The Sierra de San Juan de la Peña rises up from the southern Spanish Pyrenees to the southeast of Jaca in Huesca. It has been a site of national interest since 1920 and its small area is packed with natural, historic and cultural treasures
The monastery was not built into the mountainside on a whim. The location, difficult to reach, made it very safe from the threat of Arab invasion.
But although it was so tucked away, the monastery was a popular burial site. Monks, knights and even kings chose it as their final resting place.
It is spread over two floors. On the lower floor you can still see much of the original building and the old church, with twin rectangular niche-apses hollowed out of the living rock. On the upper floor you will find the cloister and the two chapels of St Vitorián, and St Voto and St Félix, the monastery’s founders.
The origins of the monastery are part shrouded in myth and part documented fact. It is said that when the Moors invaded, a succession of hermits retreated to this corner of the Pyrenees and set up a hermitage.
It seems they chose this particular spot for a reason - because the intact corpse of the hermit Juan de Atares y Voto was discovered there.
The hermits lived here until the 10th century, when in 920 Galindo Aznarez II, Count of Aragón, conquered the land south of the Aragón River and founded a monastery on the very same spot in the sierra de San Juan de la Peña. He dedicated the monastery to St Julián and St Basilisa.
In 1701 Sancho Ramírez (the second king of Aragón) built the San Juan de la Peña monastery on top of the original one, as a pantheon for the kings of Aragón. He endowed it with a vast estate and ordered the building of the upper church.
But the second half of the 12th century was disastrous for the monastery: it fell out of favour with the Pope and around the same time the kings of Aragón moved their capital to Huesca.
In 1157, faced with economic ruin, the monastery was saved by the intervention of Pope Adrian VI and Count Ramón Berenguer IV, Prince of Aragón.
In 1245 Abbot Íñigo signed an agreement that hailed a peaceful period for the monastery and enabled it to become, once more, one of the main Benedictine centres in Aragón.
In the 16th century, the dioceses of Jaca and Huesca were separated and the monastery lost more of its land and treasures.
The new monastery
On February 24 1675 fire once again spread through the monastery. It raged for three whole days and razed many of the rooms to the ground. The distressed monks, left with damp disintegrating surroundings, took the decision to build themselves a new home.
The new Baroque monastery was built 1,500 metres away, on the Llano de San Indalecio. Carlos II granted his permission for the work to start in 1693. The old monastery had no roof, and so it was left empty and its income used to help build the new one.
The building consisted of cloisters, abbot’s rooms and offices, 19 bedrooms for the monks, an archive, a refectory with its own kitchen and annexes, a sick bay, pharmacy and offices for a doctor, a chemist and a surgeon, guest quarters, grain stores, cellars and a library.
There were also a number of small gardens for the monks to work in, an inn, a hospital for the poor and pilgrims, and stables, straw lofts and woodsheds.
The War of Independence, the Disentailment Act, neglect and the ravages of time have all contributed to the destruction of these buildings which are now in ruins. The church, however, remains standing and has three naves and six side chapels.
The entrance is particularly distinctive, framed by a tower on either side and crowned with a triangular pediment. It was the work of the Pamplona sculptor Pedro Onofre based on a design by artist Francisco del Plano.
There are three statues in niches, St John the Baptist in the middle, St Indalecio to his left and St Benito to his right. It is not actually possible to get inside the new monastery but it is worth visiting just to see the magnificent Baroque entrance.