Category Archives: Spanish Architecture

Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum: Not Just A Building.

Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum: Not Just A Building: An Experience.

Introduction. How the Bilbao Guggenheim came to be.
If ever the fortunes/ public image of a city can be said to have changed dramatically for the better thanks to one building, it would be hard to find a better example than the impact of the spectacular Guggenheim Museum on the Basque city of Bilbao (Bilbo in Basque). In a short time, it has become for Bilbao what, for example, the opera house became for Sydney, Australia: an immediately identifiable structure suggesting vision, taste and boldness. It has also given rise to the controversial term “Bilbao” or “Guggenheim” effect, a narrative whereby the construction of a building is seen as responsible for the transformation of a city from (relative) cultural obscurity to world-wide fame. [Some Basque nationalists even objected to the construction of the Museum, seeing it as nothing more than a piece of American imperialism and an insult to Basque culture. Indeed, a Basque policeman was killed when he foiled a grenade attack on the Museum by separatists less than a week before it opened. The Guardian Newspaper. See under Sources for website.]

The construction of the Guggenheim forms part of a wide and ongoing cleanup and transformation of a city whose history was long dominated by fishing, heavy industry (iron, steel, chemicals, shipbuilding), and commercial pursuits (banking, Stock Exchange and trading). Although not the capital of Euskadi i. e., the Basque Country (the capital is Vitoria-Gasteiz.), the city was the economic hub of the region and a major contributor to the Spanish economy. But it was largely a gritty, dour, colourless city that suffered badly in comparison with its glitzy Basque neighbour, San Sebastian, long a favorite summer resort of the Spanish aristocracy and the wealthy.

However, at the end of the 20th century Bilbao suffered a severe economic decline, a decline that, nevertheless, gave the city authorities –with the support of the Basque government– the opportunity to clean and modernise the city.

Besides the Guggenheim, there is also a state-of-the-art rapid transit system, an ultra-modern airport terminal, and a massive new super port, Bilbao’s impressive maritime gateway to the world and entry point for cruise ships attracted by the Guggenheim. In the centre of the city, the sleek 165-metre (541-foot) Iberdrola tower dominates the skyline. Opened in 2012, it is the headquarters of a multinational utilities company,

Green spaces have sprouted where smokestacks from grimy factories spewing pollutants from smelters and furnaces once dominated the skyline, and the River Nervión has been cleaned and its banks become prime development land.

The Guggenheim as Work of Art.
The stunning Guggenheim Museum –designed by Toronto-born, Los Angeles-based architect, Frank Gehry– opened in October 1997, and rightly takes pride of place in the renovation of the city. The building –a stunning art complex administered by the prestigious Guggenheim Foundation– has been acclaimed as one of the greatest architectural masterpieces of the 20th century.

Prado Museum. Madrid,

A walk around the Guggenheim is an eye-opening experience and a must-do before entering the building. Traditional ideas of what an art museum should look like –e. g. classical structures, such as the Prado Museum in Madrid, the original Tate Gallery, London or the Louvre, Paris– are constantly challenged if not shattered by the irregular changing perspectives, which seem to defy structural logic. But then, the Guggenheim is not simply a museum, it is itself an avant-garde work of art.

Edged by a park and canal on one side and by the river Nervión on the other, its dynamic impact is immediate and changes according to where you view it from. From the park side, where the entrance is located, the museum rises above the trees in an imaginative combination of different shapes at odd angles.

The Guggenheim from the Salve bridge.

The dynamism of the odd angles and shapes is enhanced by the different construction materials visible: glass, cream-coloured limestone, and titanium cladding. 

However, look at the building from the Puente de la Salve bridge (officially the Puente Príncipes de España) spanning the Nervión river, and it transforms into a ship with its sleek, shimmering titanium siding conjuring images of sails riding the river. What could be more apt to capture Bilbao’s historical shipping connection tradition?

Five must-see Exterior Art Works before entering the Museum.
The stunning and unconventional exterior undoubtedly impresses, but walking around the building also brings visitors face to face with a disparate variety of art works or sculptures that are in many ways as surprising and unconventional as the building itself. They are an integral part of the experience.

What are a gigantic dog, an enormous spider, a tower of metallic balls and a bouquet of huge multicoloured tulips doing in this place? And perhaps even more unconventional, a “piece” of art created out of fog! Yes, fog! Known simply as Fog Sculpture #08025, its form varies according to weather conditions and the time when it gets activated. In other words, you may see it or you may not! And should you happen to see it more than once, it will never be the same.

The dog and the tulips are the works of the American artist, Jeff Koons. You can’t miss the dog. It’s seated directly in your path to the entrance.

Guggenheim Museum. Puppy.

Fondly known as Puppy, it is an enormous, floral sculpture of a lovable West Highland terrier towering just over 12 metres (40 feet). The fur is made up of multi-coloured pansies and other vivid flowers, embedded in soil and supported on a steel frame, and fed by an internal irrigation system.

Guggenheim. Tulips.

Koon’s Tulips are located at the rear of the building. Made of stainless steel, the seven blown-up, coloured, flowers measure 5 metres (16.5 feet) across and 2 metres (6.5 feet) tall. The gleaming, flawless surfaces and various colours add a bit of dashing bravado against the grey of the tiles on which they stand and against the background regardless of whether it is the glass, titanium cladding and cream-coloured limestone of the museum or the apartment blocks and tree-covered hill across the river (as in the photo above).

Guggenheim Museum. Maman.

The spider (9 metres/30 feet x 10 metres/33 feet) is the work of the French-American sculptress, Louise Bourgeois. One of a series of spider sculptures, Maman (Mother) –as Bourgeois called it—is a warm tribute to her mother who died when Bourgeois was 21 and whom she recalled fondly as protective and caring. But why a spider? For many people the spider evokes fear (arachnophobia), but in Bourgeois’s case it turns out that her mother was a weaver and the spider has long been the archetypal image of the weaver. Furthermore, in Bourgeois’s view, spiders rid the world of mosquitos (which spread disease) and so are helpful and protective “just like my mother.”

Tall Tree and the Eye. Note the mist from Fog Sculpture.

The tower of metallic balls, called Tall Tree and the Eye (2009), is the work of the prolific British-Indian sculptor, Anish Kapoor. The title is an immediate challenge. It is not difficult to see the relationship between name and image in Puppy and Tulips, and even Maman can be understood in the terms outlined by Bourgeois. But the Tall Tree… does not look anything like a tree. It is a 15-metre (45 feet) tall structure made of 76 stainless steel spheres clinging together irregularly in a way that seems to defy gravity. Seated on an island of sandstone blocks, the spheres reflect and distort all views around them, each ball offering — like an all-seeing eye in constant motion– a different perspective. What we see via the spheres is ambiguity, and ephemerality and a delicate balancing act that suggests instability (despite the permanence suggested by the steel which the spheres are made of)… nothing is fixed, everything depends on the standpoint of the viewer, possibly the Eye. What’s to say that we can’t call a tower of stainless-steel spheres a “tree!

If Kapoor’s Tall Tree… suggests ephemerality and instability, what are we to make of Fog Sculpture #08025, a work that defies our usual and traditional understanding of sculpture. Created by the Japanese artist, Fujiko Nakaya, Fog Sculpture… was installed in 1998 and has no fixed form. Created out of pulverised water, it is activated for about 8-9 minutes every hour between 10.00 am. and 8.00/ 9.00 pm.

Guggenheim. Walkway between Maman and Tall Tree…

It emerges under the walkway between Maman and Tall Tree… and wafts its way over the shallow lagoon, occasionally obscuring the Tall Tree… and parts of the main building. It can even embrace viewers on the walkway as it swirls uncontrollably over the area. As it withdraws, the fog sometimes looks sea foam hitting the shore; other times, it slides silently back under the walkway.

Fog Sculpture #08025

Fog Sculpture #08025 is in effect, a self-creating phenomenon since once it is released, the creator loses control of the form it will eventually take. It is common place to say that works of art/literature etc. take on a life of their own independent of their creators, but Fog Sculpture…, transitory by nature, is perhaps the most extreme and maybe the most original example of art as defying any restriction or limitations that words or formal structures (e. g. a picture frame or the material that a sculpture is made of) impose on traditional forms.

The Guggenheim Inside.
Inside, from the moment you descend the entrance steps, pass through the lobby and enter the atrium, the Guggenheim is as unconventional as the outside.

Guggenheim. Atrium.
Guggenheim. Atrium.

There is the same lack of logical order and a deconstruction of accepted structural designs. Soaring upwards, there are large, leaning windows, steel girders, tilted cream-coloured stone pillars, white walls, suspended walkways, and paths that lead off in all directions. It is not a labyrinth, but it is a challenge, even with a brochure, to find the individual galleries. There are three levels reached by glass-enclosed elevators (lifts); the suspended walkways that link the galleries might not be to the taste of those with no head for height!

Of the 19 galleries, nine are unconventionally shaped, the rest classically rectangular in shape. Moving from gallery/room to the other is in itself an adventure since doors are not always in predictable spots. It is possible to be so easily absorbed by the structure that its art collections might be easily forgotten.

And there is nothing conventional about these art works inside. Appropriately, the Guggenheim specialises in modern and contemporary art, and its holdings are complemented by exhibitions including works drawn from other Guggenheim collections.

Kiefer. Blackened sunflowers.

On a first visit, it might be wise to limit viewing since the galleries themselves are unusually designed and the avant-garde works they contain require constant reconsideration against our more traditional perspectives on art.It is easy to be moved by e. g. Anselm Kiefer’s war imagery and blackened sunflowers, and struck by Andy Warhol’s One Hundred and Fifty Multicoloured Marilyns (silkscreen images of Marilyn Monroe). The former are a touching evocation of the senseless destruction and desolation caused by war; the latter demonstrate the endless permutations potentially contained in an image. By comparison, Mark Rothko’s large-scale Untitled is cold and could be more aptly called “Unfinished.”

There is much more (for another page?), but everything about the Guggenheim –the building itself, its contents and its immediate surroundings— is a constant questioning about the nature and limitations of Art. Gehry has overthrown accepted norms in architecture, and Koons, Kapoor, Bourgeois and Nakaya engage us in a dialogue on the role of their works in the context in which they have been placed. Together, these works, both outside and inside the Guggenheim, issue an ongoing challenge. What, if any, are the limits of art?

Stich, Sidra art-Sites Spain: contemporaray art and architecture. San Francisco: art-Sites 2001 1st Edition.
Image of Prado Museum:
Image of Tall Tree and the Eye from Global Stainless Artworks, New Zealand: Click Stainless Steel Spheres to access image.
Image of Fog Sculpture:
Image of Anselm Kiefer’s Sunflowers:
The best way to appreciate Fog Sculpture #08025 is through videos. Google, for example: guggenheim bilbao fog sculpture.
For a succinct background to the building of the Museum (and an excellent photo of the old, industrial Bilbao), see

Gaudi. El Capricho. Comillas. An Oriental, Gothic Fantasy.

