Seville’s Catedral was conceived in 1402 as an unrivalled monument to Christian glory – “a building on so magnificent a scale that posterity will believe we were mad”. To make way for this new monument, the Almohad mosque that stood on the proposed site was almost entirely demolished. Meanwhile, the canons, inspired by their vision of future repute, renounced all but a subsistence level of their incomes to further the building.
The cathedral was completed in just over a century (1402–1506), an extraordinary achievement, as it’s the largest Gothic church in the world. As Norman Lewis says, “It expresses conquest and domination in architectural terms of sheer mass.” Though it is built upon the huge, rectangular base-plan of the old mosque, the Christian architects (probably under the direction of the French master architect of Rouen cathedral) added the extra dimension of height. Its central nave rises to 42m, and even the side chapels seem tall enough to contain an ordinary church. The total area covers 11,520 square metres, and new calculations, based on cubic measurement, have now pushed it in front of St Paul’s in London and St Peter’s in Rome as the largest church in the world, a claim upheld by the Guinness Book of Records, a copy of whose certificate is proudly displayed in the church.
The monument to Christopher Columbus
Entry to the cathedral is via the Puerta de San Cristóbal on the building’s south side; you are guided through a reception area and bookshop that brings you into the church to the west of the portal itself. Turn right once inside to head east, where you will soon be confronted by the Tomb of Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón in Spanish). Columbus’ remains were originally interred in the cathedral of Havana, on the island that he had discovered on his first voyage in 1492. But during the upheavals surrounding the declaration of Cuban independence in 1902, Spain transferred the remains to Seville, and the monumental tomb – in the late Romantic style by Arturo Mélida – was created to house them. However, doubts have always been voiced concerning the authenticity of the remains, and in 2002 scientists from the University of Granada carried out DNA tests in an attempt to confirm that they are those of Columbus – but these proved inconclusive. The mariner’s coffin is held aloft by four huge allegorical figures, representing the kingdoms of León, Castile, Aragón and Navarra; the lance of León should be piercing a pomegranate (now inexplicably missing), symbol of Granada (and the word for the fruit in Spanish), the last Moorish kingdom to be reconquered.
As you move into the nave, sheer size and grandeur are, inevitably, the chief characteristics of the cathedral. But once you’ve grown accustomed to the gloom, two other qualities stand out with equal force: the rhythmic balance and interplay between the parts, and an impressive overall simplicity and restraint in decoration. All successive ages have left monuments of their own wealth and style, but these have been limited to the two rows of side chapels. In the main body of the cathedral only the great box-like structure of the coro stands out, filling the central portion of the nave.
The Capilla Mayor
The coro extends and opens onto the Capilla Mayor, dominated by a vast Gothic retablo composed of 45 carved scenes from the Life of Christ. The lifetime’s work of a single craftsman, Fleming Pieter Dancart, this is the supreme masterpiece of the cathedral – the largest and richest altarpiece in the world and one of the finest examples of Gothic woodcarving. The guides provide staggering statistics on the amount of gold involved.
The Sacristía de los Cálices
Before proceeding around the edge of the nave in a clockwise direction it’s best to backtrack to the church’s southeast corner to take in the Sacristía de los Cálices where many of the cathedral’s main art treasures are displayed, including a masterly image of Santas Justa y Rufina by Goya, depicting Seville’s patron saints, who were executed by the Romans in 287. Should you be interested in studying the many canvases here or the abundance of major artworks placed in the various chapels, it’s worth calling at the bookshop near the entrance to purchase a copy of the official Guide to the Cathedral of Seville, which deals with them in detail.
The Sacristía Mayor
Alongside this room is the grandiose Sacristía Mayor, housing the treasury. Embellished in the Plateresque style, it was designed in 1528 by Diego de Riaño, one of the foremost exponents of this predominantly decorative architecture of the late Spanish Renaissance. Amid a confused collection of silver reliquaries and monstrances – dull and prodigious wealth – are displayed the keys presented to Fernando by the Jewish and Moorish communities on the surrender of the city; sculpted into the metal in stylized Arabic script are the words “May Allah render eternal the dominion of Islam in this city”. Through a small antechamber here you enter the oval-shaped Sala Capitular (chapterhouse), with paintings by Murillo and an outstanding marble floor with geometric design.
Puerta del Nacimiento
Continuing to the southwest corner and the Puerta del Nacimiento – the door through which pass all the pasos and penitents who take part in the Semana Santa processions – you then turn right (north) along the west wall, passing the Puerta Principal.
The Capilla de San Antonio
In the northwest corner, the Capilla de San Antonio has Murillo’s Vision of St Anthony depicting the saint in ecstatic pose before an infant Christ. A magnificent work: try to spot where the restorers joined San Antonio back into place after he had been crudely hacked out of the picture by thieves in the nineteenth century. He was eventually discovered in New York – where art dealers recognized the work they were being asked to buy – and returned to the cathedral. The Baptism of Jesus above this is another fine work by the same artist.
The Capilla Real
The nave’s north side leads to the Puerta de la Concepción, through which you will exit – but before doing so, continue to the northeast corner to view the domed Renaissance Capilla Real, built on the site of the original royal burial chapel and containing the body of Fernando III (El Santo) in a suitably rich, silver shrine in front of the altar. The large tombs on either side of the chapel are those of Fernando’s wife, Beatrice of Swabia, and his son, Alfonso the Wise. The chapel is reserved for services and private prayer and may only be viewed via the entrance in Plaza Virgen de los Reyes (Mon–Sat 8am–2pm & 4–7pm; free). You are now close to the entry to the Giralda tower.