Nieto Sobejano’s remodelling of the 15th-century Colegio de San Gregorio provides a set of dignified, modern spaces for devotional works. Photography by Roland Halbe
The Museo Nacional Colegio de San Gregorio in Valladolid is one of Spain’s foremost museums of fine arts. Its collection concentrates almost exclusively on religious art, encompassing a temporal arc that begins in the Middle Ages and runs up to the 20th century. However, within this timespan, the focus compresses sharply on the siglo d’oro, the golden age of Spanish visual arts between the 15th and 17th centuries, and especially the great polychrome wood carvers who worked in Castile and the north of the Iberian peninsula between 1520 and 1650.
The huge sculpture collection brims with often visceral and expressive sacred works, showing the explicit torment and torture of a sacrificial religion, but there are also furniture, paintings, processional floats for Holy Week, tombs, choir stalls and a clutch of exquisite coffered ceilings salvaged from cannibalised convents.
The quality of the artefacts is more than matched by the building that houses them. Described by museum director María Bolaño Atienza as ‘a spiritual machine of the siglo d’oro’, the College of San Gregorio was founded by a Dominican bishop in the late 15th century.
Compacted into the city fabric like a giant piece of nougat, it occupies a site in the centre of Valladolid, next to the church of San Pablo.
Within its high outer walls is a luscious Gothic cloister oozing with delicate tracery and twisted barley sugar columns. A chapel abuts a smaller entrance courtyard and the entrance itself is adorned with a fantastically picturesque medieval tableau of saints, knights, children, flowers and demons, as if melted wax had been dripped onto the facade. Over the centuries San Gregorio has been variously reincarnated as a school, prison, offices, tram depot and now a museum for devotional art; a curious yet somehow apt squaring of the circle.
This colourful trajectory echoes that of the museum itself. From its founding in 1842 to its present manifestation, its journey has been as tortuous and prolonged as some of the more gruesome representations of Christian martyrdom held in its collection, involving different buildings, modifications of its charter, fluctuating funding and a succession of name changes. In 1933 the republican government transferred the museum to San Gregorio and, in an move calculated to extol the ‘Spanishness’ of the collection, dignified it with the title National Museum of Sculpture.
Following the most recent refurbishment by Nieto Sobejano, initiated in 2001 and finally opened to the public last year, it is now known as the Museo Nacional Colegio de San Gregorio. This latest semantic shift reinforces the museum’s relationship with a nationally important historic building and consolidates its roots and presence in the city.
With projects such as the archaeological museum at Madinat Al-Zahra (AR April 2009) and an extension to the Moritzburg Museum, Nieto Sobejano is clearly adept at breathing life back into historic structures. The biographies of old buildings exude a particular fascination in the sense that new work adds another layer to a shifting, imprecise continuum.
‘The traces left by each of the operations over the years are a reflection of the life of the building,’ says Enrique Sobejano, acknowledging San Gregorio’s multivalent history.
But this also gives a sense of the building’s adaptability. ‘Far from being frozen in a given period, it has adapted,’ he says. ‘It’s another chapter in the life of a building in constant transformation, within an open-ended process that does not know yet how or when it will conclude.’
At San Gregorio, Sobejano and his partner Fuensanta Nieto extend their repertoire of making subtle composites of new and old that are beautifully nuanced and genuinely contemporary. ‘Like components of an altarpiece built over centuries, the new work will become part of the never-ending process of additions and modifications that accompany the life of the building,’ says Nieto.
The approach is rigorous yet responsive, allowing certain elements to speak for themselves, such as the restored cloister, while tactfully adding new parts, such as a simple rusting steel and iroko-clad entrance pavilion adjoining the smaller courtyard.
The most obvious intervention is in the appendix-like Azoteas Pavilion attached to the main cloister, where the building is hollowed out and new floors inserted.
A chronological circuit steers visitors around the museum, looping around and up the cloister, through the Azoteas Pavilion and back down again. The chronology begins with the touching primitivism of early medieval sculpture and ends with contemporary processional tableaux for Holy Week.
Dark iroko floors and simple plastered walls transform the exhibition spaces into suitably neutral receptacles for the often riotous polychromy and gilding of the medieval Christian sculpture pantheon. In some cases, the spaces are animated and transformed into stage sets inhabited by dismantled altarpieces, choir stalls or elaborately carved ceilings detached from their original settings. The dramatic yet thoughtful counterpointing of splendid artefacts and sober rooms enriches both the collection and the building.
As the architecture is impregnated with layers of meaning, so too are the artefacts. ‘Behind each sculpture, behind each canvas hides an infinite universe,’ says Atienza. ‘The work is not only an image, it also contains a story waiting to be revealed, and behind every visible story lie other invisible stories and previous truths; deeper, richer and more complex.’ Nieto Sobejano’s great skill is to create calm, receptive spaces for the centuries-old work of artists and craftsmen, so that they resonate more powerfully both in reality and in the imagination.
Architect Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos, Madrid
Project team Fuensanta Nieto, Enrique Sobejano, Pedro Quero, Carlos Ballesteros
Denis Bouvier, Vanessa Perelló, Juan Carlos Redondo
Structural engineer N.B.35
Services engineer Geasyt