Whether you love it or hate it, this unique and futuristic-looking structure, popularly known as Las Setas of Seville, stands in stark contrast to the rest of Seville that prides itself on world-famous historical monuments. Because it resembles mushrooms, it got its name Las Setas, which means ‘The Mushrooms’ in Spanish. However, it is officially known as Metropol Parasol because of its six umbrella-like structures, known as parasols.
The six parasols of Las Setas are connected and arranged into four levels. The underground level (Level 0) houses a museum known as Antiquarium. Designed by Felipe Palomino González – a renowned Sevillian architect who also participated in the Las Setas design – the Antiquarium is home to archaeological artifacts found in this area. The street-level (Level 1) houses a supermarket, Mercado de la Encarnación. The upper levels (Levels 2 and 3) have walkways and miradors (viewing points) for visitors to experience the 360-view of the city. There is a tapas restaurant in the central parasol.The area below the parasols is spacious and used for holding event
Designed by the German architect Jürgen Mayer and completed in April 2011, Las Setas is the largest wooden structure in the world built by employing 3,500 pieces of Finnish pine (Kerto) joined by 3000 knots using 16 million screws and nails. This 26 meters high structure covers 3500 (150 x 70) cubic meters and weighs 1,300,000 kgs.
Although the Las Setas looks like an unconventional structure, the inspiration for Jürgen Mayer’s design came from a conventional source, i.e., Seville Cathedral. Beautifully designed vaulted ceilings connecting its towering columns seem to have influenced his design.
A bit of history
The site occupied by Las Setas is known as the Plaza de La Encarnación, which used to be the city center of old Seville, with a long history dating back to Roman times. It is apparent from the archeological artifacts found in this area that the Romans built their houses and industries in this area. The Almohads, a Moorish dynasty from North Africa who took over the city in 1248, also built houses that were part of their palaces.
The Plaza de La Encarnación got its name from the convent of the Incarnation of the Augustinian Religions that existed in this site for more than 200 years. It was built in 1591 and destroyed in 1810 by Napoleon’s army.
The ancient history of the Plaza de La Encarnación lay hidden for a long time until 2003 when the city council of Seville decided to build a plaza with an underground parking garage. The excavation for this garage led to the discovery of ancient ruins, which resulted in the city council abandoning the plan to construct the plaza.
Soon after, the city council announced an international competition to redesign the Plaza de La Encarnación in such as way that the ruins underneath are preserved. The German architect Jürgen Mayer won the competition, and the rest is history. The construction based on his design began in 2005, and as mentioned before, ended in April 2011.
Stunning views at the street level
Las Setas is an imposing structure and is an awesome sight to watch. At night, it is lit by colorful lights that make it appear like an alien ship. The street level (Level 1) houses a supermarket, Mercado de la Encarnación. There is a tapas restaurant in the central parasol. The area below the parasols is spacious and used for holding events.
Experience the 360-degree view Seville at the upper levels
The upper levels (Levels 2 and 3) have walkways and miradors (viewing points) for visitors to experience the 360-view of the city. Visitors can climb and walk the paths on the upper levels and get a 360-degree view of Seville. Many prominent landmarks of Seville, including La Giralda, Seville Cathedral, Plaza de Espana, are visible from different vantage points. There are curved walkways that enable visitors to move from the elevator exit (21 meters) to the highest viewing point (28.5 meters).
The top left image shows the Iglesia de la Anunciación (Church of the Annunciation) at the near end. This church is on Calle Laraña, located next to the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Seville.
The tall building on the top right image is the Seville Tower, an office building with 40 floors that includes a shopping complex and a five star hotel. Designed by the Argentine architect César Pelli – who also designed many world’s tallest skyscrapers, including Petronas Tower in Kuala Lumpur – this elliptical-shaped building is the tallest in Andalusia.
The two towers on the left side of the bottom left image belong to the Plaza de España, a grand semi-circular building with a canal in front. Built at the two ends of this building are the two imposing towers that are seen in this image. The yellowish structure near the center of the image is the Iglesia de Santa Cruz, a Catholic church located on Mateos Gago Street in Barrio Santa Cruz. Built in the 18th century, the Iglesia de Santa Cruz is the headquarters of the Brotherhood of Santa Cruz.
The magnificent campanile of the Seville Cathedral
When you look at the Giralda, it is hard to imagine that it is a product of two entirely different cultures. The lower half is part of the minaret built in the 13th century by the Almohads – a Moorish dynasty originated from North Africa. The upper half is a Renaissance style bell tower built in the 16th century by the Christians, who took controls of Seville after the Reconquista. Despite the differences in architectural styles and religious traditions, the bell tower appears to be a seamlessly integrated harmonious structure, and is reflective of the multi-cultural aspects of Spain.
Giralda means ‘one that turns’ in Spanish. The decorative bronze sculpture placed at the top, which rotates with the wind and acts as a weather vane, is responsible for the name. It depicts a young woman holding a cross, symbolizing the victory of Faith.
Islamic Section – Highly ornate Moorish minaret
The minaret part of the tower appears to use two types of construction: Ashlar stone in the base and brick exterior in the rest. Richly decorated arched windows and balconies adorn the brick exterior on all four sides of the tower. They allow light and air into the interior.
