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Flying Visit to Montserrat I: Santa Cecília

There was a time, just a few years ago, when one could, if one wanted, hop on an aeroplane from the north of England to Barcelona at only a few days’ notice for somewhat less money than it cost to take a train to London at the same notice. COP26 is a good reminder that probably that ought never to have been the case, but it did mean that when, almost immediately after the Rethinking the Medieval Frontier conference I’ve just recounted, I got a mail from a long-term collaborator in the USA whom I’d never actually met, saying basically, ‘I’m in Montserrat next week; could you pop over?’, I did not straight away say, ‘no, it’s two countries away, what are you thinking?’ as I might so easily have done. A moment’s reflection on the fact that I might never have another chance to meet him, in fact, soon had me replying saying, ‘yes, I actually can, I will’. And I did, and flew into Barcelona, met my collaborator there, and he drove us to Monistrol, which sits just below the mountain of Montserrat…1

View of Montserrat from Monistrol in heavy mist, April 2018

"You never see it like this," said my companion in awe as we turned the corner into this view, and not without reason

… and forms the most normal settlement in the remarkable and sacralised landscape of this mountain sanctuary which the blog has visited before, and probably will again. We had dinner there and talked a lot and set up to meet again next day.

The nunnery of Sant de Bages de Montserrat, seen from Monistrol

Nuns watching over us, figuratively speaking, from Sant Benet de Bages de Montserrat, a dedication itself fairly suffused in history

My itinerary would make for a confused photo post, as I did some wandering around Monistrol either side of the trip recounted here, but the day after arrival my collaborator was moving on, so he drove me up to the old church of Santa Cecília and after a short photo-op there we parted ways, leaving me to explore by myself.

Jonathan Jarrett and Wolfgang Chmielewski at Santa Cecília de Montserrat, April 2018

The collaborators in collaboration! I lost this rather good coat on a subsequent flight and am apparently still annoyed about it years later

Now, the reason I wanted to visit Santa Cecília, even though nowadays all the action is further up the hill at Santa Maria, is because Santa Cecília is where it all began. I’ve written here before about the somewhat peculiar Cesari, who turned up in Barcelona in the 940s with some fellow religious men from al-Andalus and petitioned the countess to let them start a kind of college for visionaries in the wilderness; this is what they built.2

Santa Cecília de Montserrat, seen from the road

Santa Cecília de Montserrat, seen from the road

Well, this is not what they built, this is where they built it; what you’re looking at here is pretty unapologetically Romanesque. Admittedly, if you have any sensitivity to such things, you may mainly be looking at the view rather than the church…

View westwards from Santa Cecília de Montserrat

The morning cleared a little while I was there; this was taken pointing westwards early on…

View north-eastwards from Santa Cecília de Montserrat

… and this north-eastwards, more or less, a minute later…

View north-westwards from Santa Cecília de Montserrat

… but this was north-westwards only half an hour later…

View north-eastwards from Santa Cecília de Montserrat

… and this north-eastwards again a minute before that

But they really did start a monastery here, and one of the first things you see when you step inside is the inscription from their very first church, which is still preserved here.3

The foundaional inscription of Santa Cecília de Montserrat, on display in the current building

The foundational inscription stone on display in the building

Interestingly, it was a reused piece of stone, which already had an inscription on the other side, the other way up.

Reverse of the foundational inscription stone at Santa Cecília de Montserrat

Reverse of the stone

On inspection it turns out that this re-use was very recent: the inscription on the reverse is a first go at the one on the obverse, abandoned after mistakes. A bad day for that carver! Even if there’s no more of its predecessor left, though, the church is interesting as a very good example of a tiny Romanesque monastery, with an impressive but small three-apsed church with a small cloister and so on.

East end of Santa Cecília de Montserrat

East end of the church, with apses on display and belltower behind

Romanesque window at Santa Cecília de Montserrat

A slightly inexplicable stretch of wall with a window in it looking onto a courtyard and then the church portal

The old monastic buildings at Santa Cecília de Montserrat

The range of monastic buildings, probably refectory and kitchen below and dormitory above

Church portal at Santa Cecília de Montserrat

Close-up of the portal, with its rather good little door

I don’t suppose, really, it can ever have housed very many more monks than the canonical twelve-plus-abbot without which you’re really supposed to go and join up with someone else. (This has, historically, not stopped that many communities struggling on anyway.) This watercolour of 1789 gives one an idea of how big it ever got.

