Hagamos una iglesia tan hermosa y tan grandiosa que los que la vieren labrada nos tengan por locos. (Let us build a church so beautiful and so magnificent that those who see it finished will think we were mad).
So said the church elders before embarking upon the monumental effort of building this cathedral at Seville. Visiting this church is a fascinating experience. When you enter this immense and stunningly beautiful edifice, you will realize that the church elders indeed kept their promise.
While not as imposing as some of the famous religious monuments (such as Angkor Wat and Borobudur ) when viewed from outside, the sprawling interior of the cathedral presents an awe-inspiring sight with its immensity, grandeur, and beauty. The towering and massive columns elegantly arch over to the ceiling to support the ribbed vaults. Exquisitely designed geometrical patterns cover part of the roof, and a large number of multicolored stained glass windows cover the walls in different part of the cathedral.
An ensemble of art treasures preserved in the cathedral provides a glimpse of the opulence of the bygone era in which Seville enriched itself from the expeditions to the New World. These treasures include masterpieces from well-known painters and golden and plateresque-style liturgical items.
Officially known as La Catedral de Santa María de la Sede de Sevilla (Cathedral of St. Mary of the See of Seville), the Seville Cathedral is the largest Gothic cathedral and the third-largest church in the world. St. Mary of the See – one of the numerous titles of Mary, the mother of Jesus – is the patron saint of this cathedral. Note that the term See refers to the region typically covered under a Roman Catholic bishop, which, in this case, is Seville. Declared in 1987 by UNESCO as a World Heritage site – along with the adjoining Alcázar Palace complex and the General Archive of the Indies – the Seville Cathedral is indeed one of the architectural marvels of the world.
A quick journey through the history of the Seville Cathedral
Seville was under the rule of the Almohads – a Moorish dynasty from North Africa – until the Reconquista headed by the Christian King Ferdinand III of Castile and León captured it in 1248. The Christians converted the grand mosque built in 1198 by Almohads into a cathedral by making minor changes, such as changing the orientation and covering the walls with Christian paintings. However, as Seville, a major trading hub in those days, became prosperous after the looted riches, including a massive amount of gold, from the New World passed through it, the city decided to build a Christian cathedral by demolishing the existing mosque.
The Seville Cathedral we see today was built exactly on the site where the Almohad mosque once stood, although only a few vestiges of the original mosque remain. By any stretch of imagination, building a monument of this magnitude is a massive undertaking, so it took more than 100 years to build. The construction began in 1401 and completed in 1506. The names of the architects and builders of this masterpiece are long forgotten, but their lasting legacy remains.
Gothic architecture at its finest
Considered an architectural masterpiece, the Seville Cathedral has a spectacular interior and a magnificent exterior. Although the architecture style of is Gothic, it has its own unique characteristics. Because of the cathedral was built on the foundation of the Almohad mosque, the design of the cathedral was constrained, especially the ground plan. However, the architect(s) did an ingenious job by utilizing the existing space to build a tall and sprawling structure.
Just like any church, the Seville Cathedral is cross-shaped, i.e., long main body with an attachment of two shorter wings, which are known as transepts, on either side built at right angles to the main body. The main body of the cathedral has columns placed in a grid-like fashion to create five longitudinal naves and nine transversal sections. In other words, the interior of the church is a 9 x 5 virtual grid created by the columns placed at the corners of the grid blocks. The central nave, which rises to 138 ft, is the tallest. The height of the columns tapers down as you go towards the sides.
Captured from the belfry of the Giralda, the outer view of the Seville Cathedral shown above reveals its Gothic characteristics that include its tall structures, flying buttresses, and stained glass windows. As you can see, the flying buttresses, which run in the longitudinal as well as the transversal directions, intersect, resulting in grid-like formations. Rising above these intersecting joints are the beautifully carved tower-like structures. Besides being aesthetically pleasing, the flying buttresses help distribute the structural load laterally, which allowed the architects to design very tall structures.
Interestingly, the Seville Cathedral – unlike many famous cathedrals- does not have any tall tower (s) built above its main body. However, as you can see, there is a short squarish structure that is above the crossing, i.e., at the intersection of the central nave and transepts.
Although the Seville Cathedral is known as a Gothic cathedral, it is a harmonious blend of many architectural styles, including Renaissance architecture. The Renaissance-style additions include the side chapels – some of which are as big as an ordinary church – built on either side of the cathedral. The other Renaissance-style additions are the two prominent buildings attached to the south side of the building, Sala Capitular (Chapter House) and Sacristia Mayor (Main Sacristy), separated by an anteroom, Antecabildo.
