In surveys of medieval art, Spain usually comes last (which is better than not coming at all, e.g. the Balkans and the Baltic states), and I suppose I am also guilty of this here. There have been no major surveys of the architecture of the Iberian peninsula in English since G.E. Street’s sojourn there, with the exception of The Cathedrals of Spain by none other than this site’s favourite Imperial Fascist League member, ceaseless great-man advocate and unrepentant anti-semite John Harvey. That Harvey felt comfortable in General Franco’s Spain in the late ’40s and early ’50s speaks volumes about his nationalist authoritarian principles, and also why few English scholars went there before 1975, and this free online publication an excellent start to turning the tide.
Arguably Iberia’s smorgasboard of groundplans forms the most varied set of spaceships other than England, ranging from Romanesque skiffs to the Gothic-Renaissance space hulks of Seville, Zaragoza and Salamanca. Not having a central source, I initially sourced them from Dehio (for more on him see France), then Googling the missing ones, some requiring pretty deep dives. As usual, I insist that all rib-vaults are included, so I ended up having to put quite a few on myself, drawing all the curves and so forth. I’ve not bothered to grey-out post-Gothic bits as the transition between Gothic and classical is much more gradual in Counter-Reformation Spain, and really, it would mean leaving out Andalusia to ignore Classified buildings, which I didn’t think was a good call.
Unlike my last fleet – the Holy Roman Empire of Germany – all of Iberia came under the Roman Empire, and subsequently was divided into ecclesiastical provinces under the Visigoths. The unique thing for thinking about European cathedrals, was that nearly all of the peninsula was conquered by Muslim armies in the 8th century, negating much pre-1000 Christian building, and the Reconquista only gradually clawed it back over the next 700 years. Although Christian presence was tolerated in the Islamic state (much as the Jewry was in England up to the 13th century) it was heavily taxed, so no major church projects would ever occur until a see came under a regime change. It’s not an easy story to tell, since it ranges through multiple kingdoms, principalities and even caliphates, but I decided to give it a go (with of course, the help of Fernie, Wilson, Crossley and Frankl). I even use a few Google Earth Studio videos (none of which have any sound, by the way) that I’ve rendered for this.
French Romanesque and Early Gothic beginnings
The greatest early church in Spain is unquestionably the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela replacing a previous church over the tomb of the Apostle James. Begun in the mid 1070s, the cathedral has many characteristics in common with other great churches on the major pilgrim routes to it, namely the of the monasteries of Conques and Limoges (latter now destroyed above ground); and the Augustinian houses of St Martin, Tours (also gone except for one transept and one west tower) and St Sernin, Toulouse. So yes, before we’ve even got started on Spanish architecture, we’re looking at four French churches. This is simply how it works, I’m afraid.
Compostela Cathedral; Conques Abbey; overlay of St Martial, Limoges, St-Sernin, Toulouse; overlay of St Martin, Tours.
The features they share in common are a high stone barrel vault, large second-storey galleries but no clerestory above, and an ambulatory with radiating chapels. These features are all found elsewhere before and after in Western Europe but never together (although Conques, being quite dinky and with a slightly simpler set of radiating chapels, is the odd man out). Quite why this group exists is one of those obscure things architectural historians like to tediously debate about for centuries to no satisfactory conclusion. If it’s a coincidence, it’s a helluva one, but if it was planned or concurred by multiple institutions, it’s a mystery how it came about.
While the exterior of Compostela Cathedral is almost entirely clad in Baroque additions (and very often, masses of scaffolding), the interior of the nave and transepts are almost entirely in their eleventh-century form. What is notable when you see people in the frame as in the below 360 capture, is that that the scale is still quite modest when compared to the standards of the Anglo-Norman basilicas that were just beginning to be built in Britain at this period, and subsequently the Gothic great-churches of Northern France from the mid twelfth century onward.
