The Dominican Alonso de Burgos – who enjoyed close ties with the Catholic Monarchs – founded the College of San Gregorio in the late 15th century, making it the Dominican order’s centre of theological studies, at a time when spiritual and political reform were taking place all over Europe.
Theologians, mystics, jurists and inquisitors such as Bartolomé de las Casas, Bartolomé Carranza, Luis de Granada, Melchor Cano and Francisco de Vitoria studied here and went on to found universities and bishoprics in America, advised kings how to govern, and defined Spain's position at the Council of Trent. Matters of great importance were debated at the College such as that on the advisability of reading the works of Erasmus in Spain, and that known as the Controversia de Valladolid (the Controversy of Valladolid) in which, at the request of Charles V, the rights of the indigenous peoples of America were discussed.
In the 18th century, with the arrival of ideas of Enlightenment and the opposition of the Bourbons to the ideological power of collegiate institutions, the influence and intellectual splendour the College of San Gregorio had enjoyed in its early days began to wane.
The 19th century, with the occupation by Napoleon's troops and Mendizábal's secularisation programme of 1835, marked the end of the institution. In 1933 it became the home of the Museum, but until then the building was put to the most diverse uses: as a prison, high school, law school, teachers' college, and even tram depot. Despite this, the building did not lose the essence of its formal structure.
The College of San Gregorio was built in the late 15th century and its style pertains to a hybrid architecture that characterised the decades of transition between two worlds, the mediaeval and the modern.
Its main highlight is the preciosity of the lavish style of its frontispiece in the centre of the unadorned façade, manifesting itself like a tapestry in its own right, and where its frenzied decoration entangles contemporary figures, saints and popes, allegories, grotesque beings, wild men, the tree of life and knowledge, and repeated emblems of power.
Commissioned by Alonso de Burgos, as was the rest of the building, it was finished around 1499. Its creator was possibly Gil de Siloé, an artist of Flemish origin and very familiar with the tradition of Astwerk – architectural tracery of plant motifs typical of Central Europe – who worked on this and other projects for the Colonia family.
Inside, the building has essentially retained its original structure. Access is through the Patio de Estudios that evokes the classic simplicity of a Roman atrium. The interior's crowning point is dominated by the large, central square courtyard on two levels, whose richly decorative Plateresque work is an architectural gem from the period of the Catholic Monarchs. The staircase, with wide flights, connects the two floors. The stairwell is lavishly decorated, displaying the eclectic tastes of art in transition; a Gothic tracery balustrade is combined with Renaissance bossage and a Mudéjar coffered ceiling. Off the corridors on both floors were the rooms; the refectory, lecture hall, library, map room, chapter house, the monks' cells, and rooms for 'domestic literary exercises, behind closed doors'.
The College was connected to a large chapel, built in 1490 by Juan Guas and Juan de Talavera. Nine years later, at the foot of the chapel, Simón de Colonia added a sacristy.