Wednesday, October 25, 2017

My 10 Favorite Cathedrals in Spain

Eighty-seven—that’s the number of Catholic cathedrals in Spain today. Although I didn’t grow up Catholic (I’m a Southern Baptist turned Episcopalian), this church nerd managed to visit 26 of Spain’s cathedrals that span a multitude of architectural styles and layouts when I lived in the country from 2012 to 2015.

Why cathedrals? There’s nothing intrinsic about a cathedral that automatically makes them big and beautiful; they’re simply home to the cathedra or seat of a bishop. But from the Middle Ages onward, bishops enjoyed great social status, and the churches where they presided reflected this prestige with monumental works of architecture. (Fun fact: Barcelona’s soaring Sagrada Família is not a cathedral, as it is not the seat of the bishop of the diocese of Barcelona).

With so many cathedrals to see in Spain, it’s hard to know what to focus on. Below I’ve composed a list of my top ten favorite ones, which includes crowd-favorites like the cathedral of Sevilla as well as off-the-radar churches like Teruel Cathedral.

1) Córdoba

Mosque-Cathedral, Córdoba, Spain
The prayer halls
Córdoba’s Mosque-Cathedral almost single-handedly drew me to Spain so many years ago (almost, because the other hand was the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage). What was once the Grand Mosque of Córdoba, and today is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, deserves the title of the most interesting building in the world.

In many ways, the Mosque-Cathedral is a microcosm of Spanish history. Here, spolia or repurposed Roman columns decorate the prayer hall that seems to stretch to infinity. A glassed-over crevice in the floor offers a glimpse of the old Visigothic church upon which the mosque was built in the 700s. The dizzying array of double arches that fly from one column to the next are a masterpiece of Islamic architecture, but the horseshoe arch itself that today we think of as quintessentially Islamic was actually borrowed from the Visigoths in Iberia. The dazzling mihrab or niche that orients prayer toward Mecca is dripping in gold that was a gift of the Byzantine emperor, a gift when Spain was at the center of the civilized world.

The mihrab
And then there’s the main chapel, a towering Gothic/Renaissance cross-shaped hall built in the dead-center of the old mosque. This intrusion is so abrupt, it seems as if a cathedral from northern Spain has been teleported to the south and dropped on top of the prayer halls. In many ways, this is a metaphor for what happened in the Late Middle Ages as Christian armies “re-” conquered the Muslim kingdoms of Andalucía and ultimately expelled Jews and Muslims a few centuries later.

A #ProTip for visiting the Mosque-Cathedral: you can visit for free—without tour groups!—between 8:30am and 9:30am, Monday through Saturday, in the quiet cool of the morning. I also recommend an additional summit of the bell tower, which envelops the old minaret and gives you a unique perspective of the Mosque-Cathedral’s architectural evolution.
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