Our good friend Ignasi Carbonell in Barcelona has just informed us of the death of Brother Gilbert Galcerán, the Cistercian monk famed for his many beautiful Nativity dioramas. More than 40 of these dioramas can be viewed at the monastery of Santa María de Solius, a town north of Barcelona, where he spent his last decades. You can read more about the monastery, which is actually a fairly recent Cistercian foundation, by clicking here.
Brother Gilbert was born in Vilanova i la Geltru, also near Barcelona, in 1912 and was studying medicine when he realized his vocation to the monastic life. After joining the order in 1942 and spending several years in one of its monasteries in Spain, he was sent to the Monastery of Santa Maria de Hauterive in Switzerland. Here he created 14 Nativity dioramas. In 1953, he was assigned to the Cistercian motherhouse in Rome, which is responsible for maintaining the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, and created yet more dioramas. Finally, he returned to Spain and in 1970 went to the then new Cistercian monastery in Solius. It was here that he labored for years, patiently creating the minutely detailed dioramas that are displayed in a small building next to the monastery. When you step through the curtain into the darkened room, you will see what look like windows into another world, arranged in a large square in the center of the room. People move around it slowly, peering through the “windows” - which I recall as being about 24-30 inches by 18 inches or so – and marveling at the liveliness and depth of the scenes.
The figures are tiny, probably 12-14 cm in height, and seem mostly to be in the Catalan style of which Castells is the most famous producer. I have never seen the dioramas that Br Gilbert did in other parts of the world, so I don’t know what figures he used there. The scenes at Solius start with Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Virgin, meeting at the Golden Gate and continue through scenes from the life of the Virgin through the Nativity and Infancy scenes and on to other episodes from the life of Christ.
Brother Gilbert received many prizes for his work. In this photo, taken a couple of years ago by Ignasi Carbonell, Br. Gilbert is receiving a prize from an official of the Catalan government at the Palacio Real de Pedralbes (which has a collection of Nativity dioramas) in Barcelona. He was awarded the well-deserved title of “Maestro Artesano,” or Master Artisan. You can read more about him at the website of the Associacio de Pessebristes de Barcelona in the “Autores” section. The Association’s site is very interesting, by the way, and full of great photos of figures, dioramas, etc.
Several years ago, I visited the monastery with my friend Maria from Barcelona. The building is at the top of a hill and appears suddenly in the midst of the woodsy, hilly country as you drive along a narrow road towards the coast. We spent quite some time peering into the little worlds of Brother Gilbert and the caretaker congratulated us on being genuinely interested. Some people enter, glance around the square of dioramas, and walk out, he said, but we had to admire each one. Afterwards, we climbed the sandstone steps to the monastery church, a building constructed mostly in the 18th century on the foundations and walls of a 10th or 11th century Romanesque church. Then we walked out under the live oaks and followed the path that led around the building to see the simple graves of the monks in the little cemetery behind the church, the cemetery where Brother Gilbert lies today.