Situated on the eastern side of the Patio de la Montería and next to the glamorous Pedro I Palace in the Real Alcázar complex, Casa de Contratación is an unremarkable Renaissance-style building. By its appearance, it is hard to imagine that the decisions made here changed the course of history. It was here many famous and infamous seafarers got approval and funding for their expeditions and brought back the looted riches from the New World. Many European countries who followed in the footsteps of Casa de Contratación to create their trade organizations – such as the East India companies – eventually ended up colonizing a large part of the world, to the detriment of indigenous people and their culture all over the world.
The original building that housed the Casa de Contratación had three halls, two of which have been well-preserved. These are the Admiral’s Hall and the Hall of Audiences. This page describes them with images of their interior and the paintings on display on their walls.
A building of great historical significance
Situated on the eastern side of the Patio de la Montería and next to the glamorous Pedro I Palace is a building that is of great historical significance to the entire world. The decisions made in this unremarkable building changed the course of history. It was home to the first headquarters of the Casa de Contratación (House of Trade), an organization established in Seville to control trade in the Americas. It was here many famous and infamous seafarers got approval and funding for their expeditions and brought back the looted riches from the New World. Many European nations who followed in the footsteps of Casa de Contratación to create their own trade organizations – such as the East India companies – eventually ended up colonizing a large part of the world, to the detriment of indigenous peoples and their cultures all over the world.
The Casa de Contratación building is part of Real Alcázar of Seville, a large complex consisting of palaces, administrative buildings, and gardens built/rebuilt by different cultures from the middle ages to the modern era. Designated in 1987 by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site – along with the Seville Cathedral and the General Archive of the Indies – the Real Alcázar is one of the most visited attractions in the world.
A bit of history
The need for an organization to control the voyages arose because of the problems arising from the success of Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas in 1492. It opened the floodgates of expeditions, and chaos ensued due to the uncontrollable conquests by the navigators, resulting in mutinies and rebellion in the New World.
Because there was no entity controlling the traffic to and from the Americas, the Crown had little knowledge of what was happening in the New World. Another important reason was that there was no accounting of the goods that arrived in Spain, and therefore no taxes were paid to the Crown.
To fix these problems, Queen Isabella I of Castile established the Casa de Contratación in 1503, with a mandate to regulate the trade in the Americas. Although it was a commercial organization, somewhat similar to the more notorious East India companies of the later yeas, it had broader powers that extended beyond trade. Besides approving the expeditions and training and licensing navigators, it collected taxes and acted as a court of law to settle trade disputes.
It was also a scientific organization responsible for creating maps of the trade routes and newly discovered territories and maintaining their secrecy. Many famous cartographers of the 16th century worked here. For example, Juan de la Cosa, who was working as a cartographer here, created his famous first world map, which included the New World. Note that he was also a navigator who accompanied Christopher Columbus in the first three voyages.
The Spanish Crown chose Seville as the first headquarters of Casa de Contratación because of its strategic location, which provided many advantages. After the discovery of the New World, Seville became the hub of international trade. It was an inland port on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, about 50 miles from the ocean. While the high navigability of this river made it easier to access the ocean, Seville’s distance from the ocean provided security from attacks by the sea, especially from pirates. Its location also made it easier to access inland areas for distributing goods from the New World.
The Casa de Contratación remained in this building until 1598 and was moved to the current location of the Archive of the Indies (Used to be known as Lonja de Mercaderes). After Seville lost its importance, primarily because the Guadalquivir River became less navigable due to silting, the Casa de Contratación was transferred in 1717 to the port city of Cádiz. It remained there until King Charles IV abolished in 1790.
As a side note, Spain’s rival Portugal also had its own house of trade known as the Casa da Índia (House of Índia), established in 1500 in Lisbon by King Manuel I of Portugal. It funded the voyages of Vasco da Gama, who discovered the sea route to India via the Cape of Good Hope.
Old building with a new appearance
The original building that housed Casa de Contratación was built over existing Moorish structures. In the next two centuries after its inceptuin, the building endured many calamities, such as fires and earthquakes, and fell into disrepair. It was reconstructed in 1805 with a new facade and remodeled in 1973 with its current appearance.
Although this hall was part of Casa de Contratación, it got its name for a different reason. It was the headquarters of the Tribunal del Almirantazgo de Castilla (Admiralty of Court of Castile).
When this hall was part of the Casa de Contratación headquarters, many famous (and infamous) explorers from Spain and the neighboring countries visited this hall for a variety of reasons. Here are some examples:
Christopher Columbus met Queen Isabella met after his second voyage to the Americas in the hope of getting funding for his future expeditions.
Ferdinand Magellan, an explorer from the rival Portugal who changed his allegiance to Spain, visited this hall to convince the head of Casa de Contratación to approve his expedition to the Moluccas.
Amerigo Vespucci, an explorer from Italy responsible for naming America, worked here as the chief pilot to train the navigators and was also involved in licensing them before they went on voyages to the New World.
The above image shows part of the Admiral’s Hall, which is still in active use; Occasionally, it hosts small conferences. As you can see, it has a stage and seating arrangement for the attendees. Decorating its walls are exquisite paintings, most of which are portraits of famous figures.
Here is a brief description of the paintings that are visible in the image:
Center – The inauguration of the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929 by Alfonso Grosso
Left – Queen María Cristina de Borbón-Dos Sicilias painted by Carlos Blanco in 19th century
Right – Antonio de Orleans – Duke of Montpensier by painted Franz Xaver Winterhalter in the 19th century.
A large oil painting on canvas and beautiful portraits of kings, queens, and nobility covers the other part of the hall. Listed below are these paintings.
Portraits of famous figures
Portraits on display at the Admiral’s Hall
The portrait in the left-most image shows King Ferdinand VII of Spain painted by Carlos Blanco in the 19th century. King Ferdinand VII was the king of Spain twice. His first reign was in 1808, which lasted a few months, and the second in 1813, which lasted until he died in 1833.
