The town of Santa María boasts one of the most complete art historical ensembles, in the narrative relief sculptures that decorate capitals, friezes and archivolts. These carvings depict Spanish late medieval society in great detail. The narrative sequence is concentrated in the Dominican monastery and church, whose early fifteenth-century cloister and portal have been declared National Monuments.
Works on the church of Santa María la Real de Nieva commenced in 1393 and lasted seven years. The inhabitants of the recently founded town, as well as those of neighbouring towns, collaborated in the construction of the church, which was financed by the church and by the contributions of the faithful. In 1399, once completed, the church was entrusted to the Dominicans, and it seems that construction of the monastery began the following year. Between 1414 and 1432, the eastern end of the church was extended, when the original main apse and subsidiary apses were torn down. There are two reasons that might explain why it took eighteen years to finish this extension on the church: first, the death of Katherine of Lancaster, the church´s founder, with the patronage of the church passing to her son, John II of Castile, and his wife María, the daughter of Ferdinand of Antequera, King of Aragon; and second, the need to secure new donations, since the economic situation at that time was not good enough.
The church is a gothic building with three naves divided into four sections by transverse arches, with groined vaults resting on piers. The structure is consistent with contemporary gothic architecture in Castile.
The reconstruction of the apse between 1414 and 1432 led to the construction of a wide transept that crosses all three naves. The apse contains three chapels: the central chapel has a polygonal plan and groin vaulting, while the other two chapels have square plans and simple, four-part vaults. The ribs resting on brackets that jut out of the walls are reminiscent of Cistercian architecture.
The exterior of the apse is lithe and elegant, and stands out from the rest of the church. It is divided into three sections by two thick buttresses and mouldings that delimit the bays of the chancel and frame the windows.
Of note are the two side windows of the left square apse. One is topped by a round arch and lined with a rounded moulding, more indicative of Romanesque architecture than of the architectural style of the time at which the apse was constructed. That said, the capitals and the rest of the decoration are in keeping with the rest of the building. The materials, structure and decoration of the other window are clearly mudejar in influence, as are its alfiz and serrated brickwork.
The portal at the north end of the transept, like the cloister, has been declared a National Monument.
Lovers of art can admire the portal´s flamboyant gothic style and its narrative frieze, in reasonably good condition, depicting the Passion of Christ. The narrative includes a characteristic depiction of the Last Supper: the long table placed parallel to the wall, with Christ at the centre surrounded by the apostles. Other scenes include Christ Washing the Feet of his Disciples, Christ in the Garden of Olives, the Kiss of Judas, Christ before Pontius Pilate, and the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Likewise, the five archivolts decorated with a finely carved moulding that echoes the flared shape of the portal symbolize the Resurrection. The depictions follow the direction of the arch and fill the archivolt. In each of them, there is a depiction of a tomb from which diverse, and at times, even comical figures emerge: some of them try to remove the tombstone with a strong push the feet, others with their back. Some figures can be seen sitting inside, others are couples trying to get out together, etc.
The second archivolt includes sixteen female figures of saints and martyrs, framed between brackets and canopies. The third archivolt has a similar disposition, with fourteen male figures wearing the habit of the Dominican order; some are saints with their respective attributes, others are abbots and bishops carrying a mitre and crosier. Twelve archangels appear in the next archivolt and look towards the tympanum. All of them are on one knee, and carry torches and censers. The last archivolt is decorated with ten seraphims with their wings crossed over their bodies and only their legs visible.
This rich decoration frames the tympanum which depicts the Final Judgment. The enthroned Christ is flanked by the kneeling figures of the founding kings. Below them, and in very poor state, are depictions of Heaven, symbolised by the gates of Paradise guarded by Saint Peter, and Hell, with the jaws of the monster followed by the depiction of various punishments.
