Santa María de Óvila: the medieval Spanish monastery rounded up by William Randolph Hearst | Culture


During the sale of the Monastery of Santa María de Óvila in Trillo, in the Spanish province of Guadalajara, the Count of Romanones looked away. The politician and entrepreneur of the turn of the 20th century was a powerful man – he was mayor of Madrid, president of both chambers of parliament and prime minister three times – but he did nothing to save the monument despite appeals historians and journalists. .

This is how the Cistercian monastery, located about 137 kilometers by road from Madrid, was dismantled in 1931 in preparation for its passage in the United States where the baron of the newspaper William Randolph Hearst, the man who inspired the film Orson Welles classic Citizen Kane, planned to incorporate it into his Wyntoon estate in northern California.

Built in 1175, only the foundations of the church and a Renaissance cloister remain, as well as large bare walls, inside which are stored agricultural machinery and all-terrain vehicles. But its heart – the chapter house, the refectory, the monks’ dormitories and its ornate portal – has been part of New Clairvaux Abbey, located 300 kilometers north of San Francisco, since 2008. It has been donated by the council. San Francisco municipal after being confined to crates on a San Francisco pier in 1941.

Historian José Miguel Lorenzo Arribas wrote Óvila (Guadalajara) 90 years after its sale, published by the Cervantes Institute. “This is why I am so strongly opposed to the Romanones,” he jokes.

The Church of the Convent of Santa María de Óvila, today incorporated into the Abbey of New Clairvaux (California).Abadía de New Clairvaux

The origins of the monastery lie in the desire of King Alfonso VIII of Castile to consolidate his power in the center of the peninsula after having taken it from the Moorish forces. In 1175 he ordered the construction of Santa María de Óvila in the current municipality of Trillo. Arribas describes the dismantled church as having the shape of a Latin cross with three apses. The interior featured ribbed vaults and was presided over by a richly decorated Mannerist-style portal. The cloister adjoining the church was covered with ribbed vaults with double arches.

This impressive monument was erected in a fertile valley on the banks of the Tagus, surrounded by dense forests. It was the cultural and economic center of the region until the 15th century, when civil wars caused a gradual exodus. In the 18th century, the monastery lost its entire library in a massive fire, although its final decline did not begin until 1835 with the Spanish confiscation, when the government seized and sold the property of the Catholic Church.

In 1928, the still needy Spanish state sold the monastery for 30,000 pesetas (€ 180,300) to Fernando Beloso, director of the Spanish Credit Bank, a major landowner in the Alcarria region. In 1931, he sold it for an unknown amount to media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Hearst’s intention was to reassemble it in his California mansion in Wyntoon along with other pieces he had acquired from around the world. But things didn’t go as planned, his plans changed, and centuries-old Spanish masonry ended up in a heap on a San Francisco pier where it suffered extensive vandalism.

Remains of the Convent of Santa María de Óvila in Trillo (Guadalaraja).
Remains of the Convent of Santa María de Óvila in Trillo (Guadalaraja).José Miguel Lorenzo

In 1932, historian Francisco Layna Serrano published The monastery of Óvila, in which he denounces what happened and describes how he tried to stop the sale. “I opposed the looting with anger, addressing a somewhat violent letter to the Count of Romanones, denouncing him and encouraging him to prevent the expatriation of the monastery of vila, as he was in the best position to prevent it and to demand a penalty for the selfish seller [meaning Beloso], because, in addition to being an arrogant politician of Alcarria, he was a minister, director of the Academy of San Fernando and author of a law defending the national artistic heritage. However, the Count of Romanones completely ignored it, according to José Miguel Lorenzo.

Lorenzo also recalls that Miguel España, journalist of the national newspaper ABC, is one of those who spoke out against the sale in 1931 in his article How an American takes the monastery of Santa María de Óvila to his country. “Each piece was carefully wrapped in a bundle and marked with a number and a letter, G or R, which should indicate whether it was Gothic or Romanesque, two predominant architectural styles,” wrote España.

To reach the old monastery, you had to cross the Tagus by boat. But Hearst improved access by opening a road with a wooden bridge and laying tracks for mining cars. The stone blocks were loaded onto trucks and transported to Madrid. They were then taken to the coast and shipped to the United States for storage in the Golden Gate Park warehouse in the Port of San Francisco. In 1941, the year Citizen Kane was freed, Hearst sold the dismantled monastery to the town for $ 25,000, and it remained on the pier until 2000.

That year, the Benedictine monks of New Clairvaux Abbey in California discovered her. Recognizing that it would be the perfect addition to their large monastic complex in Vina, they collected donations, and in 2013, with the advice of José Miguel Merino de Cáceres, professor of architectural history at the Polytechnic University of Madrid , they were able to resuscitate him.

Meanwhile, in Trillo, only a small road sign on a roundabout indicates the way to the remains of the monastery. Backed by a nuclear power station, it belongs to a private domain. A worn information panel near the walls of the monastery indicates that “only one year after this irreparable damage, on June 3, 1931, the government of the Republic declared the ruins of Óvila a national historic monument”. By then, of course, “the church, the refectory, the chapter house, the novice dormitory and part of the cloister” had disappeared.

The current owners do not allow public access to the site, saying, “We are not interested in talking about it. It is private property. “

english version by Heather galloway.

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