The middle image depicts King Louis Philippe I of France painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter sometime in the 19th century. Louis Philippe I (1773 – 1850) was the last king of France. He reigned from 1830 to 1848. In 1809, he married Princess Maria Amalia of Naples and Sicily, daughter of King Ferdinand IV of Naples and Maria Carolina of Austria, and also the niece of Marie Antoinette. The right-most image is her portrait painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter in 1842. She is known as Queen Maria Amelia de Borbón-Dos Sicilias.
Las postrimerías de Fernando III el Santo (Last Moments of Ferdinand III the Saint)
This masterpiece is an oil painting on canvas (size 400 cm x 750 cm). Painted by Virgilio Mattoni, it depicts the last moments of Ferdinand III, the king of Castile, who captured Seville in 1248 from the Almohads. He died in Seville on May 30, 1252, and was later canonized in the 17th century.
Virgilio Mattoni, a native son of Seville, painted this work for the National Exhibition of 1887 to show his special connection to the city of Seville. This acclaimed work secured the second position in the exhibition.
The inspiration for the painting came from a passage described in the Chronicle of Spain, a compilation of historical accounts commissioned by Alfonso X the Wise, the son and successor to King Ferdinand III.
The mood of the scene in the painting is somber. Dressed in a white gown, King Ferdinand III has his head lowered and is falling on his knees as two monks are holding his arms up to form a cross. As he is about to die, the Archbishop standing in front of him is holding up the Eucharist with his hands as kings courtiers are anxiously watching the spectacle. Also seen is his queen, Joan of Dammartin, who collapsed on a cushion.
Hall of Audiences
It is much more ornate than the Admiral’s Hall. As you can see from the image below, the ceiling is covered with Mudéjar-style decoration. This hall used to serve as a chapel.
On display in this hall is the altarpiece installed to make this hall a chapel so that the visitors, especially the navigators who were about to embark on a voyage, could attend a religious service or pray.
Virgin of the Navigators
In the central panel of the altarpiece is La Virgen de los Navegantes (Virgin of the Navigators), a masterpiece painted by the Spanish painter Alejo Fernández sometime between 1531 and 1536. As you can see, the Virgin Mary is up in the clouds looking down at the ships floating in the sea. Her mantle covers many famous seafarers, including Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, and indigenous people of the Americas. Flanking the central painting are the portraits of St. Sebastian, St. James the Great, St. Elmo, and St. John the Evangelist.
Replica of La Santa Maria
On display to the left side of the altarpiece is a model of La Santa Maria, one of the three ships that sailed from Seville as part of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492.
La Santa Maria was the flagship for the expedition and the largest of the three, the other two being La Niña and La Pinta. It had a crew of 40 sailors when they set sail from Seville. After reaching the Americas, it hit a reef and was shipwrecked somewhere near Haiti on the Christmas day of 1492. Because the ship suffered considerable damage, Columbus ordered his crew salvaged its timber then abandoned it. Its remains has not been discovered yet. Columbus and his crew returned to Spain on La Niña.
There is no record of the exact measurements and capacity of La Santa Maria. Its size was estimated based on the anecdotal evidence provided by Columbus’s crew. Based on this estimate, the Santa Maria was about 58 ft long and had three masts. The replica of Santa Maria shown in the image was built at the Museo Maritimo de Barcelona, Spain, under the supervision of the museum director.
The wall behind the model carries a banner with the insignia of the crown of Castile y León and similar banners cover the rest of the wall.
A magnificent building that houses valuable art treasures
Attached to the south side of the Seville Cathedral, the Sacristía Mayor (Main Sacristy) is a Greek cross-shaped building crowned by a circular dome at the crossing. Surmounting the dome is a beautiful roof lantern built to provide daylight to the hall below. The work on this building was started by the architect Diego de Riaño, and after he died in 1534, Martín de Gainza continued the work and completed it in 1543.
The Sacristía Mayor, just like the Sala Capitular, is a Renaissance-style addition to the Gothic-style Seville Cathedral. Both were built in the 16th century and attached to the southern part of the cathedral, separated by an anteroom called Antecabildo. Unlike the Sala Capitular, which was built with an unconventional elliptical design, the Sacristía Mayor was traditionally designed and was built with a grand circular dome and roof lantern, a trend at that time in Renaissance-style architecture. Also, they were built for different purposes. The Sala Capitular was the meeting room of the cathedral’s chapter, whereas the Sacristía Mayor was a repository for the liturgical items.
Preserved in the sacristy are the art treasures that provide a glimpse of the glorious era when religious art flourished in Seville. On display are finely crafted liturgical items, including monstrances, reliquaries, custodias, and crosses, mostly made of precious metals like gold and silver. Besides, adorning the walls of the sacristy are the masterpieces painted by famous painters, including Goya, Murillo, Campaña, and Zurbarán.
The dome of the Sacristía Mayor is relatively large and stands out when viewed from outside. As you can see from the image, it is a beautiful structure surmounted by a roof lantern supported by the flying buttresses.
On the right side of the image is La Giralda, which is on the other side of the cathedral. Notice the small roof lantern in front of it. It belongs to the dome of the Sala Capitular. This goes to show that the Sacristía Mayor is bigger and taller than the Sala Capitular.
The image below shows the ceiling of the dome. As you can see, there are three concentric panels ornate with bas-reliefs depicting scenes related to the Last Judgement (the Second Coming of Christ). Click the image and view the full size for a view of the reliefs.
Here is a brief explanation of the reliefs:
Top layer: Depicts Jesus seated on a bow with his feet resting on a globe representing the earth. His right hand is up, and the left is down. He is holding a lily with his right hand, and there is a sword above his left shoulder. These two symbolize mercy and justice, respectively. Flanking Jesus on the left is the Virgin Mary, and on the right is St. John the Evangelist.
