Situated in the heart of Las Villuercas, the Real Monasterio de Santa María de Guadalupe is unique in many respects. Its construction began in the 13th century and continued for over five hundred years with a combination of styles such as Gothic, Renaissance, Mudejar, and baroque. The Monasterio houses the Virgen de Guadalupe of the early 14th century, the patron of Extremadura and the queen of La Hispanidad, and is an important religious and pilgrimage centre. For cultural, historical, artistic, and heritage reasons Guadalupe is an enclave of incalculable value.

According to tradition, the history of the sanctuary began when the cowherd Gil Cordero was seeking a lost animal near Alía. On finding it dead near the River Guadalupe he tried to skin it but to the man’s amazement the cow came back to life and a voice from heaven told him where he would find a hidden image of the Virgin. The same voice told him that right there was the best place for building a new chapel to house the image. Legendary happenings aside, the finding of the image may be part of the recurring pattern of religious objects hidden during the Arab invasion and found years later.

The fame of the site spread until it reached the court and the ears of Alfonso XI himself, who decided to visit it. As the king found that it was a small chapel virtually in ruins and that there was no inn or other infrastructures for the pilgrims who were already visiting the sanctuary, he gave lands and funds to build a church. With the passage of time successive monarchs also showed their interest and devotion for the sanctuary, among them John I (who made the church over to the Hieronymites) and Isabella the Catholic, who became an assiduous pilgrim to the shrine. It was precisely in Guadalupe where the Catholic Monarchs received Columbus on three occasions. As the number of pilgrims grew the monastery was successively enlarged and the religious community increased in size together with the volume of the artistic heritage.

By the mid-14th century the church was a basilica and the construction of the Mudejar cloister had begun together with that of the surrounding outbuildings such as the dormitories and the refectory. This cloister is of great beauty and has a Mudejar shrine in its centre; it is one of the most important architectural elements of the monastery. A collection of great paintings hung throughout the cloister tell of the legend and miracles of the Virgen de Guadalupe.

During the 15th and 16th centuries the Gothic cloister and the atrium were added among other elements. It was also at this time that the church was rebuilt in Gothic style. Little by little the monastery began to acquire its grandiose appearance.

It was in the 17th century when the chapel of the Virgin and the vestry were built; in the 18th century a new church was added which later was converted into an auditorium. The choir and the stalls are the work of Manuel de Larra Churriguera and date from the mid-18th century.

The Monasterio de Guadalupe received the title of ‘Real’ (Royal) from Alfonso XI. It was declared a National Monument in 1879. In 1955 Pope Pius XII granted it the denomination of ‘Pontifical’ and in 1993 the UNESCO recognised it as a World Heritage Site.

Over the centuries the Real Monasterio has accumulated a huge amount of works of art and cultural heritage items. In order to keep and preserve them several museums were established which can be visited at the monastery, such as that of illuminated books, that of embroidery, that of sculptures and paintings, the reliquary, and the shrine of the Virgin. The presence in the vestry of several Zurburán paintings of great value deserves special mention. The prosperity of the Monastery was not however limited to the walls of the sanctuary but extended throughout the district. The village of Guadalupe developed and grew around the sanctuary and the existence of an important Hieronymite community promoted the construction of relevant works such as water channels, snow wells, farms, etc… Moreover, the increase in the number of pilgrims favoured the construction of roads, bridges, hostels, and hospitals.