La Capella

La Capella: 600 Years in the Neighbourhood of El Raval

Permanent exhibition

Permanent exhibition

The foundation of the hospital and its church

In 1401, the Consell de Cent (a governmental institution of Barcelona) and the Chapter of the Cathedral of Barcelona united six hospitals of the city in order to found a general one, called the Hospital de la Santa Creu (Hospital of the Holy Cross), which gathered all the means. This new centre had a crucial importance in the Hispanic and European medicine history, as it was one of the first consortium centres with the participation of the civil and the church power under the Crown protection. In such a deeply religious society as the medieval one, the hospitals had as purpose accommodating and assisting —in corporal and spiritual terms— the poor, pilgrims and ill people and were organised almost in the same way as monasteries or convents.

A religious community took care of the administrative and assistance tasks by holding the position of the main nurses or purveyors a person in charge of supplying the hospital with foodstuff. In order for the community to accomplish their spiritual obligations, it was essential to have a church that could in addition be used as a religious space for the lodgers or patients.

The new hospital was started in the heart of the Raval neighbourhood, in the piece of land where it was the vanished the Hospital d’en Colom. In 1405, in order to build a church also devoted to the Holy Cross, it was decided to use one of its buildings that might have been used as a main hall since the late 13th century. After some years of refurbishing the new church, in the vestibule of which you are right now, was finally used around 1440.

Assisting the poor and ill people’s souls

In the medieval and modern periods, dying in a state of grace was fundamental or, in other words, dying in a Christian way. In order to be buried in sacred ground, having confessed the own offences and having forgiven the others’ was necessary, as well as expressing the last wills and receiving the last sacraments. In the hospital, the monks and nuns of the community used to accompany to the end the dying patients, usually people without means or without family or friends that could take care of them. After that, they were ritually buried in the ground of the church or in the hospital graveyard —placed not far away from here, in the current Doctor Fleming gardens—.

The souls care continued beyond the death. In their wills, the dying lodgers and the people that left properties to the hospital used to ask for masses to be celebrated in the church on certain days or prayers to be said in their honour. Each morning the monks or nuns were delivered a list with all the accumulated obligations after centuries that had to be fulfilled during many hours a day, sometimes they were helped by the pious laypeople that were part of charitable brotherhoods. On his part, the sacristan took care of the altars to keep them in good condition and to always light the altar candles if necessary.

The church, the neighbourhood and the city

Not only was the church to serve the hospital’s patients, but also to serve all the neighbourhood of the Raval. Here, at 5 o’clock in the morning, the earliest masses of the city were officiated, to which attended «the people that had to set out on a trip and the labourers before starting work», according to what the ethnologist Joan Amades declared. Given that they opened very early, many homeless people used to seek shelter in the church to sleep there some hours

It was a very popular church and some of its altars had been specially worshipped by the people of Barcelona. From the 16th century, for example, many Rogation processions were headed for it in order to ask for protection against the drought in front of the Christ altar.

The hospital church had also a very important role in the city festivities. On Sunday after Corpus Christi, the hospital was highly decorated and the people of Barcelona entered in order to see the decorations. A procession got out from the church, in which all the orphan children of the hospital (known as foundlings) took part. Accompanied by all the beast figures of Corpus Christi, the boys paraded all around the neighbourhood and the hospital premises. For the foundling girls, who had a convent life, it was the only opportunity all year long to go out from the premises, although they were forbidden to take part in it from 1820

The children’s care

Many of the orphan or abandoned children got into the hospital where, after having received baptism, boys were separated from girls. From the 17th century, the girls were admitted to the Convent de les Donzelles, where they learned how to take care of housework while they waited for getting married or entering the service of a well-off family. On the contrary, the boys were educated by the teacher, a monk of the community that taught the Christian doctrine and grammar notions before starting to be trained as an apprentice in any workshop of the city. In the church, there were only the boys that went to Mass in the morning and told their beads in the afternoon. Some of these foundling boys used to sing during the solemnities in the church, being part of the hospital choirboys.

From the 17th century, the Obra de l’Església de l’Hospital, an organisation created by laypeople that contributed to the church maintenance, gathered some money so that the children of the Raval neighbourhood could at least get the same elementary education as the foundling children living in the hospital.

