The convent probably started unpretentiously but grew over time to a particularly rich establishment. Financial support and property donations from privileged families, maybe even from members of the clergy, helped to ensure that this convent was respected and revered and worthy of its illustrious members.
In the 14th century a magnificent abbey was built over the foundations of the original Romanesque church and the new Gothic building is a masterpiece. It is the main attraction of the complex and the reason for my detour. The apse with the main altar was uncharacteristically constructed on the west side of the church, followed by the choir, the nave and at the far end a second apse facing east. There are no aisles and separating columns on both sides and the side walls rise up to the vaulted ceiling, creating a long, narrow and high hall. In Christian churches altars are usually positioned at the eastern end. The reason for this is that Jesus Christ, who lived in the east, would on his return arrive from the east; the congregation would thus face the direction he would be coming from. In this church, however, only the priest, holding mass in front of the congregation, faced east.
Eastern apsis of the church at the convent in Cañas
The Gothic windows of the cathedral, the main reason for my visit, provide a most astonishing sight and are the source of strikingly bright light, even on this gray day. The eastern apse, the one opposite the altar, has two rows of windows and no entrance doors, as is normally the case. One row of windows is above ground level and another, reaching right up into the gothic rib-vault ceiling, is directly over the first row. The upper windows continue along the walls of the nave as far as the crossing.
Veins within the alabaster ‘window panes’ are clearly visible
The masonry framing of the windows is of typically gothic design, and the openings have been glazed with thin and opaque alabaster sheets. Irregular veins with their natural discoloration, just as the marble had grown and formed over millions of years in what became a quarry, are clearly visible. The crystal formation of the alabaster disperses light in all directions and this explains why the church was so brightly illuminated.
Cistercian abbey of Santa María ‒ Cloister in winter
The sarcophagi and burial slabs of past Mothers Superior are richly decorated and the sarcophagus of the founder Doña Urraca Lopes de Haro is a rare masterpiece. This convinced me that the abbey was established for the benefit of noble ladies.
The whole complex with its central cloister suggests affluence and dignity, although today the most part of it is a museum. An exhibit that caught my attention was a list of names of Mothers Superior in charge of the convent over the past 840 years.
Times have changed and so have family requirements and dedication to monasteries. Photos of nuns in residence reaching back to the 1950s demonstrate the reality of the ever-diminishing numbers of novices entering nunneries. The most recent picture showed about 20 nuns compared to more than 150 nuns in earlier photos.