A Widow’s Court: Elisenda de Montcada, the Poor Clares, and an Imperial Vision of Queenship

Eileen McKiernan Gonzalez, Berea College, Eileen_MckiernanGonzalez@berea.edu
Elisenda de Montcada (1292-1364) became the fourth wife of Jaume II (el Justo 1285-1327) in 1322. Just four years later she lay the foundations for a convent of poor Clares outside the city walls of Barcelona. She ordered built at its side a palace for her own use, one that she moved into the following year upon Jaume’s death. She was to live in her palace for 37 years until her own death. The palace was then torn down upon her specifications leaving the convent intact by removing the physical connection to the court. Elisenda’s burial has two effigies, one in the Clarissan habit, in the cloister, and the other abutting the space in the church in her queen’s regalia. The burial presents the twin roles Elisenda articulated in her widowhood as pious queen and advisor, and as protector of the community. Her foresight in political matters was extraordinary and the site survives today to a great degree due to her vision.
Elisenda had a particular vision for her complex, one that communicates in style the expanding borders of the Aragonese-Catalan crown. Jaume II, son of Constance of Sicily, was king of Sicily for 11 years, prior to his negotiations with the papacy over its governance. Elisenda was involved in all aspects of the construction and embellishment of this exquisite example of Mediterranean Gothic architecture. Rather than follow the example of Flamboyant French Gothic forms of the period, the stylistic connections are with Franciscan examples in Italy, particularly Naples, and the Italian repercussions of Rayonnant Gothic forms. The chapel of Sant Miquel also includes an early example of Italianate frescoes, commissioned of Ferrer Bassa, but likely carried out by an Italian artist. In her cloister and church, Elisenda articulates a role for herself separate from the court, yet present. Her stepson Alfonso IV and step-grandson Pere IV both visited her at Pedralbes to consult with her in matters of state. Elisenda carved out a space for herself that she could control.