Gaudi. El Capricho (aka Villa Quijano) in Comillas.

Antoni Gaudí was a Catalan architect whose name is synonymous with Barcelona, and especially with the unfinished basilica La Sagrada Familia  (The Holy Family).

However, outside Barcelona, you can get a taste of Gaudí’s work in the autonomous communities of Cantabria and Castilla-León (along the north coast of Spain) where he designed three buildings: El Capricho (1883-85), a summer residence in the small town of Comillas, the Bishop’s Palace in Astorga (1889-1915), and a residence cum commercial building, the Casa (de los) Botines (1891-93) in León.

How did Gaudi come to get commissions in northern Spain when all his other buildings were clustered in or around Barcelona? It boils down to business and religious connections his patrons in Barcelona had with the area. El Capricho was built for a wealthy bachelor, Máximo Díaz de Quijano, but how Gaudi got the commission is a rather convoluted story.

It starts with a native of Comillas, Antonio López who made his fortune in Cuba before eventually settling in Barcelona where he had banking and shipping interests. López charged another Catalan architect, Joan Martorell with the design for a neo-Gothic palace in Comillas. This is the Sobrellano Palace (1882-88) located within a stone’s throw from El Capricho. Martorell knew Gaudí (he was actually responsible for getting Gaudí selected to continue with La Sagrada Familia) and was instrumental in paving the way for Gaudí’s work to become known to Máximo Díaz de Quijano. It also happens that don Máximo had worked in one of the Marquis de Comillas’s firms as a lawyer and …. his sister, Benita, married the Marquis’s brother!!! So there were, in fact, a lot of Catalan connections with Comillas.

As for the Episcopal Palace in Astorga …  well the Bishop of Astorga was from Gaudí’s home town of Reus.

In León, two partners –Simón Fernández and Mariano Andrés– took over a commercial enterprise after the death of its founder, a Catalan business man, Joan Homs i Botinàs. They continued the business of buying textiles from the Catalan industrialist Eusebi Güell, a close friend of Gaudí and one of his most influential patrons. It was Güell who suggested GaudÍ receive the commission; it was to construct a building housing residences for the partners, apartments for rent and office and storage facilities. 

El Capricho.
Gaudí was only 31 and relatively unknown when he was commissioned in 1883 to design a summer home in Comillas for Máximo Díaz de Quijano. In the same year, Gaudí was contracted to build Casa Vicens and to continue the construction of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (following the resignation of the original architect –Francesc de Paula del Villar). Heavily committed to his work in Barcelona, Gaudí appointed his friend and fellow architect, Cristóbal Cascante, to oversee the construction of El Capricho. In fact, there is no record that Gaudí ever visited Comillas, although given his almost obsessive control over his projects, it seems unlikely that he would not have visited at some point.

El Capricho is located on a wooded hilltop, not far from Martorell’s neo-Gothic designed Sobrellano Palace and within sight of a family pantheon also designed by Joan Martorell.

El Capricho, translated as “whim,” “fancy,” or “mood,” lives up to its name: it is a mixture of oriental fantasy (combining brickwork, tiles, wrought iron), and capricious traces of Gothic architecture. It has a playful quality, and although its shape is irregular it is a compact building solidly anchored to the ground. The pillared main entrance is set off at an angle over which rises a minaret-like circular tower topped by a delicately balanced canopy.

El Capricho. Entrance with minaret influenced tower.
El Capricho. Sunflower motif.

Immediately noticeable is the sunflower motif running throughout the exterior and stretching up the tower to the canopy. Sandstone-coloured brickwork, plain green tiles and green friezes with vegetal designs (in which the sunflowers are set) and warm reddish-brown roof tiles complement the warmth conveyed by the sunflowers. Wrought iron mini balconies accompanied by wrought iron coverings add to the unconventionality of the building. 

El Capricho is in all aspects striking, with one feature particularly noticeable: the brickwork around windows, doors and notably the upper part of the tower and the canopy. If you look closely, the brickwork might remind you of Lego pieces.

El Capricho. Built in Legoland?

Had Gaudí anticipated the basic structural components –units– used in Lego?

El Capricho is a warm, welcoming house, custom designed for Don Máximo. Filled with light, its rooms are oriented to allow maximum sunlight to complement their function. Don Máximo’s large bedroom and balcony face the east to receive the morning sun; the west side (next to the entrance) contains Don Máximo’s office. 

El Capricho. Conservatory to the right.

The south is an elongated conservatory where Don Máximo could indulge his love of plants and entertain guests, while on the north side, Gaudí placed a high-ceilinged salon for socialising and music.

El Capricho. Seats designed by Gaudi.

Large windows ensured plenty of light for the salon while wrought iron seats on two small balconies were angled inward to admire the decorative north wall.

El Capricho. Wrought iron seats.

Don Máximo was an amateur botanist and lover of music, and Gaudí –mindful of Don Máximo’s hobbies— weaved elements of these into the house’s whimsical decoration.

El Capricho. Stained glass window.

The best examples are to be found in the stained-glass windows in the bathroom adjoining the main bedroom: in one window, a dragonfly is plucking a guitar while in the window alongside a blackbird is cheekily perched on the keys of a piano.

Unhappily, before the house could be completed, Don Máximo fell ill with liver failure. Work was stopped so that he could move in and at least enjoy a brief stay in his dream home. He died in his bedroom after a week, only 44 years old.

The Sobrellano Palace is a short walk away. Its neo-Gothic façade forms a marked contrast with El Capricho’s cheery, colourful and unconventional exterior.


Joan Martorell: Façade of Sobrellano Palace.

For an excellent description and historical overview of El Capricho, see

Gaudí. Casa Batlló, La Pedrera, Park Güell.

Gaudí. Casa Batlló, La Pedrera, Park Güell.
Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) is one of the best known and distinctive architects of the late 19th early 20th centuries. Although not born in Barcelona, no other artist is so intimately linked with the city as Gaudí. Of his 18 buildings, 12 are in the city and 7 have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites (See Works of Gaudí on the World Heritage List. UNESCO lists 7).

The star, of course, is the Sagrada Familia,  Gaudí’s monumental and still unfinished basilica with a long history going back to 1882, when construction began (its completion is projected for 2026, the hundredth anniversary of Gaudí’s death).

In this post, we’ll look at two houses, Casa Batlló and Casa Milà (better known as La Pedrera), within easy walking distance from each other.  To these, we’ll add Park Gúell. Gaudí was not just an architect, he was a passionate lover of nature, predictably so given his religious propensity and belief that God was the great architect and nature His greatest work. Park Güell is Gaudí at work using wood, stone, wrought iron, and mosaics to complement God’s designs in nature.

Casa Batlló. Façade.
Puig i Cadalfach. Casa Amatller. You can make out Casa Batlló‘s roof and chimney to the right.

Casa Batlló 1904-06.
Casa Batlló is located on the elegant Passeig de Gracia, just north of and within easy walking distance from the Plaça de Catalunya. This part of the Passeig is a focal point of Catalan modernism with strikingly different buildings by contemporary architects, each daring in its way and portraying an iconoclastic/ adventurous spirit breaking with conventions (e.g. compare the Casa Amatller by Puig i Cadalfach immediately to the left of Casa Batlló).  Gaudí combined modernism’s variegated decoration –using iron, ceramics and wood– with romanticism’s appreciation of tradition and empathy with nature.

Casa Batlló is actually a renovated apartment block, converted by Gaudí for the textile magnet Josep Batlló in 1904-06. Its façade strikes you immediately with its large undulating windows on the lower level, topped by a wall of multi-coloured mosaics, bold, jutting balconies that look like masks or eyeless sockets, and vertical window dividers on the second and third floors that imitate elongated bones. The locals name it: Casa dels ossos (House of Bones)!

Casa Batlló in context. The roof of Cadalfach’s Casa Amatller can just be made out to the left.

Look a little closer at the centre of the large window: those two long bone verticals are topped by a headless torso with arms folded over the chest.  And running down beneath the undulating horizontal frame of the window and into the soft curved sandstone frames of the ground floor are four large nipple-like drips.  Dripping blood?  There’s a funky, surreal feel to the front, which explains why Salvador Dalí –fellow Catalan and surrealist par excellence—admired Gaudí immensely.

According to the art critic, Robert Hughes, the façade of Casa Batlló was intended to project publicly both Gaudí’s deep Catalan nationalism and religious conservatism. Gaudí allegedly said that the façade portrayed the victory of St George (patron saint of Catalonia) over the dragon. The knobbed outline of the roof represents the scales of the dragon’s back (which is much clearer if you go up to the roof), the masks and boned window dividers are remains of the monster’s victims, and the large window the dragon’s devouring mouth. Above, the tower that protrudes boldly to the left is the tip of St George’s lance, topped by a cross inscribed with the names of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

Casa Batlló: Roof: Part of the dragon’s back.
Inner doorway in Casa Batlló
Casa Batllo: Lightwell.

Official web site for Casa Batlló:  

Casa Milà – La Pedrera 1906-10.
From Casa Batlló to Casa Milà (more popularly known as La Pedrera (the Stone Quarry) it is a short walk. La Pedrera was built for wealthy developer Pere Milà y Camps between 1906 and 1910.

Unlike Casa Batlló, which was a renovation built for one family, Casa Milà was an apartment block started from scratch.  Its exterior is probably the most famous in Barcelona: it’s a corner building of soft honey-coloured limestone that curves around the corner in a series of waves.

Casa Milà or La Pedrera

Complementing the waves are balconies made up of strands of metal to look like seaweed entangled with crustacean shells. Every balcony is distinct, reflecting the diversity of nature, which does not repeat itself.  The windows are large, letting in plenty of light. Gaudí’s love of curves and avoidance of straight vertical or horizontal lines is evident.

This stems not simply from his aesthetic preference, but also from his religious convictions: the imitation of waves with marine-inspired balconies was Gaudí’s way of acknowledging and imitating God’s work in Nature, and God does not do straight lines. Or as he succinctly put it: “Straight lines belong to men; curves to God” (Eaude 96).

Inside, Casa Milà’s continues the undulating motif. Indeed, one of the amusing anecdotes related to the house is that Senyora de Milà, perplexed by the lack of straight walls in her apartment, inquired where she could put her dog kennel. Whereupon, Gaudí is said to have replied, “Buy yourself a snake, Madam!” (Eaude 97).

Gaudí. La Pedrera. Patio.
Gaudí. La Pedrera. Rooftop and Chimneys. Note the Darth Vader characters towards the back.

