Barefoot nuns might sound like the premise for a comedy skit, but rest assured these sisters are no joke. The Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales is both a functioning convent and a treasure trove of art.
Founded by the daughter of Charles V in 1559 as a retreat for noblewomen, the nunnery has maintained its commitment to its religious principles for centuries. Tours of the grounds and artifacts housed there began in the last few decades.
Once a royal palace, women of the Spanish aristocracy wandered its hallways in quiet. For over 200 years the grounds, which gradually became a fully recognized and practicing convent, were restricted to outsiders. The occupants within found not only an environment for religious contemplation but also a private art museum.
The buildings themselves are outstanding samples of Renaissance architecture. The orange stone facade is elegant, punctuated by several archways and the doors are splendid examples of the period.
The collection grew gradually as the noblewomen who wished to take up the religious life each brought a ‘dowry’ to be a ‘bride of Christ’.
Today those art treasures are available for viewing by the public. There are paintings by Titian, Zurbarán and Brueghel the Elder along with many others. There are magnificent tapestries hand-woven and based on drawings by Rubens. There is even a marble mausoleum crafted by Leoni, a sculpted sepulchre of Emperatriz María executed by Crescenci and several Mena sculptures.
The Franciscan nuns opened the grounds to the public in 1960 and conduct the tours, which is the only way visitors are permitted to see the collection. Though tours are conducted in Spanish, questions in English are permitted and will be answered in English. However, there is so much that is worthwhile to see that even those not conversant in Spanish will find the tours a delight.
Next door is the Convento de la Encarnación, which is also worth a visit.