When plans for Seville cathedral were drawn up in the early 15th century, the brief was to create a building so beautiful and grand that anyone beholding it would take its architects for mad men.
By the time it was finished, the cathedral was the world’s largest gothic structure and it remains one of the world’s largest cathedrals. You could park a jumbo jet in its nave, according to our Insight Vacations travel director leader Elena, who has a knack for incongruous but vivid descriptions.
We’re halfway through a journey around Spain and Portugal, and it might be fair to say that church fatigue is starting to creep in. But it’s utterly dispelled the moment we step into the dim, cavernous interior of Seville cathedral. The eye-popping building is loaded with gold, statues, plundered treasure and two gigantic organs with pipes the size of tree trunks. Saints swoon and die on the walls.
You might feel either menaced or exhilarated, maybe even both, but you certainly won’t be indifferent. This cathedral encapsulates all the brooding glory, sensuality and violence of fanatical Catholic Spain.
Its dimensions are an expression of power and intimidation – Muslims had just been chased out of Spain and Jews would soon be expelled. Medieval-era Seville already had an impressive mosque and a palace sumptuous with Islamic decoration. The palace remained but the mosque was demolished, except for its courtyard and minaret which became the cathedral’s bell tower.
Confiscated property and American gold paid for everything beautiful in Seville. It became the richest city in Europe and the cathedral flaunts the city’s wealth with impious enthusiasm. It’s crammed with silverware and stained glass, waterfalls of gold, artworks by Murillo and Goya, and curiosities including a stuffed crocodile that hangs from the ceiling in the courtyard of the oranges.
The man who made it all possible, Christopher Columbus (or perhaps only bits of him, since his corpse travelled almost as much as the living explorer) lies entombed in a massive sarcophagus supported by statues of pallbearers. It has a curiously out-of-place late romantic style and is perennially surrounded by gaggles of camera-toting tourists.
You’re better off slinking down the aisle to the serene tomb of Cardinal Don Juan de Cervantes, which shows the prelate lying comfortably propped up on three fat pillows, atop a tomb embellished with lions and robed medieval figures.
The cathedral’s main altarpiece is a wild extravagance, probably the largest anywhere, and groaning with gold. It rises from floor to ceiling and you have to crane your neck to see the topmost of its thousand biblical figures in painted wood. Somewhere in there is a tiny figurine of the Virgin, like the fabulous idol of some long-lost civilisation. Sixteenth-century Catholic Spain seems splendid and barbaric, thrilling and frightening from the perspective of the 21st century.
Parts of the cathedral – the bedazzling altar, the painting-hung sacristy – are overcrowded, but the interior is so immense you can disappear into the solitude of a dim corner and find plentiful visual pleasures, from royal tombs to gigantic keys and a half-ton silver monstrance. Even the iron screens that close off dozens of side chapels are exuberant. You can only imagine the shock and awe of this place to a 16th-century Spanish peasant.
Perhaps you don’t even have to imagine it. Seville’s cathedral is still an awesome place. When our Insight Vacations group staggers out from its dimness into the bright sunlight of its Muslim-era courtyard, shaded with scented orange trees, we all seem stunned into silence.
We’ll see quite a few splendid churches on this escorted journey around Spain and Portugal, but this one is without doubt the most astonishing.
Brian Johnston was a guest of Insight Vacations.
Insight Vacations’15-day Best of Spain and Portugal itinerary between Madrid and Barcelona (or the reverse) runs weekly from April to October and inclues Salamanca, Porto, Lisbon, Seville, Gibraltar and Granada. Prices from $4727 a person twin share including accommodation, transport, local guided visits and some meals. See insightvacations.com/au