The monastery rises on a hillock, overlooking the confluence of the Tinto and Odiel rivers, known since ancient times as Peña de Saturno.
Regarding the origins of La Rábida, there are a series of legends recorded in an ancient codex by Friar Felipe de Santiago. According to these legends, during Phoenician times, there would have been an altar dedicated to their god Baal (later equated with Hercules), and later the Romans would have chosen this same place to venerate their goddess Proserpina. The Arabs would have built a small hermitage here with monk-knights similar to those of the Christian orders. This type of Muslim hermitage was usually on the border coast and took the name rábida or rápita (from the Arabic رباط ribat), from which it would get its denomination. The Muslim ascetics perfected themselves spiritually while defending the border place. In the 13th century, after the Christian conquest, it would already belong to the Knights Templar, under the invocation of Our Lady of Miracles. This same tradition states that St. Francis of Assisi himself came to this place with twelve disciples to found a small and humble Franciscan monastery.
Friar Francisco de Gonzaga, a historian of the Franciscan order (16th century), fixed the origin of the foundation of the La Rábida Monastery in 1261. However, documentarily, the founding charter of the convent is a bull from Pope Benedict XIII, dated December 7, 1412, which grants Friar Juan Rodríguez and his fellow religious, residents of the Hermitage of Santa María de La Rábida since 1403, the pontifical permission to establish themselves in community.
Given its location, the place was from the beginning a refuge or fortress to defend against the frequent attacks of pirates lurking along the coast. Pope Eugenius IV granted an indulgence bull to anyone who helped travelers in need at this site. Many of the conventual rooms were built in those years (early 15th century). The nobles of the region and the local residents helped and collaborated greatly.
Discovery and evangelization of America.
The monastery gained great importance in history with the arrival of Christopher Columbus, who found refuge and support among the friars of the La Rábida Monastery.
In 1485, Columbus arrived for the first time at this monastery, where he stayed and received support for his discovery enterprise. Among the friars of this convent, he found both scientific and spiritual help. Men like Friar Juan Pérez and Friar Antonio de Marchena were crucial to his interests, as they assisted him in his contacts with the crown and the local seafarers. They were the ones who put him in touch with Martín Alonso Pinzón (co-discoverer of America), a wealthy shipowner and natural leader of the area, thanks to whom he obtained financial assistance and recruited the men necessary for the enterprise.
Martín Alonso Pinzón is buried in this monastery. He returned to his hometown, seriously ill, after the first Columbus voyage. He died fifteen or twenty days after his return and was buried in the church of the La Rábida Monastery, at the feet of the Virgin of Miracles and in a Franciscan habit as a shroud, according to his will.
In May 1528, Hernán Cortés arrived at the port of Palos after achieving the conquest of New Spain. He stayed at the monastery. He was accompanied by his friend and companion Gonzalo de Sandoval, who disembarked seriously ill, dying a few days later in an inn in Palos where he was staying. His lifeless body was moved to the monastery, where he was buried near the altar of the Virgin of Miracles. A few days later, Francisco Pizarro arrived in Palos, also going to the convent, where, apart from receiving spiritual help, he met with his relative Hernán Cortés.
The monastic and contemplative life of this monastery also inspired the men who went to evangelize the newly discovered lands: Friar Juan de Palos, Friar Juan Izquierdo, and other Franciscans and religious from Palos de la Frontera and neighboring towns who had special relevance in the evangelization of America.
At the beginning of the 19th century, during the Spanish War of Independence, the Napoleonic troops exclaustrated the monastery and devastated it. The friars returned later. In 1820, during the Liberal Triennium, the convent was exclaustrated, and the friars returned in 1823. After the disentailment, on July 25, 1835, the monastery was abandoned and deteriorated.
