The Monastery of San Esteban in Salamanca1 is a remarkable Dominican monastery just outside the walls, and down the road from the Cathedrals.
A brief history
St Dominic de Guzman, a Spanish Canon, founded The Dominicans2 in France in 1215, and the new order was approved by the Pope a year later. The University of Salamanca was founded in 1218 and it is suggested St Dominic wanted a monastery established in the town. The order was a teaching order and he planned it should be associated with universities.
The Dominicans settled in Salamanca shortly afterwards in a primitive building outside the city walls and near the River Tormes. A flood destroyed the monastery in mid-century and the Bishop of Salamanca gave them the small Romanesque church of San Esteban which the monks rebuilt. The present monastery dates from the 16th century and replaced an earlier, more primitive monastery on the same site. Juan de Alava (1480-1537) designed the monastery in a mix of styles but it is particularly known for the Plateresque west facade.
The Monastery has always been associated with the study and teaching of theology. In the 14th century theology was introduced into the university and two of the four chairs were held by the monks of San Esteban.
During the Peninsular War the French occupied the monastery and plundered all the valuable items. Then, in the 1830s, the monastery was closed down under Mendizabal’s legislation and fell into disrepair. It took another century before the monastery was re-established, smaller, but with a return to status and teaching activities.
The west facade is covered in elaborate Plateresque decoration. This is a form of decoration on buildings which was influenced by the Moors and based on their filigree silverware practised in Andalucia in particular. It was found at a time when architecture was changing from the Gothic to the Renaissance.
In Spain these two styles were influenced by Flemish Gothic architecture and the Renaissance movement in Italy. Charles V, who retired to the Monastery of Yuste, was the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of Spain, and as such Spain had contact, trade and control in vast swathes of Europe, particularly up to the end of the 16th century. The monastery of San Esteban shows all these styles.
Outside the Monastery of San Esteban
Next to the west facade is part of the Monastery, in Renaissance style and very plain by comparison with the facade. Behind this is one of the private cloisters used by the monks.
Behind the west facade is an attractive small area which looks as though it might have been a cloister. And from here there is a dramatic view of the apse of the church.
The building on the right is somehow connected to the bishopric in Salamanca, and the church beyond is Romanesque, dedicated to St Thomas a Becket. And beyond there is another interesting building… I need to return.
Cloister de los Reyes
There are three cloisters in the monastery: the Cloister of the Kings, which is open to the public, and two more which are used by the monks, and are closed. This cloister was the work of Friar Martin de Santiago, a religious in the monastery. The result is a space which is elegant, peaceful, and dignified.
In the lower Cloister of the Kings is a small confessional which is said to have been used by St Teresa. She had a close relationship with Dominicans throughout her life, apparently, and used Dominican monasteries for confession on her travels.
Inside the church
The altarpiece is by Jose de Churriguera, one of his first creations, and it is spectacularly ornate.
Looking up – the exquisite vaulted and ribbed ceiling…
The choir is at the back of the church, and high above the nave. At the back is a fresco (1705) by Antonio Palomino which is an allegory about the victory of the church.
The Monastery of San Esteban in Salamanca is strikingly dignified, and perhaps because it was outside the walls and away from the obvious tourist route, it was also quite quiet.
- Monastery of San Esteban in Salamanca: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convento_de_San_Esteban,_Salamanca ↩︎
- Dominicans and San Esteban: http://www.saintstephenspriory.com/history ↩︎