The French Romanesque of Santiago was used on a smaller scale for most of the Iberian cathedrals rebuilt, often in the wake of the reconquest of old Visigothic sees held by the caliphate. Two-storey elevations abound, such as Braga and Lisbon in the Kingdom of Portugal (first declared 1139 under Alfonso I, recognised by León and Castille 1143). Although both cathedrals have lost their original eastern arms, they demonstrate unvaulted and vaulted versions of what must have been common across the cathedrals of medieval Christian-held Iberia. Small lantern towers over the crossing which allowed light down into the central space while keeping out excessive heat were clearly favoured over large clerestories.
Much as in the German Empire, in the thirteenth century, French Gothic is used rather hesitantly and superficially. Two-storey elevations remained de-rigeur across the peninsula, with varying degrees of ornamentation. Salamanca, preserved on the side of the gargantuan 16th-century new cathedral the latter built on the side of the Romanesque/Early Gothic church, preserving it like a symbiotic suckerfish on the belly of a great cetacean, shows a richness akin to Anglo-Norman, while Lérida shows a much more Spartan aesthetic.
The first exception to this as being a thoroughly great church in Spain is in Ávila, frontier town of the Kingdom of Castile with an extensive set of defensive walls built after its acquisition from Caliphate of Cordoba (which, begun in the 1090s, and 2.5 kilometres long, are an extraordinary medieval engineering feat in themselves). The cathedral’s chevet, is daringly partly incorporated into the eastern defenses, perhaps to emphasise the protection this sacred space gives to the City.
But Ávila’s late-twelfth-century chevet is significant outside of this gimmick: it is a remarkable double ambulatory on the model of St-Denis Abbey, a system rare outside of France and never ever used in England. Certainly there are very close links to St-Denis and Vézalay Abbey, and importation of French style wholesale characterises most of the subsequent ambitious Iberian cathedrals of the thirteenth century.
High Gothic imports from France
Undeniably, the two prime gems in the treasure chest of thirteenth-century Gothic on the peninsula are the cathedrals of the rival medieval capitals: that of the Kingdom of Castile, Burgos and the original Visigothic capital of Toledo . These two orbits are roughly the same distance away and demonstrate their differences in construction.
They are hardly peas in an architectural pod, Toledo being unarguably the more ambitious project in its overall scale and technology, with Burgos fussier in its detailing, partly due to early sixteenth-century remodellings. Both are heavily indebted to the High Gothic icon that is Bourges Cathedral, but the indebtedness is most apparent in Toledo, which has double aisles throughout to really show off the influence of the staggered heights of the inner and outer arcades.
León Cathedral is an even more straightforward French dump, essentially indistinguishable from a mid-13th century French Rayonnant build: tall bar-traceried clerestory, glazed triforium straight from the St-Denis nave rebuild of the 1230s.
Late Gothic and a distinctively Spanish style
Spain really begins to develop its own distinctive style by the 14th century, usually held to begin with Barcelona Cathedral in 1298, which has a number of original forms and technologies in its structure.
Spanish Late Gothic reminds us that architecture is never simply symbolic, unless you’re building pure follies. One of the reasons the peninsula stuck with two-storey elevations with small or even no clerestory, is that when it’s has hot as it gets there, you do not want a glass box like the Sainte-Chapelle letting sunlight in. Barcelona takes the Bourgean legginess of Toledo and takes it to the next level of development. It rams a vestigial triforium and small porthole-clerestory into the curve of the vault, the weight of which is entirely offset by the walls of the lateral chapels which skirt the entire building, obviating any flying buttresses.
Oh yeah and it just has a terraced roof, because where we’re building, we don’t need roofs. At least not ones pitched higher than the parapets.
It is a truism that while French cathedrals were concerned with height and English with length, the Spanish were with width. Or rather, volume. The current cathedral of Palma on the island of Mallorca, dates as early as 1306 beginning with King Jaume II’s funerary chapel at the east end and the completion of the apse with a 26-metre high vault by 1327.
However it is the design of the nave initiated in the 1350s, which raises the central vessel high vault to almost 44 metres, enough to put the giant 10-metre oculus in the east wall above the choir roof. While Florence and Milan in Italy are slightly taller (45 metres) and France’s Beauvais at 47 metres of course holds the crown, Palma, owing to the hybrid wall/flyer buttressing system, has the lowest ratio of pier mass to volume of any vaulted cathedral.
