A magnificent building that houses valuable art treasures
Attached to the south side of the Seville Cathedral, the Sacristía Mayor (Main Sacristy) is a Greek cross-shaped building crowned by a circular dome at the crossing. Surmounting the dome is a beautiful roof lantern built to provide daylight to the hall below. The work on this building started by the architect Diego de Riaño, and after his death in 1534, Martín de Gainza continued the work and completed in 1543.
The Sacristía Mayor, along with the Sala Capitular, is a Renaissance-style addition to the Gothic-style Seville Cathedral. Both were built in the 16th century and attached to the south side of cathedral, separated by an anteroom called Antecabildo. Unlike the Sala Capitular – which followed an unconventional elliptical design – the Sacristía Mayor followed the traditional design with a grand circular dome and roof lantern, a trend at that time in Renaissance-style architecture. Also, they were built for different purposes. The Sala Capitular was the meeting room of the cathedral’s chapter, whereas the Sacristía Mayor was a repository for the liturgical items.
Preserved in the sacristy are the art treasures that provide a glimpse of the glorious era in which religious art flourished in Seville. On display are the finely-crafted liturgical items, including monstrances, reliquaries, custodias, crosses, mostly made of precious metals like gold and silver. Besides, adorning the walls of the sacristy are the masterpieces painted by famous painters, including Goya, Murillo, Campaña, and Zurbarán.
The dome of the Sacristía Mayor is relatively large and stands out when viewed from outside. As you can see from the image, it is a beautiful structure surmounted by a roof lantern supported by the flying buttresses.
On the right side of the image is the Giralda, which is on the other side of the cathedral. Notice the small roof lantern in front of it. It belongs to the dome of the Sala Capitular. This goes to show that the Sacristía Mayor is bigger and taller than the Sala Capitular.
The image below shows the ceiling of the dome. As you can see, there are three concentric panels ornate with bas-reliefs depicting scenes related to the Last Judgement (the Second Coming of Christ). Click the image and view the full size for a view of the reliefs.
Here is a brief explanation of the reliefs:
- Top layer: Depicts Jesus seated on a bow with his feet resting on a globe representing the earth. His right hand is up, and the left is down. He is holding a lily with his right hand, and there is a sword above his left shoulder. These two symbolize mercy and justice, respectively. Flanking Jesus on the left is the Virgin Mary, and on the right is St. John the Evangelist.
- Middle layer: Depicts the saved ones, who with folded hands looking up to Jesus
- Bottom layer: Depicts the damned ones who are being herded to hell by beast-like demons
The image shows a view of the interior of the Sacristía Mayor you see as you enter this room. In the middle is the Custodia de Arfe, a processional custodia made by Juan de Arfe y Villafañe, a master sculptor born into a prominent family of goldsmiths/silversmiths.
On the left is the silver statue of San Fernando attributed to Pedro Roldán, who made it in 1671. On the right is the statue of La Inmaculada Concepción (Immaculate Conception of Mary) made by Alonso Martínez of Seville in 1650.
Behind the Custodia de Arfe are the three richly decorated enclosures, each with a famous painting.
The image shows the enclosure at the opposite end of the entrance. As you can see, it has highly ornate arched doors and vaulted ceiling richly decorated with sculptural reliefs. In the center within an oval-shaped frame is the relief of Virgin Mary, and surrounding her are the twelve apostles.
The main attraction of this enclosure, however, is the brilliant oil painting, Descent from the Cross, mounted on the back wall.
When you are in the Sacristía Mayor, it feels as though you in an art museum because its space is filled with valuable art treasure. On display at the sacristy are the finely-crafted liturgical items and numerous paintings. The liturgical items include monstrances, reliquaries, custodias, and crosses, mostly made of precious metals like gold and silver. Here are some of the art treasures:
Custodia de Arfe
The magnificent silver sculpture, known as the Custodia de Arfe (Arfe’s Custodia), bears the name of its builder, Juan de Arfe y Villafañe, a master sculptor born into a prominent family of goldsmiths/silversmiths.
With a height of over 12 ft and weight of over 1000 pounds, the Custodia de Arfe, which was made between 1580 and 1587, is massive and was intended for the processional use.
As you can see, the tower-shaped custodia has four circular floors, and crowning the top floor is a sculpture representing Faith. Influenced by the Greco-Roman architecture, each floor of the custodia appears like a miniaturized Greek/Roman building.
The floors are similar in design, but their size, including the height and diameter, decreases proportionally as the tower rises from the bottom to the top. In the center of the floor is the cella, and surrounding it are two concentric rings, each made of 12 Greek-style columns.The outer ring columns are on the edge of the floor. The proportionality applies to the size of the columns and the sculptures.