Pere Pau Muntanya i Llanes, Santa Cecília de Montserrat, watercolour, 1789, reproduced in the church of the same name

Pere Pau Muntanya i Llanes, Santa Cecília de Montserrat, watercolour, 1789, reproduced in the historical display in the building

It was then trashed in the Napoleonic wars, and spent some time as a farm before being gathered back to the church in 1940.

Photograph of Santa Cecília de Montserrat while in private use in the early 20th century

Photograph of the buildings in private use

Church-owned though it now is once more, however, it is not now working as a church. And fair enough: there is no settlement for miles around (or more realistically, up and down) that isn’t already a monastery. The building still has altars in it, and I think it’s still consecrated and used for occasional services, but it was when I saw it mainly operating as an art gallery for the work of one Sean Scully. His essays in colour are now all over the interior, tastefully arranged but it makes it very hard to photograph the interior without also photographing what is doubtless copyright work. I will risk one shot to show how the interior has been treated, and otherwise concentrate on details.

Interior space of the Espai d'Art Sean Scully, Santa Cecília de Montserrat

Espai d’Art Sean Scully, Santa Cecília de Montserrat

Details like: where’s the floor? The wooden walkways are laid some distance above the apparent real floor level, as the altar steps seem to show.

Altar steps disappearing below the modern walkways in Santa Cecília de Montserrat

Altar steps disappearing below the modern walkways

But if you remember that door…

Interior view of the portal of Santa Cecília de Montserrat

Portal from within

… it apparently enters at what is about a quarter of the way up the wall, so the floor must once actually have been higher. When it was a farm? I don’t know. Or were there steps that have been removed? And there are plenty more questions one could ask, though the historical display in the entryway, short of objects though it is, is actually very informative (and I knew the charters on which it was based and felt smug).4 All questions do, however, tend to shrink a bit as soon as you step outside and remember how very much bigger than you some things are…

Church of Santa Cecília de Montserrate below the mountains in heavy mist, April 2018

The mist only cleared up to a certain level…

So there we leave it for this post, and the next one will pick up on the wandering around Monistrol and Santa Maria. But I hope this late-appearing post has nonetheless brightened your days!


1. I’m being cagey about the identity involved here merely because I’m not sure if he would wish to be named in this context, and if so under real name or nom de plume. But if you’re reading, my friend, feel free to let us know!

2. The obvious work for the place’s history in Catalan is Benet Ribas i Calaf, Història de Montserrat (888-1258), edd. Francesc Xavier Altés i Aguiló & Josep Galobart i Soler, Textos i estudis de cultura catalana 19 (Barcelona 1990), which I actually bought here on this occasion, but in English there’s nothing I know of; my old blog posts and the websites I’ve linked may be the best I can do.

3. I know this inscription is printed, because I have notes on it, but frustratingly they don’t say where. The text is given in the church’s displays, though, and if people want I can add it here.

4. The monastery’s documents were edited by Francesc Altés i Aguiló as “Diplomatari de Santa Cecília de Montserrat” in Studia Monastica Vols 36-38 (Montserrat 1994-1996), pp. 223-302, 300-394 and 291-372 respectively, and since then have been printed again in the Catalunya Carolíngia. The most obvious milestones are Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 516 (Altés no. 5, purchase of the monastery alod from one Ansulf aand his wife Druda in 942), no. 543 (Altés no. 7, consent from counts and bishop to restore the church there as a monastery, 945); Ignasi J. Baiges i Jardí and Pere Puig i Ustrell (edd.), Catalunya carolíngia Volum VII: el comtat de Barcelona, Memòries de la Secció Històrica-Arqueològica 110 (Barcelona 2019), doc. no. 262 (huge comital donation, 945); Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíingia IV, doc. no. 686 (a lost Bull of Pope Agapit II probably issued in 948); Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum II: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 2 & 3 (Barcelona 1922-1952), repr. in fascimile as Memòries 75 (Barcelona 2007), Santa Cecília de Montserrat I (royal privilege from King Louis IV, 951); and Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 785 (Altés no. 33, the consecration of the new church by Bishop Guadamir of Vic, 957).

5 responses to “Flying Visit to Montserrat I: Santa Cecília

  1. Your pal bears a distant resemblance to the late footballer Ian St John, a fine centre forward in his day. You could adopt that as his pseudonym.

  2. Pingback: Flying Visit to Montserrat II: the place itself | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. but frustratingly they don’t say where

    Maybe: Santiago Fernández, Javier de : 2003 : “La epigrafía latina medieval en los condados catalanes (815-circ. 1150)” : Castellum, publicación de la Asociación Cultural ‘Castellum’ : 2003 p.324 ?

  4. Pingback: Flying Visit to Montserrat, III: Manresa by night | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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