Official site for La Pedrera:
July 2019. What is it like to live in La Pedrera? The following are two accounts, the first –in English– from the Spanish newspaper El País the second from the New York Times:

Park Güell 1902-14.
Gaudí was commissioned in 1902 to create Park Güell by his long-time patron, the wealthy industrialist and Catalan nationalist Eusebi Güell (Gaudí was 50). Güell had travelled widely in France and England, and the park was possibly conceived in imitation of the residential garden cities in vogue in England at the time (hence the English “Park” as opposed to the Catalan “Parc” or Spanish “Parque”). The enterprise didn’t take off but the citizens of Barcelona are better for it. Güell sold the park to the municipality in 1923.

It’s a public park like no other, now enjoyed by Barceloneses and tourists both for Gaudí’s quirky designs and a great view of Barcelona. As soon as you enter the park, you face a grotto embraced by two flower-lined, curved staircases that lead up to a series of Greek or Roman-style fluted pillars supporting a tile-covered serpentine belvedere.  Climb to the top and the belvedere is in fact a large earth-floored square, and the serpentine curves seen from below are edged on the inside by winding benches going around the square. The benches are encrusted with multi-coloured, broken ceramic tiles bearing an incredible number of motifs: e.g. abstract, geometric, floral, vegetative, animal….

Park Güell: Entrance
Benches and view of Barcelona. Sagrada Familia to the left.
Park Güell. Tiled benches.

Throughout the park, there are hidden corners (some used by musicians when we were there), intimate spaces and everywhere lush vegetation covering the multi-tiered layout. True to his aesthetic and religious bent, Gaudí sought to complement nature which he saw as God’s work.  E.g. a sculpted tree arcade, partly entwined by wisteria, seems to grow organically from its natural surroundings.

Park Güell. Sculpted trees and nature.

If you are interested in an academic interpretation of the Park as an expression of Catalan nationalism, read Robert Hughes’s invaluable but very personal views on Barcelona, especially pages 504-12: Hughes, Robert  Barcelona  New York 1993.

Official web site for the park is

Eaude, Michael Catalonia: A Cultural History Oxford 2008
Hughes, Robert  Barcelona New York 1993
Stich, Sidra  Art-Sites Spain: Contemporary Art and Architecture San Francisco 2003
Zerbst, Rainer Antoni Gaudí   Koln 1991
Casa Batlló in context:
Puig i Cadalfach: By Elisa.rolle – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 es,
La Pedrera. Patio: By © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC BY-SA 3.0,
La Pedrera Rooftop: By Kyle Taylor from London, 84 Countries – Barcelona Part Deux – 42Uploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0,


El Escorial. History, Content, Significance.

El Escorial.
The Escorial is an immense monastery and mausoleum located about 52 kilometres (32 miles) north west of Madrid. But it is more than just a monastery or mausoleum. It is in fact a royal monastery and  the most outstanding example of Renaissance architecture in Spain. It contains an exceptional library and a remarkable wealth of paintings, frescoes and sculptures, so much so that it would require several posts/pages to do them justice. What we want to do here is introduce you briefly to the history and configuration and content of the Escorial, and then consider the significance of the building in the context of the religious mood in Spain in the second half of the 16th century.

The Escorial from the Air. Regal Splendour.

The Escorial was commissioned by Philip II in 1563 to commemorate the defeat of the French at the Battle of St Quentin on the day of San Lorenzo (St. Lawrence, August 10, 1557). Important, too, it fulfilled the wishes of Philip’s father, Charles V, for the construction of a royal mausoleum/ burial place. For Philip, who admired and was constantly measuring himself against his father, only a building of imperial grandeur would be a fitting resting place for the greatest monarch that Europe had seen since antiquity.

The full name of the monastery is Monasterio Real de San Lorenzo de El Escorial and was entrusted by Philip to the Hieronymite order of monks (i. e. followers of St Jerome). Designed by Juan de Toledo (who had studied in Rome and Naples), work began in April 1563. After Juan de Toledo’s death in 1567, construction was taken over by his assistant, Juan de Herrera, with whom the building is now associated (although Philip frequently made suggestions and even supervised occasionally!). Astonishingly, the Escorial was completed in only 21 years (1563-84), with some 1,500 workmen involved in the construction. The last stone was placed in the presence of Philip and his children in September 1584.

Fire damaged the monastery and destroyed some of its contents in 1671. In 1808, it was plundered by Napoleon Bonaparte’s French army and four years later was occupied by English and Portuguese troops as the French retreated. Since 1885, it has been occupied by the Order of St. Augustine, although it is now administered by Spain’s Patrimonio Nacional. In 1984, it was made a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Monastery’s exterior measures 207 x 161 metres (676 x 528 ft) long, 20 metres (66 ft) high with 55 metre (180 ft) high towers at each corner. Its building material is granite (from the nearby Sierra de Guadarrama) with slate roofs. Its almost square ground plan supposedly represented the shape of an iron grill on which the Spanish-born St Lawrence is said to have been martyred in Rome.

Silhouetted against the Guadarrama Mountains to the north and east and facing the Meseta to the west and south, the monastery is an imposing sight, totally dominating the nearby village of Escorial. Its exterior, constructed with mathematical precision, is extremely austere, especially when compared with the facades of Charles V’s palace in the Alhambra, Granada. Here there is no rusticated stonework, there are no pilasters, and the rows of seemingly endless windows are devoid of frames and pediments, so common in classical architecture.

The Escorial. South Façade.

Against this severe front, the main entrance on the west façade stands out despite its relative simplicity: a plain doorway edged by 8 imposing half columns with niches and windows at the lower level. Above, four half columns, topped by a large pediment, flank a statue of St. Lawrence and beneath him the Hapsburg coat-of -arms.

The Escorial. Main Entrance on the West Façade.

The severity of the façades reflects Philip II’s public persona very well: distant, stern, reserved. Perhaps the best summary of the monastery comes from Philip himself in his succinct instructions to the architect, Herrera: “Above all, do not forget what I have told you: simplicity in the construction, severity in the whole, nobility without arrogance, majesty without ostentation” (Blue Bk. 303). This description can be applied also to the internal architecture with fluted pilasters about the only decorative element in what is classical simplicity of solid pillars, perfect semicircular arches (of which there are many) and vaulted ceilings.

Inside, the Church or Basilica is the main building. Around the chancel/altar and choir (capilla mayor) is Philip’s palace and to the left of the Church is the 18th-century royal palace (or apartments) commissioned by Charles III and IV in the 18th century. Beneath the Basilica lies the Royal Pantheon where almost all Spanish kings from Charles V are buried. The spectacularly vaulted library boasts an impressive collection of manuscripts (including those in Arabic, Hebrew and Latin) and rare editions protected on bookshelves made of rare woods.

The Escorial.The Library.

Other rooms include the chapter houses (where monks met), two new museums (added in1963 to accommodate many of the paintings), and a beautifully vaulted sacristy where church vestments are kept, where monks/ priests prepare for service and where vessels used for mass are stored.

According to a guide to the monastery, there are “16 courtyards, 11 cisterns, 88 fountains, 13 oratories (small chapels), 7 refectories, 9 towers, 15 cloisters, 86 staircases … 1,200 doors and 2,673 windows” (Ruiz Alcón, Escorial 112b).

The Significance of the Escorial.
The Escorial serves as an excellent contrast to the palace that Philip’s father, Charles V, had built in the Alhambra (begun in 1526). Charles’s palace was primarily a royal residence and a political statement affirming the presence of the Peninsula’s two major –and recently united– kingdoms of Castile and Aragón in what had long been a Muslim kingdom. Although Charles was devout and defended the Catholic Church against Protestantism in northern Europe and Islam in the Mediterranean, his palace reflected the humanistic rather than the religious spirit of the time.

It was constructed to greet and impress visiting dignitaries and its single chapel occupied a relatively small space within it. Its bold design was revolutionary for the time and a measure of the spirit of optimism following the unification of Castile and Aragón, the conquest of the  Muslim kingdom of Granada, the discovery of an exciting new world across the Atlantic and the country’s significant importance in Europe thanks to the lands Charles brought with him. [Admittedly, there was opposition initially when Charles arrived in Spain accompanied by Flemish advisors whom he placed in positions of power, but this was quite soon overcome.]

Like Charles’s palace, the Escorial was a powerful statement and meant to impress. But it was, first of all, a monastery and mausoleum, and the palace and royal apartments were subordinate in importance to the building’s religious function and its role as a royal pantheon. If Charles’s palace was built to greet living dignitaries, the Escorial was built to greet dead royalty. Its austere exterior was a fitting metaphor for the ascetic and sober spirit of Counter-Reformation Spain in the face of the threat posed by Protestantism from north of the Pyrenees.

The Catholic Church’s response to Protestantism’s threat was articulated in directives issued by a gathering of important church figures at the Council of Trent, which met between 1545 and 1563. The Council’s instructions were directed to artists of all kinds including architects.  They were especially urged to eliminate unnecessary or irrelevant ornamentation and focus on clarity or simplicity of expression or austerity regarding the subject matter. Philip’s instructions to Herrera, quoted above, is a perfect summary of the Council’s wishes, and the Escorial is an outstanding example of these wishes turned into reality.

Inside the Escorial.
Although Philip had named Madrid the country’s permanent capital in 1561, he lived intermittently in the Escorial for 14 years, occupying a palace encircling the chancel. Shutters in his bedroom wall allowed him a view of the high altar and, when dying from gangrene in 1598, to see mass being celebrated while in bed.

Philip’s apartments were simple, befitting his personality but otherwise the interior of the Escorial contains dazzling ornamentation. Of the 1,600 paintings most have a religious theme, but there are also portraits, and profane and mythological subjects. Paintings collected by Philip II and his successors range widely from the late Middle Ages to the 17th century. They include foreigners: Rogier Van der Weyden (1400-64), Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441), Joachim Patinir (1480-1524), Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516), Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), Titian (1488-1576), Paolo Veronese (1526-88), Jacobo Tintoretto (1518-94) and Luca Giordano (1634-1705). Spaniards include Juan Fernández de Navarrete (1526-79), Alonso Sánchez Coello (1531-88), Jusepe Ribera (1591-1652), Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), Alonso Cano (1601-67), Alonso de Valdés Leal (1622 -90), and Diego de Velázquez (1599-1660).

There are more than 500 frescoes covering walls and ceilings, and there are floors of marble and jasper in a variety of colours. Rare, exotic wood –mahogany, ebony, cedar, orange wood, walnut, terebinth (a kind of sumac)– make up shelves, gold is used generously on altars and to cover larger than life figures of saints and royalty. There are 570 sculpted, bronzed and gilded reliquaries, containing about 7, 500 relics of saints (Philip was a “relicomaniac”). The veneration of saints was a practice approved by the Council of Trent.

