Cathedral, Plascencia

The Finest Cathedrals in Spain

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The finest cathedrals in Spain

From Romanesque to modern, the most beautiful and interesting cathedrals in Spain

Santiago de Compostela
West facade of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela
     As one might expect in a country whose history has been heavily marked by Catholicism, Spain is a country with many magnificent cathedrals. So many, indeed, that it is very hard to decide which are the ten best cathedrals in Spain. While there are some, such as the UNESCO World Heritage site cathedrals at Santiago de Compostela, Burgos or Cordoba that should feature in anyone's listing of the ten best cathedrals in Spain, the tail of the list is less easy to establish.
   There is even considerable disagreement as to which is the oldest cathedral in Spain. Is it Jaca, in the Pyrenees, with its Romanesque elements from the twelfth century? Or is it the 10th - 12th century basilica at Foz, in Galicia, which is not actually a cathedral, though was one in the past? Or is it the cathedral at Cordoba, which is undoubtedly the oldest... but not really the oldest cathedral, since it was a mosque until the 13th century?  Experts will agree to disagree.
   In all there are over 90 cathedrals in Spain, plus some other major religious edifices, and virtually every one of them is an impressive building in its own right. The architectural map of Spain's cathedrals is unique among nations, as it reflects the slow rechristianisation of Spain, after the Moorish period. The oldest cathedrals in the north, where the Reconquest began in the Middle Ages, later, more Baroque cathedrals in the south, the last part of Spain to be reconquered.
   Spain's cathedral-building history continues to this day, if we consider Gaudi's unfinished Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona, to be a cathedral, which it is in size and concept, if not in its official denomination. The list below is a choice of the ten most interesting and most significant cathedrals in Spain, in the humble opinion of its author.  
   
Ten most impressive and significant cathedrals in Spain.

Santiago de Compostela  (Galicia) - UNESCO World Heritage site. Europe's most famous pilgrimage church since the Middle Ages, the cathedral at Santiago is a magnet not just for pilgrims, but for anyone interested in Europe's historic heritage. Not surprisingly, having been a major European landmark for over 900 years, the church has been added to periodically; and always lavishly. This single building is a one-stop history of Spanish and European architecture from the 11th to the 18th centuries. Essentially a romanesque structure, it also has much fine work in the gothic and Spanish baroque styles.

Mosque - cathedral in Cordoba
The Catedral - Mezquita in Cordoba

Cordoba . (AndaluciaCatédral - Mezquita. UNESCO World Heritage site. Though the gothic cathedral in the middle of the building is a fine structure in its own right, the completely unique feature of Cordoba's cathedral is that most of the building was originally a mosque. The great mosque of Cordoba, built between the 8th and the 10th centuries, was once the second largest mosque of Islam, after Mecca. It was converted for use as a cathedral after the reconquest, then, 3 centuries later, part of the centre was pulled down to make place for a more traditional cathedral. However when Emperor Charles V came to inspect the new cathedral, he was horrified, and is quoted as saying to the Cordoban bishop "You have destroyed something that was unique in the world, to make something ordinary". Fortunately, most of the old mosque is still there, making this one of the essential stops on any cultural tour of Spain.

Burgos  (Castila y Leon) - Catedral de Santa María de Burgos - UNESCO World Heritage site.  Spain's most purely European gothic cathedral, built between the 13th and the 16th centuries. This is a European cathedral that would not seem out of place in France or Germany or even England. Building of the cathedral was begun by Ferdinand III of Castile and Bishop Maurice, born in England; and the principal architects over time were one from France - possibly Jean de Champagne - and later a German architect Johannes von Köln, who brought the high Gothic style to Spain.

