A magnificent building unique in design and rich in decoration
No visit to the Seville Cathedral is complete without seing to the incredibly beautiful Sala Capitular (Chapter House), an ellipse-shaped hall attached to the southeast corner of the building. It is a highly ornate hall crowned by a magnificent dome that is elliptical in shape – a novel idea at the time of its inception and considered a great engineering feat. Surmounting the dome is a beautiful roof lantern, also ellipse-shaped, built to provide daylight to the hall below.
Added more than 50 years after the completion of the Gothic-style Seville Cathedral, the Sala Capitular is a Renaissance-style building, and despite the difference in architectural styles, it blends harmoniously with the main building. The architects responsible for this perfectly-designed building were Hernán Ruiz II, who started in 1561, and Alonso de Maeda, who completed in 1592. It was the first building with the elliptical dome in Spain. The elliptical design of the hall lends itself to better acoustics and visibility.
Exquisitely designed interior
The Sala Capitular used to serve as the meeting room of the cathedral’s chapter, a college of clergymen set up to advise the archbishop to run its religious and administrative affairs. The chapter members, referred to as canons, would sit on the benches placed along the wall during the meetings, typically chaired by the archbishop. Because of the oval design, they would have had perfect visibility of the hall and clear acoustics.
The image shows a section of the oval-shaped wall with its upper part covered by beautifully engraved friezes. Even the floor of this hall is exquisitely designed. As you can see, it is a marble floor covered with tantalizing patterns, the design of which was inspired by the Piazza del Campidoglio, a beautiful square in Rome designed by Michelangelo.
On display at this hall is an ornate chair, known as Archbishop’s Chair, built by Diego de Velasco in 1592. This elegantly designed mahogany chair was used by the archbishop during the meetings of the cathedral chapter.
Spectacular elliptical dome
The richly decorated elliptical dome presents a stunning sight to the visitors. The paneled ceiling of the dome is ornate with an ensemble of paintings, reliefs, stain glass windows, and artwork. Francisco Pacheco, a canon of the chapter, designed the decoration of the vaulted ceiling.
As you can see from the image, in the center is the interior of the elliptical lantern roof decorated with artwork. Covering the dome ceiling below the lantern are a number of ellipse-shaped concentric panels. The radial segments that flow from the top intersect these panels and divide them into trapezoidal-shaped curved blocks, which are smaller at the top and bigger at the bottom. Each of these blocks contain decoration ranging from simple artwork to intricately-carved bas-reliefs.
The blocks in the top two panels contain flowery artwork and geometrical patterns, and the blocks in the panel below, i.e., third from the top, consist of paintings and circular stained glass windows. Carved on the fourth panel from the top are the narrative bas-reliefs inspired by the episodes described in the New Testament.
The images below show different parts of the dome ceiling.
Paintings and Stained glass windows
The third panel from the top is the most remarkable one consisting of a famous painting and eight portraits painted by Murillo. Sandwiched between the portraits are the circular stained glass windows brightly lit by the outside light.
Immaculate Conception – A masterpiece by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
In the center of the third panel is the La Inmaculada Concepción (Immaculata or Immaculate Consumption), a masterpiece by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, a Baroque-style painter from Spain known for religious masterpieces.
This painting is one of the twenty-four Murillo painted in his lifetime on the theme of Immaculate Conception. In this painting, he presents the Virgin Mary up in heaven with a bright light behind her. Clad in a white robe and blue cloak, she is standing on a crescent moon and is among the angels. With her hands clasped, she is looking downwards with grace.
The crescent moon conveys important symbolism, i.e., conquering sin. Note that the Immaculate Conception is a doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church that states the Virgin Mary is born without original sin.
A highly decorative frame with beautiful artwork encloses La Inmaculada. Above the frame is an inscription in Latin describing the painting.
Portraits of the Spanish and Sevillian Saints
Besides La Inmaculada, Murillo painted eight circular portraits of saints that adorn the rest of the third panel. Surrounding each painting is a decorative frame with the name of the saint inscribed in Latin at the top.