Middle layer: Depicts the saved ones, who with folded hands looking up to Jesus
Bottom layer: Depicts the damned ones who are being herded to hell by beast-like demons
The image shows a view of the interior of the Sacristía Mayor you see as you enter this room. In the middle is the Custodia de Arfe, a processional custodia made by Juan de Arfe y Villafañe, a master sculptor born into a prominent family of goldsmiths/silversmiths.
On the left is the silver statue of San Fernando attributed to Pedro Roldán, who made it in 1671. On the right is the statue of La Inmaculada Concepción (Immaculate Conception of Mary) made by Alonso Martínez of Seville in 1650.
Behind the Custodia de Arfe are the three richly decorated enclosures, each with a famous painting.
The image shows the enclosure at the opposite end of the entrance. As you can see, it has highly ornate arched doors and vaulted ceiling richly decorated with sculptural reliefs. In the center within an oval-shaped frame is the relief of Virgin Mary, and surrounding her are the twelve apostles.
The main attraction of this enclosure, however, is the brilliant oil painting, Descent from the Cross, mounted on the back wall.
When you are in the Sacristía Mayor, it feels as though you in an art museum because its space is filled with valuable art treasure. On display at the sacristy are the finely-crafted liturgical items and numerous paintings. The liturgical items include monstrances, reliquaries, custodias, and crosses, mostly made of precious metals like gold and silver. Here are some of the art treasures:
Custodia de Arfe
The magnificent silver sculpture, known as the Custodia de Arfe (Arfe’s Custodia), bears the name of its builder, Juan de Arfe y Villafañe, a master sculptor born into a prominent family of goldsmiths/silversmiths.
With a height of over 12 ft and weight of over 1000 pounds, the Custodia de Arfe, which was made between 1580 and 1587, is massive and was intended for the processional use.
As you can see, the tower-shaped custodia has four circular floors, and crowning the top floor is a sculpture representing Faith. Influenced by the Greco-Roman architecture, each floor of the custodia appears like a miniaturized Greek/Roman building.
The floors are similar in design, but their size, including the height and diameter, decreases proportionally as the tower rises from the bottom to the top. In the center of the floor is the cella, and surrounding it are two concentric rings, each made of 12 Greek-style columns.The outer ring columns are on the edge of the floor. The proportionality applies to the size of the columns and the sculptures.
The custodia rests on a circular base made later by a different silversmith. Mounted on this base are 12 cups, each of which aligns with a column.
Floor – 1 (Bottom floor) : The circular part of each column rests on a square base. Engraved on this column are the grapevines that criss-cross to the top from their roots at the bottom. Figures of angels and birds eating grapes are in between the vines. Carved on the three sides of the square base are bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Old and New Testaments. Standing in the center of the cella is a beautifully carved silver sculpture depicting the Immaculate Conception made by Juan de Segura in 1668. It replaced the figure of Faith that was part of the custodia when Jaun de Arfe built it. Flanking the Immaculate Conception are the statues of Peter and Paul.
Floor – 2: The columns of this floor are of the Corinthian order. Placed in the cella is the holder that hosts the Blessed Sacrament during the procession.
Floor – 3: The columns of this floor are of the Ionic order. The cella holds the statue of the Mystic Lamb opening the Book with Seven Seals, an apocalyptic scene envisioned by John of Patmos and narrated by him in the Book of Revelation.
Floor – 4: The columns of this floor are of the Corinthian order. The cella houses the sculpture depicting the Holy Trinity, i.e., the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The image shows the location of the Custodia de Arfe. As you can see, it is in the middle of the sacristy and behind it are two famous paintings mounted on the wall.
Right: The Vision of San Fransciso – A masterpiece by Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560 – 1627), a Baroque painter and a pioneer of realism in Spain.
Left: Virgin of Mercy – A great work attributed to Juan de Roelas (17th century).
Descent from the Cross – A masterpiece by Pedro de Campaña
The image shows an oil painting, Descent from the Cross, mounted on the back wall of the enclosure behind Custodia de Arfe. This masterpiece was painted in 1547 by Pedro de Campaña (1503 – 1580), a noted Flemish painter born in Brussels and trained in Italy. He painted numerous religious masterpieces, some of which are on display in the Seville Cathedral and various churches in Spain. Descent from the Cross is believed to be his best work.
As you can see from the painting, the motionless body of Christ is being lowered with reverence by three men in red robes. According to the accounts in the Gospels, the men on the ladders are Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, and the man holding Jesus’ legs is St. John the Evangelist. Waiting at the bottom are four grief-stricken women that include Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene.
Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary
Sculpted by Alonso Martínez of Seville in 1650, this beautiful silver work represents the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception states that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was born without the stain of the original sin.
Seville was famous for its mastery in silversmithing, and the sculpture representing the Immaculate Conception is a fine example of that mastery. As you can see, it is a stunningly beautiful work with great attention paid to details.
Clad in a beautiful cloak, the Virgin Mary is standing on a crescent moon up and is among angels. With her hands folded, she is looking downwards with grace. The crescent moon conveys important symbolism, i.e., conquering sin. Adorning her head is a finely crafted crown, and surrounding it is a halo with rays.
This impressive work of art in silver was made by Lorenzo Castelli, an Italian silversmith, in 1688. Santa Rosalía (St. Rosalia) is a saint invoked by the Catholics during a pandemic. As the COVID-19 pandemic is devastating our planet, St. Rosalia is becoming popular internationally because of the belief that she can us from the pandemic.
Here is the story of St. Rosalia:
Born in 1130 into a wealthy family in Palermo, Italy, St. Rosalia led a strange life. Early in her youth, she left home and lived like a hermit in a cave nearby. She is believed to have written these words on the walls of the cave;
I, Rosalia, daughter of Sinibald, Lord of Roses and Quisquina, have taken the resolution to live in this cave for the love of my Lord, Jesus Christ.
She spent her entire life there and died in 1166, unbeknown to the rest of the world. Her body remained in the cave until a hunter discovered them in 1624. As the story goes, she appeared to that hunter and asked him to recover her remains from the cave and bring them to the city in a procession. At that time, Palermo was beset by a Plague pandemic, which disappeared after her remains were carried in procession three times through the city. In gratitude, the people of Palermo declared her the patron saint of Palermo.
