Hidden in the Pyrenees, near to Jaca is the spectacular park of San Juan de la Peña and Monte Oroel. Tucked amongst its cliffs is the Royal Monastery of San Juan de la Peña – one of the jewels of the medieval age and one of the most important monuments in the area. The monastery was built below the great rock (peña) that gives its name, exactly in the same cave where the legend says that San Voto found the body of the Juan de Atarés – a hermit who dedicated his life to St John the Baptist.
San Voto legend: a miracle by St John the Baptist
The legend tells that during the 8th century, San Voto was hunting a deer in San Indalecio meadow when the deer fleeing for its life jumped over the cliffs. San Voto and his horse couldn’t stop in time and followed the deer down the precipice.
As he fell he whispered a prayer to John the Baptist and miraculously the horses fall was slowed, both landed gently and were saved. Voto couldn’t understand what happened and felt very surprised when suddenly he founded a path and he decided to follow it. What was the surprise when he founded the Juan de Atarés‘s corpse and a little chapel dedicated to St John the Baptist.
Then all became clear for him. It was a miracle by St John the Baptist that saved his life. From that moment his life was spent in thanks the saint. He headed back to Zaragoza to tell his brother what had happened and they came back together to build a little church in his memory in the same place where he founded the Juan de Atarés’ chapel and they lived here together.
Historical origins and developments of the Monastery – a major symbolic place for Aragon Kingdom and the Camino de Santiago
The authentic origins of the monastery are lost in the darkness of time, but historical documents tell us that a small monastic centre devoted to San Julian and Santa Basilisa was founded in this place in 920. This is the pre-Romanesque church called the lower church and still stands today at the heart of the monastery and is its oldest section.
The old monastic centre was ruined around the end of the 10th century, but it was refunded under the name of San Juan de la Peña monastery by Sancho III the Great, king of Navarra, in the first third of the 11th century as part of the Benedictine Order.
As the kingdom of Aragon was born with the nearby town of Jaca as its capital San Juan de la Peña became one of the most important monasteries in Spain. Nobles and royalty gave donations to the monastery in exchange for being buried there and having the monks say prayers for them to save their souls from purgatory.
During the restoration works in 1987, the royal pantheon was discovered. Archaeologists found twenty seven tombs, including the tombs of the three first kings of Aragón and their families. Today we can see the lids of three of these sarcophagus : Ramiro I´s (first King of Aragon), Pedro I´s (3rd King of Aragon) and Pedro’s daughter´s tomb. Inside, two gold rings and two ivory die (that are now in the museum of Huesca) were found.
The monastery was enlarged to host pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago who passed through – the main Camino route crossed over the Somport pass north of Jaca during this time.
Parts of the monastery built during this period are the Romanesque upper church, the so called ‘Sala de Concilio’ or council room which was actually the monks sleeping quarters but gets its name from a royal meeting that was held there and the nobles pantheon described above.
Well preserved carvings and the Romanesque cloister
The carving throughout the monastery is superb and well preserved. Many of these carvings were not just for decoration but intended to teach the Bible to local Christians who during these times weren’t able to read.
The griffon is an example of that decoration. It is a mythical animal that has the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. It symbolises that when a Christian dies, the griffon takes his soul in its claws, and flies to heaven saving that soul.
The 12th century Romanesque Cloister is one of the most spectacular parts of the monastery. It features some of the best preserved carvings from this era in Aragon. The carvings were sculpted by Master Aguëro and the capitals above each pillar tell the bible story from Adam and Eve to the resurrection of Christ.
San Juan de la Peña – Holy Grail hiding place for 4 centuries
In the middle Ages, like any prestigious monastery of the time, San Juan de la Peña possessed numerous relics such as the pieces of the corpse of seven saints; a piece of the habit of the Virgin Mary, and others. But the most important relic was the Holy Grail, the chalice that Jesus Christ used during the last supper.
Legend tells that in the year 258, the Holy Grail remained guarded in Rome during the mandate of Sixto II Pope who was eventually caught and tortured. Before this, he entrusted the Holy Grail and other relics to his deacon Saint Lorenzo, who was born in Huesca. Saint Lorenzo was tortured too when he refused to deliver the relics or reveal where he had hidden them.
The family of Saint Lorenzo guarded the chalice in San Pedro’s church in Huesca, where it remained until 711, when the Muslims invaded Spain. The grail was quickly removed to a more remote and secret location. First it was taken to a cave in the Pyrenees, and later it was embedded in the wall of the chapel of San Pedro de Siresa. Then, approximately a century later, the Holy Grail was moved again, this time to the cathedral of Jaca.
Finally, in 1076, Sancho Ramirez, (2nd King of Aragón), brought the Grail to San Juan de la Peña monastery where it remained until 1399. King Martín I removed the cup to the chapel of his royal palace “La Aljaferia” in Zaragoza.
When the monks asked for it back he tricked them with a replica. When the King of Valencia acceded to the Aragonese throne he took the Grail back to Valencia Cathedral where it has remained until today. The replica Grail at San Juan was destroyed by the fire of 1675 but a replica of the replica is on display in the old monastery.
Historians have tested the Grail in Valencia and have discovered that underneath the additions of the 9th, 15th and 16th centuries lies a Roman agate cup.
Evolution of the Monastery through the last centuries
The monastery started to lose importance from the end of the 12th century and even more from the 14th century to its desertion. The Kingdom of Aragon expanded south, conquering territories from both the Moors and other Christian kingdoms. The capital was moved first to Huesca and then further south to Zaragoza.
Donations from royal and noble families decreased and few new constructions were built during this time. One of them is San Victorián Chapel, a Gothic 15th century chapel located in the north of the cloister which is a style called ‘flowery-gothic’ and seems at odds to the austere Romanesque architecture. San Voto y San Félix Chapel was built in a renaissance and baroque style in 1630. Inside, an altarpiece painted by Juan Galván in 1631 represents the legend of San Voto and the monastery foundation.
In the 17th century there were a series of fires in the monastery and finally in 1675 after a particularly serious fire the old monastery was abandoned and the monks constructed a new monastery just above in the meadow known as Llano de San Indalecio. This was a much more hospitable spot – drier and warmer than the damp dark almost cavelike location of the old monastery.
The new monastery is where the current visitors centre, museum and car park is. The new monastery was sacked by French forces during the Peninsular Wars (1807-1814) – called the War of Independence in Spain). The monastery was severely damaged but continued to be inhabited by monks until 1835 when the site was finally abandoned by the monks.
Visiting San Juan de la Peña
You can visit San Juan de la Peña Monastery all year round, except from 25th of December to 1st of January. You have several tickets options combining the visit of the old Monastery together with two complementary interpretative centres. In high season you can’t park close to the old monastery: you need to park further up close to the new monastery and use the shuttle service included with your ticket.