The saints in the portraits have connections to Seville, either born or martyred in Seville. Here is the list of eight saints in the counter clock-wise direction starting from La Inmaculada:
|1. San Fernando||St. Ferdinand (1199-1252). Patron saint of Seville. He was King Ferdinand III of Castile.|
|2. San Leandro||St. Leander (534 -600). Bishop of Seville|
|3. San Laureano||St. Laurian(? – 546). Bishop of Seville from 522 to 539|
|4. Santa Rufina||St. Rufina (270 – 287). Martyred in Seville|
|5. Santa Justa||St. Justa (268 – 287). Martyred in Seville|
|6. San Pio||?|
|7. San Isidoro||St. Isidore (560 – 636). Bishop of Seville (600 – 636)|
|8. San Hermenegildo||St. Hermenegild (? – 585). Martyred in Seville.|
Santa Justa and Santa Rufina
Saints Justa and Rufina were sisters who lived and martyred in Seville in the 3rd century. They are considered the protectors of the Giralda and the Seville Cathedral.
In the center is a circular stained glass window flanked by two circular paintings depicting St. Justa on the right and St. Rufina on the left. A trapezoidal frame encloses each painting with the name of the saint inscribed at the top in Latin.
Carved on the fourth panel (from the top) of the vaulted ceiling of the dome are the narrative bas-reliefs. There are sixteen of them – eight in the vertical (portrait) format and the other eight in the horizontal (landscape) format. The vertical format bas-reliefs were made by Juan Bautista Vázquez el Viejo (nicknamed “the Elder”) and Diego de Velasco around 1582 – 1584. The horizontal format bas-reliefs were made by Marcos Cabrera in 1590.
The carvings of bas-reliefs alternate between the horizontal and vertical formats, which are separated by the Ionic order pilasters. A border that looks like the arched door encloses the vertical bas-reliefs.
List of Bas-reliefs
|1. The Assumption of the Virgin||2. Jesus with Apostles||South, below La Inmaculada and San Fernando|
|3. Miracles of St. John the Evangelist||4. Daniel in lion’s den||West, below San Leandro|
|5. A son of man with sharp sickle and gathering of grapes||6. Baptism of Jesus||West, below San Laureano|
|7. Angels with trumpets||8. Parable of the sower||West, below Santa Rufina|
|9. Mystic Lamb opening the scroll||10. Jesus calming the storm||North, below Santa Justa|
|11. Mighty angel with legs like pillars on fire||12. Jesus praying in the Garden of Getsemene||East, below San Pio|
|13. Jesus driving the money changers from the temple||14. Vision of St. Peter – Angels lowering a large sheet carrying animals||East, below San Isidoro|
|15. Unidentified||16. Jesus washing the feet of Apostles||East, below San Hermenegildo|
Assumption of Mary and Jesus with Apostles
The section of ceiling shown in the image is located just below La Inmaculada. As you can see, there are three beautifully carved bas-reliefs. The vertical format bas-relief in the middle depicts the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and the horizontal format reliefs to its left and right depict Jesus with his 12 Apostles. In the left bas-relief, Jesus washing their feet and in the right bas-relief, Jesus standing on a pedestal and preaching them.
The horizontal bas-reliefs are smaller and covering the space above and below them are the inscriptions in Latin. The vertical bas-reliefs cover the entire panel and its inscriptions are in the panel below.
The Vision of St. Peter – Angels lowering a large sheet carrying animals
This bas-relief depicts the Vision of St. Peter, a scene narrated in the Acts of the Apostles.
Here is a summary of the scene from Acts 10: 9-14:
Peter was traveling to the city along with other Apostles. As others were preparing the meal, Peter went up to a terrace to pray. There, he became hungry and wanted to eat, then fell into a trance. In his vision, Peter saw heaven opened up, and a large sheet, held by its four corners and carrying four-legged animals reptiles, and birds, was being lowered to the ground. A voice asked him to kill the animals and eat. Peter refused because he had never eaten any unclean animals before.
The image shows two angels lowering a large sheet carrying animals, while St. Peter, presumably in a trance, is lying down with his left hand holding his face.