In addition, this church has had the good fortune to also serve as the mausoleum of one of Spain´s most important queens. Inside the church are the remains of Blanche de Navarre, who died in this town on April 1, 1441. It had always been believed that the queen had been buried in one of the church´s chapels. In her last will and testament, the queen requested that she be buried in Uxué (Navarra) and entrusted her daughter to take the remains to the Convent of San Francisco in Tafalla (Navarra). For some reason, however, these orders were never carried out. When works were done in the church in October of 1994, human remains were found which, after many anthropological studies carried out by Dr. José Manuel Reverte, were determined to be the remains of an important queen. The DNA tests done in several Spanish universities and compared with the remains of her son, the Prince of Viana, buried in Poblet, indicate otherwise. However, it is not sure that the remains in Poblet are those of the prince, due to the historical misfortunes that place has suffered since the Desamortización (or large scale selling off of State and Church property in Spain) in 1835. On 6 April 1997, in a simple official ceremony, the remains were newly placed in an urn with copies of the documents that certify to the identification of Blanche.
This important woman was queen of Sicily through her marriage at 17 to Martin I the Younger. At the death of her husband in 1409, her father-in-law, Martin I of Aragon, named her regent of Sicily, and at his death, she was named queen by his heir, Fernando of Antequera, who had been named king of Aragon by the Pact of Caspe. Also, since she was the daughter of King Charles III of Navarre, at his death she was once again proclaimed queen, this time of the kingdom of Navarre. In 1420, she married John II of Castile, who would become king of Aragon, and of that union was born Charles, Prince of Viana and heir to the throne of Navarre. When she died in Santa María la Real, John II refused to recognize his son as king. He remarried, this time to Juana Enríquez, and in 1458 inherited the throne of Aragon at the death of his brother Alfonso V the Magnanimous. From this second union was born Ferdinand the Catholic, who through his marriage to Isabella, united Aragon and Castile.
The inhabitants of Santa María ought to be proud to have kept the remains Blanche de Navarre, one of the most important queens of Spain.
The cloister of the monastery of Santa María de Nieva is located along the south wall of the church. Nowadays, a door located in the first section of the right side nave, behind the transept, communicates the two.
The cloister has a square plan, with four covered passages and a garden in the centre. The double columns that support the arches stand on a high base. The columns are not made from a single slab; the shafts are made of five drums that were carved to look as if they were joined by an angled bevel. The columns end in capitals that are decorated with very different subjects. In the garden area, there are thirteen buttresses that divide the arches into sections of three, four or five arches. In the southeast corner, the base is interrupted, so that six arches, three on either side, open up to the garden. The four corridors are covered by flat wooden ceilings.
The most beautiful aspect of the cloister are the capitals. They illustrate for us the spirit and the new desire to live that is characteristic of Spanish society at the beginning of the fifteenth century. While the many references to vices, temptation and sin point to the Romanesque, there are also references to a new naturalist spirit, full of life and love of nature, that will allow daily life in the town, with its times of work and leisure, and its different social strata (simple folk, nobility and clergy), to open up, and as the capitals demonstrate, be in harmony with the older Romanesque world.
Whereas the Benedictine and Cistercian cloisters of the ninth through the thirteenth centuries normally were cut off from the lay public, in Santa María de Nieva the cloister was open to all who wished to attend the ceremonies celebrated there, thanks to the new concept of faith encouraged by the mendicant orders, especially the Dominicans and Franciscans. This must be taken into account in order to understand how this part of a monastery, where liturgical offices were held, acquired certain profane qualities, with its access to the inhabitants of the town.
For this reason, in the capitals we can see the common class, made up mainly of peasants and their daily activities, and the nobility, likewise represented by its twin activities of war and leisure, and finally, the church and clergy, engaged in preaching and liturgical ceremonies, and participating actively in the life of the town.
