Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes

The church was built to hold the “dynastic mausoleum” of queen Isabel the Catholic, dedicated to saint John the Evangelist, of whom the queen was a devout admirer. The use of the building dictated its type of simulated bier, surrounded by pinnacles in the form of wax candles.

The sanctuary and transept of the church were planned and erected by Juan Guas, the first person to hold the post of Royal Architect. The Franciscan cord runs along the entire facade, it being the order that occupies the building. The sanctuary is polygonal with buttresses crowned with needles or pinnacles, decorated with royal arms and life-sized heralds, showing the Catholic Monarchs shield shining among their clothing. The cimborio above the transept is octagonal, crowned by cresting and decorated with more gothic pinnacles. Above the side door there is an outstanding Stations of the Cross, showing the Virgin and Saint John, but not Christ. He is symbolised by the pelican placed on the cross, in accordance with the medieval belief that the bird was able to feed its young with its own blood, this being a type of precursor of the Eucharist.

The church has a hall floor with a spacious transept to hold future burial tombs. The sanctuary is polygonal making a tapestry of sculpture of Mudejar style. It is covered with a vault of eight-pointed stars and is supported by tubes. In the transept in the nave, the epigraphic decoration can also be seen, also from the Mudejar tradition, these signs alluding to the conquest of Granada. The entrance was planned for the end of the base of the church and the high choir, leading from the nave to the main altar, following the growth in illumination in the spaces. The repeated royal coats of arms in the main chapel were created before 1492, since the pomegranate fruit does not appear, which was a symbol of the then conquered kingdom. All of the decoration is repetitive and intended to underline the magnificence of the monarchs. Isabel is symbolised by sheaves of arrows that represent the union of forces and by the letter “Y” of her name, in the spelling of the time.

Fernando is symbolised by the letter “F” and by a yoke with the motto "tanto monta" (it is all the same), which alludes to the myth of the Gordian knot, cut by Alexander the Great when faced with the impossibility of untying it. It is a justification for the means used to obtain the desired ends. Here it indicates the primacy of the reason of the State above other considerations, as considered by Machiavelli. It is no accident that the symbols of each of the consorts begin with the initial of the name of the other.

Another key space is the square, two-tiered cloister, one of the masterpieces of late gothic art within the Hispanic-Flemish aesthetic, which combines gothic and Mudejar elements, something very typical of Juan Guas. The length of its sides with five spans is exactly half that of the nave of the church. The lower cloister is covered with a German style ribbed vault, without which the ribs would join in the centre, therefore without a key.

The upper cloister shows a wooden coffered ceiling with typical Mudejar tracery. The columns, arches, and pilasters are covered in animal and vegetable motifs, many of them also holding a symbolic meaning. Among them are human figures, separate or together in scenes, such as a boy stabbing an eagle, a monkey horseman riding a dog playing the flute, another sitting on a toilet, and many more, typical of the range of gothic taste. However, some may come from the Restoration in the XIX Century. Throughout the cloister there are sculptures of biblical figures on pedestals and under canopies. The steps that lead to the upper cloister show Renaissance motifs, a half orange vault, masks, pilgrims’ badges, caissons, and examples of the work of Alonso de Covarrubias.

The chains hanging on the exterior walls of the church are especially noteworthy. They refer to the prisoners freed during the long Granada campaign and were hung in 1494, as a votive offering and a symbol of the triumph of Christian faith. They complete the planned decoration of the building well.

In the end, the monarchs changed their opinion after the conquest of Granada and their final resting place is in the new cathedral of that city.

The convent was practically destroyed during the War of Independence and was only rebuilt in part, the second cloister disappearing, in accordance with the historical criteria of the XIX Century, leaving no distinction between the old and the restored, the gargoyles of the cloister being the best example of this.

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