The interior of the Seville Cathedral is stunning and breathtaking. When you enter the cathedral, it overwhelms you with its vastness, grandeur, and lavishness of decoration. The tall and massive columns, colorful stained glass windows, mesmerizing patterns on the ceiling present an awe-inspiring sight to the onlookers. Despite its grand scale, the interior of the Seville Cathedral gives an impression of harmonious architecture with its open spaces and the proportionality of the architectural elements.
Just like any church, occupying the central part of the cathedral are its core components, i.e., the main altar, choir, and retro choir. Known as the crossing, the block where the transepts intersect the central nave is the center of the cathedral. As you can see from the image, it is the block with pews where people gather to view the Coro (Choir) on the left, the Capilla Mayor (Main Chapel), which contains the main altar, on the right. Inside the main chapel is a beautifully carved wooden altarpiece coated with a copious amount of gold believed to be the largest in the world. Behind the crossing is the plateresque-style altar, known as the Silver Altar, which occupies the north transept and lies in front of the inner wall of the Puerta de la Concepción (Door of the Conception), an ornate door through which visitors enter the cathedral.
Vaulted ceiling covered with mesmerizing patterns
The images above show a part of the ceiling above the crossing. The image on the left is reflection of the ceiling by a mirror placed on floor near the Tomb of Columbus.
As you can see, covering the ceiling are the beautiful geometrical patterns that are symmetrical about both the principal axes. The symmetry and curved nature of these patterns make them aesthetically pleasing. The vaulted ceiling rests on tall and massive columns that are lined up along the naves. Just below this ceiling are the stained glass windows.
Retablo Mayor – The largest altarpiece in the world
The Retablo Mayor (Great Altarpiece) is an amazing altarpiece like no other. This massive and intricately-carved wooden structure covered with gold is 66 ft high and 60 ft wide and is part of the altar inside the Capilla Mayor (Main Chapel).
The construction of this altarpiece started in 1482 by Pieter Dancart, a sculptor from present-day Belgium, and continued by several skilled sculptors before the completion of the first phase in 1528.
As you can see from the image, the Retablo Mayor is a recessed structure held by tall pillars on either side. The front-facing portion is a grid of compartments, each housing a narrative relief carved in wood and coated with a copious amount of gold.
The structure above the base consists of seven columns and five rows of compartments. Not all the compartments are of equal size. The compartments are separated vertically by pilasters, which are ornate with carvings of historical figures from the Bible or Church. Each compartment contains a narrative sculptural reliefs mostly depicting the scenes from the life of Jesus Christ.
Check the Retablo Mayor – Altarpiece at the main chapel page for a list and description of the reliefs in the compartments of the altarpiece.
The side sections are perpendicular to the front portion and are attached to the pillars. These were part of the second phase of the altarpiece construction, which started in 1550 and completed in 1564.
At the top of the Retablo Mayor is a canopy with three rows of octagonal niches.
The image shows the canopy above the massive Retablo Mayor (altarpiece) of the Capilla Mayor (Main Chapel). As you can see, the canopy is ornate with geometrical patterns containing carvings of 30 identical recessed hexagons arranged in three rows.
Above the canopy, there is a row of 13 compartments, each containing a relief. The relief at the center of this row depicts Mary holding the body of Jesus on her lap, and flanking this relief are the reliefs of the 12 Apostles, six on each side.
Virgin of the See – The patron saint of the Seville Cathedral
Just above the base of the altarpiece and at the center of the bottom row is a beautifully carved sculpture of Mary holding baby Jesus, known as the La Virgen de la Sede (Virgin of the See). Carved in wood and coated with silver, this sculpture was made in the 13th century. As mentioned before, La Virgen de la Sede is the patron saint of the Seville Cathedral and is also responsible for its official name, Catedral de Santa María de la Sede.
Coro and Trascoro
The Coro (Choir) is where the church choir congregates and sings during the mass in a church. In the Seville Cathedral, it is a box-like structure occupying a block in the central nave located a section west of the main chapel. It is closed on three sides and opened on the east side, i.e., the side facing the main chapel. Attached to the walls are rows of seats. The Trascoro is on the west-facing wall.
The area behind the Coro (Choir), known as the Trascoro (Retro choir), presents one of the beautiful sights in the Seville Cathedral. Built by Miguel de Zumárraga in the 17th century, this retro choir was constructed with precious materials like jasper, and is an excellent evidence of the opulence of that era.
The upper part of the image shows the magnificent ceiling above the Coro and Capilla Mayor, and the lower part shows the richly decorated the west-side wall of the Coro ornate with many pieces of art, including paintings, bas-reliefs, and bronze busts. At the center is a beautiful painting depicting the Virgen de los Remedios (Virgin of the Remedies), and flanking it are the two doors that open to the Coro. Above the doors are the bronze busts, and next to them are the bas-reliefs.
