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Repurposing For New Dreams: The Cartuja Monastery in Seville

by Silke Elzner

Sometimes people have big dreams and they construct a building to house their dreams. Draw up plans, organise bricks and mortar, labour away to rise the walls. Invest patience and put in effort to make this house the perfect home for their ideas.

But then, eventually, dreams fade away. Or they become obsolete. Long forgotten.

With your dreams spent and over, what do you do when the building that was meant to house your dreams is no longer needed? Do you discard it, tear it down, destruct it to make room for another building? Or do you simply go away, vacate the house, and leave it up to others to populate the space with their own dreams?
Approach to the Monastery

From Monastery to Art Centre

When I recently visited the Monastery of Our Lady of the Caves, also known as the Cartuja Monastery of Seville, I was haunted by exactly these thoughts. Located on an island in the Guadalquivir River, this building complex used to be a house of dreams that was discarded and repurposed.

It was once erected as a monastery, but the dreams of worshipping and serving God have long gone. The monasteries in Spain were disbanded in the 19th century, the buildings deserted and left to serve other purposes.

For around 140 years after the last Carthusian monks had deserted the building, the monastery served to fulfill another person’s dream: it became a ceramics factory. And when this dream ended as well in 1984, the complex was acquired by the state of Andalusia and changed into a museum of contemporary art. From monastery to a factory and now a museum.

Which is why when you visit the Monastery of Our Lady of the Caves today, you will find a curious mix of things: The old, the new, and the very modern.
Beautiful circular glass window of the church

A Day-Trip Destination Not Just For Art Fans

This curious mix of styles, subtle hints of the past, and surprising details of long-forgotten dreams make this National Monument a worthwhile day-trip destination for visitors to Seville. It is not too far away from other sights in the centre of the city, and if you don’t mind walking it’s just a walk across a bridge and to the other side of the river. Alternatively, bus routes C1 and C2 will take you there too.

Approaching the monastery, nothing hints at the contemporary art that is hidden inside. Only when you step through the gatehouse and into the inner courtyard, and turn around, you will be surprised to see a giant hand and a face poking through two of the windows. Unexpected art is everywhere: windows in the trees, and fantastically shaped musical instruments in an arched walkway. Words, written on a wall near the café.

Giant in the building

A Repurposed Monastery That Still Hints at its Glorious Past

Yet, the original beauty of the monastic buildings of Seville’s Cartuja Monastery, the stunning round window of the church with the blue glazed tiles around it, is worth a second glance.

Inside the church, in the cloisters, the refectory, the eclectic mix of old and new continues. Faded decorative patterns grace the walls. Niches that used to hold statues, appear oddly misplaced, lacking their context. Colourful tiles with geometrical patterns cover lower parts of the walls, with huge gaps between.

A quirky collection of traces of the past, of times when monks would dine together, sleep together, pray together.

The buildings have been carefully renovated to expose these hints of medieval art by contrasting them with clean whiteness. Modern art, photos, posters, installations, occupying these white areas, not blocking the views of the old parts, but standing next to them side by side, like partners in crime.
Repurposed Refectory

Monastery, Ceramics Factory, Art Centre

Outside, we continue our exploration. In the garden, we stop in front of a large Ombu tree, fascinated. It’s not actually a tree but a large grass, an expert in conserving water, monstrous in shape and size. Legend has it that this Ombu had been planted by the son of Christopher Columbus.

In the sun-baked yard behind the church, we find remains of the old ceramic kilns. Witnesses of the Industrial Revolution, practically shaped yet with a graceful swing in their orderly forms. Like pot-bellied chimneys, these kilns look oddly misplaced in the shade of the monastic buildings. Yet at the same time, they have a certain appeal – they enrich the place by their oddity and strange symmetry.

Yet, our favourite part is the arch that used to lead to the laymen quarters. Covered in colourful tiles from top to bottom, it is stunningly beautiful. And it becomes clear that aesthetics are indeed timeless, since we cannot work out whether the tiles are contemporary of the period (they are indeed medieval).
Colourful tiles in the arch

Cartuja Monastery, an Apt Canvas For Dreams Big And Small

The Monastery of Our Lady of the Caves is a strange place. With its juxtaposition of styles and ideas, unfulfilled dreams and industrial ambitions, it works like the perfect canvas for contemporary art.

And this is what I learned along the way: You don’t need to construct a building to house your dreams. If there is a perfectly fine shell available, you can repurpose an existing house, make it your own.

Or you can do as we did: Simply visit a house that inspires you. Explore a place that makes your mind wander for a little while to concoct your own dreams. And not just this: Take these new ideas home, mull them over, dream bigger.

The Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo is open daily except Mondays. Entry fees are minimal but if you want to save, visit in the evenings after 7pm or on a Saturday. Wonder what else to see in Andalusia? Check out the comprehensive Andalusia Travel Guide!
Kilns in the cloisters behind the church

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