What do you look for in a house of worship?
Some seek austere simplicity, while others yearn for majesty, something to both make them feel small and a part of something greater. As an American, the great churches of Europe are awe-inspiring and omnipresent, and visiting them can be a complex, conflicting experience.
The Cathedral of Seville ranks high on the deliberately awe-inspiring part of the scale. By volume, it has the largest area of all gothic cathedrals in the world (11,520 square meters). When measured by area, it is surpassed by St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but that’s still extraordinary company. Built upon a grand Almohad Mosque constructed in the 12th century, christian leaders adapted two parts of the mosque for their own purposes: the Giralda tower, originally a minaret, and the Moorish entrance court, shown below.
If you look closely at the center of the photo, you’ll see a small circular fountain. The grid patterns connecting the trees – all of them orange trees, so representative of Seville – are actually small water channels set into the floor, built to direct water from the fountains to every tree, keeping them well-tended at all times.
Entering the cathedral, it’s difficult to muster words other than “Wow.” Swallows zip past the giant open doors and slalom through the massive columns towering overhead. The altarpiece of the cathedral is the work of a single craftsman, Flemish artist Pierre Dancart, who worked on the massive wall of gold for 44 years.
A tour of the cathedral brings some demons out of the shadows, however. The audioguide details the church’s hoard (the sign tellingly declares it “treasure”) of crowns, sceptres, candleabras, and relics, most drenched in gold or silver and all adorned with jewels. The small capellas or chapels that line the inner walls of the structure – all featuring huge works of art, sculptures, and golden chairs lined with red velvet – could shelter 30 or more worshippers each. By the time the tour leads you to the final remains of Christopher Columbus, borne aloft by four royal carriers, the experience seems less about good works and entirely about declaring Spain as a world power. You might wonder, how many people had to suffer, how many were enslaved, how many souls had to die to create all this material wealth?
The church leaders who decided to build the church, tradition holds, said they would build it so large “that those who will see it finished will consider us mad.” I don’t think I interpreted that madness in the way they expected.
From the outside, the Cathedral of Mallorca provokes a similar response of awe, this time to do more with its place in the city than its building plan. The cathedral stands almost on the shore of the city of Palma, a comfortable, five-minute walk to the Mediterranean Sea. It was the first time I encountered a gothic cathedral with palm trees outside.
Like the Cathedral of Seville, Mallorca’s cathedral is built upon a former mosque. But the interior is markedly different. The first thing you notice, hanging above the altar, is the stunning canopy.
The piece was designed by Gaudi – architect of the still-unfinished Sagrada Familia in Barcelona – who worked in the cathedral intermittently between 1904-1910. The canopy is meant to represent a crown of thorns, and I guess you can see it that way. But I was profoundly struck by the small boats suspended at the bottom. Mallorca has one of the busiest airports in Spain, but boats were fundamental for the island’s commerce and people for centuries. Alluding to it here is both deeply thoughtful and creative, in the manner in which it’s done is almost tribal.
To the right of the altar, another creative endeavor stopped me in my tracks.
The Chapel of St. Peter is covered in an elaborate, cracked, and arresting work of clay sculpted by Miquel Barcelo, soaring between 25-50 feet overhead. It’s both a tribute to stories from the bible – note the jugs of wine and loaves of bread to the right in the picture above, symbolizing the Feeding of the Multitudes – and the resurrection of Jesus, symbolized by the figure in white rising from the sacristy. But images in the clay also symbolize Mallorca, too: fish break through to gape back at onlookers, starfish crawl along the wall, octopi reach for a handhold, and hooks dangle from the clay surface. At the very top, a blue wave crests, threatening to bring the entire work of art crashing down upon churchgoers.
Some find the work disturbing, but I found it extraordinary. Never could I imagine seeing such a work of art in an American church. It had a creative freedom and unbridled expression, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a church before.
It moved me to tears.
I would recommend the Cathedral of Mallorca to anyone and at any time. It’s unique, and stunning, and extraordinary. What I remember most about the Cathedral of Seville isn’t the singular altarpiece of gold, or the madness of its scope, or even the remains of Columbus: it was the orange trees in the outer courtyard, and the soil that held them. No water flowed through the labyrinthian channels that crisscrossed beneath tourists’ feet, not one drop: the ancient channels were dry as a bone.
In comparison, the Cathedral of Mallorca was, and is, an oasis.