Expansion and changes

The Hospital de la Santa Creu was the main hospital institution in Barcelona during hundreds of years. Between the 16th and the 17th centuries, the former Gothic building kept up growing until it occupied the whole current block of houses. This growth was in parallel with the increase of the population assistance needs, caused by the impact of the great epidemic diseases of the moment, the increasing social inequalities they caused and by the population growth in the middle of the 18th century.

The hospital church was very sensitive to all these changes. During the Modern Age, several annexed dwellings were added while new brotherhoods arose and the presbyter community grew, which had increased from five members in 1417 to twelve in 1756. At the end of the 18th century, the hospital building already showed certain space constraints and the increasing number of deaths amongst the hospital patients and lodgers started to make impossible the burials inside the church and its graveyard. For all that and for the increasing number of believers in a more and more crowded neighbourhood, the church had to be extended at the beginning of the 19th century by transforming an austere single-nave church into a real three-nave church with side chapels.

A growing church

At the moment of the hospital foundation, the church may have had a very simple layout: an open space in a single-nave structure and a square chevet. It was soon necessary to extend the building in order to house new devotion spaces, so in the 15th and 16th centuries, two Flamboyant-style chapels were built at the right side of the nave that still exist nowadays. During this same period, the vestibule, where you are right now, was also built.

At the end of the 18th century, important refurbishing took place, specially a new apse in a semi-circular recess and the baroque porch facing the carrer Hospital. During the Renaissance and baroque period, the church had become packed with altars and altarpieces, which led to carry out a great expansion around 1830 consisting of opening the enclosure walls in order to build two aisles that allowed erecting seven side chapels and a new porch that directly connected to the central courtyard of the hospital. Thereby the church reached the 20th century having doubled its original surface.

An arts container

Despite being an open space nowadays, the church had a high artistic content in the 20th century that did not stop adapting to the new trends and needs of each period, at the same time that the building was evolving. In the Middle Age, there were already some altarpieces, one of which specially stood out, the one that Francesc Vergós II painted for the high altar in 1443. Although it has not been preserved, this altarpiece must have been a high-quality one, as Vergós belonged to one of the main groups of artists that modernised the Gothic painting in Barcelona.

During the Renaissance and baroque period, the altarpieces and the decorative sets proliferated, such as the Holy Sepulchre altarpiece sculpted by the great Bartolomé Ordóñez in 1517. This sculptural set may have been an exceptional commission, as Ordóñez only worked for the great cathedrals and the Spanish high nobility. In the 18th century, the church joined the baroque artistic innovation thanks to the ground-breaking monumental façade designed by Pere Costa, one of the best Catalan architect-sculptors of the moment. At the same time, Antoni Viladomat, the most famous painter at that time, worked on the decoration of all the hospital’s spaces, one of which was the church according to some historians.

Music in the hospital church 

Music was one of the essential parts of the Catholic liturgy and the hospital church was not an exception. According to the regulations that directed the religious community from 1756, they had to know “suficientament de chant pla”, which means that they had to have knowledge about Gregorian chant. The regulation paid special attention to the way the Mass had to be sung in the church and it described a book that told in detail which days and which solemnities they had to sing.

Beyond the strictly liturgical singing, in the hospital church there was also room for the instrumental music, as it was one of the few hospital churches that had (and still has) an own fixed organ possibly since the last third of the 18th century.  The organ is placed, still nowadays, in the church vestibule dominating the high choir where the choirboys may have sung in the important masses.

In the hospital church there was also a space for the popular roots music, especially for the couplets. From the very beginning, its believers gathered together in the church to sing these poetic pieces devoted to praise the Christ and the Virgin Mary figures and all the other saints that were worshipped in the altars of the chapels.

A traveller altarpiece

During the 17th century, the church high altar was completely transformed. At its back, an enormous baroque altarpiece was built; its exact date of construction and the artists that took part in it are unknown. A sculpture of Santa Helena dominated this new and monumental altarpiece, which also contained four great paintings surrounded by an extremely rich golden decoration moulded and painted.