Girona Cathedral nave however, built from 1416, beats it by three metres to be widest Gothic vault in the world. The middle-storey wall passage from the Barcelona-esque apse of the early 14thc becomes basically vestigial above the outer chapels that buttress this single gigantic interior space.
Subsequent Spanish cathedrals also turned out to be Gothic record smashers. The rebuild of Seville Cathedral from 1402, owing to the megalomaniacal desire to both completely swallow up the former mosque complex (except for the minaret, which was crowned with a belfry) and to exceed the length of Toledo Cathedral, results in, incontestably, the largest medieval cathedral by floorplan and volume. It also abandons the entire pretense of having the steeply pointed roof that had been so intrinsic to Early Gothic by simply leaving the top of the vaults open to the sky.
The other plans that stand out in the fleet as massive oblong space hulks are Zaragoza and Salamanca, although they are quite different structures. Zaragoza (known as Le Seo to distinguish it from the adjacent pilgrimage church of El Pilar which, in its rebuilt Baroque form, became its co-cathedral in the 17thc) was formerly a Romanesque basilica with a Mudéjar style apse, gradually reformatted as a five-aisle hall church. Outer aisles were added after 1490, and in 1519, the church was extended two bays west and the central vessel re-vaulted at an equal height to its aisles. Hence why the groundplan has such an odd mix of vault designs (which, grumble, I had to work out and draw on myself, despite an abundance of archaeology and measured plans of the walls and phasing). However, not all back in the day were convinced by hall churches as a mode for cathedrals. In 1533, the Castilian royal architect Enrique Egas complained that an equal-height vessel cathedral “has more of a warehouse [bodega] than a church“. Oof. Still, look at this, and say the west front doesn’t have a whiff of a masonry-version of an IKEA superstore.
Enrique was commenting on the recent design of Salamanca Cathedral which, as mentioned, preserving nearly all of the first 12th-century cathedral, was rebuilt from 1512 in a Sevillian mode of a basilica with lofty aisle vaults, all buttressed by flyers built into the chapel walls which consistently flank the entire structure. Nods to the Italian all’antica come in the portrait busts includes in the spandrels of the main arcade.
Renacimiento to El Nuevo Mundo
The final chapter of Spanish Gothic and beyond is the annexing of the Emirate of Granada by the Crowns of Aragon and Castile in 1492 and the prime monument of its rebuilt sees: Granada Cathedral. The Capilla Real of 1504-21, the funerary chapel of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who brought Aragon and Castile together into the Kingdom of Spain, was to be followed by a similar cathedral in the same style. But from 1527 the designs were changed, at least superficially, to the Italian Renaissance style that the archbishop was an avowed fan of. The most outwardly a lo Romano feature of this cathedral is a dome over the east end instead of a chevet: Corinthian capped piers aside, it still has Late Gothic rib vaults.
Structurally, Granada still takes its score from Toledo and Seville, and would lend it to the cathedrals built in the New World in the bloody, shameful wake of the conquistadors: such as at the base of the former Templo Mayor of Mexico-Tenochtitlan (demolished 1521), where a great cathedral, on the plan of fully-classified Jaén elsewhere in Andalusia and the aborted Castilian capital project at Valladolid in northern Spain, rose from the 1570s onwards. But New Spain is another story entirely. But perhaps one also worth telling through the medium of spaceships.
So that’s another Battlefleet of Cathedrals in Spaaace for you for some reason. As usual, if you would like the high-res version of my plans for printing, I’ve put them up to download for a Ko-fi donation, including the “sensible” version shown opposite (although I kept any cloisters in my working doc, I left them off for this, because, despite being secular, most Spanish Cathedrals seem to have them, and I didn’t collect them consistently enough for them to be representative).
Eventually I will publish my map of every cathedral in the Latin Church from Ireland to Hungary (though both of those extremes are too problematic to ever make a meaningful collection of their medieval cathedrals, for different reasons most of them have been entirely replaced). As for Italy, when you see how many medieval sees it had, you’ll realise that bringing all its cathedral plans together would probably take more work than all four regions I’ve done already. Seriously. Pinning them all on the map was hard enough. Getting hold of all their plans would be soul-destroying.