The Frescoes from the Monastery in Sigena in the Art Museum in Barcelona

Monastery of Santa María de Sigena

Nearly destroyed in 1936 during the Civil War, the fragile murals now in Museu de Art in Barcelona are requested by Aragon to be returned to Santa María de Sigena

Sigena after the destruction 1936
Sigena after the destruction 1936. Photo by Guidol

These irreparable losses culminated at Sigena [in 1936]. The famous Aragonese monastery, the royal mausoleum of Aragon, was a mountain of burned ruins. The patio doors, open wide, revealed the magnificent Romanesque portal with its arches blackened and its doors ripped off. Both the choir of the church, as well as the altars were all consumed by fire or reduced to splinters. The half mummified bodies of the convent’s founders, Lady Sancha of Aragon and her daughter Dulce appeared in the choir, surrounded by the bones of the Knights of Muret. By amiracle, the fire had spared the wooden polychrome coffins that contained the bodies of some noble abbesses of the 15thcentury, whose skeletons appeared among the tombstones of the church. Almost not stopping to examine all of this destruction, I ran across the ruins of the old cloister towards the famous 13th-century chapter room. I couldn’t contain my tears in front of the ashes of one of the best monuments in the world. The very beautiful Arab artesonado that had covered the room’s ceiling was reduced to a coating of ashes, covered by the fragments of scattered roof tiles. The arches, previously brilliant with polychromy, were now a gray and black ruin that stood out against the sky. The fire had transformed the marvelous compositions, which only a few months before had seemed recently completed, into almost invisible monochromatic figures. The greater part of them had disappeared with the collapse of the plaster, leavingthe stone walls denuded and blackened. After the shock I felt seeing Santa Maria del Mar [in Barcelona] burned, this ruin of Sigena was my greatest memory of these three years of destruction [1]

When Josep Gudiol I Ricart, a famous art-historian returned from Southern France to Barcelona in July 1936 he was met by a horrendous sight. The revolution had just begun and some of the first targets were the physical churches, regarded as symbols of a millennium of exploitation by the ruling classes. The story Gudiol tells about the terrible destruction waged on historical monuments and art collections belongs to one of the many sad chapters in the bloody Spanish civil war (some of it on par with the horrendous destruction in present Syria).

One of the worst acts of pillage and destruction waged on these ancient stones took place – as he writes – deep in the inhospitable desert-like landscape, the Monegros in Northern Spain in the Villanueva de Sigena.

Sancha of León-Castilla

Sancha and Alfonso II of Léon-Castille
Sancha and Alfonso II of Léon-Castille. From: Liber feudorum maior. Source: Wikipedia

Here, in an arid and hostile environment lies the Royal Monastery of Santa María de Sigena founded by the Queen of Aragon, Sancha of Castile (1154 – 1208). By all accounts she was a formidable woman; highly visible in the royal archives, she personally supported several religious orders, the Cistercians and the Hospitallers. In her afterlife, she was known as a very pious woman.

She is best known for her lifelong effort invested in the construction of her Romanesque monastery at Sigena. She not only took an active part in its founding, but also as functioned as the de facto leader, when she moved there in her widowhood after having acted as regent for her son, the future Pedro II. It is obvious the monastery was intended to house daughters of the Aragon royal and noble houses as well as function as an educational institution. Later it was turned in the royal necropolis for Sancha, her daughter and her son, the future king Pedro II.

Royal Toombs in the Monastery of Sigena © José Luis Cerdán
Royal Toombs in the Monastery of Sigena © José Luis Cerdán

One of the intriguing facts about this institution was its peculiar set of rules. Written by the bishop of Huesco in 1183, they stipulated that the monastery – which belonged to the order of the Hospitallers – was intended to house both sisters and brothers with the sisters in charge. Thus the men referred to the prioress, who in her turn – as long as Sancha lived – referred to her.

There is no doubt, the combination of monarchical interests and this distinct rule secured a future history of the monastery marked by controversies and infighting; then as now, men seldom accept women in powerful positions. Probably it was also this royal connection which tempted the revolutionaries to the massive plundering and arson, which took place in 1936.

Monastery of Santa María de Sigena

Monastery of Sigean in Landscape © Juan Manuel Opa
Monastery of Sigean in Landscape © Juan Manuel Opa

Looking at the monastery as it stands today it is obvious that it was never particularly “modern-looking”. More Romanesque than early Cistercian Gothic, it looked and felt much more conservative and austere than fashion dictated in the beginning of the 13th century. It is believable that the complex more than anything was intended to signal the “ancient” heritage of the kingdom of Aragón. For this purpose the more modern Cistercian aesthetic seems to have been actively discarded. Instead massive ashlar came to dominate, reminiscent of the fortresses from the same time. This was a church and monastery built in a decidedly regal style intended to ooze power.

Probably this royal programme was also behind the chosen topic for the famous frescoes painted on the arches and vaults of the chapter house. This was a wide room surmounted by a series of wide arches. Carried out by the best English artists and using precious materials like gold and lapis lazuli, the walls and spandrels depicted scenes from the Old and New Testament; the undersides of the arches displayed 70-80 portraits of the ancestors of Jesus starting with Abraham; foliage, plants and animals surrounded all this. The motive of genealogy was probably intended to emphasize the monastery as the final resting place for Sancha and her descendants. It has been argued that the spatial union of the austere royal pantheon, the royal archives and the treasury holding the royal insignia was no coincidence.

It is generally believed that that murals were painted by English artists who also worked on the Guardian Angels Chapel in Winchester Cathedral, the chapel of St. Anselm in Canterbury Cathedral and on mosaics in Norman-ruled Sicily in the mid-12th century. Thus, the same stylistic peculiarities have been detected in the frescoes at Sigena as well as in the Winchester Bible from c. 1180 and the Eadwine Psalter (c. 1155 – 60).

