The Monastery of Santa Maria de Sandoval was an interesting church outside Leon which had caught my attention. But we needed a car to visit the Monastery!
The car had shown ominous messages as we drove to Leon. A very efficient garage sorted out the problem after four days and we had our wheels back! The garage looked more like a 5-star hotel than a garage. Even the workshop, which was open to the public, was gleamingly spotless – extraordinary. The coffee was good, the biscuits were excellent, and the magazines were current… Anyway, comparisons over the the bill paid and we set off.
The History of Santa Maria de Sandoval
The Monastery of Santa Maria de Sandoval was established in 1167 on a branch of the Camino de Santiago. It is situated outside Mansilla de los Mulas, near the Porma and Esla Rivers. Pedro Ponce de Minerva was a wealthy man and he donated the land for a Cistercian Monastery on the site. The Monastery was active from 1171-1835 when many of the monasteries and convents were closed down by the state. From this time the building starting disintegrating. The importance of the site has now been recognised and restoration is under way. The church continues as a local parish church.
The Monastery today
There are two cloisters and I believe this is to accommodate two separate communities in the monastery: the lay brothers and the monks. The second, very large cloister and its surrounding buildings is in ruins, with only the outline of the buildings in place. The second cloister lies on the outside of the site. As far as I could see it is not attached to the church.
The first cloister is attached to the church and is slowly being restored, together with the chapter house, refectory, and library.
Inside the Church
After walking around the ruined cloisters and peering into ruined kitchens, dorters, and library the interior of the church is startling. It is a vast space, very calm, and in quite good repair. I wanted to take better photographs but as usual tripods are forbidden. So I did the best I could with the camera handheld in a short amount of time. The interior is very high and was difficult to give a sense of the space. Although ‘straight verticals’ are perhaps desirable in general, in this space they are unhelpful.
Decoration in the Monastery
The Cistercians did not believe in decorative architecture which they believed would distract from reflection and thought – thinking of some of the lewd sculptures in Breton churches they are probably correct! Because of these principles the pillars in the church have only very simple carvings (and builders’ marks!). Other works of art have probably been long-removed from the building and only these two pieces remain: a very beautiful ‘Descent from the Cross’, carving from a flat piece of wood, and a figure which at the back is hollow. The carved altarpiece in a small Chapel is also very subdued and uncomplicated.
This is an extraordinary site, in the middle of the countryside and isolated in accord with Cistercian principles. Restoration work is very expensive and progress is slow. Our young guide was very helpful and knowledgeable, but in a short visit of perhaps 1.5 hours one only begins to understand the history of the site. Do visit Santa Maria de Sandoval if you are in the area.