When the Civil War broke out, the altarpiece was dismantled and stored in order to avoid damaging it. After the conflict, it was placed again but in very different conditions from the original ones. This time, the altarpiece did not dominate the hospital church, but it was placed on a side of the chapel of Sant Agustí Nou, some metres away from here. Repurposed as the altar of Sant Antoni de Pàdua, this traveller altarpiece suffered a couple of fires in 1975 and 1980, but it can currently be admired in all its splendour thanks to the recent exacting restoration. The chance has took us at present the most important piece of the furniture set in the baroque church, as the last of its vestiges and, in addition, out of its original context.

The new uses: decline and splendour

At the end of the 19th century, the idea of moving the general hospital into a bigger and more modern building started to arise. The construction works of the new Hospital de la Santa Creu i de Sant Pau (called like that in honour of its benefactor Pau Gil) designed by the Art Nouveau architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner started in 1902, but the institution transfer was not effective until 1930.

Foreseeing that the Santa Creu premises could be abandoned, the City Hall of Barcelona bought it between 1921 and 1922 in order to save them and give them new uses. Between 1929 and 1935, the premises were divided into sectors so as to house the Royal Academy of Medicine, the Institute of Catalan Studies, the National Library of Catalonia and the Escola Massana, centre for arts and crafts.

Concerning the church, in 1930 it was demystified and it closed to worship waiting for a new function. The building remained unused during a long pause for the Civil War and post-war and it reached 1947 in very bad condition when its refurbishing started. The church, which was re-baptised as a chapel, would become a conference and exhibition hall of the City Hall and would end up consolidating itself as a renowned artistic space for the neighbourhood and the city.

The new chapel in the former hospital

In 1947 the municipal architects Adolf Florensa and Antoni Falguera ran a complete restoration of the building by following the guidelines of the moment, which are quite far away from the current guidelines. Their idea was to refurbish the former hospital church in order to reproduce a similar image to the one it had at the moment of its foundation, although they did not know exactly how it was. They hypothetically wanted to recover the medieval splendour of the building by eliminating all the historical traces of the following periods.

In this way, they knocked down the side aisles and the baroque apse and they built new enclosure walls by recovering the single-nave structure with a square chevet. This rebuilding meant destroying the rich sculptural and pictorial decoration that covered all the building surfaces with the exception of the cupula, the baroque organ and the vault covering it that have reached the present day as the last testimonies in situ of the building of the Modern Age. The rest is almost new, the inside, façades and roofs. In favour of recovering the medieval origins of the building, all the richness of the heritage values it has been accumulating over the centuries was sacrificed.

In the interactive, some images can be seen about the complete transformation that the building underwent during its restoration. 

A space for the art lovers

After its restoration, the chapel opened to the public as a municipal space where to celebrate all kind of events, such as conferences, concerts and exhibitions. For instance, the new hall of the City Hall held a propaganda showing about the social housing promoted by the National Institute of Housing (1957), the concert series Lent concerts by the Musical Forum (1974), an exhibition for the centenary of Manuel de Falla (1976) and, once democracy was established, exhibitions about the Local Police task.

But the space specialised above all in the organisation of artistic exhibitions, such as the Salones de Mayo (May Exhibitions) that sowed the seeds of the future Contemporary Art Museum of Barcelona (MACBA). Apart from housing all type of artistic divulgation exhibitions, in 1968 La Capella was the space with the largest monographic exhibition up to the moment about Joan Miró, which would be the seed that brought to create the foundation that is currently spreading his work.

With the democracy arrival, La Capella consolidated its artistic programme with historical exhibitions for the city which were devoted to distinguished personalities, such as Juli González (1980), Josep Guinovart (1981), José Pérez Ocaña (1982) and Francesc Abad (1990) amongst others. In the interactive, the nature of these exhibitions is displayed.

La Capella (‘The chapel’)

With the implementation of the democratic City Council, this space stabilised its artistic exhibitions programme, until 1994 that La Capella was built. This exhibition centre open to all publics has focused its efforts on promoting the new creations of the emerging artists of the city.

Thanks to its free exhibitions, La Capella has approached to the general public and to the people in the neighbourhood the work made by novice artists, the curators, the critics and other professionals of the contemporary art and culture. It is about a space where the citizens can talk with the new artistic trends through initiatives like BCN Producció, which encourages the artist participation from 2006 by offering the needed support to connect their artistic innovation proposals with the public.