Spain // Castilla y León and La Rioja //

Museo Nacional Colegio de San Gregorio


The most extraordinary sculpted facade of all in Valladolid is that of the Colegio de San Gregorio, adorned not just with coats of arms and crowned lions, but sculpted twigs, naked children clambering in the branches of a pomegranate tree and long-haired men carrying maces. Considered to be from the workshop of master sculptor Gil de Siloé, it’s very much like icing on a cake – Jan Morris, for one, was convinced that the flamboyant facade must be edible. The collegiate church was built by the Bishop of Burgos – Chancellor of Castile and confessor to Queen Isabel – as a theological college, and was richly endowed, most obviously with a gleaming two-tier courtyard of twisted stone columns, and an upper gallery that’s a sculpted Plateresque flight of fancy of heraldic, mythic and regal symbols. Inside, too, the building has been majestically restored and now contains the unmissable religious art and sculpture collection of the Museo Nacional.

The stunningly presented collection from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries includes some of the most brilliant works of the Spanish Renaissance. Set in majestic galleries on two floors, ranged around the San Gregorio courtyard, the hugely expressive statues, sculptures, retablos and other artworks were often commissioned directly for churches and monasteries, and it’s rare to see such vibrant pieces at these close quarters – while if you look up, almost every gallery has its own antique coffered ceiling of gilt and painted wood, transplanted here from other religious foundations.

Sixteenth-century artists such as Alonso Berruguete (1490–1561), Diego de Siloé (1495–1565) and the Frenchman Juan de Juni (1507–77) adapted the classical revival to the religious intensity of the Spanish temperament, and the results are often magnificent and sometimes quite beautifully brutal: weeping crucifixion wounds, severed heads, cadaverous bodies, agonized faces and rapt expressions fill the galleries. The dissolved Valladolid monastery of San Bento el Real provides two pieces that are typical of the richness and power on display: its retablo mayor has a life-sized St Benedict almost striding out from the surrounding scenes of his miracles, while in an upper gallery sit the intricately carved and painted choir stalls, preserved in their jaw-dropping entirety.

Palacio de Villena

Across the street from the San Gregorio facade stands the Renaissance Palacio de Villena, used as the museum’s centre for temporary exhibitions and public events. It also contains one final, and extraordinary, flourish, namely the so-called Belén Napolitano or Nativity tableau – in an eighteenth-century Neapolitan street, between the hanging laundry, itinerant musicians and fruit sellers, the three Wise Men troop towards the manger on camels.

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