On January 8, 1851, the governor of the province of Huelva, José María Escudero, consulted the Ministry of Commerce, Instruction, and Public Works about putting up for sale what remained of the monastery and, with that amount, building a modest monument to Columbus on that land. After this, the ministry made an appraisal that valued it at 4,950 reales. Mariano Alonso y Castillo was appointed governor of the province of Huelva on January 24, 1851. The Minister of Governance, Fermín de Arteta, commissioned him on August 5, 1851, to demolish the monastery, which was abandoned and deteriorated. He, aware of the historical importance of the site, appealed this political decision, succeeding in having it annulled. In the Monastery of La Rábida, there is a portrait of him from 1852. On March 11, 1854, the monastery was visited by the Duke of Montpensier, his wife, María Luisa de Borbón, and María Amelia de Borbón-Dos Sicilias. They donated 7,000 reales de vellón for its restoration. For this purpose, 67,131 reales de vellón were collected. The inauguration of the restoration took place on April 15, 1855. The Duke of Montpensier and María Luisa de Borbón attended, as well as the Duke of Nemours and his wife Victoria de Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and the civil and military authorities of the province of Huelva and the municipalities of Palos de la Frontera and Moguer.
It was declared a National Monument by Royal Order of February 23, 1856.
In 1882, King Alfonso XII visited the monastery. In 1888, with Práxedes Mateo Sagasta as president, the Government created a Central Commission for the commemoration of the IV Centenary of the Discovery of America. In February 1890, a group composed of the Minister of Public Works, Santos Isasa y Valseca, the Minister of Overseas, Antonio María Fabié, and the Director General of Public Works, Mariano Catalina, went to Huelva for the restoration of the monastery and the construction of a monument. The restoration of the monastery was carried out by the architect Ricardo Velázquez Bosco, who knew how to respect the atmosphere and the spirit of the original building. Velázquez Bosco also created a monument near the monastery, on land donated by Carlos María Fitz-James Stuart and Palafox, Duke of Alba.
The official takeover of the monastery by the Franciscans took place in 1920, once the building was ceded to the seraphic order in 1919, as noted by the professed of Assisi in La Rábida Luis García Nieto, librarian and chronicler of that event.
Already in the 20th century, the monastery witnessed the flight of the Plus Ultra. The crew of this expedition stayed at the monastery before starting the journey from Palos de la Frontera to Buenos Aires. They celebrated a mass in front of the Virgin of Miracles, who was temporarily in the Parish of San Jorge de Palos de la Frontera, and finally, on January 22, 1926, they departed from the Calzadilla Pier, with the hydroplane rising in front of the convent. Upon the return of the crew, King Alfonso XIII celebrated a thanksgiving mass also in front of the patroness of Palos, in the Church of San Jorge, to later go to the Monastery of La Rábida to celebrate the commemorative events for the success of the flight.
On August 3, 1992, a meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Government of Spain was held inside the monastery, presided over by King Juan Carlos I.
On June 14, 1993, Pope John Paul II visited the monastery on the occasion of the pontifical coronation of the image of the Virgin of Miracles.
The monastery is located southwest of the urban area of Palos de la Frontera, very close to the Atlantic Ocean. It is located on a small hill, near the mouth of the Tinto River, where it joins the Odiel River, forming the estuary of Huelva.
It has an area of 2,137 m², has an irregular floor plan, and its external ensemble has a medieval structure. Over the more than five centuries of existence of this building, various new elements have been incorporated, although the architectural ensemble preserves the most important aspects of its original construction.
The exact date of its construction cannot be precisely determined. The building consists of three main parts: the single main nave, the presbytery/main chapel, and the chapel of Virgen de los Milagros. One of the oldest elements that has been preserved is an arch that leads to a small chapel. Some original frescoes, valuable art pieces, can be seen. The ceiling is covered by a polychrome wooden coffered ceiling of Mudéjar influence from the 19th century, created by Ricardo Velázquez Bosco, who removed the previous 18th-century barrel vault. On the walls, there are ten paintings by the painter Juan de Dios Fernández from the 18th century, depicting scenes from the life of Saint Francis. Presiding over the main altar is the sculpture of the Crucified Jesus from the 15th century, which replaced a previous one destroyed during the Spanish Civil War. On the north side of the presbytery, there is a door that connects it to the current sacristy, which is rectangular and is presided over by a Crucified by León Ortega from 1962, the Christ of the Greater Pain. On the south wall, there is a small chapel dedicated to the titular of the convent and patroness of the municipality, Santa María de la Rábida – Virgen de los Milagros. The church is connected to the cloister of the gatehouse by arches with clear Almohad influence.