When Jaime de Palafox y Cardona, the bishop of Palermo, became the archbishop of Seville, he decided to promote St. Rosalia in Seville and donated the bust-reliquary St. Rosalia to the Seville Cathedral.
A magnificent building unique in design and rich in decoration
No visit to the Seville Cathedral is complete without seeing to the incredibly beautiful Sala Capitular (Chapter House), an ellipse-shaped hall attached to the southeast corner of the building. It is a highly ornate hall crowned by a magnificent dome that is elliptical in shape – a novel idea at the time of its inception and considered a great engineering feat. Surmounting the dome is a beautiful roof lantern, also ellipse-shaped, built to provide daylight to the hall below.
Added more than 50 years after the completion of the Gothic-style Seville Cathedral, the Sala Capitular is a Renaissance-style building, and despite the difference in architectural styles, it blends harmoniously with the main building. The architects responsible for this perfectly-designed building were Hernán Ruiz II, who started in 1561, and Alonso de Maeda, who completed in 1592. It was the first building with the elliptical dome in Spain. The elliptical design of the hall lends itself to better acoustics and visibility.
Exquisitely designed interior
The Sala Capitular used to serve as the meeting room of the cathedral’s chapter, a college of clergymen set up to advise the archbishop to run its religious and administrative affairs. The chapter members, referred to as canons, would sit on the benches placed along the wall during the meetings, typically chaired by the archbishop. Because of the oval design, they would have had perfect visibility of the hall and clear acoustics.
The image shows a section of the oval-shaped wall with its upper part covered by beautifully engraved friezes. Even the floor of this hall is exquisitely designed. As you can see, it is a marble floor covered with tantalizing patterns, the design of which was inspired by the Piazza del Campidoglio, a beautiful square in Rome designed by Michelangelo.
On display at this hall is an ornate chair, known as Archbishop’s Chair, built by Diego de Velasco in 1592. This elegantly designed mahogany chair was used by the archbishop during the meetings of the cathedral chapter.
Spectacular elliptical dome
The richly decorated elliptical dome presents a stunning sight to the visitors. The paneled ceiling of the dome is ornate with an ensemble of paintings, reliefs, stain glass windows, and artwork. Francisco Pacheco, a canon of the chapter, designed the decoration of the vaulted ceiling.
As you can see from the image, in the center is the interior of the elliptical lantern roof decorated with artwork. Covering the dome ceiling below the lantern are a number of ellipse-shaped concentric panels. The radial segments that flow from the top intersect these panels and divide them into trapezoidal-shaped curved blocks, which are smaller at the top and bigger at the bottom. Each of these blocks contain decoration ranging from simple artwork to intricately-carved bas-reliefs.
The blocks in the top two panels contain flowery artwork and geometrical patterns, and the blocks in the panel below, i.e., third from the top, consist of paintings and circular stained glass windows. Carved on the fourth panel from the top are the narrative bas-reliefs inspired by the episodes described in the New Testament.
The images below show different parts of the dome ceiling.
Paintings and Stained glass windows
The third panel from the top is the most remarkable one consisting of a famous painting and eight portraits painted by Murillo. Sandwiched between the portraits are the circular stained glass windows brightly lit by the outside light.
Immaculate Conception – A masterpiece by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
In the center of the third panel is the La Inmaculada Concepción (Immaculata or Immaculate Consumption), a masterpiece by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, a Baroque-style painter from Spain known for religious masterpieces.
This painting is one of the twenty-four Murillo painted in his lifetime on the theme of Immaculate Conception. In this painting, he presents the Virgin Mary up in heaven with a bright light behind her. Clad in a white robe and blue cloak, she is standing on a crescent moon and is among the angels. With her hands folded, she is looking downwards with grace.
The crescent moon conveys important symbolism, i.e., conquering sin. Note that the Immaculate Conception is a doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church that states that the Virgin Mary is born without the stain of original sin.
A highly decorative frame with beautiful artwork encloses La Inmaculada. Above the frame is an inscription in Latin describing the painting.
Portraits of the Spanish and Sevillian Saints
Besides La Inmaculada, Murillo painted eight circular portraits of saints that adorn the rest of the third panel. Surrounding each painting is a decorative frame with the name of the saint inscribed in Latin at the top.
The saints in the portraits have connections to Seville, either born or martyred in Seville. Here is the list of eight saints in the counter clock-wise direction starting from La Inmaculada:
1. San Fernando
St. Ferdinand (1199-1252). Patron saint of Seville. He was King Ferdinand III of Castile.
2. San Leandro
St. Leander (534 -600). Bishop of Seville
3. San Laureano
St. Laurian(? – 546). Bishop of Seville from 522 to 539
4. Santa Rufina
St. Rufina (270 – 287). Martyred in Seville
5. Santa Justa
St. Justa (268 – 287). Martyred in Seville
6. San Pio
7. San Isidoro
St. Isidore (560 – 636). Bishop of Seville (600 – 636)
8. San Hermenegildo
St. Hermenegild (? – 585). Martyred in Seville.
List of Saints in the third panel
Santa Justa and Santa Rufina
Saints Justa and Rufina were sisters who lived and martyred in Seville in the 3rd century. They are considered the protectors of La Giralda and the Seville Cathedral.
In the center is a circular stained glass window flanked by two circular paintings depicting St. Justa on the right and St. Rufina on the left. A trapezoidal frame encloses each painting with the name of the saint inscribed at the top in Latin.
Carved on the fourth panel (from the top) of the vaulted ceiling of the dome are the narrative bas-reliefs. There are sixteen of them – eight in the vertical (portrait) format and the other eight in the horizontal (landscape) format. The vertical format bas-reliefs were made by Juan Bautista Vázquez el Viejo (nicknamed “the Elder”) and Diego de Velasco around 1582 – 1584. The horizontal format bas-reliefs were made by Marcos Cabrera in 1590.
