Culture on the Camino: the Monastery of Samos

Keeping a record of the historical and cultural heritage linked to the Camino de Santiago is no easy task. Goethe once stated that “Europe began on the Camino de Santiago”. While the Christian communities were the pillar of union of the different peoples of Europe and somehow contributed to consolidate their identity, the pilgrimage to Santiago is a trail of our history that over ten centuries has left its traces in the form of monuments, texts, words that are part of what defines us and treasures our cultural wealth.

Monastic life and the construction of the first monasteries run parallel to the origins of the Christian pilgrimage. In today’s article we will talk about one of these magical places that we may have the opportunity to visit: the Monastery of Samos in Lugo.

It is undoubtedly one of the oldest and most important monasteries in Galicia. The beauty of its medieval abbey and its village, make the Monastery of Samos a must for all pilgrims who walk to Santiago de Compostela.

1) Its location

The monastery of San Julián de Samos is located in the village of Samos (municipality with the same name) about 11 km from Sarria and 45 km from Lugo.

It sits in a narrow valley surrounded by mountains, crossed by the Oribio river, rich in eels and trout (two of the traditional dishes of this area).

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The peaceful harmony of the surrounding natural environment is in harmony with both the monumental aspect of its ancient abbey and the quiet monastic life and character of its people.

Lets learn a little more about its origins.

2) Its History

To talk about the history of the Monastery of Samos is to make a journey through 1500 years of antiquity in which it was occupied by Swabian, Visigothic, Muslim, Leonese, Castilian or French peoples.

The name Samos comes from the Swabian word “samanos” or “place where religious people live in community”. The foundation of its abbey dates back to the 6th century and is attributed to Saint Martin Dumiense. At that time the monastic community was governed by Hispanic Rules such as those of St. Fructuosus or St. Isidore.

In the 8th century it was destroyed and abandoned after the Muslim invasion. After their retreat to the south, King Fruela I of Asturias began its reconstruction in the year 760. In this place the king would give refuge and assign reserves to the Mozarabs who were fleeing from Al-Andalus. His own son, King Alfonso II the Chaste, spent his childhood in the monastery with his sister Jimena.

At the beginning of the 10th century, the bishop of Lugo, Don Ero, tried to take control of the monastery by expelling the monks. Ordoño II managed to rescue it with the help of the Benedictine monks of Penamaior and from the year 960 the Monastery was governed by the Rules of the Order of Saint Benedict.
In the 12th century it regained all its splendor under the Cluniac reform and was greatly enriched by donations from kings and nobles of the time until it became one of the most important pilgrimage centers of the Middle Ages.

In modern times, fires devastated this place of worship on several occasions. The first in 1558 and the second in 1951; on both occasions it had to be rebuilt.

The French invasion also took its toll on this quiet place that became a war hospital for more than 800 wounded.

The disentailment of Mendizábal brought with it the exclaustration of the clerical community until 1880, when the Benedictine monks returned.

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3) Architectural richness of the Monastery of Samos

The successive occupations and reconstructions that the Monastery of Samos underwent are reflected in a conglomerate of architectural styles from Late Gothic to Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassicism.

Although a unity of styles cannot be found, we can observe in its construction over time a spirit of grandeur and restrained sobriety.

3.1) The church

The church, in baroque style, was built between 1734 and 1748. It has a Latin cross plan and three naves. Its interior, solemn and luminous, is formed by half-barrel vaults supported by semicircular arches on Doric style columns. Over the transept rises a great dome with reliefs dedicated to the Benedictine Marian doctors San Ruperto, San Bernardo, San Anselmo and San Ildefonso.

The main altarpiece is classical and houses an image of the patron saint of the monastery, San Julián, the work of José Ferreiro.

The façade is also baroque. It is accessed by a staircase reminiscent of the Obradoiro of the Cathedral of Santiago. It is divided into two horizontal bodies, the lower one twice as high as the upper one and both flanked by four Doric columns that surround the linteled door and the oculus.

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In the church we can also find its famous library that contains volumes of great historical value and the sacristy, already reformed and dating from the seventeenth century.

3.2) The cloisters

There are two cloisters:

The large or Feijóo Cloister built between 1685 and 1689, and which with its 3,000 m2 is considered the largest in Spain. Its architecture mixes elements of the Classical style and Herrerianism. The elevation is divided into three floors: the lower one formed by a gallery of semicircular arches overlooking the gardens, the more sober intermediate level with rectangular windows, and the upper one with beautiful carpanel arch balustrades and Ionic capital columns. In the center of the courtyard we can contemplate the great statue dedicated to Father Feijóo, the work of Francisco Asorey.

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The second cloister, called the Small Cloister or the Cloister of the Nereids, is older, dating from 1539 and 1582. Its creator was the architect Pedro Rodríguez from Monforte and it could be classified within the Late Gothic style. It is formed by ribbed vaults with pointed arches. In its center is the baroque fountain of the Nereids of the early eighteenth century.

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4) The Monastery today

Despite the passage of time and its changes, the religious community of Samos still performs the same functions: liturgical, lodging for pilgrims, archives and library. Even so, it has adapted perfectly to today’s pilgrims and tourists’ tastes. For example, it has its own store where it is possible to buy souvenirs made by the monks themselves.

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