Looking for Something in the Seville Cathedral

I visited the Seville Cathedral many times the first time I was in Spain, and, more than twenty years later, last December, I visited it once more. One of the major tourist attractions of the country, the Seville Cathedral is the third biggest church in the whole world – the first being St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the second being a massive cathedral in Aparecida, Brazil. Among the specific group of Gothic cathedrals, it’s the largest. According to Wikipedia, it’s the largest cathedral in the world in the sense that it’s still the seat of a bishop, unlike the bigger churches in Rome and Brazil.

One way to comprehend these large Gothic cathedrals is to understand how central and preeminent the rituals of the Catholic church were in the lives of people in medieval Europe. Catholics, and these were practically everyone in western Europe at the time, visited the church – for masses, for offerings, for confession, for work – several times a week. Their faith ruled their daily lives, shaped their thinking, dominated their art and literature.

The Gothic cathedrals – built over a span of decades, sometimes centuries, by hundreds of carpenters, masons, carvers, artisans, sculptors – were constructed not just as houses of worship but as monuments of power. The Seville Cathedral, in fact, was conceived by the town leaders in 1401 to proclaim the city’s burgeoning wealth, to be built so big and so beautiful that people would think the builders were madmen. (“Hagamos una Iglesia tan hermosa y tan grandiosa que los que la vieren labrada nos tengan por locos” is the line attributed to them.)


Looking way, way up at the ribbed vault of the cathedral.

The numerous innovations that characterize Gothic cathedrals – the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, the flying buttress – are designed to create what is the most stunning aspect of these edifices: their soaring height. The central nave of the Seville Cathedral is more than a hundred feet – it’s essentially a twelve-story building in a single uninterrupted space. And the effect of walking into such vastness inspires a mix of feelings: awe, fear, elation, humility, fervor. After walking with me in the immense space for about ten minutes, my eight-year-old daughter tugged my hand and whispered to me, apropos of nothing, that she missed her tiny bedroom in New York. Her face was solemn, her eyes somewhat troubled. The space affected her and I sat down with her in one of the pews. She asked me for a piece of paper, all of a sudden compelled to make a drawing. She drew an angel, similar to angels and fairies she drew regularly at home and the activity comforted her.

Along with the soaring verticality is light. Like other Gothic cathedrals, the one in Seville has many stained glass windows that stream in light from outside. While the cathedral is not particularly famous for its windows, they’re gorgeous with their jewel colors and stylized imagery of saints and martyrs. They have a compelling beauty, but they’re simply eclipsed by the massive altarpiece. If the three important elements of the Gothic cathedral are height, light, and color, then the color in the Seville Cathedral emanates more from its famous altarpiece than from its stained glass windows.


A lot of gold on that altar.

The altarpiece, retablo mayor in Spanish, presents forty-five carved scenes from the life of Jesus Christ, but, really, what it is is a massive wall of gold. Rising to a height of sixty-five feet, it’s the biggest altarpiece in the world and considered a magnificent example of Gothic woodcarving. Carved from walnut and chestnut and painted in incandescent colors, the whole retablo mayor is covered, practically dripping, with a boatload of gold, perhaps a literal boatload, because all the gold gilding is from the Americas in the time of the conquistadors. It was in Seville, after all, that the bounty from the Americas – gold, silver, pearls, sugar, tobacco – passed through to the rest of Spain and Europe.

A detail on the altarpiece.

A detail on the altarpiece.

It was where the Casa de Contratación was established by Queen Isabella I, the royal office that approved and taxed all voyages to the Spanish colonies. Seville, at the time, was immensely wealthy and could afford to build the largest cathedral in the world and the largest, most extravagant altarpiece its builders could dream of.


Columbus’s catafalque carried by medieval kings.

And so, to honor the bond between the city and the explorer that made all this happen, to the right of the altarpiece, is Christopher Columbus’s tomb. Yet another massive display, the explorer’s catafalque is carried by four kings representing Castile, Aragon, Leon, and Navarre, each of them more than double the size of a tall well-built human and decidedly medieval in mien and bearing, with ornate capes, crowns, crosses and stern faces. While DNA testing has supposedly verified that the remains in the tomb are indeed Columbus’s, there are still some doubts because Columbus had zig-zagged the globe even in death. He was first buried in Valladolid in the north of Spain when he died in 1506, then was moved to Seville in the south, then all the way to the Dominican Republic and Cuba, and finally back to Seville in 1898 when the Spanish-American war broke out. According to most accounts, he didn’t want to be buried in Spain because he had fought with the Spanish kings in his old age, feeling himself cheated of the rewards he felt he had earned from all his services to the throne.

There were other things to look at in the cathedral: another altarpiece, this time silver, in the transept; paintings by Goya and Murillo; the exuberant Plateresque intricacies of the ceiling. But my daughter had had enough at that point and couldn’t be convinced to look at, much less appreciate, anything anymore. I was glad for an excuse to sit down again and stop looking. I felt a surfeit of amazement – it’s hard to sustain awe and, really, after a while, all you’re thinking of as you walk is if it’s not unreasonable to have jamón again for dinner.

I think back to myself twenty years ago when I visited this same cathedral. I don’t remember being so awestruck. At the time, what I felt was bewilderment. (But then again, young adulthood in general bewildered me.) The Gothic cathedrals disoriented me in particular because I had assumed that I would find in these churches something familiar, an essence similar to the churches of my childhood in provincial Philippines. It’s the same faith, after all, isn’t it? I wasn’t sure what it was exactly I wanted to see or feel. But whatever it was, I couldn’t find it.

I can probably delve into issues of spirituality here, political or metaphysical differences between small humble churches versus famous cathedrals/tourist attractions. But I think what tripped me all those years ago is something a lot less profound and more concrete – it was the choirstall. I couldn’t orient myself in the Seville Cathedral because there was a monolithic choirstall in the middle of the nave.

These Gothic cathedrals, I learned after this particular trip, are not so much one church but many small churches in one large building. The Seville Cathedral, for example, has so many side chapels that I lost count. The chapels, many of them resting places of a variety of unknown nobles and priests and most of them strangely obscured in darkness, barred, and locked, are as big as small churches and are used as such. Masses and other celebrations are held there. Even the choirstall itself is used for small, intimate masses.

It’s disorienting to enter the cathedral and, standing at the back, in what you think is the center, not see any altar. When your eyes have adjusted to the cavernous space and the dim light, what you see are the mighty columns, which I had expected to see, and the box-like choirstall in the center, which I did not. You have to walk around this choirstall, a darkly ponderous structure amidst the airy graceful space, in order to see the high altar where the magnificent altarpiece is located and which is barred and locked like the side chapels. Behind the high altar are more chapels, one of them, the Capillo Real, the resting place of more anonymous Castilian kings.

It was getting late and the cathedral was going to close soon. My older daughter and my husband decided to climb to the top of the Giralda, the bell tower, where they would be able to get a panoramic view of the city and the Guadalquivir River. I tried to convince my younger daughter to walk around inside the cathedral once more, but she said she was tired. We went outside to the Patio de los Naranjos, the terrace of orange trees. And that green outdoor space, and the ubiquitous enchantment of orange trees in southern Spain, will have to have its own essay.


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