The carvings of bas-reliefs alternate between the horizontal and vertical formats, which are separated by the Ionic order pilasters. A border that looks like the arched door encloses the vertical bas-reliefs.
The section of ceiling shown in the image is located just below La Inmaculada. As you can see, there are three beautifully carved bas-reliefs. The vertical format bas-relief in the middle depicts the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and the horizontal format reliefs to its left and right depict Jesus with his 12 Apostles. In the left bas-relief, Jesus washing their feet and in the right bas-relief, Jesus standing on a pedestal and preaching them.
The horizontal bas-reliefs are smaller and covering the space above and below them are the inscriptions in Latin. The vertical bas-reliefs cover the entire panel and its inscriptions are in the panel below.
The Vision of St. Peter – Angels lowering a large sheet carrying animals
This bas-relief depicts the Vision of St. Peter, a scene narrated in the Acts of the Apostles.
Here is a summary of the scene from Acts 10: 9-14: Peter was traveling to the city along with other Apostles. As others were preparing the meal, Peter went up to a terrace to pray. There, he became hungry and wanted to eat, then fell into a trance. In his vision, Peter saw heaven opened up, and a large sheet, held by its four corners and carrying four-legged animals reptiles, and birds, was being lowered to the ground. A voice asked him to kill the animals and eat. Peter refused because he had never eaten any unclean animals before.
The image shows two angels lowering a large sheet carrying animals, while St. Peter, presumably in a trance, is lying down with his left hand holding his face.
Apocalyptic visions of John of Patmos
While the horizontal bas-reliefs depict the life of Jesus as described in the Gospels, six of the vertical bas-reliefs depict the apocalyptic visions of John of Patmos described by him in the Book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament written in a symbolic form about the apocalypse and prophecy. A vast majority of Christians believe that John of Patmos is the same person as St. John the Apostle and St. John the Evangelist, the author of the Gospel according to John. However, many modern scholars have disputed this belief.
John of Patmos wrote the Book of Revelation while in exile on the Greek island of Patmos. He was banished to Patmos by the Roman authorities during the reign of Emperor Domitian (81-96 CE) because of his evangelization activities in Ephesus, where he preached Gospel in the Great Theater. After the death of Domitian, John was released from exile and reported to have returned to Ephesus. He is believed to have died there at the ripe age of 92.
Here are some of the bas-reliefs inspired by the apocalyptic visions of John of Patmos:
Mystic Lamb opening the book with the seven seals
Located above the entrance, this bas-relief captures John’s vision that marks the beginning of the apocalypse. Here are the verses that inspired the bas-relief:
Revelation 6: 1-2 – The Lamb opening the book/scroll with seven seals
1. And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.
2. And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
In this vision, John sees God holding a scroll with his right hand. Locked by seven seals, this scroll contains the judgment of God on sin and evil. Then an angel appears and asks the question – who is worthy of opening the seals. One of the 24 elders replies – only the Lion of Judah (implies Jesus) is worthy of opening it. Then a mysterious Lamb, a symbolic representation of Jesus, appears and opens the seal one by one. Every time the Lamb opens a seal, it triggers an apocalyptic event.
As you can see from the bas-relief, God is holding a book with his right hand, and the Mystic Lamb is opening the seal. Surrounding God and the Mystic Lamb are the angels and elders.
Angels with trumpets
This bas-relief captures the symbolism behind the apocalyptic nature of John’s visions. Here are the verses that inspired the bas-relief:
Revelation 8: 1-6 – Angels with Trumpets
1. When he broke open the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.
2. And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.
3. Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God's people, on the golden altar in front of the throne.
4. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God's people, went up before God from the angel's hand.
5. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake.
6. Then the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to sound them.
John sees this vision when the Mystic Lamb opens the seventh seal. In this vision, there is a silence for half an hour, and then seven angels are given trumpets. An angel with a golden censer comes and stands in front of the altar in front of the throne. He fills the censer with incense, and smoke rises from the burning incense as people start praying. The angel fills the censer with fire and throws it on to the earth. Then the angels with trumpets started sounding the trumpet one by one, each time triggering catastrophic events.
As you can see from the image, God is at the center holding the globe surrounded by angels, most carrying the trumpets and one at the bottom holding the censer (a container for burning incense) with his left hand and fire with his right hand.
Mighty angel with legs like pillars of fire
This is one of the most beautiful and expressive bas-reliefs in the Sala Capitular. It captures the essence of a mysterious verse in the Book of Revelation. Here are the verses that inspired the bas-relief:
Revelation 10: 1-8 – The Angel and the Little Scroll
1. Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head. His face was like the sun, his legs were like pillars of fire.
2. He was holding a little scroll, which lay open in his hand. He planted his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land
3. And he gave a loud shout like the roar of a lion. When he shouted, the voices of the seven thunders spoke.
4. And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven say, 'Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down'
5.Then the angel I had seen standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven.
6. And he swore by him who lives for ever and ever, who created the heavens and all that is in them, the earth and all that is in it, and the sea and all that is in it, and said, 'There will be no more delay'
7. But in the days when the seventh angel is about to sound his trumpet, the mystery of God will be accomplished, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.'
8. Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me once more: 'Go, take the scroll that lies open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land
The bas-relief perfectly captures the essence of the verses 1 to 8 from chapter 10 of the Book of Revelation. It depicts the mighty angel with legs like pillars of fire wrapped in a cloud. As you can see, his left foot is on the land, the right foot is on the sea, and the right hand raised (to heaven). He is holding an open book (little scroll) with his left hand and John appears to receive that book. Unlike many of his other visions, John himself is a participant in this vision. Many Bible experts believe that the mighty angel is Christ.
Hagamos una iglesia tan hermosa y tan grandiosa que los que la vieren labrada nos tengan por locos. (Let us build a church so beautiful and so magnificent that those who see it finished will think we were mad).
