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When the Moors were evicted from Seville in 1248, they left behind a gigantic mosque, along with a minaret from which
the faithful were called to prayer. The mosque was relatively new, having been completed in 1198, and Seville’s
conqueror, Ferdinand III, had it converted to Christian uses, having it consecrated as a cathedral. This worked out
fine until 1356, when the cathedral was damaged by an earthquake. In 1395 another earthquake hit, and the cathedral’s
canons started thinking in terms of replacing the building. In 1401 it was decided to tear down the former mosque
and build a new cathedral of a scale which would convince posterity that the canons had taken leave of their
senses. Construction proceeded over the next century, and the new cathedral was consecrated in 1507. Between 1558
and 1568 a top was added to the former minaret, called the Giralda, transforming it into a bell tower and
bringing its height to 344 feet.
The Seville Cathedral (formally called the Cathedral of St.
Mary of the See) is billed as the largest cathedral in Christendom. It’s not the largest in floor area, trailing St.
Peter’s Basilica in Rome and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in this statistic. But it could hold more ping pong balls
than either of them due to its high ceiling (134 feet in the central nave, 96 feet in the aisles), a fact verified by
the Guinness Book of World Records on a posted certificate.
To get to the Cathedral we headed for the Giralda, the part of the Cathedral most easily seen from a distance
(though with all the narrow streets, it’s hard to see anything from a distance). This approach deposited us in
the Plaza Virgen de los Reyes, on the east side of the church and at the foot of the bell tower.
Though there was a door on this side of the church, like all of the other elaborate Cathedral doors it was not
Puerta del Baptismo (Door of the Baptism)
Portada de la Asunción (Door of the Assumption)
Puerta del Perdon (Door of the Forgiveness)
We found the entrance on the south side of the church, off the Plaza del Triunfo (named to celebrate the triumph of
the city over an earthquake in 1755). On this side of the Cathedral is found a door called The Prince’s Doorway, as
well as a copy of the weathervane on top of the Giralda (the figure represents Faith, and this copy is most likely
the original, kept in a sheltered area for its protection). But the entrance is through a much less grandiose door
on the left.
We entered the door, paid our seven-Euro entrance fee and followed the passageway into the church.
The inside of the Cathedral was dimly lit and cavernous. We found ourselves near the back right corner of the
church and immediately began to explore. There was a central nave with two parallel aisles on each side, and a
very high ceiling, as advertised.
In our explorations on the right side of the church we discovered the tomb of Christopher Columbus. People have been
skeptical about whether the remains in the tomb are actually those of Columbus, and the adventures of Columbus’s
remains over the centuries certainly make such doubts understandable. Columbus died in Spain (apparently of a
heart attack) in 1506, and he was initially buried in the town of Valladolid. In 1542 he was dug up and shipped
to Santo Domingo in the present-day Dominican Republic, where he rested in peace until 1795. At this point France
was taking over the island of Hispaniola, so Columbus was again relocated, this time to Havana, Cuba. Cuba became
independent in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War, and this triggered another move, this time back to Spain
and the Seville Cathedral. But in 1877 a lead box was discovered back in Santo Domingo with Columbus’s name on it,
containing some bone fragments. This led to a controversy that wasn’t settled until 2003, when DNA samples were
taken from the remains in Seville and compared to those known to belong to his sons. The DNA wasn’t in great shape,
but the similarity was apparently enough to pronounce Columbus’s remains to be some portion of Christopher
Columbus. The question of the lead box in Santo Domingo remains a mystery at this point.
As one would expect for such a large church, there are chapels aplenty, 80 to be exact. Here are highlights from a few:
But the most impressive chapel is undoubtedly the Capilla Mayor in the middle of the church, which contains the
Retablo Mayor, the largest altarpiece in the world (66 ft. X 59 ft.), designed by Flemish artist Pierre Dancart
beginning in 1482 and finally completed in 1564.
There is also an extensive Treasury (on the right side of the church, forward of the Columbus tomb) filled with
valuable objects and works of art.
Outside the south Cathedral door is a large courtyard filled with orange trees, the Patio de los Naranjos. This
area dates back to the time of the mosque that preceded the Cathedral. The fountain was used by the Muslim
worshippers to wash their hands and feet before their prayers. The oranges, like those on trees growing throughout
the city, are inedibly bitter.
Reachable from inside the Cathedral is the Giralda, which can be climbed up to where the bells are. This is done
using a spiral ramp, which was used instead of stairs to enable men to climb the tower while sitting on their
horses. The climb rewards the climber with spectacular views of the Cathedral and of Seville.
After descending from the Giralda we exited the Cathedral and window-shopped at the stores across from the west side
of the church. We also found that a modern-looking tram travels along this side of the church.
We walked southward along Avenida de la Constitucion in search of food. We found a restaurant that looked good across from
the luxurious Hotel Alfonso XIII. And just in time, as I was starting to wilt from the heat.
After cooling off and refueling we set off for our next destination, the Royal Alcazar of Seville.
Mural of St. Christopher, Pérez de Alesio (1584)
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