San Paio de Antealtares: the oldest monastery in Santiago
The Monastery of San Paio de Antealtares is in Quinta Square, in the vicinity of the Cathedral. It has its origins in a small male monastic community founded by King Alfonso II the Chaste and is the oldest monastery in Santiago de Compostela.
From the beginning, it was called Antealtares because its church had three small altars in front of the tomb of the Apostle. These were dedicated to Christ the Saviour, Saint Peter, and Saint John the Evangelist.
The origin of the monastery
King Alfonso II founded the monastery in 830, shortly after the remains of Saint James the Greater were discovered. It was dedicated to Saint Peter, and the monks were responsible for guarding and organising the cult of the Apostle.
This function was recorded in the Concordia de Antealtares, a document from Compostela dating from 1077. It is the oldest source that relates the discovery of the remains of the Apostle and the beginning of the construction of the Romanesque Cathedral in 1075.
In this document, an agreement is signed between Bishop Diego Peláez and the members of the monastery to seal that the monks would always pray supra corpus Apostoli. In addition, with the construction of the Cathedral, the monks assumed that they would no longer receive offerings and had to move their centre, coinciding with the current Quintana Square.
The new monastery began to be built in the 11th century and passed into the hands of the Benedictine monks. In the time of Archbishop Diego Gelmírez, the monastery ceased to have the function of guardianship of the tomb, and they decided to change its name to San Paio.
Saint Paio of Antealtares
Saint Paio was a child who was martyred in Cordoba during the reign of Abderramán III. As an example of this dedication, his beheaded image presides over the main façade of the complex.
At the end of the 13th century, the monastery experienced a period of decadence that lasted until the 15th century. The building was in ruins, and the Catholic Kings decided to suppress it and integrate it into San Martiño Pinario.
In 1495, the merchant Lope Gómez de Marzoa tried to create a school for poor students and transformed the building into the first Compostela school. That would be the seed of the later Renaissance University of Galicia.
In 1499, the Benedictine monks left the monastery, and the building was occupied by the Benedictine cloistered nuns. The new convent was also dedicated to San Paio and became one of the most important in Galicia. Today, the cloistered nuns continue to live in the building.
The current construction
The original building was demolished, and the current one dates from between 1599 and 1744. San Paio de Antealtares is Baroque in style and closes off Quintana Square with a large wall, which overlooks the conventual quarters.
In the centre of the wall, there is a tombstone with an inscription commemorating the Literary Battalion. That group was organised by university students during the war against Napoleon’s troops.
On the other side of the monastery is the façade of Los Carros Door, also known as the Borriquita Door. This name refers to the relief on the façade, which depicts the Virgin seated on a donkey fleeing from Egypt. In the porter’s lodge, pilgrims can buy the sweets made by the Benedictine nuns. From tea pastries and almond pastries to the famous St. James cake.
The church of San Paio de Antealtares dates from the 17th century and occupies the northern part of the complex. It is built in granite masonry and has a Greek cross plan, which is unusual in Galician architecture. It has a monumental façade presided over by San Paio martyr that is at the top of the Quintana stairs.
Inside, the numerous Baroque altars stand out. The main altarpiece, the work of Castro Canseco, is dedicated to San Paio and includes some references to Santiago el Mayor and San Fernando on horseback.
Through the church, pilgrims can access the Museum of Sacred Art. It houses the primitive altar that originally accompanied the Apostle’s sarcophagus. Bishop Gelmírez gave it to the convent after replacing it with a grander one in the Cathedral.