So said the church elders before embarking upon the monumental effort of building this cathedral at Seville. Visiting this church is a fascinating experience. When you enter this immense and stunningly beautiful edifice, you will realize that the church elders indeed kept their promise.
While not as imposing as some of the famous religious monuments (such as Angkor Wat and Borobudur ) when viewed from outside, the sprawling interior of the cathedral presents an awe-inspiring sight with its immensity, grandeur, and beauty. The towering and massive columns elegantly arch over to the ceiling to support the ribbed vaults. Exquisitely designed geometrical patterns cover part of its roof, and numerous multicolored stained-glass windows cover the walls in different part of the cathedral.
An ensemble of art treasures preserved in the cathedral provides a glimpse of the opulence of the bygone era in which Seville enriched itself from the expeditions to the New World. These treasures include masterpieces from well-known painters and golden and plateresque-style liturgical items.
Officially known as La Catedral de Santa María de la Sede de Sevilla (Cathedral of St. Mary of the See of Seville), the Seville Cathedral is the largest Gothic cathedral and the third-largest church in the world. St. Mary of the See – one of the numerous titles of Mary, the mother of Jesus – is the patron saint of this cathedral. Note that the term See refers to the region typically covered under a Roman Catholic bishop, which, in this case, is Seville. Designated in 1987 by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site – along with the adjoining Alcázar Palace complex and the General Archive of the Indies – the Seville Cathedral is indeed one of the architectural marvels of the world.
A quick journey through the history
Seville was under the rule of the Almohads – a Moorish dynasty from North Africa – until the Reconquista headed by the Christian King Ferdinand III of Castile and León captured it in 1248. The Christians converted the grand mosque built in 1198 by Almohads into a cathedral by making minor changes, such as changing the orientation and covering the walls with Christian paintings. However, as Seville, a major trading hub in those days, became prosperous after the looted riches, including a massive amount of gold, from the New World passed through it, the city decided to build a Christian cathedral by demolishing the existing mosque.
The Seville Cathedral we see today was built exactly on the site where the Almohad mosque once stood, although only a few vestiges of the original mosque remain. By any stretch of imagination, building a monument of this magnitude is a massive undertaking, so it took more than 100 years to build. The construction began in 1401 and completed in 1506. The names of the architects and builders of this masterpiece are long forgotten, but their lasting legacy remains.
Gothic architecture at its finest
Considered an architectural masterpiece, the Seville Cathedral has a spectacular interior and a magnificent exterior. Although the architecture style of is Gothic, it has its own unique characteristics. Because of the cathedral was built on the foundation of the Almohad mosque, the design of the cathedral was constrained, especially the ground plan. However, the architect(s) did an ingenious job by utilizing the existing space to build a tall and sprawling structure.
Just like any church, the Seville Cathedral is cross-shaped, i.e., long main body with an attachment of two shorter wings, which are known as transepts, on either side built at right angles to the main body. The main body of the cathedral has columns placed in a grid-like fashion to create five longitudinal naves and nine transversal sections. In other words, the interior of the church is a 9 x 5 virtual grid created by the columns placed at the corners of the grid blocks. The central nave, which rises to 138 ft, is the tallest. The height of the columns tapers down as you go towards the sides.
Captured from the belfry of the Giralda, the outer view of the Seville Cathedral shown above reveals its Gothic characteristics that include its tall structures, flying buttresses, and stained glass windows. As you can see, the flying buttresses, which run in the longitudinal as well as the transversal directions, intersect, resulting in grid-like formations. Rising above these intersecting joints are the beautifully carved tower-like structures. Besides being aesthetically pleasing, the flying buttresses help distribute the structural load laterally, which allowed the architects to design very tall structures.
Interestingly, the Seville Cathedral – unlike many famous cathedrals- does not have any tall tower (s) built above its main body. However, as you can see, there is a short squarish structure that is above the crossing, i.e., at the intersection of the central nave and transepts.
Although the Seville Cathedral is known as a Gothic cathedral, it is a harmonious blend of many architectural styles, including Renaissance architecture. The Renaissance-style additions include the side chapels – some of which are as big as an ordinary church – built on either side of the cathedral. The other Renaissance-style additions are the two prominent buildings attached to the south side of the building, Sala Capitular (Chapter House) and Sacristia Mayor (Main Sacristy), separated by an anteroom, Antecabildo.
The interior of the Seville Cathedral is stunning and breathtaking. When you enter the cathedral, it overwhelms you with its vastness, grandeur, and lavishness of decoration. The tall and massive columns, colorful stained glass windows, mesmerizing patterns on the ceiling present an awe-inspiring sight to the onlookers. Despite its grand scale, the interior of the Seville Cathedral gives an impression of harmonious architecture with its open spaces and the proportionality of the architectural elements.
Just like any church, occupying the central part of the cathedral are its core components, i.e., the main altar, choir, and retro choir. Known as the crossing, the block where the transepts intersect the central nave is the center of the cathedral. As you can see from the image, it is the block with pews where people gather to view the Coro (Choir) on the left, the Capilla Mayor (Main Chapel), which contains the main altar, on the right. Inside the main chapel is a beautifully carved wooden altarpiece coated with a copious amount of gold believed to be the largest in the world. Behind the crossing is the plateresque-style altar, known as the Silver Altar, which occupies the north transept and lies in front of the inner wall of the Puerta de la Concepción (Door of the Conception), an ornate door through which visitors enter the cathedral.
Vaulted ceiling covered with mesmerizing patterns
The images above show a part of the ceiling above the crossing. The image on the left is reflection of the ceiling by a mirror placed on floor near the Tomb of Columbus.
As you can see, covering the ceiling are the beautiful geometrical patterns that are symmetrical about both the principal axes. The symmetry and curved nature of these patterns make them aesthetically pleasing. The vaulted ceiling rests on tall and massive columns that are lined up along the naves. Just below this ceiling are the stained glass windows.