Mounted on top of the original minaret was a hemispherical dome, and placed above it was a stack of three bronze spheres of decreasing size, crowning it with a crescent moon. The dome and spheres remained in place until an earthquake destroyed them in 1365.
Each side of the tower measures 45 ft at the street level. The foundation below the street level is a bit wider and is about 20 ft deep. Most of the stones used on the foundation and the base came from the existing Roman structures, including a wall nearby. The minaret segment of the tower is about 165 ft high.
The interior of the minaret consists of chambers at the center and ramps around them built with enough space to allow people and horseback riders to climb the tower. There are a total of 35 ramp segments, starting at the entrance and ending near the Christian part of the Giralda. The image below shows a segment (i.e., number 23) with the original flooring. As you can see, the ramp is big enough for people to walk comfortably, and the path is lit by the light that passes through the window situated on the right side.
Christian Section – Bell tower with Victory of Faith at the top
In the 16th century, Seville was flourishing, thanks to the trade with the New World conquered by the Conquistadors. With an enormous wealth in hand, the cathedral chapter entrusted the work of building a magnificent bell tower for the Seville Cathedral to Hernan Ruiz II in 1558. He was an ingenious architect who had already built other structures in the Seville cathedral. It took him ten years to complete the addition to the bell tower.
Overlaid on top of the original minaret are the four stories built with the Renaissance style architecture. The transition to the new addition is smooth, and onlookers hardly notice the difference. The size (includes width and height) of the stories decreases with height. The bottom two floors are square-shaped, and the top two are circular.
The first story sits perfectly on top of the minaret and appears as though it is a continuation of it. Built with bricks, stones, and ceramics, it serves as a bell-chamber housing 24 bells, eight on each side. The exterior is highly ornate with columns, round windows, and an arch in the middle of each side. The bells hang between the pillars. Mounted above the corners are the bronze flower vases with lilies.
The second story has two levels. In 1765, a Franciscan Friar named José Cordero installed a beautiful bell in the upper level of this story, and it became the 25th bell of Giralda. The third story is circular, and the fourth looks like a jar and is named “La Tinaja” (The Jar).
Sitting above the fourth floor is a dome that acts as a pedestal for a magnificent bronze sculpture of a young woman holding a cross, symbolizing the victory of Faith. This sculpture is known as El Giradillo because it rotates with the wind and acts like a weather vane.
The woman in the statue is holding the cross with the right hand and the foliage with the left. The semi-oval plate attached to the lower part of the cross helps to point El Giradillo in the direction of the wind. As mentioned before, this rotating behavior is responsible for Giralda’s name, which means ‘one that turns’ in Spanish.
El Giradillo is about 13 ft high and rests on a pedestal that is 10 ft high. It was cast in bronze by Bartolomé Morel in 1568 using a model most likely built by Juan Bautista Vázquez el Viejo, who was also responsible for the reliefs on the Chapter house dome. The model for the cast was based on a painting by Luis de Vargas. A duplicate of El Giradillo is in front of the Puerta del Principe.
If you take the Seville Cathedral tour, it culminates with the climbing of the Giralda, first walking on the ramps of the minaret and then taking the flight of steps to the belfry, the last stop. As you climb the minaret part, you can stop at the balconies to view the surroundings. Once you reach the belfry, you can go around all the four sides and get a 360 view of the historic city of Seville. One of the spectacular views you see is of the Seville Cathedral itself.
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) 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. The gallery on the east side (not visible) houses La Bibliotheca Colombina, a library that holds the private book collection of Fernando Colón, the second son of Christopher Columbus. Both Fernando Colón and Christopher Columbus were interred in the Seville Cathedral.
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 before and after the tour of the Seville Cathedral.
The image shows the eastern end of the Seville Cathedral. The dome with the roof lantern is above the Capilla Real. Below the cathedral is the La Plaza de la Virgen de Los Reyes, and behind it is the Real Alcázar and the adjoining gardens. The Guadalquivir River is in the far end of the image.
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 started by the architect Diego de Riaño, and after his death in 1534, Martín de Gainza continued the work and completed in 1543.
The Sacristía Mayor, along with 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 south side of cathedral, separated by an anteroom called Antecabildo. Unlike the Sala Capitular – which followed an unconventional elliptical design – the Sacristía Mayor followed the traditional design 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 greatly in Seville. On display are the finely-crafted liturgical items, including monstrances, reliquaries, custodias, 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 seing 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. Declared 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 got its name because of 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 famous attractions of 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. There is an intriguing story associated with the tomb of Columbus. After Christopher Columbus died in 1506, his body traveled to many countries before it found its final resting place in the Seville Cathedral. He was first buried in Valladolid, Spain. Soon after, his brother Diego moved it to a monastery in Seville.
In 1542, his body was again 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 the current monument was built. After remaining there for about 100 years, the Spanish transported the Columbus Tomb, along with his remains, to Spain.
The monument we see now was installed in the south transept of the Seville Cathedral in 1899. A DNA test in 2006 verified the remains in this 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.