Apocalyptic visions of John of Patmos
While the horizontal bas-reliefs depict the life of Jesus as described in the Gospels, six of the vertical bas-reliefs depict the apocalyptic visions of John of Patmos described by him in the Book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament written in a symbolic form about the apocalypse and prophecy. A vast majority of Christians believe that John of Patmos is the same person as St. John the Apostle and St. John the Evangelist, the author of the Gospel according to John. However, many modern scholars have disputed this belief.
John of Patmos wrote the Book of Revelation while in exile on the Greek island of Patmos. He was banished to Patmos by the Roman authorities during the reign of Emperor Domitian (81-96 CE) because of his evangelization activities in Ephesus, where he preached Gospel in the Great Theater. After the death of Domitian, John was released from exile and reported to have returned to Ephesus. He is believed to have died there at the ripe age of 92.
Here are some of the bas-reliefs inspired by the apocalyptic visions of John of Patmos:
Mystic Lamb opening the book with the seven seals
Located above the entrance, this bas-relief captures John’s vision that marks the beginning of the apocalypse. Here are the verses that inspired the bas-relief:
Revelation 6: 1-2 – The Lamb opening the book/scroll with seven seals
1. And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see. 2. And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
In this vision, John sees God holding a scroll with his right hand. Locked by seven seals, this scroll contains the judgment of God on sin and evil. Then an angel appears and asks the question – who is worthy of opening the seals. One of the 24 elders replies – only the Lion of Judah (implies Jesus) is worthy of opening it. Then a mysterious Lamb, a symbolic representation of Jesus, appears and opens the seal one by one. Every time the Lamb opens a seal, it triggers an apocalyptic event.
As you can see from the bas-relief, God is holding a book with his right hand, and the Mystic Lamb is opening the seal. Surrounding God and the Mystic Lamb are the angels and elders.
Angels with trumpets
This bas-relief captures the symbolism behind the apocalyptic nature of John’s visions. Here are the verses that inspired the bas-relief:
Revelation 8: 1-6 – Angels with Trumpets
1. When he broke open the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 2. And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets. 3. Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God's people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. 4. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God's people, went up before God from the angel's hand. 5. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. 6. Then the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to sound them.
John sees this vision when the Mystic Lamb opens the seventh seal. In this vision, there is a silence for half an hour, and then seven angels are given trumpets. An angel with a golden censer comes and stands in front of the altar in front of the throne. He fills the censer with incense, and smoke rises from the burning incense as people start praying. The angel fills the censer with fire and throws it on to the earth. Then the angels with trumpets started sounding the trumpet one by one, each time triggering catastrophic events.
As you can see from the image, God is at the center holding the globe surrounded by angels, most carrying the trumpets and one at the bottom holding the censer (a container for burning incense) with his left hand and fire with his right hand.
Mighty angel with legs like pillars of fire
This is one of the most beautiful and expressive bas-reliefs in the Sala Capitular. It captures the essence of a mysterious verse in the Book of Revelation. Here are the verses that inspired the bas-relief:
Revelation 10: 1-8 – The Angel and the Little Scroll
1. Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head. His face was like the sun, his legs were like pillars of fire. 2. He was holding a little scroll, which lay open in his hand. He planted his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land 3. And he gave a loud shout like the roar of a lion. When he shouted, the voices of the seven thunders spoke. 4. And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven say, 'Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down' 5.Then the angel I had seen standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven. 6. And he swore by him who lives for ever and ever, who created the heavens and all that is in them, the earth and all that is in it, and the sea and all that is in it, and said, 'There will be no more delay' 7. But in the days when the seventh angel is about to sound his trumpet, the mystery of God will be accomplished, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.' 8. Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me once more: 'Go, take the scroll that lies open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land
The bas-relief perfectly captures the essence of the verses 1 to 8 from chapter 10 of the Book of Revelation. It depicts the mighty angel with legs like pillars of fire wrapped in a cloud. As you can see, his left foot is on the land, the right foot is on the sea, and the right hand raised (to heaven). He is holding an open book (little scroll) with his left hand and John appears to receive that book. Unlike many of his other visions, John himself is a participant in this vision. Many Bible experts believe that the mighty angel is Christ.
– Seville Cathedral: An awe-inspiring architectural marvel
Copyright © 2020 by Lawrence Rodrigues. All rights reserved.