The daily life of the inhabitants of Santa María la Real de Nieva was conceived in terms of their activities which, because they were in large part agricultural, were closely related to the passage of the seasons and months. These themes were not new to medieval art, in Santa María la Real de Nieva they are represented differently from other calendrical cycles with agricultural themes, since they illustrate things that are proper to the region. The periods during which certain chores are carried out varies from region to region depending on climate, as do the tools, dress and customs.
The capitals of the cloister follow the agricultural cycle of Castile. Work begins in March, represented by a figure with a pruning knife next to a bush, identified as a vine for its leaves and fruit. Next to him, and on the same side of the capital, the joyful season of spring is represented by a young, well-dressed man on horseback holding flowers in one hand and the reins in the other, symbolizing the month of April.
The months of May and June, also present on the same side of the capital, are represented by a man on horseback holding a bird with wings spread in his left hand; this is clearly a reference to falconry. Next to him there is a man dressed in a smock gathered at the waist, holding a long sythe in his hand with which he reaps ripe corn.
For July and August, we see two peasants, one with a long-eared hat who bends over and with his sickle reaps wheat, while next to him, the other peasant shells the wheat gathered in sheaths that collect at his feet.
September is depicted in a single scene of a peasant ploughing in a Roman type of plough pulled by a pair of beautifully drawn oxen. He has left his hat off, showing us his well-groomed hair, and he wears a short tunic that appears to be made of a thick fabric, as if to suggest the budding chill of the fields of Segovia during this particular month.
October also occupies the whole face of a capital. The peasant has a wineskin strapped to his shoulder and stands on a stool to throw grapes into a wooden barrel; it is the month of the grape harvest and of young wines.
A much worn figure, standing with both arms raised and a mallet in his hand, is about to lay a strong blow to the head of an animal. It is the month of November, the month in which the slaughter takes place, and next to him is December, represented by a large table covered with a checkered cloth and set with plates and food, and a male figure seated behind the table, in a reference to the feasts of the Christmas season.
The month of January is depicted in a scene around a fire that heats a cauldron hanging from a hook inside a home. Two heavily dressed female figures, one seated next to the fire and the other, standing on the other side, prepare to roast a piece on a large skewer. This scene can be interpreted as that of an old woman, who is seated and symbolizes the old year, and across from her, a young woman who symbolizes the new year that is just starting.
The agricultural calendar of Santa María la Real de Nieva ends with the month of February, in a scene that refers to the work of craftsmen, and more specifically, to the job of cobbler. He sits in his workshop, and sews a shoe that he holds between his knees; behind him, two other pairs of shoes are waiting to be repaired.
The nobility, or second social stratum, is also reflected on the capitals. The life of the nobleman is also represented in a cycle of warfare activities that begins with the gathering and departure of the army and leading up to the battles that are initiated during summer and generally are the end of him; and the nobleman´s leisure time, split between his palace duties and leisurely pursuits.
The war and military cycle can be seen on several capitals. In a Christian territory with a long history of war against Islam, the figure of the Moor as the enemy of society and religion would not go missing. So, one sees the figure of a knight dressed in armour and helmet and holding his lance at the ready and pointing at the Moor who is trying to escape. The Moor looks back and raises his right arm to plead clemency. It is interesting to see how the artist took pains to describe the trappings worn by the horse, and the knight´s armour. The other face of the capital depicts the knight showing clemency to the Moor and taking him prisoner to the castle. In the castle, one can appreciate the fine work of the artist, with its merlons and its entrance framed by a pointed arch leading to the interior of the building.
The leisure activities are illustrated by hunting scenes, including bear, wild boar and wolf hunts, and also falconry, which may be the most elegant form of hunting practiced by medieval society, and described in various treatises (photos 33 and 34). The scene shows the nobleman galloping behind the bear and the moment at which the animal turns around and the knight stabs his weapon into the bear´s neck. The artist transmits the tension of the combat. On the next face, the bear is slung over a donkey walking slowly. The art of falconry, practiced throughout Castile, is also depicted in the cloister: the nobleman has stopped his horse next to a tree and is about to release the falcon, whose head is covered by a hood. This scene captures the uncertainty of the moment at which the falcon is about to attack the bird sitting amongst the branches of the tree (photo 36). The nobleman´s hunting and falconry can be understood as a kind of physical exercise or preparation for the combat he shall face in warfare.