As such, the murals in Sigena witness to a European-wide royal and religious aesthetic carried from place to place by itinerant artists. Especially, though, they witness to the enduring personal relationships connecting the Castilian, Aragonese, Aquitanian and English royal families. Of special importance was the impact of Hospitallers and Templars functioning as royal emissaries.


New Museum in Sigena © josé Luis Cerdán
New Museum in Sigena © josé Luis Cerdán

After WW2 the monastery lay in ruins. Then, in order to save what was left, the paintings were transferred to canvas in 1960 and sent to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. Here they were conserved, ultimately finding permanent placement affixed to arches and vaults designed to replicate the convent chapter house’s structure.

Meanwhile, the monastery underwent restoration. In 1974 the cloister was rebuilt and in the period leading up to 2009, other rebuilding took place including the construction of a new museum intended to house the restored frescoes, which were on “Permanent loan from the community of nuns of the Order of Saint John of the monastery of Santa Maria de Sigena, 1960” at the Museum in Barcelona. Now followed a formal request by the Aragon government to Catalonia to have the frescoes’ repatriated. This was ultimately made possible by the shifting inmates in the monastery.

Until the early 1970s the nuns of St. John of Jerusalem continued to inhabit Sigena until they abandoned the place, which was taken over by first some Cistercians , and later another group of nuns, the Sisters of Bethlehem and the Assumption of the Virgin and St. Bruno. They settled in the Monastery after 1986 with the intention to live isolated from the world and to worship the Holy Trinity with the Virgin day and night, while the Order of St. John formally continued to own the Monastery. At this point the government in Aragon became interested in using the place for a museum; but the Order of St. John could not just hand over the monastery without getting permission from the Vatican. Finally, In 2013, the government was able to lay its hands on the keys and soon after followed a formal request to have the frescoes returned from Catalonia. As the museum in Barcelona continued to stall Aaragon took the matter to the courts. This summer a verdict was passed ordering the Catalans to cough up.

So far this has resulted in a return of 53 pieces of art from MNAC, while another 44 items presently in the Museum in Lleida are still kept there, as this Museum has sued the Johanniter-nuns and wish to take the case to the supreme court. These items were acquired by sale when  the original nuns apparently sold the artefacts when they moved in the beginning of the 70’s after; following this the museum spent large sums on restoration and as a minimum they wish to recover this expense. Complicating matters is the fact that this sale probably was illegal as the artefacts at that time belonged to the Monastery and not the nuns, who moved to Barcelona.

However, during all this, MNAC has repeatedly declined to hand over the real jewel in the crown: the frescos.

Finally, this November 2016, the court in Huesca has ordered MNAC – the National Museum of Art of Catalonia – to return the frescoes as soon as possible. The magistrate further ordered to communicate the time period and procedure for the return inside 20 days. At the same time, the Government in Aragon have been requested to advance confirmation of the climatic conditions in the chapter house to the judge in order to determine if it is responsible to preserve the frescoes in their new – old – home. Legal argument is that the frescoes represent an integrated part of the building. Thus, they should be returned as soon as possible, pending the solution to the issues concerning future preservation.

Horror at MNAC

Museums pieces being returned to the Monastery of Sigena
Museums pieces being returned to the Monastery of Sigena

During these proceedings the technicians and curators from MNAC has argued that the frescoes are so fragile that any handling and transportation would likely end in more irreparable damage. According to El Mundo, the spokesperson for the Catalan government, Neus Munté, has described the affair as “nonsense” and promised that all legal avenues will be explored, as the paintings according to experts are likely to suffer if repatriated. The Catalan minister of culture has further announced a full enquiery into the technical questions concerning a potential transfer.

It seems likely, though, that the uproar at MNAC also cover over some further anxiety. MNAC is internationally renowned for its exquisite collection of Romanesque art – frescoes, retables, reredos, liturgical vessels, reliquaries etc. Much of this was acquired by the Museum in the early parts of the 20th century, when local churches in Northern Spain and Southern France were selling everything from cloisters to murals to the American collectors; thus a large part of the collections in the Met stem from this shopping spree. Simply, this American interest led a group of dedicated art-historians to form a rescue mission into the Pyrenees. The result was that MNAC today is known to house one of the most important collections of medieval art, not least frescoes.

Flipping the coin, however, this collecting frenzy unfortunately led to a situation whereby it is no longer easy to see and admire Romanesque frescoes on location in the churches in the Pyrenees. Even though fine pieces may be found in the local museums, for instance in Girona, Barcelona is the best place to go. However, this state of affairs is challenged at a time, when the dream of any official – whether at the local, regional or governmental level – is to find ways to grow the sector of cultural tourism; now, the fight is on to have one’s treasures “repatriated” from other museums. This is the rationale behind the request to have the frescoes from Segina returned; but it is probably also behind a number of other requests of which we know nothing. It is also likely that some of these requests concern pieces of art which were looted during the Civil War and WW2. In this case, international law makes it easier to argue for a “repatriation”; especially when it is about having the pieces of art returned to local museums bent on getting on the tourist map.

One thing is sure, though: next meeting will be in the supreme court in Mdrid. Meanwhile, no one knows what will happen to the nuns, who for along time fought to keep visitors out…


[1] From:  Josep Gudiol I Ricart’s Account of rescuing artworks during the Spanish Civil War. English translation by Judith Berg Sobré


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Paintings from the Chapter House in Sigena

Identidad y Patrimonio – el monasterio de Sigena


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ISBN 9788493973544

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By Eileen Patricia McKiernan González
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