- Historic Sites
William Randolph Hearst’s Monastery
He could build castles at his whim, but the ancient home of a small band of monks defeated him
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
During the early summer of the year 1213 Saint Martin of Finojosa was an old man and not in the best of health. Nevertheless, at the age of seventy-three the saintly bishop and abbot left his beloved Burgos for a long and taxing trip to visit a tiny new monastery on a hilltop near the Tagus River. Like all Cistercian monasteries, it was named for the Virgin Mary—in this case, Santa Maria de Ovila.
Saint Martin arrived on a scene of busy medieval construction, and there he stayed all summer, a welcome guest among the monks and workmen who were cutting fine gray limestone into blocks for the chapel, refectory, cloister, and other monastic buildings. Toward the end of August, Saint Martin began to have premonitions of his own death. He evidently wanted to return to the peace of his cell in Burgos, but felt he should stay for the consecration of the chapel, at which he was to speak. The chapel was finished in September, and he did speak at the consecration, exhorting the monks to persevere in their austere lives. Soon afterward he was helped onto his horse and set off on the long trip home. Out of affection and respect, the monks of Ovila left their work to accompany this old man, but the trip was very short, for a few days later, in a small village on the road, Saint Martin died. At his death it is said that his body exhaled a “mellow and celestial odor” which remained in the house several days and amazed the peasants; in addition various miracles were performed upon those who visited his tomb.
If Saint Martin were to return to earth today to visit the monastery where he spent the last months of his life, he probably would regret it. He would not find very much left on the banks of the Tagus where he watched the stones being shaped into cloister, chapel, and refectory. If he really wanted to see those stones, he would have to come to California and poke around in the underbrush near the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. In among the scrubby bushes and eucalyptus trees he might find Santa Maria de Ovila—all ten thousand pieces of it. This is the story of how it got there.
Santa Maria de Ovila was a fairly prosperous monastery. Like many Spanish religious establishments of the Middle Ages, it stood in that depopulated region behind the advancing Christian and the retreating Moorish armies. In a way the monks were as important in holding the land as were the soldiers in capturing it, for the monasteries provided secure islands of faith and farming in areas that were still a no man’s land between Christian and Moslem. This explains why Santa Maria de Ovila had walls seven feet thick in places and tiny slit windows. Like the wise little pig, the monks of Ovila had no intention of fighting but they knew how to build themselves a strong house.
If we judge by the buildings, Santa Maria de Ovila was most active before about 1650, since that is the date of the last major building project, a large Renaissance doorway for the chapel. The doorway was something of an afterthought, however, and most of the buildings are Gothic; they include the very early Gothic refectory, which Saint Martin had watched being built; a somewhat later and very handsome High Gothic chapter house; a rebuilt version of the chapel with late and flamboyant Gothic vaults; and a rebuilt version of the Gothic cloister with a High Renaissance arcade. In fact, Santa Maria de Ovila displayed a bit of each style of Spanish religious building from 1200 through 1600.
Like all small Spanish monasteries, its history ended in August of 1835, with a royal decree suppressing all religious houses with fewer than twelve inhabitants. Santa Maria de Ovila then had four. The mayor of the nearby town of Trillo presided over the sale of the monastery’s worldly goods; the highest price went for the wine-making equipment and an oxcart. Bargain hunters could also buy old beds, old broken tables, old cracked chairs, and old kitchen equipment. Most of the items in the inventory are disdainfully described as viejo (“antiquated”), probably because the sale took place several months after the monastery had been closed and nearly everything of value had disappeared in the meantime. In following years the roof tiles also disappeared, exposing the curious method which the Spanish medieval builders had of making their roofs: on top of the pointed vaults they packed dirt, smoothed it, and laid tiles loosely on top. A twentieth-century visitor reported seeing trees six to eight feel tall growing from the exposed roofs of the monastery.
The buildings themselves began to decay, of course, and this was hastened by very rough treatment from the local landowner, who used them as service buildings for a farm. The ornate Gothic chapter house, for instance, served as a manure pit. By 1930, about a hundred years after the monastery was closed, the buildings were in a reasonably advanced state of ruin, though all were still standing.