We felt like the last people in the world when we stepped out of the car at Cartuja Santa María de Miraflores. Thin grey clouds stretched into the distance and the monastery was as quiet as the air was still. The parking lot was empty, the gates locked and the walls so high we couldn’t see a single sign of simple monastic life.
Cartuja de Miraflores is home to 24 monks of the austere Carthusian Order, all of whom have taken vows of silence. The monks not only live, study and work in silence, but also solitude — the majority of their day being spent in the confines of their personal living space, a “cell” that comprises two floors: a workshop for manual labour downstairs and a room in which to pray, study, eat and sleep upstairs.
Peering through the gate we saw opening times posted by the door. Unsurprisingly, it was closed as we’d driven out on Christmas afternoon, but we resolved to return later in the week during legitimate visiting hours. Which we did, on yet another overcast day, spending a couple of hours in the church and adjoining chapels now used as exhibition rooms.
We began our visit walking through the cloisters and courtyard that lead to the main church door. Impressive though it is in both size and detail, the real treasures lie inside the church itself. A large baroque statue of Saint Bruno, founder of the order, stands on a table to the right of the entrance and a 15th century Flemish triptych of the Passion hangs on the wall to the left. Looking up you see a fine example of a Gothic ceiling with its awe-inspiring curves and symmetry.
Immediately inside the church proper are the intricately carved, Renaissance choir stalls, no two of which are identical. We spent an enjoyable ten or more minutes studying them to find the unique detail in each one.
The monastery has not just one pièce de résistance but three, all of which were carved by the 15th century Castilian sculptor, Gil de Siloé. The elaborate mausoleum, carved in alabaster into an eight-pointed star, where Juan II of Castile and Isabella of Portugal lie; the beautifully carved tomb of their 14-year-old son, Alfonso of Castile; and a gilded altarpiece that’s considered to be one of the most important works of Spanish Gothic sculpture.
The exhibition rooms include paintings, 17th century frescos, books and sculptures. Out of all the exhibits, the one that caught my eye was a small sculpture of Santiago el Mayor (James the Greater or James, son of Zebedee).
Leaving the monastery, we stopped to look at the handful of items for sale — books in a variety of languages, mugs, ornaments and, to our initial surprise, bottles of both green and yellow Chartreuse. However, we soon realised the connection. Carthusian monks have produced the liqueur since the 1740s, its name originating from the Chartreuse Mountains in France, home of the Grand Chartreuse monastery.
Instead of being tempted by the Chartreuse we were both drawn to the small plaster cast monks — one of which we now own after an impulsive and uncharacteristic purchase. Neither of us being ornament gatherers. And so we left Cartuja de Miraflores with a small memento of our two visits on those grey afternoons in December.