The Seville Cathedral: A Marvel of Gothic Grandeur in Spain

The magnificent Seville Cathedral is one of the largest churches in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (photo by Bob Sessions)

In Seville, the world’s largest Gothic church is a glittering, awe-inspiring wonder that fuses Christian and Moorish elements.

 

Of the many religious sites I’ve visited around the world, the Seville Cathedral is among the most impressive. With its soaring ceilings, gilded altars, and vast interior space, the church is a Gothic masterpiece filled with exquisite art.

The cathedral reflects the complicated religious history of southern Spain. For centuries Seville was under Moorish rule, with a grand mosque built in the 12th century by the Almohad dynasty. After the Christian reconquest of Seville in 1248, the mosque was used as a church for more than a century, until it was decided that a new cathedral would be built.

After construction began in 1402, its builders were reported to have said, “Let us build a church that is so vast that future generations will think we were mad.”

After visiting it, I don’t think they were mad—but they certainly were architecturally ambitious!

The Seville Cathedral was designed to rival the greatest cathedrals of Europe, in keeping with Seville’s status as one of the wealthiest and most important cities in Spain. Initial construction was completed in 1506, with subsequent additions and renovations in succeeding centuries.

The cathedral retains several elements from the mosque that preceded it. One is its bell tower (see below), which incorporates the mosque’s original minaret. Another is a courtyard with orange trees where Muslim worshipers once performed ablutions before prayers. A third Moorish element is its Puerta del Perdón, or the Door of Forgiveness, which served as the primary entrance to the Almohad mosque.

Today the cathedral is the fourth largest church in the world. The nave stretches more than 400 feet, with towering columns and elaborate ceiling with interlacing arches. Eighty side chapels flank the main altar and choir.

An Extraordinary Spiritual Landmark

The Giralda Tower incorporates the minaret of a 12th-century mosque that once stood on the site of the Seville Cathedral. (photo by Bob Sessions)

To tour the Seville Cathedral, you’ll need to purchase a ticket (try to order tickets online to save waiting in a long line).

If you get a timed ticket, you’ll enter on the east side. You’ll first have the option to climb the Giralda Bell Tower, which incorporates the original minaret of the mosque. Standing more than 300 feet tall, it blends the intricate geometric designs of its Islamic origins with Renaissance and Baroque features that were added later.

Another remnant of the tower’s origins is that you reach the top via ramps rather than steps. The design allowed the muezzin (who called the faithful to prayer five times a day) to ride on a donkey rather than walk.

It takes some effort to get to the top but it’s worth it! After 35 ramps (plus an additional 17 steps), you can enjoy panoramic views of the city.

The glittering high altar in the Seville Cathedral is thought to be the largest altarpiece ever made. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Once you return to the ground level, you can explore the grand spaces inside the cathedral itself. Its dazzling centerpiece is a magnificent gilded altar made primarily by the Flemish sculptor Pieter Dancart, who labored on it for 44 years. The 98-foot wall is made of carved walnut and chestnut covered with gold leaf and polychrome. The altar has 44 Biblical scenes and more than 200 figures of saints. A masterpiece of late-European Gothic art, it’s thought to be the largest altarpiece ever made.

Nearby is another magnificent altar, this one of silver. It’s designed to resemble an immense monstrance (the Catholic ceremonial vessel that holds the consecrated host, or Body of Christ).

In the Seville Cathedral, four figures representing the kingdoms of Castile, Leon, Aragon and Navarre carry the coffin of explorer Christopher Columbus. (photo by Bob Sessions)

On the other side of the cathedral is the tomb of explorer Christopher Columbus, which was sculpted in 1899 by Arturo Melida. The four figures carrying the coffin symbolize the four kingdoms of Castile, Leon, Aragon and Navarre. Other notables buried in the cathedral include Fernando III of Castile, Alfonso X of Castile, and Elisabeth of Hohenstaufen.

As you wander through the church, enjoy its dazzling stained glass windows and magnificent works of art by some of Spain’s greatest painters, including Francisco de Goya and Esteban Murillo.

And don’t miss the hanging crocodile at the entrance! Known as El Lagarto, it’s a wooden model of a real crocodile that was a gift from the Sultan of Egypt to King Alfonso X in 1260.

 

For more information: see the Seville Cathedral and the Tourist Office of Spain.

 

Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of books that include Holy RoverNear the ExitThe Soul of the Family Tree, and Every Step Is HomeHer website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.

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