The Cathedral of Seville
By Michael Coy
Here it is, the third-largest church in Christendom (only St. Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London can claim to be bigger). We're going to content ourselves today with a slow, leisurely tour of the cathedral's outer walls - we'll save the interior for another day. The thing which strikes us as we gaze on this profusion of carved stone is the fantastic mix of building styles. Seville's cathedral is virtually an encyclopaedia of architectural history.
Let's start with the easiest landmark to find, the mighty "Giralda tower. It gets its name from the huge metal weather vane, a female form (supposed to represent Fate). She is on bearings, and swings around as the wind changes direction - hence the name, "giro meaning a turn or revolving motion. This tower is Seville's greatest glory. Time and time again, as we become more familiar with the city's layout, we will spot the Giralda looming over rooftops as we make our way through outlying neighbourhoods, always there to guide us back to the centre.
Hundreds of Spanish towns and villages have main churches which were formerly mosques. This is because, during the Christian Reconquest (1000 - 1492), the first thing the Christians would do, on capturing a town from the Moors, is convert the central mosque into a Christian place of worship. Seville is the perfect case in point. When the Moors were driven out in the year 1248, the Great Mosque became the cathedral. At first there were very few architectural changes (the present building is still the "shell of the mosque), but between 1402 and 1506 the whole structure was radically remodelled. The superb minaret is virtually unchanged since Arab craftsmen built it (1184-96). Of course, it has been capped by a baroque belfry (1568), but in other respects looks just as it did when the Moors lived here. It stands 318 feet high. A series of ramps spiral upwards inside, giving access to the belfry. When the Christians swarmed into the city just over 750 years ago, four horsemen rode their mounts up to the top - the first one up being a Scottish mercenary! The very emblem of the city, the Giralda is loved by all true sevillanos. They say that, in the middle ages, an earthquake shook the tower, and the local people got on their knees to pray fervently for its survival. Seville's two patron saints, Justa and Rufina, came down from heaven and steadied the Giralda until the quake had passed. Whatever we make of the tale, we can marvel at Murillo's exquisite painting of the incident - but that awaits us on another stroll.
Underneath the great tower, we are standing at the north-east corner of the cathedral. We can now move out into the square on our left, with the marble fountain in its centre, where thirsty pigeons are taking a drink. From this position, we get a wonderful impression of the Giralda's imposing bulk, and we can see how this Arabic style (known as Almohade) differs from the Christian structure surrounding it. The graceful, restrained pink brick of the tower is distinct from, but not out of harmony with, the grey stone gothic confection which swirls around it.
As we stand at the fountain looking up, we can't help but notice an ochre-fronted, rather ornate building off to our right. This is the archbishop's palace, which boasts a plateresque entrance and, inside, a staircase carved in jade. Behind us is the calle Mateo Gago, a street which leads into Seville's former jewish quarter, a charming warren of old streets which we'll visit on another stroll. Across the square to our left, with its high battlemented walls, is the Alcazar, the city's fortress-palace. Let's save that for tomorrow, and head off to circle the cathedral, moving obliquely to our right, and passing the Giralda corner.
We are now walking along the north facade. On our right, ahead of us, is a row of shops and bars with a colonnade. The wall of the cathedral, tight on our left, seems featureless at first - until we reach the Gate of Pardon. This wonderful horseshoe arch is the original gate of the Great Mosque, and we can still see the Arabic writing on the huge doors. Bits of medieval statuary are embedded in the wall around the arch. We can stand here and imagine a normal Friday, 800 years ago, with the song of the muezzin floating down from the Giralda, calling the faithful to prayer. The citizens would come pouring through this gate, to conduct their ritual washing at the marble fountain which still stands in the courtyard - in fact, this is a Visigothic fountain, far older even than the Mosque. To erase the courtyard's Muslim associations, the conquering Christians laid this area out as a patio of orange trees - as it remains to this day.
We move on and round the next corner, keeping the cathedral's bulk on our left. We are now entering the busy thoroughfare named the Avenida de la Constitucion, formerly the Avenida Queipo de Llano, after the general who captured Seville for Franco in 1936. This southern flank of the cathedral is a masterpiece of Gothic carving, with its profusion of terracotta saints. At the corner, we turn and find ourselves near the Alcazar entrance. Standing back a little from the cathedral, we can't help but notice the fantastic flying buttresses and the exotic dome of the Royal Chapel, weird and wonderful architectural extravagances. The fountain with its pigeons is now visible ahead of us, and we have come full circle.
About The Author
Michael Coy is a qualified Barrister and teacher in English, History and French. Michael regularly contributes articles to Sunseeker Homes.