All this decoration might suggest that the spirit of simplicity and austerity urged by the Council of Trent and consonant with Philip’s personality was undermined by the sumptuous interior of the Escorial. There are two possible explanations for this:
The Council of Trent also recommended the use of art and sculpture to “instruct the faithful in the history and mystery of Catholicism” (Brown 53) and to encourage the piety and devotion of both monks and secular faithful. Scenes of the suffering of Christ, or of the saints and martyrs, or pictures of the Immaculate Conception, the Madonna (Mary) and Child, or the Holy Family or the heavenly hosts (notably the frescoes on the vaulted ceilings) were especially appropriate to elicit an emotional response;
Although Philip imposed his personality on the Escorial and was responsible for most that we see there now, collections were added to and commissions made up to the 19th century by successive monarchs who were not constrained by Philip’s rigid piety. This explains, for example, the 17th-century exuberant, baroque ceiling frescoes by the Italian Luca Giordano (1634-1705), or the playful 18th-century tapestries copied from cartoons painted by, for example, Francisco de Goya (1746-1826) or his brother-in-law, Francisco Bayeu (1734-95).

Reactions to the Escorial have varied. After its completion, Philip’s subjects likened it to “the eighth wonder of the world,” but for the 18th-century English clergyman, the Reverend Edward Clarke, it was “a large, confused, stupendous pile” (Blue Bk 303). In 1845, Richard Ford dismissed the Escorial as “vast and useless” (809a), “a useless, colossal pile” (810b), a “monument of fear and superstition.” More modern opinions are less disapproving and not so influenced by 18th or 19th-century anti-Catholic, pro-protestant sentiment. The mid 20th-century Anglo-Welsh travel writer, Jan Morris, views the Escorial as central to an understanding of Spain, its location in the centre of the country being indicative of the control that Castile has exerted on its history (Spain 11). She sees, in the building’s “pervading sadness … something of the tragedy of Spain, her lack of fulfilment (Spain 10-11).

What cannot be denied is that the Escorial is a very popular tourist attraction, and one that can be enjoyed on a day trip from Madrid. It may not be the eighth wonder of the world, but it is worth a visit, which reviews on sites such as Tripadvisor (which give it a high rating of 4+/5) also seem to endorse.

Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 New Haven, London 1991
Calvert, Albert F The Escorial London, New York 1907
The Green Guide: Spain Michelin Travel Publications, 2000
Morris, Jan Spain London, 1964, reprinted 1987.
Robertson, Ian Blue Guide: Spain London, New York 6th ed., 1993
Ruiz Alcón, Ma Teresa Royal Monastery of El Escorial Barcelona 1987
Escorial from the air: By Turismo Madrid Consorcio Turístico from Madrid, España – Monasterio EscorialUploaded by Ecemaml, CC BY 2.0,
Escorial, south facade: By Yvon Fruneau – This place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, listed asMonastery and Site of the Escurial, Madrid., CC BY-SA 3.0-igo,
Escorial, main entrance: By Jebulon – Own work, CC0,
Escorial library: By Xauxa Håkan Svensson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,  

Charles V’s Palace in the Alhambra. Golden Age Architecture.

Golden Age Architecture. Charles V’s Palace in the Alhambra.
Overwhelmingly visitors to Granada go there to visit the famous Alhambra palace complex. Yet the largest and most imposing building within the Alhambra complex is Charles V’s 16th-century Renaissance palace; it looms over the most famous and evocative part of the Alhambra, the 14th-century Nasrid royal residence.

Charles V’s Palace. Western façade.

The decision to build a Renaissance palace within the Alhambra was made when Charles V stayed there on a honeymoon trip following his marriage to Isabel of Portugal in Seville in 1526.  The pair, accustomed to the luxuries of royalty, found the accommodation in the Nasrid palace cramped and cold, so much so that Isabel immediately moved with her retinue to a convent down in the lower town.

Despite these discomforts, Charles admired the Alhambra and is reported to have commented, when in the Nasrid throne room (i. e. the Hall of the Ambassadors in the Tower of Comares): “Ill-fated the man who lost all this”!  [The allusion is to Boabdil, the last Muslim ruler of the Kingdom of Granada.] He was also sufficiently taken with the city of Granada that he intended it to be a permanent residence for his court and even expressed a desire, before he left in 1527, to be buried in the cathedral then being erected in the town centre. [It never happened; he was first buried in the Monastery of Yuste, where he died, and later transferred to the Royal Pantheon in the Escorial, north of Madrid.]

Why build a Renaissance Palace in the Alhambra?
Charles’s decision to erect a new palace was probably prompted by four considerations. 1. He evidently liked both the Alhambra and the city. 2.  Granada was a city with a royal pedigree, having been capital of the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada for over 250 years.  3.  Although the design of the Nasrid palace, with its small, intimate rooms and modestly sized throne room, was to his mind unsuitable to receive ambassadors and inadequate for court ceremonials, the beauty of the complex and its dramatic location made it an appropriate setting for a royal residence.  4. Erecting a European style palace with its Christian association in the middle of a Muslim palace complex not long after the conquest of Granada (1492) was a statement that the Christian kingdom of Castile-Aragón was there to stay. It was part of a widespread and rapid conversion of a Muslim city into a Christian stronghold, with churches and convents springing up in the old town and mosques being converted to Christian needs. The most notable example was the large cathedral begun in Gothic style in 1521 before changing to Renaissance in 1528.

Compared to the lyrical qualities of the Nasrid Palace, Charles’s palace evokes epic grandeur and complemented the imperial title of Holy Roman Emperor that Charles V had won in 1519. An imposing new palace, whose classical design paid homage to the greatness of the Roman empire, it can be seen as an appropriate metaphor for the new Spain under the youthful Charles … bold, determined, unmovable… Under Charles, Spain was forging an empire (although contemporaries called it a monarquía) surpassing even that of Rome. Just as Italian culture served as model and inspiration for other European countries, so too was Rome the imperial standard to emulate and even surpass.

The Palace.
Although often condemned as an intrusion on the unity of the Alhambra complex, Charles’s palace is a fine piece of architecture in its own right, and as a contrast to the Nasrid palace it offers visitors a unique opportunity to compare how royal power was viewed and transmitted by the two different cultures that had shared the Iberian Peninsula for several centuries.

Charles V’s Palace. Southern facade.

The palace is an immense granite square, enclosing a large, circular courtyard, a design that was ahead of its time. Of the four facades, only the southern and the western (where the main entrance is located) are completely decorated; the eastern and northern are only partially so because the are joined directly to the Nasrid palace.

Southern facade, with close up of rusticated stonework. © Barbara Milligan.

The building is structurally imposing, as befits Charles’s imperial title. Its enormous façade connotes power, dignity, solemnity; it is majestic, aloof. The heavy-looking, rusticated stones of the lower half of the façade settle the building solidly on the ground.

The impression of solidity is inescapable. Straight vertical and horizontal lines predominate; square and rectangular windows are larger and more prominent than the small circular ones.  On the southern façade, the single doorway right in the middle and the large glass window above it stand out boldly to impress visitors.  Even more imposing is the central arrangement on the western facade topped by three decorative  medallions with military insignia celebrating Charles’s victories.

The double arcaded courtyard is simple to the point of austere. Its columns –Doric on the lower level, Ionic on the upper– are solidly grounded and powerful. There is no colour to speak of; it is a formal space, somewhat forbidding, even under the Andalusian sun.

Charles V’s Palace. Patio/ Courtyard.

Nowadays, the palace is the home to two museums. On the ground floor is the Museo Nacional de Arte Hispano-Musulman (National Museum of Hispano-Moorish Art) with Moorish artefacts from the Alhambra, including a famous blue amphora, and on the upper floor is the Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum) with Christian paintings and sculptures from the 16th to 18th centuries.  

Jacobs, Michael Alhambra London 2000
Jacobs, Michael A Guide to Andalusia London, New York 1990
Irwin, Robert The Alhambra Cambridge, Mass 2004
Image of Western facade: By Rose Selavy
Image of Southern facade: By Ingo Mehling – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Image of patio/ courtyard: By Ra-smit – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Image of vase: By Diego Sánchez Sarabia – GQFusVUeoF-Zwg at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain,

For an excellent discussion on the construction and significance of Charles V’s palace, see


Renaissance Architecture in 16th-Century Spain

Renaissance Architecture in 16th-Century Spain.
Renaissance architecture originated in Italy in the early 15th century, and was part of a much wider cultural phenomenon whereby secular humanism challenged the Medieval world view long dominated by the Catholic Church. The rediscovery of classical, pagan culture –Greek and especially Roman– opened up new vistas largely buried during the Middle Ages. In literature, for example, the Roman poet Ovid brought the world of mythology to life in his Metamorphoses, Virgil’s epic, the Aeneid, captures the heroic spirit of human endeavour in Aeneas’s journey to the founding of Rome, and Horace’s lyrical verse conveys common events and themes—love, the pleasures of friendship and the unpretentious life—with deceptive simplicity.

In architecture, impetus was provided by the rediscovery in 1414 of De Architectura by the Roman architect and engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (c. 70 BC – 15 BC). This inspired the first Renaissance treatise on architecture, De re aedificatoria (On the Subject of Building) by Leon Battista Alberti in 1450.  At the same time, the revival of the classical architecture of antiquity was facilitated by the fact that its remains were to be found everywhere in Italy and could be studied at first hand.

The result was the application of the general principles of classical architecture adapted to the conditions of 15th-century Italy. These principles were adjusted in turn to local situations as Italian influence spread throughout the rest of Europe. In Spain, for example, the popularity of plateresque surface ornamentation of Moorish inspiration and admiration for late Gothic flamboyance often resulted in buildings that were structurally Renaissance but adorned by a combination of plateresque and Gothic-inspired decoration.

Gothic and Renaissance Architecture.
At the time that Renaissance architecture first appeared, much of Europe was still dominated by Gothic architecture which in France and Spain had entered a stage called “flamboyant.” This involved lots of ornate and intricate details such as elaborate window tracery of curved lines imitating flames (from French flambe), perforated ornamental pinnacles, gargoyles, ogee arches, sophisticated ribbed vaulting etc. With almost all surfaces covered by some kind of intricate decoration, the impression is that of vibrancy or animation.

The contrast between the two styles of architecture was immediate. Renaissance architecture, inspired by classical Roman and Greek architecture, emphasized elegance, proportion, symmetry, order, just about everything Gothic was not at this time. In fact, the term “Gothic” was coined during the Renaissance by Italian humanists who considered the Goths barbarians responsible for the destruction of the classical culture of Rome and its empire. Gothic, then, became a derogatory term for bad taste and decadence when compared to the refinement of classical architecture.

