Church of the Monastery, the third temple

The church is the central place of the monastic liturgy, where the monks prayed eight times a day to celebrate the Divine Office and where they welcome the people to the major feast days. It is also a compendium of Romanesque, Gothic and baroque art. Since 1833 it has housed the local parish of Sant Pere d’Octavià.

The current temple is the Monastery’s third. The first was the early Christian church, where tradition says that the relics were kept of Cugat the martyr; the early monastery was built around it. After the year 1000 this temple was replaced by another much bigger one, Romanesque, similar to Sant Vicenç de Cardona. In the early 12th century it was desecrated by an Almoravid attack. This led to the construction of the third temple, completed around the mid-14th century. The slow construction of the temple meant that it was started in Romanesque style and ended up with a fully Gothic façade. So the current church of the Monastery is the best sample of the transition of architectural styles in medieval Catalonia.

Façade of the Church

Due to its size, the proportions of the main entrance and large dimensions of the rosette, the façade of the monastic church of Sant Cugat is one of the most attractive of Catalan Gothic art.

FAÇADE OF THE CHURCH

Portal

The monks wanted to give the church a large entrance to symbolise the wealth and importance of the Monastery but it also had to be sober enough to express monastic austerity. The solution was to create a new body attached to the façade to give it more depth and enable the placement of 11 pointed and decreasing niches supported by columns with elegant vegetal capitals to show off the temple entrance.

The flat tympanum is ornate with 15h century Gothic fresco paintings featuring the theme of the Epiphany or Adoration of the Magi. The figure of the Virgin with the infant on her lap occupies the central part, under the star; the Kings and pages are on the right, while Saint Joseph is working on the left, where there is also the ox and the mule. The sunlight and weather have erased almost all colour, and it is hard to distinguish today the outline of the figures. It was restored in 2017.
ROSETTE

Rosette

The big circular window on the façade is probably one of the most valuable treasures of the Monastery. The rosette’s radial space is an exceptional place to insert scenes from biblical history that, seen from inside the church, shine thanks to the stained glass pieces that fliter the light. This is one of the great contributions of Gothic art to the history of western architecture.

This rosette has the privilege of being one of the three best preserved in Catalonia, together with that of Santa Maria del Pi, in Barcelona, and the main façade of Tarragona Cathedral. All three are almost identical and inspired by the rosette in the southern transept of Notre-Dame in Paris. It was finished in 1337 and in 1428 it was affected by an earthquake that moved some of its pieces.
Although the pieces of glass in the big rosette of the Monastery church are not the medieval originals installed by masters Bernat Hospital and Alfonso Gonsalbo, the restoration and replacements carried out in 1979 are very convincing.

Transition from Romanesque to Gothic Styles

During the two centuries of the work on the monastic church, there was a change between the Romanesque and Gothic architectural systems, a circumstance that gave pause to the master builders, with some rectifications to existing parts.
The first construction phase, in the 12th century, included the apses and the first two sections of vaults, separated by rounded arches. The works then stopped for about half a century and were resumed with Gothic forms, distinguished by pointed arches and much larger windows. A lantern-shaped octagonal crossing tower rises above the Romanesque transept, covered by the intersection of four pointed vaults closed by a keystone, which contains the image of God in Majesty. The windows are of a very early Gothic style with tree-shaped divisions.

The best example of the transition from Romanesque to Gothic is in the differences in the location of the impost of the formerets on each of the four pillars of the transept. Looking at those closest to the apse, the impost of the right formeret is lower than the one on the left. On the opposite side, the right formeret maintains the lowest level, indicating that it follows Romanesque style. However, the pillar extends in height and a second Gothic impost appears at the base of the pointed arches.

All the changes made during the transition from one construction system to another involve changes in the structural behaviour of the last three sections; in addition, to compensate for the greater pressure, a fourth single nave was added inside and aligned with the bell tower outside.

PRESBYTERY

Apse

The back of the church comprises three Romanesque apses. All three feature a set of architectural elements of interest that help better interpret the uses of the monastic site in the past and its architectural evolution. The left side apse is perfectly semi-cylindrical and flat inside.

Its axis is slightly deflected with respect to the nave by the presence of a spiral staircase located inside the northern wall that led to a defensive corridor located over the vault of the first section. This apse has always been dedicated to Saint Mary. The original Romanesque sculpture is in the Museum of Terrassa and the altar frontal is in the Civic Museum of Turin. The Romanesque sculpture that currently presides over it is the Virgin of the Forest or of Gausac, from its shrine in Collserola.
The central apse is bigger and has a heptagonal floor plan. Its vault appears to be quarter sphere although in fact they are seven elements that start from the straight sides of the polygon. The intersection between them is concealed by ornamental semi-cylindrical ribs that emerge from the vertical of the columns and end in a semicircular ring, as a keystone. The triumphal arch that separates it from the nave covers three levels, which gives the ensemble more depth. Originally the apse was illuminated by three small Romanesque loop-hole windows, although the central one vanished after the big Gothic window was opened. This is divided by pillars in the form of a tree, and the stained-glass window, made in the 1940s, features the image of Saint Peter, the patron of the current parish.

