An index to blog posts from our Spain trip can be found on the first entry.
December 29, 2018
Growing up in the United States, I frequently found myself “rooting for” Great Britain as I learned European history. I thrilled at Elizabeth I grappling with the Catholic menace of the Spanish Armada. To visit the massive Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See at Sevilla felt a bit like visiting Red Square to me!
A bit of history
[I am grateful to Danya Crites for many details from her excellent dissertation.]
Quite a long stretch of time lies between the Christian capture of Sevilla in 1248 and the construction of its Gothic cathedral, beginning in the 1430s. Along the way, Pedro I popularized the Mudejar style with his magnificent Alcazar palace. At Cordoba, the Mezquita had been modified only slightly for use as a Catholic cathedral (though this would soon change). Why, then, would the mosque at Sevilla be doomed to destruction, especially since its Giralda tower was so widely admired? The earthquake of 1356 might be a partial answer. October 18, 1356 brought the most destructive earthquake ever to strike central Europe, but Basel is a long way from Seville! Seville’s earthquake had arrived two months earlier, on August 24th. The force of the quake dislodged the yamur (pinnacle) of four gilded balls from the top of the giant Giralda, and it caused damage to another church tower in the city. Royal patronage was sought to rebuild churches throughout the city, and many of them opted for the new Mudejar style that had been popularized by Pedro’s Palace (even after his half-brother became king in his place). The mosque and Giralda, however, limped along until bigger changes arrived in the 1430s, when substantial construction began. Permission to demolish the royal chapel that had held the remains of Ferdinand III, conqueror of Seville, was not obtained until 1433; another earthquake in 1431 may have reminded the city that the old mosque was no longer structurally sound.
The clergy of Seville attempted to produce the largest Christian Church in the world, with the completed Cathedral of Toledo as a starting point. Their plans were stunning in scope, with a nave that measured 76 by 115 meters, larger than the cathedral at Milan (begun 1386 A.D.) or Florence (1296 A.D.) or Ulm (1377 A.D.). St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican (1506 A.D.) was the only near contemporary to exceed its footprint or volume. In recent years, the Basilica at Aparecida, Brazil has exceeded the square area and volume of the Sevilla Cathedral. Sevilla remains the largest Gothic cathedral in Europe, though. In 1677, Zuniga wrote in his history of the city that one of the chapter members exclaimed “We will have a church so grand that those who see it finished will think we are mad!” It’s a great quote, even if it was wholly fabricated.
As construction continued, the design was influenced by the strong relationship between church leadership and the Catholic Monarchs. Queen Isabella I favored a design that represented a transition between late Gothic and early Renaissance styles; because of her, this type is called “Isabelline.” Mudejar design elements had lost the royal vogue that Pedro I had conferred more than a hundred years before. As Renaissance design became more popular, its incompatibility with Mudejar imposed more limitations, and eventually the Mudejar style simply lost its momentum. The Cathedral was completed in 1511, though the collapse of a crossing element just five years later required additional construction.
As I walked into the cathedral’s nave, I muttered to myself, “Go up, or go home.” It is clear that the designers wanted a ceiling lost in the heavens. The coro “box” structure was several times my height, and the organ pipes launched from there into the skies.
The high altar “retablo” apparently consumed the entire lifetime of Pierre Dancart to carve; it features 45 scenes from the life of Jesus. As I’ve seen in other Catholic churches, though, the beautiful carving is sequestered behind bars of iron. One could be sitting in the front row of pews and yet be unable to see the details of any of the scenes.
Sevilla has accumulated many priceless artifacts and reliquaries over time. We saw amazing pieces in the main vestry and chapter house. Natasha pointed me to a large silver monstrance reliquary purported to contain a “Holy Thorn” (as in the Crown of Thorns).
I really loved a woodcarving that had once been given to the Duke of Parma.
Any American visiting Seville Cathedral will be sure to stop at the Tomb of Christopher Columbus. It’s very stately, with the kings of Leon, Aragon, Castile, and Navarre each represented by a pall-bearer wearing the coat of arms for each kingdom. The figures seem almost ghostly to me. It’s an impressive sight, whether or not the explorer is inside the casket.
Hunting for Saint Ferdinand
I had a more obscure goal in mind, though. I wanted to see the tomb of Ferdinand III, the Castilian king who captured Cordoba and Seville. His tomb, however, was in the altar of the royal chapel and it was not open to the public on the day of our visit. I was glad to see a painting of him in the Cathedral entrance hall, though.
Since the cathedral calendar showed that a service would be held that night at 18:00, and the royal chapel was slated to be open at that time. I came to the cathedral that night, entering from the Plaza Virgen de los Reyes rather than the main door. Sure enough a corral there allowed me to see that the royal chapel was open, but I could not get closer. I mentioned to the security guard that I had hoped to see Ferdinand III’s tomb, and he surprised me by walking me to the entrance! It would be very hard to miss seeing the tomb as it dominates the altar. Letters hung quite high above the altar read “Per Me Reges Regnant,” (essentially, kings rule in order to serve God). I loved that his tomb is inscribed in Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew!
[Let’s back up time to our afternoon visit.]
To complete our visit to the cathedral, Natasha and I were determined to visit the famous bell tower of Seville. Ferdinand III rode a horse to the top of this tower when he conquered the city, and we would follow in the horse’s steps! Our path put among hundreds of other tourists, though, and soon we were climbing the ramps leading up the four sides of the tower, occasionally pausing to let blobs of tourists clear downward. I believe our ascent of the 34 landings took us roughly half an hour. The observation level sits just below a carillon of bells. They were beautiful, hanging ponderously above us, but all the tourists were scrambling for the perimeter of the tower to shoot as many selfies and panoramic images as possible.
I shot a few telephoto images from each of the four balconies, but it was hard to aim in the bright sunlight.
Shooting on the descent was rather more fun. Natasha and I visited each of the central alcove museum exhibits on the way down, and Natasha spotted some really fetching gargoyles. For me, the highlight would be the clock mechanism that operated from 1400 to 1960. Let’s hear it for the engineers!
With that, Natasha and I erupted into the Patio of Oranges, almost missing the (faux) stuffed alligator and elephant tusk hanging above the exit. We both enjoyed being in this, the oldest part of the cathedral. We had seen a very similar patio of orange trees at the Mezquita, after all. We had been at the Cathedral for only three hours, though it seemed that every minute was packed with some wonder or another. Natasha found another laugh as she spotted a rude face sculpted in the exit gate.
For the folks back home…
I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and so I couldn’t help but notice a lot of the buildings and fountains in Seville have been replicated in my home town. I wanted to include these images so others from home will know that they can see a bit of Kansas City in Seville, our sister city!