Santa María of Poblet presents a unique blend of architectural forms generally reserved for distinct applications. It has served as one of the largest and most complete of the Cistercian abbeys, as a massive military complex, and as a royal palace, residence and pantheon. It is a unique artistic achievement and one of the most perfect expressions of Cistercian style in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. The abbey contains masterpieces from every period such as the great alabaster retablo by Damian Forment (1529).
Poblet presents a unique blend of architectural forms. First and foremost, it is a Cistercian abbey, one of the largest and most complete that exists. North of the church, laid out in the usual way, is a group of monastic buildings that include the great cloister with its fountain, chapter room, monk's dormitory, parlour and its annex, closed cloister, monk's room which is now a library, calefactory, refectory and kitchens.
The former lay brothers' buildings are on the west and the infirmary to the north. The monastery is complete: it has its private buildings - gatehouse and guest house on the west, the abbot's residence on the south, the prior's lodgings on the north - and its work buildings - the kiln on the north-west side, an oil mill on the south. The spatial organization of common areas for the living is as clear as a textbook model; even the space reserved for the dead seems regulated in the same spirit, i.e. one cemetery for monks, one for lay brothers, and one for the laity.
Poblet is also a fortress, impressive in its massive size. Lying midway between Tarragona and Lérida, at the foot of the Sierra de Montsant, the old Cistercian monastery founded in 1150 by the monks of Fontfroide was transformed into a stronghold by Peter IV the Ceremonious, King of Aragon (1336-87) during the War of Castile. It was he who had the 608 m of interior walls built. These walls are an excellent example of 14th-century military architecture: crenellated battlements with walls 2 m thick and walkways, reinforced with high towers that are either square or polygonal, and its Royal Gate (1379-97) defended by machicolations.
Poblet is, finally, a royal residence, directly associated with the history of the houses of Barcelona, Aragon and Castile. The monastery was founded by Raimond Beranger IV, the saintly Count of Barcelona, to colonize reconquered lands. Later it was considered a symbolic monument of the dynasty. Shortly after 1349 Peter IV decided to do more than fortify Poblet: in the abbey church he had Jaime Cascalls and Jorge de Deu, masters of royal works, build a sumptuous dynasty burial place, using a completely new principle: two enormous sarcophagi reposing on surbased arches, providing for communication between the choir and the deambulatory. The sarcophagi served as sepultures for several kings of the houses of Catalonia and Aragon, identified by their recumbent statues: Alfonso II the Chaste, John I and John II on the southern, epistle side, James I the Conqueror, Peter IV and Ferdinand I on the northern, Gospel side. Several queens are buried alongside their spouses. The royal pantheon extends through the arms of the transept with individual sepultures. Poblet was both the necropolis and the home of kings. In 1397, Martin I commissioned the architect Arnau Bagues to transform the former lay brothers' building into a palace. The project was never completed, but royal chambers, on the east side, later were reserved for royal visitors.
The history of Spain can be traced in the additions made to Poblet. The King of Aragon, Alfonso IV the Magnanimous, had the Chapel of St George built in 1452 to commemorate the victory at Naples in 1442. The Golden Gate was completed on the occasion of a visit by the Catholic Kings and restored during the visit of Philip II. The symbolic value of Poblet in the cultural heritage of Spain was more recently marked by the visit of Alfonso XIII to the disused monastery in 1926 and by the return of his ashes to the royal pantheon in 1952.