Retablo Mayor – The largest altarpiece in the world
The Retablo Mayor (Great Altarpiece) is an amazing altarpiece like no other. This massive and intricately-carved wooden structure covered with gold is 66 ft high and 60 ft wide and is part of the altar inside the Capilla Mayor (Main Chapel).
The construction of this altarpiece started in 1482 by Pieter Dancart, a sculptor from present-day Belgium, and continued by several skilled sculptors before the completion of the first phase in 1528.
As you can see from the image, the Retablo Mayor is a recessed structure held by tall pillars on either side. The front-facing portion is a grid of compartments, each housing a narrative relief carved in wood and coated with a copious amount of gold.
The structure above the base consists of seven columns and five rows of compartments. Not all the compartments are of equal size. The compartments are separated vertically by pilasters, which are ornate with carvings of historical figures from the Bible or Church. Each compartment contains a narrative sculptural reliefs mostly depicting the scenes from the life of Jesus Christ.
The side sections are perpendicular to the front portion and are attached to the pillars. These were part of the second phase of the altarpiece construction, which started in 1550 and completed in 1564.
At the top of the Retablo Mayor is a canopy with three rows of octagonal niches.
The image shows the canopy above the massive Retablo Mayor of the Capilla Mayor (Main Chapel). As you can see, the canopy is ornate with geometrical patterns containing carvings of 30 identical recessed hexagons arranged in three rows.
Above the canopy, there is a row of 13 compartments, each containing a relief. The relief at the center of this row depicts Mary holding the body of Jesus on her lap, and flanking this relief are the reliefs of the 12 Apostles, six on each side.
Virgin of the See – The patron saint of the Seville Cathedral
Just above the base of the altarpiece and at the center of the bottom row is a beautifully carved sculpture of Mary holding baby Jesus, known as the La Virgen de la Sede (Virgin of the See). Carved in wood and coated with silver, this sculpture was made in the 13th century. As mentioned before, La Virgen de la Sede is the patron saint of the Seville Cathedral and is also responsible for its official name, Catedral de Santa María de la Sede.
Coro and Trascoro
The Coro (Choir) is where the church choir congregates and sings during the mass in a church. In the Seville Cathedral, it is a box-like structure occupying a block in the central nave located a section west of the main chapel. It is closed on three sides and opened on the east side, i.e., the side facing the main chapel. Attached to the walls are rows of seats. The Trascoro is on the west-facing wall.
The area behind the Coro (Choir), known as the Trascoro (Retro choir), presents one of the beautiful sights in the Seville Cathedral. Built by Miguel de Zumárraga in the 17th century, this retro choir was constructed with precious materials like jasper, and is an excellent evidence of the opulence of that era.
The upper part of the image shows the magnificent ceiling above the Coro and Capilla Mayor, and the lower part shows the richly decorated the west-side wall of the Coro ornate with many pieces of art, including paintings, bas-reliefs, and bronze busts. At the center is a beautiful painting depicting the Virgen de los Remedios (Virgin of the Remedies), and flanking it are the two doors that open to the Coro. Above the doors are the bronze busts, and next to them are the bas-reliefs.
The Virgen de los Remedios is one of the numerous titles of the Virgin Mary and was popular with the Spanish conquistadors and Reconquista, and still being worshiped in Spain and parts of Latin America.
Silver Altar – A shining example of mastery of Sevillian silversmithing
Occupying the northern arm of the transept and situated behind the Puerta de la Concepción (Door of the Conception) is a magnificent altar, known as the Silver Altar, mostly made of silver by the famous silversmiths of Seville. It owes its name to the abundant use of silver in the altar.
In the center of the altar is the statue of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus flanked by the sculptures of San Isidoro and San Leandro. Behind it is the large and exquisitely-crafted silver monstrance shaped like the sun. Mounted on top of the monstrance is a beautifully designed silver crown.
A large canvas hangs behind the altar to prevent its exposure to the Puerta de la Concepción, where the visitors enter the cathedral. The silhouette of the altar on the canvas can be seen from outside.
The inner side of the Puerta de la Concepción wall is visible behind the altar. Mounted on this wall just above the silver altar is a beautiful painting depicting the Ascension of the Virgin Mary. Above this painting is a circular stained-glass window depicting the Ascension of Jesus made by Carlos de Brujas in 1588.
Giant San Cristóbal – A fresco by Mateo Pérez de Alesio
The fresco shown in the image depicts a giant San Cristóbal (St. Christopher) carrying a child, who happens to be Jesus in disguise, on his shoulder and crossing the river. It is on the wall next to the tomb of Columbus.
It is an impressive work by Mateo Pérez de Alesio, who painted it in 1583. He was an Italian painter born in Lecce, and as a student of Michelangelo, he worked with him in the Sistine Chapel.
Mausoleo de Cristóbal Colón – The final resting place of Christopher Columbus
Situated in the south transept, the Mausoleo de Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus Mausoleum or Tomb of Christopher Columbus) is one of the popular attractions in the Seville Cathedral. As you can see from the image, the Sarcophagus of Columbus is raised above the ground by four bearers, who symbolically represent the four kingdoms, Castile, Aragon, Navara, and Leon, of erstwhile Spain. Queen Isabella I (along with her husband Ferdinand), who funded Columbus’s famous 1492 journey to the New World, united them into one nation, i.e., modern Spain.
The rectangular bottom of the sarcophagus is a bronze plate inscribed with the coat-of-arms of Spain surrounded by an inscription in Spanish, which reads: Aqui jacen los restos de Cristobal Colon desde 1796 los guardo la Habana y este sepulcro por R.D.to de 26 de febrero de 1891 (Here lies the remains of Cristobal Colon kept in Havana since 1796 and this sepulcher by R.D.to of February 26, 1891)
Christopher Columbus was a controversial figure, even in death. After he died in 1506, his body traveled to many countries before it found its final resting place in the Seville Cathedral. But not everyone believes that his tomb here contains his remains.