The famous Gothic pointed arch for doorways and windows now gave way to framed rectangles or squares often topped by entablatures (horizontal beams resting on columns and made up of architrave, frieze and cornice) and/or triangular or curved pediments (see Section 3d). Arches were semicircular, and extensive use was made of classical columns (e. g. doric and ionic) and pilasters (shallow rectangular column projecting from a wall), which often divided walls into balanced sections. Sculptured figures were set in niches or placed on plinths. 

In Spain, palaces, manor houses or villas frequently displayed heraldic devices such as escutcheons/shields or circular medallions placed in prominent locations as evidence of noble lineage or newly earned titles. Predictably, they appeared mostly above the main entrance, where they could hardly be missed. They also frequently straddled the corners of facades and adjoining side walls, where they could be viewed from more than one angle.

Renaissance Architecture in Spain.
Renaissance architecture entered Spain towards the end of the 15th century and coexisted with Gothic in Spain for a while. However, as the 16th century advanced, the Renaissance style became more dominant especially in the larger towns and cities.

In some instances, a change of taste might result in a building, initially designed or even starting as Gothic, to be later modified with Renaissance forms. One such example is the Gothic Palacio del Infantado, Guadalajara, north east of Madrid.

Guadalajara. Palacio del Infantado, 1480.

The Palacio was built from approximately 1480 to 1500 for a member of the powerful Mendoza family. Its striking façade combines Gothic architectural details with plateresque decorative features. Notable is the Gothic doorway with plateresque ornamentation. Prominent above it is the Mendoza coat of arms. The façade is covered by diamond stonework of the kind practiced by Mudéjar artisans (Mudéjar: Moor living under Christian rule in Spain). Still, the most impressive feature is the beautiful gallery of paired ogee Gothic windows interspersed with matching oriels (oriel: a kind of bay window) running along the top of the building. But modifications around 1570 saw the removal of the Gothic pinnacles that originally topped the façade. At the same time, Gothic windows were replaced by rectangular Renaissance windows, each with a triangular pediment above it. These design changes not only reflected a change in taste but possibly the desire to imitate a royal palace being built outside Madrid for Philip II.

Colegio de Sta. Cruz, Valladolid.

The first Renaissance buildings to appear in Spain are generally considered to be the Colegio de Sta. Cruz (1483) in Valladolid and the Palacio de los Duques de Medinaceli c.1489 in Cogolludo (north east of Madrid).

The Colegio was commissioned by Cardinal Pedro González de Mendoza, the Palace by Luis de Cerda, first duke of the powerful Medinaceli family.  Both buildings were designed by the same architect, Lorenzo Vázquez de Segovia (c. 1450-c. 1517), widely considered the first Spanish Renaissance architect although it is unclear whether he himself studied in Italy. However, both the Mendozas and the Medinacelis (in fact linked through marriage), were highly cultured and counted ambassadors, cardinals, poets in their families who were acquainted with Italy and the latest trends emanating from that country. Through them, Vázquez could have obtained sketches or treatises on architecture from Italy.

Both buildings hint at enduring Gothic and plateresque influence. Both have delicately worked balustrades and pinnacles that run along the top of the building, and the Palace has beautifully decorated windows on the upper level. In both instances, the attention given to the windows on the upper floor indicate the location of the grandest rooms.

Palacio de los Duques de Medinaceli, Cogolludo.

Importantly, for both families, these early Renaissance works were indicators not only of their wealth, influence and power, but also established them as trail blazers of Renaissance artistic taste and the prestige that went with Italian cultural achievements.  

The role played by the Mendoza and Medinaceli families in introducing Renaissance architecture into Spain is indicative of the influence of the nobility in directing the taste of the country at the time. While the Church had been at the forefront in expanding Romanesque and Gothic architecture, Renaissance building was spearheaded by nobility, royalty and the new wealthy in Spain.

For example, nobles such as Francisco de los Cobos and Juan Vázquez de Molina, both secretaries in turn to Charles V (ruled 1516-56), transformed the small Andalusian town of Ubeda into a jewel of Renaissance architecture.

To the west and within view of Ubeda, Baeza underwent a similar transformation at the same time and boasts a wealth of classical palaces. In 2003, the towns were jointly declared culturally and architecturally important World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, with the centre of Ubeda being ranked as “the greatest Renaissance architecture ensemble in Spain and one of the most important in Europe.”

The new wealthy were self-made men including those who had made their money in the newly conquered Americas (or Las Indias) and who, on returning, displayed their wealth commissioning large, imposing palaces in e. g. in Trujillo, Extremadura, the Palacio de los Duques de San Carlos, Palacio de la Conquista and the Palacio Juan Pizarro de Orellana.

The new architecture and its associated prestige also spread to public buildings, many sponsored by religious figures or nobles. Among these were hospitals (e. g. Santiago de Compostela 1501-11, Hospital de Tavera, Toledo, 1541, Hospital de Santiago, Ubeda 1562-75), universities (Alcalá de Henares, Osuna (Andalusia),1548, the Colegio del Patriarca Valencia 1586, and town halls (e. g. Seville 1527-34, Baeza,1559)

What may be surprising is the relatively few Renaissance cathedrals and churches, especially given the Church’s leading role in spreading Romanesque and Gothic architecture. Where we find most Renaissance churches is in Andalusia, and there is a historic reason for this: the presence of the Nasrid kingdom of Granada, the last enclave of the once powerful Muslim al-Andalus.

Granada remained a political factor in Spain controlling the area that made up most of modern Andalusia from the mid 13th century until its fall to the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella (the famous Catholic Monarchs) in 1492. Clearly, it was impossible to build churches in an area controlled by Islam, especially since Granada felt threatened by the close presence of its expansionist Christian neighbours. Predictably, once the conquest was over, the Christians set about stamping their presence by constructing what most distinguished them from the Muslims: their churches (although they also modified mosques).

Soon new Renaissance cathedrals or churches were raised in Antequera (1514), Córdoba’s choir in the middle of the Mosque (1523), Almería (1524), Jaén (1525), Granada (1528), Málaga (1528), Osuna (1534), Guadix (1549).

Elsewhere in Spain, there already existed a wealth of churches, especially Romanesque and Gothic, and where Renaissance churches did spring up, it was usually due to changing circumstances, e. g. in the 16th century, Valladolid’s 13th-century Gothic colegiata was elevated to a bishopric, which meant the need for a cathedral befitting the town’s status. In Trujillo, the 15th-century Iglesia de San Martín was modified in the 16th century to complement the numerous Renaissance mansions or palaces erected by returning “conquistadores” of America.

Despite the numerous secular classical palaces etc. erected in Spain and several impressive Renaissance cathedrals/ churches in Andalusia, there are two buildings that perhaps best define Renaissance architecture in 16th-century Spain, one in the first half of the century, the other in the second half. Both were initiated by monarchs, the first the royal palace of Charles V embedded in the Alhambra, Granada and begun in 1526, the second El Escorial, a palace-monastery-mausoleum commissioned by Philip II in 1563.

Guadalajara: Palacio del Infantado:

Valladolid: Colegio de Sta.Cruz: By Jose Luis Filpo Cabana – Own work, CC BY 3.0,
Cogolludo: Palacio de los Duques de Medinaceli:By Borjaanimal – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Ubeda: San Salvador: By Heparina1985 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Ubeda: Palacio del Dean Ortega:By José Luis Filpo Cabana – Own work, CC BY 3.0,
Ubeda: Palacio de las Cadenas: By Daniel Villafruela, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Baeza: Palacio de Jabalquinto: De Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium CC BY 2.0,
Baeza: Town Hall: By Elisa.rolle – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 es,
Baeza: Casa del Populo: By José Luis Filpo Cabana – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Trujillo: Palacio de la Conquista: De Elemaki – Trabajo propio, CC BY 3.0,
Trujillo: Palacio de los Duques de San Carlos: De José Luis Filpo Cabana – Trabajo propio, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Trujillo: Palacio Juan Pizarro de Orellana: Alonso de Mendoza –,_Trujillo,_C%C3%A1ceres.jpg
Toledo: Hospital de Tavera:

Alcala de Henares: University: By M.Peinado from Alcalá de Henares, España – 007194 CC BY 2.0,
Seville: Town Hall: By Anual – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Jaen: Cathedral: By PMRMaeyaert – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Guadix: Cathedral: By Samu73 – Flickr (, CC BY 2.0,
Almeria: Cathedral: By Elena Martinez Chacon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 es,


Plateresque Style in Spain’s Golden Age Architecture.

Spanish Golden Age Architecture. Plateresque.

Plateresque is a highly elaborate, decorative style present on numerous buildings in Spain from the end of the 15th century to about the mid 16th century. It was a time when the country was transforming from late Gothic architecture inspired by northern Europe to Renaissance architecture of Italian inspiration. This coincided with the early years of Spain’s Golden Age, a period that extended to the end of the 17th century during which Spain’s accomplishments in politics etc. made it Europe’s most powerful country. (It also made its mark in other fields: literature, art, theology etc,)

Like painting during the same period, architecture in Spain was initially influenced by northern European –especially Flemish— architects and later by Italian builders, and for similar reasons. There were long established commercial, cultural and religious contacts between Spain and the northern Europe and Italy that facilitated the transmission of ideas, and Flemish and Italian architects were at the cutting edge of their disciplines and enjoyed widespread prestige and fame.

Flemish (including French and German) architects brought with them the latest in Gothic architecture which, by this time, had entered a stage called “flamboyant,” i. e. with decorative elements such as elaborate window tracery of curved lines imitating flames (from French flambé) and perforated ornamental pinnacles. (These decorative elements might well be added to existing buildings, such as the dazzling profusion of perforated ornamental pinnacles added from the mid 15th century to Burgos’s 13th-century Gothic cathedral.)

Italian influence is evident in the construction of new kinds of buildings inspired by the architecture of imperial Rome and brought to Spain by Spaniards who studied in Italy or through sketches and treatises introduced by travelers. Widely called Renaissance buildings (sometimes Italianate or classical), they coexisted initially with Gothic but gradually became more widespread as the 16th century advanced, especially in the larger towns and cities where their historical association with imperial Rome complemented Spain’s self-awareness as a major political power with an ever-increasing empire of its own.

Nevertheless, despite the prevalence of foreign architectural influence, many early Golden Age buildings also displayed a peculiarly Spanish decorative contribution: the use of surface ornamentation of Moorish or Mudejar inspiration (Mudejars were Muslims who remained in Christian Spain, notably from the 13th to 15th centuries). This distinctive contribution has given rise to two descriptive terms whose definitions are not always agreed upon by experts: 1. Plateresque (alluding to ornamentation in stone resembling the filigree patterns of silversmiths (platero =silversmith) and widely practiced by the Moors in al-Andalus, i. e. Muslim Spain); 2. Isabelline, used to describe similar ornamentation on buildings initiated or modified during the reign of Queen Isabella of Castile who ruled from 1474 to 1504. The fusion of Spanish (i. e. Moorish/Mudejar) ornamental details with Flemish decorative elements attached to late Gothic –ranging from churches to university facades, town palaces and urban villas—is often referred to as Hispano-Flemish style.