The right apse is similar to the left one and is notable for its geometrical purity. The cylinder of its wall is crowned by a simple impost that provides a foundation for the quarter sphere of the vault. Both are illuminated by a single loop-hole window. Originally it was dedicated to Saint Michael and housed the mannerist altarpiece that today is attached to the left wall. Today, it is presided over by the Gothic altarpiece of All Saints, which has been located in different places in the temple.

PRESBYTERY

Presbytery

The church’s presbytery has undergone several transformations in accordance with the liturgical changes and artistic currents of each time. Its current appearance surrounded by a neoclassical balustrade is the result of the reform carried out by Abbot Montero in 1798.

. The large wooden Gothic altarpiece was burned in July 1936. The presbytery, the location of the high altar, has undergone successive changes over the centuries. In the early darkness of the Romanesque period, dimly lit by the three embrasures, there was a burst of light with the opening of the Gothic window. But with the later arrival of the large painted wooden altarpieces all this light was closed off because one of these huge pieces of sacred furniture was placed in front of the window. At the end of the 18th century, the neoclassical reform of the space was undertaken and has survived until today. Particularly notable is the white, red and gray marble balustrade that closes the presbytery, commissioned by Abbot Josep Gregori de Montero in 1798, a date that appears on the work together with the patron’s coat of arms.

The ensemble therefore is a curious amalgam where the different styles of the western art of the second millennium are featured. The destruction of the combustible elements in the revolutionary times of 1936 makes the rich marble balustrade particularly striking today within the current architectural austerity of this apse.

The slab of the main altar, made of stone from Montjuïc, is said to be the largest in Catalonia. Its rear part rests on a stone wall and shows the effects of the altarpiece fire. At the front it is supported by three detached columns with an empty space below, where the relic caskets used to be displayed.
The sculpture of Saint Cugat by Enric Monjo at the back, which presides over it, dates back to 1942.

 sacristy

From chapel of All Saints to new Sacristy

The space occupied by the current sacristy originally corresponded to the Chapel of All Saints. Its construction was ordered by Abbot Guerau de Clasquerí, who in 1290 created the benefice of All Saints. He is buried here, where the lid and lauda of his ossuary is still preserved

The construction corresponds to the second Romanesque period. The thickness of the wall suggests that originally the interior space was covered by a barrel vault. The sacristy’s original door, today bricked up, is closer to the right apse. One century later, a Gothic altarpiece was installed here dedicated to All Saints, the work of the painter Pere Serra. The sacristy was completely remodelled in the 18th century, in the time of Abbot Gayolà. The chapter meeting minutes from 1753 mention removing the gear of the sacristy for the works to be carried out here and it seems that the chapel had already had this dual function for some time. The aforementioned altarpiece was removed and placed at the front of the church, entering on the right. Among many other changes, this reform involved the construction of new groin trimbel vaults, like those in the new and old chapter houses, with similar plaster cornices and capitals. Notable from this period are the fine entrance gates.
Two pieces of furniture from the sacristy survive: the big chest of drawers along the eastern wall and the central chest of drawers commissioned by Abbot Montero and which features his heraldic shield in marquetry, covered by a large piece of marble.

On the southern wall is the washbasin, also of coloured marble, with the Monastery’s coat of arms topped by an imperial crown with the inscription: “Octaviani Caesaris Augusti Castrum”.
On the wall close to the church, there is the so-called relics cabinet.

DOME

Dome

In churches, the space where the central nave crosses the transept is usually covered by a dome. The passage from the square space of the ground to the higher circle of the roof symbolises the passage from Earth to Heaven.

In the second Romanesque period, this vault can be built upon a lantern that illuminates the interior. For construction reasons, the circle is usually transformed into an octagon and the dome into an intersection of vaults on ribs. This is the case of the Monastery of Sant Cugat, in which the dome has the features of a Gothic structure built on a Romanesque base.

Raised upon the temple’s crossmembers, the lower body of the dome is made up by four big pilasters from the Romanesque period supporting two traverse arches and another two shorter formerets. The level from which the dome starts is defined by four semi-cylindrical ribs emerging from brackets located on the angles of the square. It is transformed into the octagon via leaning flat triangles. The start of the higher body is limited by a continuous impost.

The roof is the result of the crossing of four pointed vaults supported by trefoil ribs, with a keystone that represents the Maiestas Domini between two lions. The weight of the ribs is borne by columns located on the angles, where the impost forms a small protruding square to accommodate them better. Underneath them there is a lower bracket with a sculpted head of Romanesque tradition. The whole structure relieves the side walls of the drum from weight and enables the opening of large pointed windows of Gothic style resting on a frieze of niches. The current windows date back to the late 19th century and feature the heraldic shield of the patron who paid for them, Baron of Prado Hermoso.

The mixture of ornamentations of Romanesque tradition within the Gothic construction system is, in the end, one of the best examples of the transition between the two styles.