Santa María la Real of Nájera, La Rioja, Spain

Santa María la Real is a monastery in the small town of Nájera in the La Rioja community, Spain. Originally a royal foundation, it was ceded by Alfonso VI to the Cluniac order. It was an important pilgrimage stop on the Camino de Santiago. It is particularly well-known for the woodwork in the choir of the church. The first construction on the site dates back to the 11th century. Santa Maria la Real and the attached royal pantheon were founded by King García V of Navarre in 1052. It was later elevated to an episcopal seat and placed under Papal authority. In 1076 the kingdom of Navarre passed into the hands of Alfonso VI of Castile. The Mozarabic Rite (sometimes called the Isidorean or Spanish Rite) was replaced with the Latin Rite.

The most notable features of the interior of the church are the choir and the royal Pantheon of the kings of Navarre and later Castile and Leon. More than 30 royal family members are buried in the pantheon. Most famous is the tomb of Blanca of Navarre, wife of Sancho III of Castile, whose decorated sarcophagus is a remarkable for its frieze depicting a parade of mourners. The ornate wood carvings of the choir stalls and misericords are exemplary of late medieval gothic style. The woodwork dates from shortly after the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1495. A recurring motif in the stalls is the intertwined letters ‘F’ and ‘I’ (for Ferdinand and Isabella, King and Queen of Castile). These are latticed together in the form of a heart, from which a drop of blood is spilt. This has given rise to the suspicion that the craftsmen may have been Marranos or Crypto-Jews, and the cleverly concealed image is a symbol depicting the broken heart of Spain.

The cloister, completed in 1528, is known as the Claustro de los Caballeros (Cloister of the Knights), so called because of the concentration of Riojan aristocracy that are buried there, including Diego López de Haro. It is highly ornamental in the plateresque style.

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