In Mudéjar style, it dates from the 15th century and is the best-preserved part of the monastery after the Lisbon earthquake. In the 17th century, it was expanded with another floor built with battlements for defense against pirate invasions. In its four lower galleries, some fragments of the original Mudéjar decoration from the 15th century, painted in fresco, are preserved and were completed in subsequent restorations after the earthquake. On the second floor, there is a permanent exhibition of scale models of the three caravels: the Pinta, the Niña, and the Santa María.
On the sides of this cloister are the Conference Room and the historical refectory. The Conference Room is where tradition indicates that Columbus had meetings with Fray Juan Pérez, where he would have confessed the details and secrets of his project. The refectory is a rectangular room with a whitewashed pulpit for reading; in it, there is a Romanesque-style crucifix, dating from the early 14th century, as well as several canvases from different periods.
It is a rectangular and spacious room with a secluded and simple appearance. Popularly known as Father Marchena’s cell. It is the largest cell in the monastery; some Columbus scholars argue that in this room, several conversations in La Rábida could have taken place with both Fray Antonio de Marchena and Pinzón or the physicist from Palos Garcí Fernández. It was reconstructed in the 17th century. It has a good coffered ceiling dating from the 18th century; the room is also complemented by several works of art set in the historical characters of the discovery: Columbus, Fray Antonio de Marchena, Martín Alonso Pinzón, Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, and others. In 1992, during the Celebration of the V Centenary of the Discovery of America, it was used as the venue for a cabinet meeting chaired by King Juan Carlos I.
The library houses documents and objects of historical value, such as a copy of Juan de la Cosa’s map of the world, which shows the American coast for the first time.
There is a room where the flags of each of the American countries are displayed, along with a chest containing soil from these countries.
Around a small courtyard adorned with numerous plants and flowers, there are rooms decorated with pastel-colored frescoes, the work of the Spanish painter Daniel Vázquez Díaz, created in 1930. The themes of these paintings revolve around Columbus’s arrival in La Rábida, his discovery expedition, the departure from the port of Palos, and other historical events. The style of the paintings is an incipient Cubism recently learned by the author in Paris.
OUR LADY OF MIRACLES OR SANTA MARÍA DE LA RÁBIDA
Our Lady of Miracles or Santa María de La Rábida, known by both names interchangeably, is the patroness of the monastery and Palos de la Frontera. The image of the Virgin is a small alabaster sculpture (about 54 cm), dating from the 14th century. It is an example of French Gothic, specifically the mannerist and elegant Norman style, which gives the figure a unique curvature, changing its appearance depending on the perspective from which it is viewed.
According to a legend without historical basis, this image was brought on one of its journeys by a sailor from Palos de la Frontera and later, upon the arrival of the Arabs, it was hidden at the bottom of the Huelva estuary. Later, fishermen rescued it with their nets and returned it to the church of the monastery. According to documents in the parish of San Jorge in Palos de la Frontera, during a restoration of the image of the Virgin in the 18th century, traces of salt and marine slime were found, as if it had been submerged in the sea.
It does correspond to history the fact that Columbus and part of his crew prayed before this image hours before embarking on the journey that would take them to the shores of the New World.
Throughout its history, multiple favors and miracles have been attributed to her, both in terms of healings and wonders in favor of the defense of the coasts against pirate attacks. That is why she soon began to be called “of the Miracles,” which she shares with her primordial and original name “of La Rábida.”
In 1967, the canonical patronage it had held since ancient times over Palos de la Frontera was ratified.
The image of the Virgin was canonically crowned at the foot of the monument to the discoverers by Pope John Paul II on June 14, 1993. The sponsors of the coronation were the kings of Spain, Juan Carlos I and Sofia, represented by their daughter Infanta Cristina. It is the only image of the Virgin crowned by this Pope in Spain. Likewise, she received the title of perpetual mayoress of the city.
Every year, on August 4, she is transferred to Palos de la Frontera, to the parish of San Jorge, where she remains during the summer month to receive the honors paid to her by the faithful of that locality. On August 15, coinciding with the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, and after the solemn religious function, a procession is held in her honor through the main streets of the town. And on the last weekend of August, she is transferred again to the Monastery of La Rábida, where, in the surroundings of the monastery, a typical Andalusian pilgrimage takes place, thus concluding the events of the city of Palos in honor of the Virgin of Miracles.