Although it is frequent to read of Isabelline and Plateresque architecture, strictly speaking neither term refers to structural originality in the way we can speak of Romanesque or Gothic or Renaissance. In other words, it is somewhat misleading to talk about Isabelline or Plateresque architecture. Both Isabelline and Plateresque are rather Spanish decorative contributions extravagantly grafted to late or flamboyant Gothic and to early Renaissance buildings with no influence on their structure. For our purpose, we’ll take Isabelline and Platereseque as variations on the same basic theme combining native (Moorish/Mudejar) ornamentation and Gothic flamboyance: i. e. elaborate floral, plant or other organic ornamentation frequently entwined like lace embroidery around human or animal figures, busts, shields and other heraldic emblems. Rather than “architecture,” then, Isabelline and Plateresque might more accurately be called surface sculpture since the ornamentation is in fact carved out of the stone.

However, rather than get caught up in trying to distinguish between Isabelline and Plateresque, we’ll use the term Plateresque exclusively, and apply it to the elaborate decorative work (described above) done on both late Gothic (i. e. flamboyant) and Renaissance buildings.

Plateresque ornamentation may be found within a building (most often churches, including tombs, cloisters, and patios, e. g. the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes in Toledo), but its most striking examples are probably those on the exterior, especially on main façades. Clearly, besides being ornamental, they are meant to impress, with the shields, busts and heraldic devices etc. reflecting the prestige and status of those commissioning the ornamentation and those being depicted. In some instances, the amount and the intricacy of the ornamentation can be overwhelming.

San Juan de los Reyes.
The Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes in Toledo is often taken as a good example of plateresque ornamentation attached to a late Gothic church. It was commissioned by the Catholic Monarchs –Ferdinand and Isabella— to commemorate the defeat of the Portuguese at Toro in 1476,. Built between 1477 and 1504 following plans by Juan Guas (born in northern France), it was originally intended to be the site Ferdinand and Isabella’s final resting place (they are actually buried in the Royal Chapel in Granada).

From the outside, the much-restored monastery (after being damaged by the French in 1808) rises elegantly over what was the judería (Jewish quarter). It is topped by carved stone balustrades and numerous ornamental pinnacles, typical of flamboyant Gothic. But there is little that can be classified as plateresque on the exterior.

Toledo. San Juan de los Reyes, 1477.

It is on the inside –light and spacious, with a single wide nave–, on the walls and the fluted half-round pillars that we find plateresque ornamentation wrapped around figures of saints or framing the coat of arms of the Catholic Monarchs. Note especially the intricate designs on the half-round pillars and the large capitals on the left and right of the picture above.

Artesonado ceiling in the cloisters of San Juan de los Reyes, Toledo.

The two-storeyed cloister, the upper level of which is reached by a plateresque stairway, has an intricate artesonado ceiling (i. e. elaborately patterned with inlaid wood and popularised by the Mudejars).

Valladolid has two outstanding examples of intricate Plateresque ornamentation sculpted on the façades of Gothic buildings: the Iglesia (Church) de San Pablo (c. 1463 to c. 1497) and the Colegio de San Gregorio, 1488-96.

Valladolid. San Pablo, c.1463.

The spectacular façade of the Iglesia de San Pablo is the work of Simón de Colonia (Cologne). Its ornamentation stands out against the plain towers that flank it. The pointed top (called an ogee, and typical of flamboyant Gothic) immediately above the doorway directs us to the sculpted coronation of the Virgin Mary. Three more small ogees point us to a remarkable rose window framed by lace-like tracery. Above that, there are three richly decorated levels each containing three panels filled with saints beneath embroidered canopies and surrounded by pitted stonework.

Valladolid. San Gregorio, 1488.

The decoration on the façade of San Gregorio, now housing the National  Museum of Polychrome Sculpture, has been variously attributed to Juan Guas, Gil de Siloé and Simón de Colonia, all from northern Europe. The ornamentation is astonishingly rich and intricate with the pointed top (i. e. ogee) of its flamboyantly embroidered portal directed upwards to a magnificent heraldic device, consisting of two lions displaying a royal escutcheon/ shield atop two boughs of an intricately carved tree. Easily visible are saints and knights, two mace bearers and some wild, hairy men, but almost lost beneath the escutcheon are numerous, tiny puttis (from putto: a male child, frequently naked and chubby) clinging playfully to vine-like branches looping down from the two boughs above.

The secular world was not indifferent to the impact that plateresque ornamentation had as an indicator of wealth, social taste and status. Two notable examples are the Palacio del Infantado, Guadalajara, north east of Madrid and the Palacio de Jabalquinto in Baeza, Andalusia.

The Palacio del Infantado was built from approximately 1480 to 1500 by Juan Guas and Enrique Egas (Spanish-born but of Flemish parents) for the powerful Mendoza family. Its imposing façade combines Plateresque decorative features with Gothic architectural details.

Guadalajara. Palacio del Infantado, 1480.

Although the studded diamond stonework forms a never-ending pattern along the front, the high point is literally the beautiful gallery of paired ogee (pointed) Gothic windows interspersed with matching loggias (jutting windows that allow for seating) running along the top of the building. All this is encased in ornamental designs including small diamond shapes that complement the larger stonework below. Modifications in the 16th century saw the removal of the Gothic pinnacles that originally topped the façade. At the same time, rectangular Renaissance windows, each with a triangular pediment above it, were installed replacing the Gothic windows that were originally there. These design changes reflected a change in taste and possibly desire to imitate a royal palace being built outside Madrid for Philip II.

Baeza. Palacio de Jabalquinto, late 15th early 16th century.

The Palacio de Jabalquinto, late 15th early 16th-century, boasts a striking plateresque façade embedded in an unadorned, Renaissance-style background of plain stonework, and simple square windows. Topping the ornamentation are five plainly rounded loggia windows.

Commissioned by Juan Alonso de Benavides, second cousin to Ferdinand the Catholic, it has been attributed to Juan Guas and Enrique Egas, a strong possibility given the similarity in the decorative elements, e. g. the paired ogee windows, the diamond pointed stonework.  

Two further outstanding examples are the façades to the main entrance to the University of Salamanca and to the Monastery of San Esteban,1524, also in Salamanca. They are made even more memorable by the golden-coloured sandstone that adds depth and warmth to the buildings, especially at sunset.

Salamanca. University Facade. 1534.

The present main building of the university was constructed in the first half of the 15th century, but the plateresque façade was completed in 1534. (Unfortunately, its author is unknown.) Three levels, closed at each end by decorated, vertical columns, are clearly visible above a simple double doorway, with the relief work increasingly more pronounced as we look upwards. The lowest tier is the most abstract with a simple medallion containing the busts of Ferdinand and Isabella in the centre. In the tier above, there are three imperial coats of arms of their grandson, Charles V, flanked by two small medallions with the busts of Adam and Eve. Finally, in the third and most ornate of the levels, a figure of the Pope addresses a group of cardinals.

Salamanca. San Esteban.1524.

The Monastery of San Esteban is a Renaissance building with hints of Gothic (e. g. the numerous pinnacles). It was designed by Juan de Avila (c. 1480-1537) a native Spaniard whose life straddled the period of transition from Gothic to Renaissance. He became acquainted with Renaissance architecture during a trip to Italy in 1502, and his Plateresque façade clearly reflects Italian influence in its design and disposition: e. g. the clear vertical and horizontal lines with several pilasters (shallow rectangular columns projecting from a wall with no structural purpose ); there are no ogee arches, but rather three rounded triumphal arches, the uppermost an imposing piece that stretches imperiously across the façade; the half shell canopy on each side of the main pillars that frame the ornamentation and sculptures.

Renaissance buildings, by their symmetrical design and emphasis on vertical and horizontal lines, can seem cold and uninviting (see, e. g. Charles V’s imperial palace in the Alhambra), but the exuberance of plateresque goes a long way to alleviating that. Take for example, the impressive plateresque façade (facing the Plaza de San Francisco) of the City Hall of Seville. Under the direction of the architect, Diego de Riaño, from 1527 until his death in 1534, it celebrated the first meeting of the town council in their new headquarters in 1556. (The façade is, in fact, incomplete, which gives us a hint of what it would look like without ornamentation. Look at the windows to the right on the three levels.)

Seville. City/Town Hall, 1527.

Such ornamentation is seen primarily on public buildings, churches, palaces and mansions, but by the second half of the 16th century, the vogue for plateresque was waning, especially under the austere and rigid Philip II (r. 1556-98). By now, a more sober Renaissance architecture was encouraged, starting with Charles V’s palace in the Alhambra in 1526, but probably best exemplified by The Escorial, Philip II’s enormous monastery-palace-mausoleum (built between 1563 and 1584) just over 50 kilometres (31 miles) north of Madrid.

Jodidio, Philip Architecture in Spain Taschen 2007.
Lapunzina, Alejandro  Architecture of Spain  Greenwood 2005.
White, Robert A River in Spain: Discovering the Duero Valley in Old Castile London, New York1998.
Interior of San Juan de los Reyes: De Daderot – Trabajo propio, Dominio público,
Image of San Pablo, Valladolid:
 By Pimlico27 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Image of San Gregorio, Valladolid: By ZaratemanOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0 es,
 Palacio del Infantado: By Juan Carlos Castle – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 es,
Image of the Palacio de Jabalquinto: By Elisa.rolle – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 es,

Image of University Facade, Salamanca: : CC BY-SA 3.0,
Image of San Esteban, Salamanca:
By Rafaelji – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Image of Seville’s City Hall:



The Great Mosque of Córdoba. La Mezquita.

The Great Mosque: History and Exterior
The Great Mosque of Córdoba (commonly referred to as La Mezquita) is one of the jewels of Islamic civilisation. It is to Córdoba what the Alhambra Palace is to Granada and the Giralda tower is to Seville, a unique focal point of identification, appropriated by Christians through conquest.

The Great Mosque was begun by the Emir Abd al-Rahman I in 785, some 74 years after the conquest of the Visigoths by the Muslims, or Moors as they are more commonly called in the Spanish context. The Mosque was added to by Abd al-Rahman II in 833, before being completed by al-Hakam II and the vizier al-Mansur in the second half of the 10th century. Of the four stages, that of al-Hakam –containing the mihrab (niche in the wall pointing to Mecca)– is the most decorative and striking.