The third social stratum represented in the cloister is the Church, and the themes depicted on the capitals include the life, works and occupations of the monks.
One of the capitals that is particularly notable is the one that depicts the building of the monastery itself. In it, one sees a worker on a scaffold who is about to grab a rope to which is attached a load of bricks that a monk is lifting towards him on a derrick to the right side. In the background, one can see arches that are similar to the arches of the cloister. There are more capitals of this type, which demonstrates that the monks were involved in both the construction of the monastery and the narration of the events in the relief sculptures.
Once the “monastery-house” was built, the various activities carried out there are also illustrated. One of the main activities in the church is the liturgical offices and chants. One of the capitals shows a monk playing an organ, while on the reverse side, another monk is depicted pumping the air he needs through large bellows. On the side, a third monk follows the chant by pointing to the lines of a book he holds in his hands. The classes the novices received are also depicted: the teacher is seated at a high pulpit, and the novices are seated around him in a circle, with books in their hands, and in the centre, a student stands to engage the teacher in debate.
Preaching is also depicted in the cloister. A priest delivers his homily from a pulpit to a seated group of people who listen to him attentively. The scene may have a double reading: aside from simply illustrating the act of preaching, the carving may be referring specifically to the fact that in 1402, when the monastery was under construction, Saint Vincent Ferrer was preaching in Santa María. It is also true that for the Dominicans, preaching is the seed that is sown amongst men. The Word is the seed from which the plant will grow and give its fruit. This is why a number of the capitals have figures that symbolize preaching, with shoots coming out of their open mouths and extending along the surface of the carving.
Likewise, several of the ogee arches there are feature small heads of can¸ or dogs, which is also a reference to the Dominican Order, since the Dominicans saw themselves as the “the Lord´s dogs” (Canes Domini.) Another very expressive capital is the one showing a peasant woman carrying a basket in her right arm, and with her left arm, leads a goat on a rope. A monk leans over to grab the basket by the handle, in a somewhat realistic gesture. The carving illustrates the town´s obligation to contribute to the needs of the monastery. The capitals also illustrate scenes of the spiritual combat between Good and Evil, and scenes from the Old and New Testaments; there are also scenes that illustrate the Catholic Church´s primary mission to catechize. There is even a depiction of the shepherd Pedro Amador (Adam and Eve, the Flight to Egypt, fantastic beasts, etc.)
At the highest level of medieval society was the King. In the cloister of Santa María la Real de Nieva, a royal institution, heraldic devices pay tribute to him. The coat of arms of Henry III of Castile, sustained by two angels, is also quartered arms of Castile. The coat-of-arms of Katherine of Lancaster has a parted shield, quartered on the right with the arms of Castile and Leon, and on the left with her arms, 1 and 4 lion passant and 2 and 3 fleur-de-lys. Her arms are sustained by two kneeling Dominican monks, indicating that when the arms were placed there, the queen was already deceased, as was the king. The arms of their successors, John II of Castile and his wife Maria of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand of Antequera, king of Aragon, are also present. Their arms are sustained by standing angels, to signify that these monarchs were still living when the arms were placed there. The arms of John II are the same as his father´s. The arms of Maria of Aragon has a parted shield, the right side quartered with the arms of Castile and Leon, and the left with the bars of Aragon.
Undoubtedly, this monument is unique. Both the portal of the church and the cloister were declared National Monuments by Royal Order, 19 June 1920, of the Ministry of Public Instruction and Fine arts. The historic Monastery is protected by the State, and the Comisión Provincial de Monumentos of Segovia is responsible for its inspection and custody and safe-keeping.