The Virgen de los Remedios is one of the numerous titles of the Virgin Mary and was popular with the Spanish conquistadors and Reconquista, and still being worshiped in Spain and parts of Latin America.
Silver Altar – A shining example of mastery of Sevillian silversmithing
Occupying the northern arm of the transept and situated behind the Puerta de la Concepción (Door of the Conception) is a magnificent altar, known as the Silver Altar, mostly made of silver by the famous silversmiths of Seville. It got its name because of the abundant use of silver in the altar.
In the center of the altar is the statue of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus flanked by the sculptures of San Isidoro and San Leandro. Behind it is the large and exquisitely-crafted silver monstrance shaped like the sun. Mounted on top of the monstrance is a beautifully designed silver crown.
A large canvas hangs behind the altar to prevent its exposure to the Puerta de la Concepción, where the visitors enter the cathedral. The silhouette of the altar on the canvas can be seen from outside.
The inner side of the Puerta de la Concepción wall is visible behind the altar. Mounted on this wall just above the silver altar is a beautiful painting depicting the Ascension of the Virgin Mary. Above this painting is a circular stained glass window depicting the Ascension of Jesus made by Carlos de Brujas in 1588.
Giant San Cristóbal – A fresco by Mateo Pérez de Alesio
The fresco shown in the image depicts a giant San Cristóbal (St. Christopher) carrying a child, who happens to be Jesus in disguise, on his shoulder and crossing the river. It is on the wall next to the tomb of Columbus.
It is an impressive work by Mateo Pérez de Alesio, who painted it in 1583. He was an Italian painter born in Lecce, and as a student of Michelangelo, he worked with him in the Sistine Chapel.
Mausoleo de Cristóbal Colón – The final resting place of Christopher Columbus
Situated in the south transept, the Mausoleo de Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus Mausoleum or Tomb of Christopher Columbus) is one of the famous attractions of the Seville Cathedral. As you can see from the image, the Sarcophagus of Columbus is raised above the ground by four bearers, who symbolically represent the four kingdoms, Castile, Aragon, Navara, and Leon, of erstwhile Spain. Queen Isabella I (along with her husband Ferdinand), who funded Columbus’s famous 1492 journey to the New World, united them into one nation, i.e., modern Spain.
The rectangular bottom of the sarcophagus is a bronze plate inscribed with the coat-of-arms of Spain surrounded by an inscription in Spanish, which reads:
Aqui jacen los restos de Cristobal Colon desde 1796 los guardo la Habana y este sepulcro por R.D.to de 26 de febrero de 1891
(Here lies the remains of Cristobal Colon kept in Havana since 1796 and this sepulcher by R.D.to of February 26, 1891)
Christopher Columbus was a controversial figure, even in death. There is an intriguing story associated with the tomb of Columbus. After Christopher Columbus died in 1506, his body traveled to many countries before it found its final resting place in the Seville Cathedral. He was first buried in Valladolid, Spain. Soon after, his brother Diego moved it to a monastery in Seville.
In 1542, his body was again moved to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, a Spanish territory founded by Columbus. He was interred in the newly constructed Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor in Santo Domingo, the capital of the present-day Dominican Republic.
As fate would have it, France took over the island of Hispaniola in 1795. Not wanting his remains to fall into the French hands, the Spanish moved them to Havana, Cuba, where the current monument was built. After remaining there for about 100 years, the Spanish transported the Columbus Tomb, along with his remains, to Spain.
The monument we see now was installed in the south transept of the Seville Cathedral in 1899. A DNA test in 2006 verified the remains in this tomb do indeed belong to Christopher Columbus. However, the Dominican Republic still claims that the remains of Columbus never left the country.
Tomb of Fernando Colón, the second son of Christopher Columbus
Just like his father, Fernando Colón (also known as Ferdinand Columbus, Fernando Colombo, Hernando Colon), the second son of Christopher Columbus was also buried in the Seville Cathedral. The image shows his tombstone situated on the central nave near the west entrance.
The inscription at the center reads:
A CASTILA y a COLON MUNDO NUEVO DIO COLON – To Castile and to Leon, Columbus gave the new world.
Fernando Colón is known for the biography of his father titled The life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus by his son Ferdinand.
Upon is return from his voyage to the new world, he started to collect books and created a private library known as La Bibliotheca Colombina, which is now located on the north side gallery surrounding the Patio de Los Naranjos.
