Women’s lives in the 16th and 17th centuries as seen through furniture at the Monastery of Pedralbes

18 December, 2017 | Barcelona People, Unknown City

These days seats are something for taking the weight off our feet and we expect them to offer a certain degree of comfort. That hasn’t always been the case though. In fact, the concept of sitting as a means of giving the body a rest didn’t become commonplace until the 18th century. Before that, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the act of sitting was a way of expressing status. Who sat, where they sat and how they sat defined a person’s level when in a room. Not everyone had the right to sit, and women who could, usually sat on low chairs or cushions, meaning they had to lift their gaze to look at the men in front of them. It was a way of marking each person’s position, and women had to show humility and respect towards men.

The furniture of the time offers us a general idea of the status of the people who used it and how they lived. The Monastery of Pedralbes, with nearly seven hundred years of history, has an important collection of pieces of women’s furniture from the 16th and 17th centuries, offering an insight into the life of their owners. Many of the pieces came to the monastery as part of the dowry of religious women when they joined the community, but there are also items which have been specifically donated as gifts from their families to make their life more comfortable. The exhibition ‘Seated Women’ is on until February 2018 and shows what women’s spaces were like and some aspects of their lives at that time.

Chairs, benches, beds, hope chests, works of art from the monastery and private collections, offer a chance to discover what female life was like within the cloister walls and beyond them and how the religious community interacted with authorities in Barcelona. During the period the exhibition takes us around, society was very hierarchical, with strict gender barriers and a rigid code of conduct. Everyone had their place, and seats were objects which showed what that place was. The nuns at the monastery mainly came from well-to-do families and quite often received visits from royalty, ministers and other important people. In her writings, Fulles històriques, Sor Eulària Anzizu gave an account of one of these visits in 1514. She describes a meeting between the abbess, Maria of Aragon, with ministers. The abbess sat in the centre, in a chair with arm rests, in other words an individual armchair, while the high officials sat on either side on benches. This arrangement clearly showed that inside the monastery it was the abbess who had the authority.

Although their role was supposed to be very much in the domestic sphere, women had social and family responsibilities, normally relating to health, food and drink, hygiene and education, responsibilities which they tended to acquire after getting married. Matrimony would usually bring together people of the same social standing in order to guarantee social order. The couple chose each other according to their financial potential and women would go from the parental home to the husband’s home, where they would become housewives. When they got married, women’s dowries consisted of money and assets which thereafter were administered by the husband. They also had items of furniture, the hope chest being particularly important as it contained the bride’s trousseau. The exhibition booklet offers an explanation of this chest, whether simple or luxurious: “It identifies the status of the bride’s or nun’s family. The woman is the chest’s owner, user and keyholder”. The ones in Pedralbes “are taller than in other monasteries, but inferior to the dowries for marriages between lay people of the same social level”.

In the book El moble català al monestir de Pedralbes, published in 1976 by Barcelona City Council, M. Assumpta Escudero asserts: “At the monastery we can find Catalan furniture from all periods, from Gothic through to modernisme. With a few exceptions, they are not luxury pieces or the work of artists. The Franciscan spirit flourishes but the perfect craftsmanship is astonishing”. Escudero adds: “The functionality of some of the pieces, such as wardrobes, clearly shows they were made for use by religious women. Other items we think arrived as part of the dowry of professed nuns (particularly hope chests). The wide variety of types also makes us think that families most likely gave religious women items for them to furnish their day quarters”. The same author notes: “The day quarters are small apartments all around the cloister, on the three floors, and in other parts of the monastery. The nuns had them built to isolate themselves from the community at given moments”.

The exhibition ‘Seated Women’ displays objects for personal use, belonging to nuns and to lay people from upper class families, such as jewellery and reliquaries. There are also items of clothing such as silk gloves and women’s shoes, chopines with thick soles, which besides protecting dresses from getting dirty also made women seem taller, and a velvet pouch, a sort of bag which men and women kept under their clothing to conceal money in.

Apart from various types of chairs, the exhibition shows what a four-poster bed was like, where nuns slept, and recreates an upper class bedroom. The chapter house offers a mock-up of a situation like the one described when members of the city’s governing Consell de Cent visited the monastery, with a chair like the one used by the abbess, with two benches either side in a wedge formation, similar to those used by the ministers.

The display also features the so-called Cadira de la Reina, or Queen’s chair, the main image for the exhibition. This low chair from the end of the 16th century came from the Bay of Bengal, then part of Portuguese India, and is an example of some the first eastern furniture to arrive in Europe. It is not known how the chair ended up at the monastery, but its presence comes as no surprise given the succession of royal visits and the family ties some of the nuns had in monarchic circles.

Strolling around the cloister and various rooms at the monastery, the visit to the exhibition offers a chance to contemplate some highly unusual pieces, such as an oil painting by Francisco de Zurbarán; a recently restored set of seven riders which is one of the few sets of non-religious Catalan paintings from the 16th century, and a selection of jewellery items and renaissance and baroque silverware. Many items on public display had been conserved behind closed doors and never been exhibited before.

Photo captions: Cadira de la Reina, end of the 16th century. Originating from the Bay of Bengal, this is one of the first items of eastern furniture to arrive in Europe. It is not known how it arrived at the monastery. | Mock-up in the chapter house of the seating arrangement for the abbess to receive visiting ministers at the monastery in 1514. | Recreation of a four-poster bed and birch wood chest at the foot, typical of nuns’ bedrooms in the 19th century. | Three 16th century chopines. | Chair made of walnut wood, embossed leather and iron studs, along with a companion table made from walnut wood, bone and boxwood, from the 16th century. This is the only table with an adjustable height from the 16th century in the Spanish state. | Velvet pouch, with gold lace, silk and chevrette, from the 16th century, and silk gloves with silver, copper and gold from the early 17th century. | Recreation of an upper class bedroom. | Two of the riders from a series of seven, one of the few remaining sets of non-religious Catalan pictures from the 16th century. | Chest decorated with boxwood intarsia, a symbiosis between the local and the Islamic traditions. The piece was used to keep jewellery, documents, coins and valuable objects in.