of Santa Maria la Real de las Huelgas

It’s not easy to reign over a contested kingdom when you ascend to the throne at age two. Think of the royal intrigue that would trigger – all the scheming regents and relatives trying to unseat you before you can toddle down a hallway on your own.

But Alfonso VIII (1155-1214), King of Castile and Toledo, managed to ward off a legion of enemies to hold onto his throne – not without assistance and numerous defeats and victories on the battlefield along the way. And crusades against the Alamohads. To consolidate his power and secure a powerful ally while still a teenager, Alfonso gained the hand of 12-year-old Eleanor (Leonora) of England (1161-1214), a daughter of the contentious couple King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

At Leonora’s behest, the young royals founded the Monastery of Santa Maria la Real de las Huelgas in 1187. She bore 11 children before dying less than a month after her husband. The couple and numerous of their children were buried in elaborately decorated chapels within the expansive monastery. Royal weddings held there included that of Eleanor of Castile (1241-1290) to King Edward I of England (1239-1307) while Eleanor was 12 and Edward still a duke.

Although a stop for pilgrims along Camino de Santiago, only four other visitors appeared while we were there. Before you learn more about the abbey or scroll down to the images below, you need a soundtrack of soothing melodies appropriate for this serene setting.

Rediscovered in 1904 by Benedictine monks, the Codex Las Huelgas is a manuscript dating from about 1300 of music performed by the choir of Cistercian nuns residing at the convent. This excerpt is from a recording, “4 Planctus,” by the New London Consort under the direction of Philip Pickett.

The royal founders added a hospital to the property to minister to the physical needs of impoverished pilgrims traipsing along the Camino de Santiago. The youngest daughter of Eleanor and Alfonso, Constance (1202-1243), entered the Cistercian monastery at age 15.

With Constance administering secular matters including donations, Sister Sancha Garcia became abbess of Santa Maria la Real de las Huelgas in 1207. The patronage of the royal family of Castile lent an unduplicated amount of power to the abbess. She was extended jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters for more than 50 neighboring villages.

Abbess Sancha received orders directly from the pope and was authorized to bear a crozier and wear a mitre-style headdress similar to that of male bishops. The Abbess even heard confessions, a privilege normally reserved for priests. These powers were retained by her successors until the Council of Trent in the mid-1500s.

While the above retablos and altars appear sumptuous, photography is forbidden in the most impressive chapels housing tombs of the royals. The Museo de Ricas Telas, or Museum of Medieval Fabrics, contains textiles exhumed from royal tombs. Their actual clothing, from intimate under garments to armor, are preserved and displayed.

Among the most prized items in the collection is the royal banner of Caliph Al Nasir (1182-1213). Captured during the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, the victory is regarded as the turning point in the Christians’ Reconquista. Because of the fragile nature of these ancient fabrics, photography is forbidden and light kept extremely low.

Emerging from the dimly lit museum into the bright Spanish sunlight, I was struck immediately with a sharp, blinding headache. I was forced to keep my eyes on the ground and was unable to focus on anything more than six feet away for the first 20 minutes of the easy walk back into the center of town. Then all seemed fine, or so I hoped…. A tale to be continued in Valladolid.

“Footnotes:” Often in religious art, the most interesting parts are found underfoot, as demonstrated above. Hardworking putti keeping saints aloft. Dogs guarding their royal master for eternity. Slain Moors under Santiago. A defeated king at the mercy of a sword-bearing queen. A spotted devil trampled upon by San Miguel. And that chained, horned, goat-like devil with a strong underbite and extra faces on his knees and hindquarters begging for mercy at the feet of I know not what saint. And outside, there was a nest full of offspring under the watchful eye of their mother stork. And it would prove fortunate I like looking down as my sensitivity to light increased over the days to come.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.