The saga of Columbus’ remains traveling to many countries is as intriguing as his life. He was first buried in Valladolid, Spain. Soon after, his brother Diego moved it to a monastery in Seville. In 1542, his body was moved to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, a Spanish territory founded by Columbus. He was interred in the newly constructed Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor in Santo Domingo, the capital of the present-day Dominican Republic.
As fate would have it, France took over the island of Hispaniola in 1795. Not wanting his remains to fall into the French hands, the Spanish moved them to Havana, Cuba, where they built a mausoleum to house his remains. This mausoleum remained there for about 100 years before the Spanish transported it to Seville, where he embarked upon his famous expeditions.
Installed in the south transept of Seville Cathedral in 1899, Columbus’s mausoleum has remained here ever since. But the controversy about his remains lingers on.
The DNA test carried out in 2006 verified that the remains from the tomb do indeed belong to Christopher Columbus. However, the Dominican Republic still claims that the remains of Columbus never left the country.
Tomb of Fernando Colón, the second son of Christopher Columbus
Just like his father, Fernando Colón (also known as Ferdinand Columbus, Fernando Colombo, Hernando Colon), the second son of Christopher Columbus was also buried in the Seville Cathedral. The image shows his tombstone etched on the floor of the central nave near the west entrance.
The inscription at the center reads: A CASTILA y a COLON MUNDO NUEVO DIO COLON – To Castile and to Leon, Columbus gave the new world.
Fernando Colón is known for the biography of his father titled The life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus by his son Ferdinand.
Upon is return from his voyage to the new world, he started to collect books and created a private library known as La Bibliotheca Colombina, which is now located on the north side gallery surrounding the Patio de Los Naranjos.
The Seville Cathedral has 15 doors/gates (puertas), including three major entrances, which are: 1. Main entrance facing west 2. North transept entrance 3. South transepts entrance. Only the north transept entrance is open for the visitors. The most of the doors are later additions and add to the elegance of this majestic cathedral.
Patio de los Naranjos – The Courtyard of Orange Trees
The image shows an aerial view of the Patio de los Naranjos, a garden of orange trees, enclosed by the structures belonging to the Seville Cathedral complex, which are, the northern facade of the Seville Cathedral on the left, Iglesia del Sagrario in the middle, and a gallery on the right.
The small tower in the middle of the right side (i.e., north side) gallery belongs to the Puerta del Perdón (Door of Forgiveness), a gate through which visitors enter the Patio de los Naranjos from the Calle Alemanes. See below the front and rear facades of the Puerta del Perdón.
The gallery on the east side (not visible) houses La Bibliotheca Colombina, a library that holds the private book collection of Fernando Colón.
The Patio de los Naranjos used to be the courtyard of the Almohad mosque once stood in this space. The only thing that remains of the courtyard from that era is the fountain where the worshipers performed ritual ablutions, i.e., washing of feet and hands before entering the mosque.
The Patio de los Naranjos is now used by the visitors to gather and relax under the shade of the orange trees before and after the tour of the Seville Cathedral.
Puerta del Perdón – The Door of Forgiveness
The Puerta del Perdón – which used to be the main entrance to the Almohad mosque in Moorish times – acts as the visitor’s entrance to the Seville Cathedral complex. It got its name because the faithful believed that sinners entered the cathedral through this door to seek forgiveness.
As you can see from the image on the left, the facade of the Puerta del Perdón is a fusion of Christian and Islamic art. The horseshoe-shaped arch is from the Almohad era. However, the surrounding plaster work – although it looks like Islamic art – is not. In fact, it is the work of Bartolomé López, a Spanish sculptor who made it in 1522. As you can see, the artwork consists of beautiful flowery designs and the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Castile and León (Castle with three towers and crowned lion) on either side of the arch.
Flanking the arch are four beautiful clay statues made by Miguel Florentin. The statues of Archangel Gabriel and St.Peter are on the left side, and the Virgin Mary and St. Paul are on the right side. Above the arch is a narrative bas-relief depicting Jesus expelling merchants from the temple, an episode described in the New Testament.
The image on the right shows the rear facade of the Puerta del Perdón that faces the Patio de los Naranjos.
Puerta de la Concepción – The Door of the Conception
The Puerta de la Concepción (Door of the Conception) is an ornate door at the entrance to the north transept of the Seville Cathedral.
This richly decorated neo-Gothic style door is the brainchild of the architect Joaquín Fernández Casanova, who also built the Puerta del Príncipe, a similar door at the entrance to the south transept. Built between 1895 and 1917, it is the most recent door of the cathedral.
The theme of the relief on the tympanum of this door is the Immaculate Conception of Mary. As you can see from the image, the Virgin Mary is in the middle, flanked by St. Michael and St. John the Evangelist.
Puerta del Príncipe – The Door of the Prince
Located on the south transept of the Seville Cathedral, the Puerta del Príncipe (also known as Puerta de San Cristóbal) is similar to the Puerta de la Concepción and was built by the same architect, Joaquín Fernández Casanova, who built it between 1887 and 1895.
The bronze sculpture of a young woman standing in front of the door symbolizes the victory of Faith and is a replica of El Giraldillo mounted atop the Giralda. Unlike El Giraldillo, it does not rotate and therefore does not serve as a weather vane.
Puerta de Palos – The Door of Sticks
Located next to the Giralda, it was built in the 16th century by Juan de Hoces and Pedro Sánchez of Toledo. This door is also known as the Puerta de la Adoración de los Magos (Door of the Adoration of the Magi) because of the relief in its tympanum depicts the three kings from the east, known as the Magi, presenting the Child Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This beautifully carved relief was made in 1520 by Miguel Perrin, a French sculptor living in Seville.
Seated on the right is the Virgin Mary with the Baby Jesus on her lap receiving gifts from one of the Magi.
The lasting legacy
Visited by millions every year, the Seville Cathedral is an iconic landmark of Seville. It is unique, immense, and awe-inspiring, and even after 600 years, the building is robust as ever and will continue to be so for a long time to come. The people who built this incredible monument are long gone, but their remarkable legacy remains.