One of the largest mosques in the world, the Great Mosque is even by today’s standards an impressive building, measuring some 180 by 130 metres (23,400 sq metres, approximately 590 x 425 ft, or about 250,000 sq. ft.).

It is believed that before the construction of the Mosque, both Muslims and Christians shared the use of the Visigothic church of St Vincent. The church was subsequently purchased by Abd al-Rahman I, then torn down and replaced by the Mosque.

The decision to build a large and striking house of worship some 30 years after his arrival in Córdoba was both an open challenge from Abd al-Rahman to his enemies in the Middle East as well as a symbolic statement to the still considerable Christian community (Mozarabs) living in the city. Abd al-Rahman was there to stay, a message undoubtedly underlined by the solid walls of the Mosque that give it a military look. It also signified that there existed in Córdoba a sufficiently large Muslim community to require a big mosque.

Córdoba Mosque: West wall

The growth of the Great Mosque in the 9th and 10th centuries mirrored the city’s increasing power, which was implicit also in the ever growing population and in the need to accommodate larger congregations, especially at the Friday noon prayers, which every adult male was expected to attend. It was here that the ruler or his deputy delivered his sermon and here too –during the prayers– that the ruler’s name was mentioned, so that the building had a distinctly political as well as religious dimension.

Seen from the streets outside, the Mosque is an undistinguished building, its size deceptively concealed by its modest height which rises only to some 12.5 metres (40 ft).

Except for some of the doorways, the outer walls are unprepossessing, a solid, sand coloured, pockmarked configuration that in parts seems in need of repairs. In the north west corner, the balustraded, tapering bell tower looks distinctly different from the rest of the Mosque.  It is in fact a Renaissance tower, begun in 1593, and constructed over the earlier minaret.

Unfortunately, it’s not now (2008) possible to climb the bell tower, but from the top you have an excellent idea of the size of the building, and in the background a stunning view of the Guadalquivir River, the ancient Roman bridge that crosses it, and the distant countryside.

Córdoba. Mosque from the air. The Christian cathedral rises from the middle of the mosque.

Immediately below the bell tower is the Courtyard of The Orange Trees (Patio de los Naranjos) whose fountains were used for ablutions. The orange trees are arranged in rows, the deep green of their foliage providing vibrant splashes of colour against the dusty monochrome of the walls and the ground. A scattering of palms and cypresses also adds further colour.

Patio de los Naranjos.
The belfry also affords a perfect view of the Mosque and the Christian cathedral that emerges out of its centre as a single unit. There is no other building like it in the world, a Great Mosque and a Cathedral, in effect two different buildings representing two major religions, sharing the same space. The image is a wonderful and serendipitous architectural metaphor for the tensions between Christians and Muslims in Spain, with each temple throwing into relief the mentality of its creators.

The Mosque is low slung, seeming to hug the ground, conveying architecturally the humility before God that the term “Muslim” means: one who surrenders to the will of Allah. On the other hand, the cathedral (an addition of the 1520s, Gothic on the outside, Renaissance inside) rises upwards, its flying buttresses solidly anchored on the roof of the Mosque.

The irony of this is that the mathematics that made possible the technology to build soaring cathedrals (e.g. of Medieval Europe) passed through al-Andalus, and quite likely through Córdoba itself.  Still, there is an ironic reversal to this: although the Christians appropriated the Mosque, you can still hear local worshippers attending Mass say Voy a la Mezquita a oír misa (I’m going to the Mosque to hear mass) rather than to the Cathedral or Church!

The changes that took place after the capture of Córdoba in 1236 by Christian forces underline a difference between Muslim and Christian spirituality. The Christians constructed a wall to cut off the patio, filled in the fountains that had been used for ablutions, and in the course of time erected some 30 side chapels –adorned with small altars, paintings and figures of saints– against the interior of the walls.

However, in fairness, to the citizens of Córdoba, the Mosque, its name changed in 1236 to the Church of the Virgin of the Assumption, was always well tended. When church authorities proposed the cathedral addition of the sixteenth century it was over the objections of the people. Opposition was overcome only when the king, Charles (Carlos) V, threw his weight behind the project, without ever having visited Córdoba.

When he eventually saw in 1526 the damage that he had unwittingly committed, he is said to have exclaimed: You have built here what you or anyone might have built anywhere else, but you have destroyed what was unique in the world. (It was the same king who ordered the destruction of a part of the Alhambra in Granada to accommodate an equally incompatible Renaissance palace!)

Spanish Muslim authorities have long sought permission to pray in the Cathedral, but such requests have always been turned down on the grounds that Muslims cannot pray in a consecrated Catholic church.  Individual Muslims attempting to pray in the Mezquita have been prevented from doing so by guards.

April 2, 2010.  A group of Muslim tourists from Austria were involved in a scuffle with security guards when several of the group began praying in the Mosque on March 31.  A clash ensued after the tourists were told to stop. Two guards were wounded in the scuffle, and two of the group arrested by police who had been called in by a guard.  The tourists were accused of deliberate provocation, timed to coincide with Easter celebrations. The Muslim Youth Organisation of Austria has apologised, but claims that the actions of the guards were overly aggressive. See

April 1, 2016. There has been a longstanding dispute between the Catholic church and local authorities over the ownership and name of the Mezquita. In 2006, availing itself of a law enacted during the Franco dictatorship (1939-75), the diocese of Córdoba paid €30 to register ownership of the building. It has since increasingly called the building simply “Catedral de Córdoba,” a restrictive description that has provoked widespread protest.

Since 2103, hundreds of thousands have signed an online petition organised by a group called Platform for the Mezquita-Catedral of Córdoba. They object to the diocese’s attempt to hide the building’s past as a mosque based on ideological beliefs. The regional government of Andalusia has also weighed in in support of the local council approved name of Mezquita-Catedral of Córdoba.

On March 29 2016, the Church authorities relented, explaining that in the interest of tourism and after careful study, the building would now be called the Mosque-Cathedral Monument Complex. And brochures that carried only the headline Cathedral of Cordoba have now been replaced by those bearing the title Conjunto Monumental Mezquita-Catedral/Mosque-Cathedral Monument Complex.

Danby, Miles  The Fires of Excellence: Spanish and Portuguese Oriental Architecture Reading 1997
Dodds, Jerrilynn    Architecture and Ideology in Early Medieval Spain  London 1990
Dodds, Jerrilynn ed.    Al-Andalus: the Art of Islamic Spain New York 1992
Ettinghausen, Richard and Grabar, Oleg    The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650-1250 Middlesex 1987
Gonzalez, Valerie     Beauty and Islam: Aesthetics in Islamic Art and Architecture London 2001
Jacobs, Michael    A Guide to Andalusia London 1990
Robertson, Ian    Blue Guide: Spain  London 1993 (6th edition) 
For some excellent photos of the Mosque, see Click Photos
For a very helpful plan of the Mosque, see
Image of Córdoba Cathedral/Mosque from the air: By Toni Castillo Quero – Flickr: [1], CC BY-SA 2.0,

Romanesque Architecture. Catalonia’s Unique Style.

Romanesque architecture is a general term covering numerous variations of architectural style that flowered in Medieval Europe from about the late 10th century to around 1200.  There are, for example, French, English (aka Norman), German, Italian, Lombardy styles etc., many of which cross fertilised thanks to the itinerant lives of architects, masons, and craftsmen.

Even within countries, there were frequent regional differences (e.g. in Spain, between Catalan Romanesque churches and those of Castile-León). Modifications also occurred over time with improved techniques and changes in taste.

Most typically, Romanesque architecture is associated with church and church related buildings (e.g. monasteries, convents, hospices) although there are plenty of non-religious works also (e.g. castles, bridges, palaces).

How is it that Romanesque architecture spread throughout so much of Western Europe? Clearly, its international nature suggests that more trans-border travelling took place than is generally credited for in the Middle Ages. 

Pilgrimages were a fundamental reason for travel, but so too were the Crusades, commerce, royal marriages, alliances, wars, ecclesiastical studies and appointments, the expansion of monasteries, and the building opportunities offered to itinerant master masons, sculptors and craftsmen.

Romanesque entered Spain largely on the backs of travellers via two principal routes: first through Catalonia (Catalunya in Catalan; Cataluña in Castilian), and then through Aragón and Navarra from where it passed into Castile and León.

Romanesque architecture appeared in Catalonia around 1000 AD, and is one of the glories of that autonomous community.  It is said that there are over 2,000 Romanesque buildings in Catalonia, the stars of which are the small, beautiful churches scattered in the rural valleys of the north. Particularly striking are the churches in the narrow Vall de Boi, situated in the Alta Ribagorça region of the high Pyrenees and surrounded by steep mountains.

It is in valleys such as the Valle de Boi (declared a World Heritage Site in 2000) that we find one of the most characteristic features of Catalan Romanesque, which distinguished it from Romanesque churches in the other regions of northern Spain: the striking Lombardy-inspired bell towers. 

Typically detached from the church, these tall (up to 6 stories), slender, square belfries in natural stone rise elegantly to the sky, their bulk broken on each floor by long, columned windows on all four sides, which diffuse light throughout the interior.

Sant Climent de Taull in the Vall de Boi. Lombardy inspired bell tower.

These towers were built by Lombardy craftsmen** who entered Catalonia via Languedoc and Provence, following a long-established travel route between eastern Spain and Rome. Lombardy (in northern Italy) formed a natural link between Catalonia and the Holy City.

**So many craftsmen and artists came to
Catalonia from Lombardy and had such
an impact on its architecture that the
word “Lombard” became synonymous with
“stonemason” or “supervisor” in Catalonia.

Another feature that distinguished Catalan Romanesque churches from those of other communities in medieval Spain is the absence of an ambulatory (i.e. a semi-circular passage around the altar, within the apse) with radiating chapels (See Romanesque Background for Romanesque church plan). 

These radiating chapels were popular in, e.g. Castile and León, as depositories for holy relics, and attracted pilgrims heading to the Santiago de Compostela, after Jerusalem and Rome the most important medieval pilgrimage destination in Christendom. However, since Catalonia was not on a major pilgrimage route to Santiago, there was no important pilgrim trade to cater to.

One of the promoters of early Romanesque churches in Catalonia was the Benedictine Abbot Oliba (c. 971-1046), a man of great learning and friend of Pope Benedict VIII (1012-1024), and well known in the famous Benedictine Abbey of Cluny in France.

From 1008 to 1046, Oliba was the abbot of the Benedictine Monastery church of Santa María in Ripoll, the finest Romanesque building in Catalonia.

Santa María de Ripoll.

The monastery was built at the instance of Oliba and consecrated in 1032, replacing an earlier church that had been erected by Wilfrid the “Hairy” (Guifre el Pelós, founding father of Catalonia) around 880.

