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Lower Cloister- Upper Cloister - Repairing -Pilgrimages

The simple building first given by Don Gil served to house the first priests and brothers of the Order of Mercy. But by the 14th century, the first real convento or monastery was built to the west of the original hermitage. All that remains at that original site is the round well of its central patio. It sits now in front of the atrium or entrance of the present church.

The present monastery was built between 1627 and 1632 under the direction of the Very Reverand Father Juan Cebrián of the Order of Mercy. He was born in Perales de Alfambra (Teruel), educated in El Olivar, was later elected Superior of the Order of Mercy the 22nd of May 1627 and became Archiboshop of Zaragoza and Viceroy of Aragón.

The cloister he had built is almost square (46.6 metres by 39.7 metres). It joins the south wall of the church and has two floors, the upper cloister and the lower cloister along with its small central patio. The various rooms that serve the monastic life of the order open off from the halls of the two cloisters.


The lower cloister has four wings formed by the four sides of the building with the patio in the center. The wings are large, 27.4 metres long by 8.3 metres wide and the ceiling rises well above the tiled floor. The ceiling of each wing is highly decorated with two cannon vaults supported by Roman arches with twenty cross-shaped pillars marching across the floor holding up the vaults. The inner vault of each wing is narrow, only 2.7 metres in diameter and is ornamented by single bands and mouldings of plaster. The outer vault 5.45 metres across is magnificently and profusely adorned with rosettas and geometric figures. At each of the four corners, there is a cupola that seems to anchor the souring vaults to the floor.

Vista del claustroThe lower cloister is a place of harmony, pure line and aesthetic pleasure. From it open up the various areas of the monastery, the doorway and entrance hall, the majestic stairway to the upper cloister, the "Sala Capitular" or conference room, the "Old Library", with its beautifully vaulted ceiling with the same elements that adorn the adjoining cloister. The coat of arms of Archbishop Juan Cebrián is over the main door of the Sala. The De Profundis room is on one side, so called because it was the area where the religious recited the 129th Psalm for their deceased breatheran before they went into the adjoining "refectorio" or dining room for their noon and evening meals.


The brilliant white of the plaster walls dominates the upper cloister. The ceiling is a series of beautifully curved lines with multiple barrel vaults separated by wooden beams. The Upper Cloister with its hugh hallways leads to the guest rooms and the rooms of the religious of the Monastery. In the west corridor is the entrance to the private chapel of the community and in the north corridor is the old doorway to the choir of the church.


The uneven stone-floored patio is a square 8.6 metres per side. It throws a soft shaded, ocre coloured light from the walls to the inside cells or rooms of the upper cloister through the 12 sets of windows. The lower cloister is illuminated through walls of glass in which the coat of arms of the Order of Mercy domintes.


Spanish churches and monasteries were looted and left in ruins during the period of "exclaustración" or expulsion during 1811-14 and again in 1836-78. They were pillaged again during the Civil War, 1936-39. These were hard times for the Catholic Church in Spain and for the Monastery of Santa Maria Del Olivar. The greatest loss of course were the members of the community murdered during the war. Also, It lost much of its artistic heritage: books, statues, alter pieces, precious vessals and archives. It also suffered damage to the physical structure: the floors, walls and ceilings were all damaged. Finally though, in 1939, the Order of Mercy was able to return to its monastic life at El Olivar. But this required the rebuilding and repair of a great deal of the church and the "convento" all of which were indispensable to their work and way of life - both physically and spiritually.

Finances prevented the Order from starting major rebuilding until the 70s. Then it progressed in three phases. In the first (1973-76) the roof was repaired and tiles replaced. Old and damaged construction was removed from the north façade of the church allowing us to see the charm of the old mudédares eaves and buttesses that had been hidden. The second phase (1985-91) saw the renovation of the floor of the upper cloister and the rebuilding of all the living quarters or cells. The main stairway, a big buitifull structure, was also restored along with the dining room and the "Sala Capitular". The cloister floors were retiled, also some of the rooms and the outer walls were repaired and cleaned. The third phase (1993-94) saw the rehibilatation and reconstruction of the back part of the church. A new structure was added almost in the form of a buttress but it also addeds new guest rooms, a laundry and heating sistem and gave access to the "Camarín de la Virgen" . It continues the mudejar style in that part of the church.


The surrounding villages have identified greatly with the Virgin of the Olive Grove. Faithful to the call of tradition and religion, the town of Gargallo makes a piligrimage to the church the first Sunday in May. Estercuel and La Mata come to the church on Ascension Sunday. Alloza, Ejulve, Abón, Oliete, Crivillén, Cañizar and Lécera come the second day of Pentecost. The 24th of September is the feast of Our Lady of Mercy and there is a great pilgimage to the church from all the surrounding towns.

Author: Juan Devesa.  Suggestions to: Mercedarian Friars - El Olivar




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