Seville Cathedral may be the fourth largest church (and largest cathedral) in the world… but it’s a small tomb inside this vast building that captures the attention of most tourists. The coffin-shaped box of the tomb is held above the ground by the statues of four men representing the four kingdoms of Spain in the 1400s. Inside the tomb are the remains of one of the world’s most famous men – Christopher Columbus.
Although there is some controversy about whether the remains of Columbus are actually inside – Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic also claims to hold them – DNA testing has proven that Seville Cathedral is the resting place of at least some of the explorer’s bones. Whether Santo Domingo also has some… well, I’ll leave that for another time.
There’s no doubt that Seville has a strong claim to a connection with Christopher Columbus. Not only was he initially buried in the city in the early 1500s, but it was in the Alcazar of Seville where Queen Isabel signed her contract with him for the campaigns in the New World. The queen also built an entirely new wing of the palace from which to administer the new colonies in the Americas.
There is an interesting parallel between the construction of Seville Cathedral and the discovery of the New World by the man resting inside it. The decision to build the cathedral was made in 1401 – 91 years before Columbus would arrive in the Americas – but already the Spanish of the time were of the attitude that their civilisation must be seen as superior to those that had come before.
On the site at this point in history was a mosque, left over from the centuries when the Muslim moors had controlled this land. The Catholics of Seville decided to tear it down and build something enormous to show their perceived strength. The local legend that has been passed down holds that the men at the time proclaimed, “Let us build a church so beautiful and so grand that those who see it finished will think we are mad”.
And so the religion and culture of one race was wiped out by the Spanish as they sought to consolidate the power of their Catholic rulers. Only the minaret from the mosque was kept, although it was turned into a bell tower with a Latin inscription written on the top that translates to: “In the name of our Lord is a strong tower”.
Looking at it today, I don’t immediately think about the mosque that was here before. But I also don’t immediately think that those who decided to build it were mad. The truth is, I am just awe-struck by how enormous and magnificent it is. From the outside, it’s hard to comprehend the scale because you can never see it all at once. It takes a long time to walk the whole way around it and each section appears to have a slightly different style, its own unique perspective.
And then inside there is so much to look at. It’s quite dark but that seems to make the gold stand out more, the stained glass seem more vibrant, the ceilings of the nave even closer the the heavens.
There is no doubt that the architects of Seville’s Cathedral succeeded in creating a building that not only showed the recently-vanquished Moors which nation now controlled the Iberian Peninsula, but showed the rest of the world which nation was about to dominate internationally.
The Alcazar of Seville
It’s interesting when we take into account the message that the cathedral is sending, and then look at the Alcazar of Seville right next door. Because while the church appears to be a repudiation of Muslim art and culture, the royal palace shows an embrace of it.
At its core, the alcazar is a royal palace. Although it was constructed for a Christian kingdom, many of the artists and architects were Muslims who stayed after the defeat of the Moors. Clearly their styles had a large effect on the way the alcazar ended up looking.
But this couldn’t have happened without the blessing of the Royal Family. I think there are a few issues at play. Firstly, there was clearly still an appeal in this form of art and architecture because any impartial observer would be blind to not see the beauty in the design. Secondly, the layout and features suit the hot and sunny climate of Andalusia. And, thirdly, the Alcazar of Seville was built in the century before the cathedral and the culture-crushing approach that was to define the next period of Spanish history was not yet completely-formed.
The best representation of the story of the Alcazar is in the Courtyard of the Maidens which looks like the beautiful Islamic patios I saw during my time in Morocco. In the centre of the courtyard is a large reflecting pool with sunken gardens on either side. Coming off the sides are various reception rooms and private residential areas.
Look closely, though, and you’ll notice decorations that wouldn’t exist in true Islamic design – things like depictions of animals and kings. Also, the Arabic script is used to quote passages from the New Testament. It’s a fascinating place and I have to remind myself a few times that I am actually in Spain.
Aside from the buildings, the gardens are also a really special part of the Alcazar of Seville. I head out into the gardens (noticing how much warmer the temperature is compared to the cool courtyard) and start wandering around. They are sprawling, one area merging into the next, with a fusion of styles and atmospheres. This is no great surprise when you realise that, much more than than the buildings, the gardens have constantly been changed to cater to contemporary tastes. The water features, the rows of fruit trees, the peacocks, shaded grottoes – they all come together to create an enchanting oasis.
I would recommend leaving plenty of time to see the gardens of the alcazar properly. In the end, I feel a bit rushed as I walk through them… and they are not a place designed for rushing.
Everything here is done to a majestic scale – not just the gardens, but the palace and the cathedral. And each tells their own story about their place in history, whether it’s replacing a culture, paying tribute to it, or evolving with it. I wonder what Christopher Columbus would make of it all.