Thanks to the energetic Oliba, Ripoll became a major centre of learning in the Middle Ages, boasting one of the finest libraries in Europe. The monastery was severely damaged by a fire during political turmoil in 1835 and later extensively restored.

Although inspired by Benedictine-style architecture emanating from Cluny that typified the design of churches in Castile-Leon, Santa María de Ripoll retains the Catalan characteristics noted above: it has no semi-circular ambulatory with radiating chapels, and its multi-storeyed tower betrays the influence of Lombardy.

Portico of Santa Maria de Ripoll
Its greatest feature, however, is the magnificent west portal, a vast tableau of Biblical figures and grotesque monsters in six horizontal layers framing the multiarched, richly ornamented doorway (now protected by a glassed-in porch).

For more on Romanesque  art and sculpture in
Catalonia and Castile/León, see our Art and Sculpture.

Bango Torviso, Isidro    El románico en España Madrid 1992
Barral I Altet, Xavier ed    Art and Architecture of Spain Boston 1998
Dodds, Jerrilynn    Architecture and Ideology in Early Medieval Spain Pennsylvania, London 1990
Eaude, Michael  Catalonia: A Cultural History  Oxford 2008
Norman, Edward    The House of God: Church Architecture, Style and History London 1990
White, Robert   A River in Spain: Discovering the Duero Valley in Old Castile London, New York 1998
For an excellent and detailed study of Romanesque architecture in Catalonia, with numerous itineraries, fine maps and superb photos, see
Sant Climent de Taull by Núria Pueyo
Both images of Santa María de Ripoll by Canaan:
For an entertaining visit to the Romanesque churches of Catalonia, see:


Romanesque in Aragón, Navarra, Castile-León

Romanesque architecture is a general term covering numerous variations of architectural style that flowered in Medieval Europe from about the late 10th century to around 1200. 

There are, for example, French, English (aka Norman), German, Italian, Lombardy styles etc., many of which cross fertilised thanks to the itinerant lives of architects, masons, and craftsmen.

Even within countries, there are frequent regional differences (e.g. in Spain, between Catalan Romanesque churches and  those of Aragon, Navarra and Castile-León). Modifications also occurred over time with improved techniques and changes in taste.

Most typically, Romanesque architecture is associated with church and church related buildings (e.g. monasteries, convents, hospices) although there are plenty of non-religious works also (e.g. castles, bridges, palaces).

How is it that Romanesque architecture spread throughout so much of Western Europe? Clearly, its international nature suggests that more trans-border travelling took place than is generally credited for in the Middle Ages.  Pilgrimages were a fundamental reason for travel, but so too were the Crusades, commerce, royal marriages, alliances, wars, ecclesiastical studies and appointments, the expansion of monasteries, and the building opportunities offered to itinerant master masons, sculptors and craftsmen.

Romanesque entered Spain largely on the backs of travellers via two principal routes: first through Catalonia (Catalunya in Catalan; Cataluña in Castilian), and then through Aragón and Navarra from where it passed into Castile and León.

Castile-León, Navarra, Aragón.
Romanesque architecture did not reach the northern Christian kingdoms until roughly the second half of the 11th century.  Following popular pilgrim passes through the Pyrenees en route to Santiago, it left a rich legacy in churches bridges and hospices from Aragón, through Navarra, Castile, León and into Galicia.

Benedictine Monastery of San Juan de la Peña (Aragón). Built under overhanging rock. Consecrated in 1094.
Benedictine Monastery of Leyre (Navarra). Consecrated in 1057.

But how exactly did Romanesque architecture penetrate these northern kingdoms? The answer lies in the growing importance of the cult of St James (Santiago), and the influence of the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny (France) which popularised the pilgrimage and eased the journey by building roads and bridges and dotting the way with monasteries, churches and shelters.

Following the Benedictines came merchants and settlers from over the Pyrenees; French business immigrants even received special privileges from Spanish monarchs.  Not for nothing was the route popularly known as the camino francés (“French Road”)**.

The passage of Benedictine influence in Spain was facilitated too by the close association between Cluny and northern Spain. Sancho the Great of Navarra (r. 1000-35), his son Ferdinand I of Castile-León (r. 1035-65) and grandson, Alfonso VI of Castile-León (r. 1065-1109), all established close ties with Cluny.

Sancho invited the Benedictines to reform the monasteries in his kingdom; Fernando bestowed on Cluny gold acquired from the parias paid by the small Muslim taifas of al-Andalus in return for protection; three of Alfonso’s wives were French, one of them being the niece of the abbot of Cluny.

**The project of establishing Benedictine churches along the road to Santiago was a part of Cluny’s determination to stamp its presence as a leader of Christianity’s struggle with Islam. The Abbey of Cluny was instrumental in fostering crusades to Jerusalem, and Islam’s presence in the Iberian Peninsula was a constant reminder of the urgent need to defend Christianity on its western front. Interesting too is that in Catalonia, Abbot Oliba, a major promotor of Romanesque architecure, was also a Benedictine.

The years of greatest activity in the building of these churches, the 11th and 12th centuries, explains why Romanesque buildings in Spain are to be found mostly in the northern half of the peninsula.

Initially established along the pilgrim route to Santiago, they then spread down across the Duero valley, and onwards south, following the expansion of the Christian kingdoms of Castile-León and Aragón at the expense of Muslim al-Andalus.

However, with the south of the peninsula still firmly in the hands of the Moors (common term for the Muslims of al-Andalus), and with the invasions of the Almoravids in 1086 and the Almohades in 1145 reaffirming Muslim presence, Christian reconquest stalled roughly half way down the peninsula, until 1212 when large chunks of the south opened up following a major defeat of Almohad forces at Las Navas de Tolosa.

The fortress town of Avila and its neighbour, Segovia, conquered by Christians respectively in 1088 and 1085, are about as far south as we can go when talking of major Romanesque architecture in Spain.

Avila: Romanesque walls.
Avila: 12th-century Romanesque church of San Pedro.

Further south, there are very few churches, modest examples of the continuity of the medieval “church militant,” e. g. Santa Cruz in Baeza (late 13th century) or Mérida’s Co-Cathedral, Santa María la Mayor and Santa Eulalia (both late 13th century).

Mérida: Sta. María la Mayor. Above the doorway is an 18th-century shrine dedicated to the Virgin.
Baeza: Church of Sta. Cruz.

Gradually, however, Christian forces nibbled away at Moorish territory during the 12th century and in 1212 inflicted a major defeat on the Almohads at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.

By now Romanesque was giving way to its architectural successor: Gothic. Nevertheless, the frontiers between Christians and Moors were subject to constant warfare and raids so that churches built to stamp Christian victories frequently adopted the solid structure of Romanesque architecture to the new Gothic taste. It’s often called transitional Romanesque Gothic.

Several such churches were built in Córdoba.following its conquest by Christian armies in 1236. Known as iglesias fernandinas (after Ferdinand III) who ordered their construction, they are hybrid Romanesque-Gothic with fortress-like qualities appropriate for unstable frontier areas, e.g. San Pablo, San Lorenzo. Another is the 13th century Church of Santa Cruz in Baeza, east of Córdoba.

Córdoba: Church of San Pablo.

Let’s return now to the ancient kingdoms of northern Spain where there are hundreds of striking Romanesque churches in. One of the first and most beautiful buildings –despite later Gothic and Renaissance additions– is the Basilica of San Isidoro in León, founded by Ferdinand I and his Leonese wife, doña Sancha, in 1063 as a shrine for St Isidore, whose bones were transported there triumphantly from Muslim held Seville in 1063.  St. Isidore was also intended as a pantheon for the kings of León.

Santiago de Compostela in Galicia is the most majestic of the Romanesque churches of Spain, but others too are impressive: the cathedral of Zamora, Santa María la Mayor of Toro, and the Old Cathedral of Salamanca (all three with a most unusual Byzantine style dome) to name a few.

León: Basilica of San Isidoro. Gothic additions (with Gothic windows) flank the Romanesque central section and the Romanesque doorway in the centre is topped by a Renaissance coat of arms.
Zamora cathedral. The main entrance is capped by a late 16th-century classical pediment. Above the entrance, just visible, is a Byzantine influenced dome.

Still, for many, it is the small village gems, visited perhaps on a hot afternoon in the company of the church custodian or priest, that spring to mind: San Martín in Frómista (Palencia) with its unusual pair of rounded towers and octagonal drum cupola (the church is all that is left of an earlier large Benedictine monastery), or San Pedro atop the decaying and remote mountain village of Caracena (Soria) with its superb arcaded gallery of seven arches (peculiar to the areas of Soria, Burgos and Segovia), or Andaluz (Soria), or Nafria la Llana with its robust little apse (S/W of Soria).

Frómista: San Martín.
Andaluz, near Soria.

In these more isolated areas, away from urban noise and secular trappings, it is possible to glimpse something of the rhythm of the Medieval world and appreciate the fundamental role religion had in the lives of the people.

Unfortunately, however, many villages are now only faded shells of what they once were and their churches have fallen into disrepair.  The young have migrated to the cities leaving only the old as tenuous links with the past.

Segovia: San Martín.
The Romanesque world had a strong grip on the Spanish mind.  These solid, powerful buildings suggest a stubbornness that fitted the Reconquista mentality very well, and provided a sense of security for the Christian faith in the face of Muslim challenges.
The large number that sprouted in newly won territory across the north half of the Iberian peninsula is evidence of Christian determination. These churches were, in many ways, truly “the church militant,” an idea metaphorically conveyed by the apse of the granite cathedral of Avila which forms part of the famous fortified walls.  The Spanish Romanesque church was rooted in the soil, as militarily defensive and assured as its builders were spiritually aggressive. Perhaps this is, in the end, why the Romanesque style lingered in Spain.

For Romanesque art and sculpture in Spain, see Romanesque Art and Sculpture.


Bango Torviso, Isidro    El románico en España Madrid 1992
Barral I Altet, Xavier ed    Art and Architecture of Spain Boston 1998
Dodds, Jerrilynn    Architecture and Ideology in Early Medieval Spain Pennsylvania and London 1990
Eaude, Michael  Catalonia: A Cultural History  Oxford 2008
Gitlitz, David M & Davidson, Linda K  The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago New York 2000.
Norman, Edward    The House of God: Church Architecture, Style and History London 1990
White, Robert     A River in Spain: Discovering the Duero Valley in Old Castile London, New York 1998
Image of walls of Avila by Pelayo2,_Spain
Image of San Pedro, Avila by Håkan Svensson:
León: San Isidoro by Luidger
Image of Zamora cathedral:
Frómista by Santiperez:
Andaluz by Rowanwindwhistler
Santa Cruz, Baeza. By Anual:
San Pablo, Córdoba: By Lancastermerrin88 – Own work, GFDL, 
Cathedral Mérida: By Elemaki – Own work, CC BY 3.0,