This Convent of the Royal Barefoot Nuns was a palace that in the 16th century during Felipe II’s reign was converted into a convent by his sister Juana de Austria. Juana was widowed, became a nun, and resided here. Its residents were exclusively royal women who for varying reasons, either by choice or through lack of other options, entered monastic life. Given its royal residents, this convent also became an important receptacle for amazing works of art.
Today some two dozen Franciscan nuns reside in this cloistered convent but it is also a museum. While there are many still active convents in the city, over 35 with over 500 sisters throughout, only a very small handful, such as the Monasterio de la Encarnación, are open to the public for visits to the artistic wealth within. This is a good opportunity to view many of Spain’s Golden Age artists from the 16th and 17th centuries, including works by Zurbarán.
Most of the surviving convents and monasteries in Madrid date to the 16th and 17th centuries when entry into the church was almost a more common life path than marriage or government work. It was a complex mix of circumstances that led to this trend. A flagging economy and the influence and security of the church made life in a monastery a coveted option. It was viewed as a way to live a good life without too much toil during a time when working with one’s hands was viewed more and more as degrading.
Historians estimate that by 1650 there were nearly 1.5 million people living off the backs of others through entry into the church, and just under .5 million working in government posts. This, coupled with Felipe III’s expulsion of Spain’s main agriculturalists and textile workers in 1609, the Moriscos (former Iberian Muslims who had been forced to convert to Christianity after 1492), led to a devastating decline in the economic productivity of the nation.
Given all this, you can better imagine why when Joseph Bonaparte decided to modernize old Madrid in the early 19th century, he tore down multiple monasteries and convents to make room for plazas and new buildings. With so many people entering monastic life in the 16th and 17th century, such buildings were among the most common in Madrid.