Seville cathedral
Seville cathedral, with the Giralda tower on the left

(Andalucia) Seville. Catedral de Santa María de la Sede.  UNESCO World Heritage site.  Covering 11,520 m², this is the biggest gothic cathedral in the world, and the second largest cathedral in Europe, after St. Peter's Rome. Originally built in the fifteenth century, after the Reconquest, the cathedral was partially destroyed a few years later when the dome collapsed. It was rebuilt, but the new dome was destroyed by an earthquake in 1888. The rest of the cathedral survived, and is lavishly decorated, a sign of Seville's wealth. Apart from the gothic and later baroque decoration of its interior and exterior, Seville cathedral is noteworthy for two other points; firstly its tower, la Giralda, which is much older, being originally the 12th century Almohad minaret for Seville's mosque. Secondly for the tomb of Christopher Columbus, who is buried here.

Avila  (Castila y Leon) . The oldest gothic cathedral in Spain, built between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. Earlier, and consequently less ornate than many of Spain's other gothic cathedrals, Avila cathedral has a classic gothic portal, as seen in many of the great French cathedrals. The cathedral is also part of the city's unique fortifications, and has an interesting 16th century cloister

Barcelona  (Catalonia) Sagrada Familia : Gaudi's remarkable 20th century concrete cathedral, consecrated in 2010, and strictly speaking a basilica rather than a cathedral, is still being built, but has already been declared a UNESCO world heritage site. This is a unique art-nouveau variation on the classic gothic cathedral, and one of the principal tourist sites in Catalonia. Completion is scheduled for the year 2026. Barcelona also has a mediaeval gothic cathedral, though with a 19th century gothic facade,. the Catédral de la Santa Cruz.

Salamanca  (Castila y Leon) -  Salamanca has two cathedrals, joined to each other. Over the centuries, old mediaeval cathedrals and churches in many cities were either destroyed or largely modified, to make room for new cathedrals in the style of the new age. But in Salamanca, when they decided to build a new cathedral in the 16th century, they foresaw many decades of work, so kept the old cathedral operating, and built the new one right alongside it. The 12th century late romanesque "old cathedral", which thus never got demolished or much changed,  is a remarkable building, notably on account of its magnificent gilt and painted apse, decorated in the 14th century. The new cathedral, consecrated in 1733, is one of the last classic gothic cathedrals built, at a time when most of the rest of Europe had moved on to neo-classicism or baroque.

Zamora (Castila y Leon) -  Another of Spain's great romanesque cathedrals, dating from the twelfth century. This twelfth century cathedral is particularly interesting for its romanesque architecture and decoration, but also for the fact that it is part of a defensive enclave within the city. The transept is capped by a dome that was surely inspired by the early 12th century byzantine-style domes of St. Front cathedral in Perigueux, France; the bishop of Zamora in the early 12th century was Bernard de Périgord.

Leon - (Castila y Leon)  Santa María de León.   Leon was a major point on the pilgrimage route to Compostela, and in the 13th century it was decided to replace the old romanesque cathedral with a new gothic cathedral, in the style of other great cathedrals along the pilgrimage routes from France and beyond. With its rose window and flying buttresses, this is a classic high gothic cathedral, particularly noted for its fine stained-glass windows. Also in Leon, the basilica of San Isidoro, with its pantheon of the kings of Leon, is one of the great romanesque monuments in Spain.

Plasencia  (Extremadura) -  Two cathedrals in one, the cathedral at Plasencia tells a strange story, that of a romanesque-gothic cathedral being stopped while half built, and another late gothic - platresque cathedral, on a very different scale, being built to a different plan, on more or less the same site. The result is two half cathedrals. The byzantine-romanesque chapter house of the old cathedral is particularly interesting and unusual.


More information:  
Among the other cathedrals in Spain, the following are particularly recommended : Jaca, Saragossa, Lleida (Lerida), Segovia, Toledo, Jaen, Granada, Valencia, and Cadiz.
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Burgos cathedral
Burgos cathedral -finest Spanish gothic




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Sagrada Familia
Gaudi's Sagrada  Familia, Barcelona

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