San Juan de los Reyes Monastery was commissioned by the Catholic Monarchs in the town of Toledo, to honour the victory in the town of Toledo, to honor the Battle of Toro in 1476. This battle put an end to the War of the Succession in favour of Princess Isabel, sister of late King Enrique IV. They were fighting against the supporters of Juana, daughter of the king’s illegitimate marriage. At first the architecture and decoration were designed for the monarchs’ tombs, years before conquering Granada, which is where they were buried in the end. As they were very devoted to the Franciscan Order, they decided to give the monastery to the observant Franciscan monks.
The architect Juan Guas, from Brittany, was chosen for the design and construction Spanish-Flemish Gothic style or the Gothic of the Catholic Monarchs, a fusion of Flamboyant Gothic from Flanders, with Mudejar, that was developed in Castilla. Juan Guas died and Enrique Egas replaced him to finish the cloister. The construction works started in 1477 and ended at the beginning of the sixteenth century.
A fire during the French invasion in 1808 destroyed the original altarpiece, the important library and community building that had another plateresque cloister. After the seizure of church property in the nineteenth century, the cloister was given to the Monument Commission to set up a museum. At the end of the nineteenth century, the architect Arturo M6lida carried out a subjective Neo-Gothic restoration project, with traces of historicist Romanticism. In 1954 the building was given back to the Franciscans and in 1977 church life was restored.
The single nave with side chapels between the buttresses is covered by very complex cross vaults. The crossing does not protrude at ground level and it’s covered by a star vault. As the monarchs’ tombs were going to be kept here, the place is decorated as a great tapestry with repetitive images of saints and the coat of arms of Spain with St John the Evangelist’s eagle, under two lions facing each other, which is a symbol of royalty. The lion and castle symbolise the kingdom of Castilla and the bars symbolise the kingdom of Aragon, which also owns the kingdom of Sicily, which is represented by the eagles with crowns. Underneath are the symbols of the yoke and the arrows to symbolise the union of kingdoms. The chancel is decorated with an altarpiece from the old Santa Cruz Hospital. The sculptor was Felipe Bigamy and the painter was Francisco de Comohtes, both from the mid-sixteenth century. It depicts scenes from the Passion and the Resurrection, as well as two original scenes from Santa Cruz Legend: the invention or discovery of the Cross by St Helena.
The cloister has a garden, little paradise on earth and hortus conclusus or enclosed garden, an allegory of Mary’s virginity. The ground floor is covered with German cross vaults, where the ribs do not cross in the centre. There is an array of figures of saints and between them there are ribbons with plant motifs and animal motifs dragons, apes, fantastic birds… by toledan sculptor Cecilio Bejar in twentieth century. The Renaissance steps, designed by Covarrubias, take us to the top floor where four halls start with mixed line arches and continue with nineteenth-century wooden ceilings. The stone archs shows the Tanto monta currency which refers to Alexander the Great when he arrived in Gordion, where a yoke with a complicated knot symbolised the promise to conquer the East. Alexander cuts the knot with his sword and exclaims: ‘tanto monta’, which means, ‘it makes no difference’. This currency shows that the king and queen ruled on equal terms in each of their kingdoms.
On the outside, the rectangular building is surrounded by vertical pinnacles to look like a catafalque surrounded by funeral torches. The polygonal apse at the front and the powerful white stone figures of pages carrying the kingdom’s arms have recovered their splendour after the latest restoration. Chains and shackles hang from the outside walls in remembrance of the Christians in Granada who were held captive. In 1494 the Queen ordered them to be hung there as trophy of pain and triumph. The main entrance for visitors today is crowned with an amazing SpanishFlemish group of sculptures: the Cross with a pelican, bird that pecks at its own breast to feed its babies with its own flesh and blood. It has therefore been considered an image of Christ’s sacrifice.