Located in the north-eastern region of the Iberian Peninsula in southern Catalonia, Poblet Abbey is one of the world’s largest and most complete Cistercian abbeys.
The Monastery of Santa Maria de Poblet was founded in 1151 by Cistercian monks who had moved to the area from France following the recapture of what is now Spain from the Moors. The monastery developed around a church which was begun in the 12th century and completed in the 13th. Most of the abbey’s construction took place in the 12th and 13th centuries, although building continued to be done on the site through the 15th century.
The abbey includes a fortified royal residence, as well as a pantheon of the kings and queens of Catalonia and Aragon. This pantheon consists of several royal tombs where the Kings of Aragon are buried, the first being James I in 1276. Peter IV and three of his wives are also buried there. The only exception to Aragon burials was that of Ferdinand I, who was the son of King John I of Castile but was named King of Aragon after the death of his maternal uncle, King Martin I of Aragon. The royal tombs, which include eight kings and six queens, are located on both sides of the nave, north and south of the transept. Many of the tombs have alabaster effigies above them, with lions placed at the feet of the kings and dogs at the feet of the queens.
The abbey complex displays several architectural styles including Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque. It consists of three enclosed areas surrounded by a crenulated defensive wall. This wall was constructed by Peter IV, King of Aragon, from 1336 – 1387. He also constructed a series of square or polygonal towers within the fortifications thus converting the monastery into a military stronghold.
Access to the complex is through The Porta Prades (Prades Gate). The Chapel of St. George was built in 1452, during the reign of King Alfonso the Magnanimous, to celebrate his victory in Naples in 1442. The Gothic chapel is located on the right beside the Porta Daurada, the fortified Golden Door, which provides access to the middle enclosure which is called the Plaza Mayor. This is the main square, around which stand the remains of the abbey’s hospital for the poor. The Romanesque Chapel of St. Catherine, which was built in the 13th century, is located here. In the middle of Plaza Mayor stands a stone cross which was erected in the 16th century. The innermost enclosure is fortified and includes the church, cloister and monastic rooms.
In the 16th century, the outer enclosure, which includes storehouses, workshops, housing for its workers and other buildings needed for the management of the community was constructed.
In 1835, the abbey was confiscated by Queen Isabel II, resulting in its abandonment and subsequent pillage, when all the valuable paintings and furniture were removed. Shortly after this, parts of the complex were destroyed by fire. The deterioration continued until 1849 when the Commission for Historic and Artistic Monuments intervened. In 1921 Poblet Monastery was declared a national monument which led to a programme of reconstruction beginning in 1930.
Monastic life returned to the abbey in 1940 resulting in much more restoration being carried out, including the church, refectory, cloister and chapterhouse, the latter being where the elections of abbots were held.
In the church can be found the High Altar and the Renaissance alabaster retable produced by the Spanish artist Damià Forment, depicting the Madonna and Child. In addition, the guesthouse and other monastic buildings were reinstated, returning the monastery to its state prior to the confiscations of ecclesiastical property.
The complex, having been restored to its former beauty, is open to the public, and visitors can see the cloisters, the chapterhouse, the dormitory (part of which is still used by the thirty monks who live at the site) and the library. Not to be missed is the dining hall with its large arched windows, wooden pews and tables, and beautifully polished wooden floor. Of course, a must to be seen is the abbey church and its royal tombs.
In 1991 Poblet Monastery was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.