The custodia rests on a circular base made later by a different silversmith. Mounted on this base are 12 cups, each of which aligns with a column.
- Floor – 1 (Bottom floor) : The circular part of each column rests on a square base. Engraved on this column are the grapevines that criss-cross to the top from their roots at the bottom. Figures of angels and birds eating grapes are in between the vines. Carved on the three sides of the square base are bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Old and New Testaments. Standing in the center of the cella is a beautifully carved silver sculpture depicting the Immaculate Conception made by Juan de Segura in 1668. It replaced the figure of Faith that was part of the custodia when Jaun de Arfe built it. Flanking the Immaculate Conception are the statues of Peter and Paul.
- Floor – 2: The columns of this floor are of the Corinthian order. Placed in the cella is the holder that hosts the Blessed Sacrament during the procession.
- Floor – 3: The columns of this floor are of the Ionic order. The cella holds the statue of the Mystic Lamb opening the Book with Seven Seals, an apocalyptic scene envisioned by John of Patmos and narrated by him in the Book of Revelation.
- Floor – 4: The columns of this floor are of the Corinthian order. The cella houses the sculpture depicting the Holy Trinity, i.e., the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The image shows the location of the Custodia de Arfe. As you can see, it is in the middle of the sacristy and behind it are two famous paintings mounted on the wall.
Right: The Vision of San Fransciso – A masterpiece by Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560 – 1627), a Baroque painter and a pioneer of realism in Spain.
Left: Virgin of Mercy – A great work attributed to Juan de Roelas (17th century).
Descent from the Cross – A masterpiece by Pedro de Campaña
The image shows an oil painting, Descent from the Cross, mounted on the back wall of the enclosure behind Custodia de Arfe. This masterpiece was painted in 1547 by Pedro de Campaña (1503 – 1580), a noted Flemish painter born in Brussels and trained in Italy. He painted numerous religious masterpieces, some of which are on display in the Seville Cathedral and various churches in Spain. Descent from the Cross is believed to be his best work.
As you can see from the painting, the motionless body of Christ is being lowered with reverence by three men in red robes. According to the accounts in the Gospels, the men on the ladders are Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, and the man holding Jesus’ legs is St. John the Evangelist. Waiting at the bottom are four grief-stricken women that include Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene.
Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary
Sculpted by Alonso Martínez of Seville in 1650, this beautiful silver work represents the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception states that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was born without the stain of the original sin.
Seville was famous for its mastery in silversmithing, and the sculpture representing the Immaculate Conception is a fine example of that mastery. As you can see, it is a stunningly beautiful work with great attention paid to details.
Clad in a beautiful cloak, the Virgin Mary is standing on a crescent moon up and is among angels. With her hands clasped, she is looking downwards with grace. The crescent moon conveys important symbolism, i.e., conquering sin. Adorning her head is a finely crafted crown, and surrounding it is a halo with rays.
The Immaculate Conception is a popular theme in the art presented in the Seville Cathedral. For example, La Inmaculada Concepción is a masterpiece painted on the dome of the Chapter House by the noted Spanish painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.
Bust-reliquary of Santa Rosalía
This impressive work of art in silver was made by Lorenzo Castelli, an Italian silversmith, in 1688. Santa Rosalía (St. Rosalia) is a saint invoked by the Catholics during a pandemic. As the COVID-19 pandemic is devastating our planet, St. Rosalia is becoming popular internationally because of the belief that she can us from the pandemic.
Here is the story of St. Rosalia:
Born in 1130 into a wealthy family in Palermo, Italy, St. Rosalia led a strange life. Early in her youth, she left home and lived like a hermit in a cave nearby. She is believed to have written these words on the walls of the cave;
I, Rosalia, daughter of Sinibald, Lord of Roses and Quisquina, have taken the resolution to live in this cave for the love of my Lord, Jesus Christ.
She spent her entire life there and died in 1166, unbeknown to the rest of the world. Her body remained in the cave until a hunter discovered them in 1624. As the story goes, she appeared to that hunter and asked him to recover her remains from the cave and bring them to the city in a procession. At that time, Palermo was beset by a Plague pandemic, which disappeared after her remains were carried in procession three times through the city. In gratitude, the people of Palermo declared her the patron saint of Palermo.
When Jaime de Palafox y Cardona, the bishop of Palermo, became the archbishop of Seville, he decided to promote St. Rosalia in Seville and donated the bust-reliquary St. Rosalia to the Seville Cathedral.
– Seville Cathedral: An awe-inspiring architectural marvel
— Sala Capitular – The Chapter House of the Seville Cathedral
– La Giralda: A harmonious blend of Moorish and Renaissance architectural styles
Copyright © 2020 by Lawrence Rodrigues. All rights reserved.