Santa María la Real of Nájera

The exterior of Santa María la Real shows characteristics of a fortified building

Santa María la Real is a monastery in the small town of Nájera in the La Rioja community, Spain. Originally a royal foundation, it was ceded by Alfonso VI to the Cluniac order. It was an important pilgrimage stop on the Camino de Santiago. It is particularly well known for the woodwork in the choir of the church.


The first construction on the site dates back to the 11th century. Santa Maria la Real and the attached royal pantheon were founded by King García Sánchez III of Navarre in 1052. It was later elevated to an episcopal see and placed under Papal authority.

In 1076 the kingdom of Navarre passed into the hands of Alfonso VI of León and Castile. The Mozarabic Rite (sometimes called the Isidorean or Spanish Rite) was replaced with the Latin Rite. The Missal of Silos, a Mozarabic missal which is the oldest known Western manuscript on paper, was created in the monastery in the 11th century.[1]

Cluniac Order

In 1079, the see was transferred to Calahorra, which had been the seat of a bishopric before the Muslim Conquest. Alfonso gave St María la Real to the Cluniac order and it became one of only two important Cluniac centres South of the Pyrenees. As a center of Cluniac power, the monastery is associated with the introduction of the Cluniac reform to Castile. It appears that this helped Alfonso assert his control over Riojan territory.

In 1142, the Abbot of Cluny Peter the Venerable visited the monastery.[2] While in Spain, he met with translators from the Arabic language and commissioned the first translation into a European language of the Qur'an.

The monastery remained in Cluniac hands until the 15th century, when it was established through Papal mandate as an independent abbacy under Rodrigo Borgia (later Pope Alexander VI), at which time it underwent a major reconstruction.

Later history of monastery

As the popularity of the Camino de Santiago waned, so did the fortunes of the monastery, which depended on the wealth generated by traffic of pilgrims. The monastery fell into a long decay. In the nineteenth century it suffered under the Napoleonic occupation of Spain and subsequent anti-monastic legislation under Juan Álvarez Mendizábal before being declared a national monument in 1889.[3] The fortunes of the monastery further revived with the arrival of Franciscans at the end of the 19th century.

Art & Architecture

The current structure dates back principally to the 15th and 16th centuries, during which period the monastery was largely rebuilt in the prevailing gothic style. The high walls of the church indicate a defensive function.


The most notable features of the interior of the church are the choir and the royal Pantheon of the kings of Navarre and later Castile and Leon.

More than 30 royal family members are buried in the pantheon including Sancho II of Pamplona. The most famous tomb is that of Blanca of Navarre, wife of Sancho III of Castile, whose decorated sarcophagus is a remarkable for its frieze depicting a parade of mourners.[4]

The ornate wood carvings of the choir stalls and misericords are exemplary of late medieval gothic style. The woodwork dates from shortly after the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1495. A recurring motif in the stalls is the intertwined letters 'F' and 'I' (for Ferdinand and Isabella, King and Queen of Castile). These are latticed together in the form of a heart, from which a drop of blood is spilt. This has given rise to the suspicion that the craftsmen may have been Marranos or Crypto-Jews, and the cleverly concealed image is a symbol depicting the broken heart of Spain.


The cloister, completed in 1528, is known as the Claustro de los Caballeros (Cloister of the Knights), so called because of the concentration of Riojan aristocracy that are buried there, including Diego López de Haro. It is highly ornamental in the plateresque style.

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