The Seville Cathedral has 15 doors/gates (puertas), including three major entrances, which are: 1. Main entrance facing west 2. North transept entrance 3. South transepts entrance. Only the north transept entrance is open for the visitors. The most of the doors are later additions and add to the elegance of this majestic cathedral.
Patio de los Naranjos – The Courtyard of Orange Trees
The image shows an aerial view of the Patio de los Naranjos, a garden of orange trees, enclosed by the structures belonging to the Seville Cathedral complex, which are, the northern facade of the Seville Cathedral on the left, Iglesia del Sagrario in the middle, and a gallery on the right.
The small tower in the middle of the right side (i.e., north side) gallery belongs to the Puerta del Perdón (Door of Forgiveness), a gate through which visitors enter the Patio de los Naranjos from the Calle Alemanes. See below the front and rear facades of the Puerta del Perdón.
The gallery on the east side (not visible) houses La Bibliotheca Colombina, a library that holds the private book collection of Fernando Colón.
The Patio de los Naranjos used to be the courtyard of the Almohad mosque once stood in this space. The only thing that remains of the courtyard from that era is the fountain where the worshipers performed ritual ablutions, i.e., washing of feet and hands before entering the mosque.
The Patio de los Naranjos is now used by the visitors to gather and relax under the shade of the orange trees before and after the tour of the Seville Cathedral.
Puerta del Perdón – The Door of Forgiveness
The Puerta del Perdón – which used to be the main entrance to the Almohad mosque in Moorish times – acts as the visitor’s entrance to the Seville Cathedral complex. It got its name because the faithful believed that sinners entered the cathedral through this door to seek forgiveness.
As you can see from the image on the left, the facade of the Puerta del Perdón is a fusion of Christian and Islamic art. The horseshoe-shaped arch is from the Almohad era. However, the surrounding plaster work – although it looks like Islamic art – is not. In fact, it is the work of Bartolomé López, a Spanish sculptor who made it in 1522. As you can see, the artwork consists of beautiful flowery designs and the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Castile and León (Castle with three towers and crowned lion) on either side of the arch.
Flanking the arch are four beautiful clay statues made by Miguel Florentin. The statues of Archangel Gabriel and St.Peter are on the left side, and the Virgin Mary and St. Paul are on the right side. Above the arch is a narrative bas-relief depicting Jesus expelling merchants from the temple, an episode described in the New Testament.
The image on the right shows the rear facade of the Puerta del Perdón that faces the Patio de los Naranjos.
Puerta de la Concepción – The Door of the Conception
The Puerta de la Concepción (Door of the Conception) is an ornate door at the entrance to the north transept of the Seville Cathedral.
This richly decorated neo-Gothic style door is the brainchild of the architect Joaquín Fernández Casanova, who also built the Puerta del Príncipe, a similar door at the entrance to the south transept. Built between 1895 and 1917, it is the most recent door of the cathedral.
The theme of the relief on the tympanum of this door is the Immaculate Conception of Mary. As you can see from the image, the Virgin Mary is in the middle, flanked by St. Michael and St. John the Evangelist.
Puerta del Príncipe – The Door of the Prince
Located on the south transept of the Seville Cathedral, the Puerta del Príncipe (also known as Puerta de San Cristóbal) is similar to the Puerta de la Concepción and was built by the same architect, Joaquín Fernández Casanova, who built it between 1887 and 1895.
The bronze sculpture of a young woman standing in front of the door symbolizes the victory of Faith and is a replica of El Giraldillo mounted atop the Giralda. Unlike El Giraldillo, it does not rotate and therefore does not serve as a weather vane.
Puerta de Palos – The Door of Sticks
Located next to the Giralda, it was built in the 16th century by Juan de Hoces and Pedro Sánchez of Toledo. This door is also known as the Puerta de la Adoración de los Magos (Door of the Adoration of the Magi) because of the relief in its tympanum depicts the three kings from the east, known as the Magi, presenting the Child Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This beautifully carved relief was made in 1520 by Miguel Perrin, a French sculptor living in Seville.
Seated on the right is the Virgin Mary with the Baby Jesus on her lap receiving gifts from one of the Magi.
The lasting legacy
Visited by millions every year, the Seville Cathedral is an iconic landmark of Seville. It is unique, immense, and awe-inspiring, and even after 600 years, the building is robust as ever and will continue to be so for a long time to come. The people who built this incredible monument are long gone, but their remarkable legacy remains.
– La Giralda: A harmonious blend of Moorish and Renaissance architectural styles
– Sala Capitular – The Chapter House of the Seville Cathedral
– Sacristía Mayor – The Main Sacristy of the Seville Cathedral
Copyright © 2020 by Lawrence Rodrigues. All rights reserved.