The Cathedral of Santa María is Burgos’s historic jewel, and one of Spain’s great Gothic churches. But how did such a magnificent building come to be built in a town that very few people outside Spain will have heard of?
Burgos: The City in the Middle Ages.
Burgos, a city of about 200.000 inhabitants and capital of the province of Burgos, is located on the banks of the River Arlanzón high on the north eastern edge of the Meseta, Spain’s large central plateau.
Although little known nowadays outside Spain, in the Middle Ages Burgos had an illustrious history and was a busy and wealthy commercial hub. From its modest beginnings in the late 9th century, it quickly became the most important city of the semi autonomous County of Castile and in 1029 capital of the fledgling Kingdom of Castile.
It was favoured by royalty and the church, and in 1075 was granted a bishopric. Castile’s most famous hero, Rodrigo Díaz (c. 1043-1099, better known as El Cid), was born only 10 kilometres north of the city. According to Castile’s greatest epic poem, the Song of the Cid, El Cid prayed at the steps of Burgos’s first cathedral before departing on his forced exile following his banishment by King Alfonso VI of Castile-León. He is now buried with his wife, Jimena, under the transept crossing of the present cathedral.
Burgos’s wealth was based primarily on its near monopoly as exporter of wool to the textile centres of London and Flanders. Sheep grazing was widely carried out on the largely treeless and windblown Meseta. It was both economical (requiring little manpower) and practical (on an unstable frontier, sheep could be quickly moved to safety in time of war).
Regular visits by merchants from Burgos to England and Flanders by the early 14th century oiled the wheels of trade and royal privileges (e. g. abolition of duties on imported goods) ensured healthy commercial activity. Commerce and trade required business and social infrastructures: lawyers, tax collectors, doctors, merchants etc., and a growing city needed artisans: builders, masons, carpenters, textile workers, potters, market gardeners, muleteers etc.
Many of these occupations were carried out by Jews (who made up the largest Jewish community in Castile by the 13th century) and Mudejars, i. e. Moors/Muslims who retained their religion while living under Christian jurisdiction. Both communities lived in their respective quarters, the Jewish aljama and the Moorish morería.
Adding to the multicultural melting pot and boosting Burgos’s economy was the regular influx of pilgrims from all over Europe heading to Santiago de Compostela, the third most important Christian pilgrim destination after Jerusalem and Rome.
Burgos was the largest Spanish city on the Camino de Santiago, also popularly known as the Camino francés (French Road) owing to the influence of the French Benedictine Order of monks, who popularised the route, and the numerous French merchants and migrants who settled down along the way. The city had numerous hospices founded by royalty, guilds, religious and military orders, and individuals to accommodate travellers. By the 13th century, Burgos was ready for a church that would reflect its regal, ecclesiastical and commercial status.
The Cathedral (1221). Catedral de Santa María de Burgos.
Burgos’s cathedral was the first Gothic cathedral to be built (1221) in Spain, replacing an earlier Romanesque church. It is the third largest cathedral in the country, surpassed only by those of Toledo (1227) and Seville (1401).
It was the result of much lobbying by its bishop, a certain Mauricio, who had studied in Paris and was an enthusiastic admirer of Gothic architecture which had taken off in France from mid 12th century.
Royal support came from Ferdinand/ Fernando III, King of Castile-León who attended the laying of the first stone for the cathedral. Further backing came from the pope who granted indulgences (forgiveness of sins) to those contributing funds for the construction.
The Cathedral is one of many medieval architectural and artistic gems to be found in Burgos**.
the late 12th-early 13th-century Real Monasterio
de la Huelgas and the 15th-century Cartuja de Miraflores.
Its construction was done in two phases over 300 years. Phase one began in July 1221. The first mass was celebrated in 1230, the body of the building was completed by 1243, and the cathedral consecrated in 1260. This is a remarkably short time for such a major endeavour.
The second phase began in the mid 15th century with the addition of the large octagonal Capilla del Condestable behind the high altar, the huge elaborate lantern (cupola/ cimborio) rising over the crossing, and the spectacular pinnacles topping the two towers which flank the main entrance on the west facade.
Although the identity of the first architect is uncertain, it is generally assumed that he was French, brought to Burgos by Bishop Mauricio. Clearly, he was well acquainted with French architecture given structural similarities to the Cathedrals of R(h)eims (1211), Amiens (1220) and Notre Dame in Paris (1163).
The second phase, begun by John of Cologne (Juan de Colonia c. 1410-83) of German origin, was continued by his son and grandson. It is to the Colonia family that we owe the dazzling profusion of perforated ornamental pinnacles crowning the two towers at the west end, the cupola/ cimborio and the Capilla del Condestable that dominate the skyline of Burgos. Still, the stunning, ornamented cupola/cimborio we see now is the work of Juan de Vallejo, the original cupola having collapsed in 1539.
Follow that with a stroll around the cathedral, beginning with the west façade off the Plaza de Santa María. Of the four levels that make up the façade, the lowest is the least interesting. It looks flat and lifeless and the three pointed, Gothic doorways look unadorned compared to the ornamentation above. The central doorway (the Puerta del Perdón or Portada Real) is marred by a 17th-century neoclassical pediment clumsily installed above the door.
The façade gets progressively more ornate and lighter from the second stage, dominated by a striking rose window (rosetón) flanked by two elongated Gothic windows in the towers.
Within the rosetón, a 6-sided star echoes another immediately above the classical pediment below. Above the rose window, there are twin Gothic windows decorated with elaborate clover-leaf tracery perched on seven slender pillars, giving the impression of elegant, stylised trees. Nestled between the pillars are statues of eight (Castilian-Leonese) kings. Above these, a low balustrade separates the last level of towers. Gothic lettering along the balustrade spell out PULCHRA ES ET DECORA: “Beautiful thou art and graceful,” alluding to the Virgin Mary in the centre of the balustrade. Finally, crowning the two towers are the stunning, late15th-century decorative openwork spires by Juan de Colonia reaching up to the sky like filigree stone work.
There are three other doorways (portals) worth looking at. Go right from the Plaza de Santa María along the Plaza del Rey San Fernando until you reach the 13th-century southern entry to the transept, the Puerta del Sarmental.
The elaborately carved portal is neatly framed between the walls of the cloister to the right and the Archbishop’s palace to the left. A series of steps leads up to the doorway, with its lavishly detailed sculptures of Christ, the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) busy writing at their desks, and seated beneath them the twelve apostles.
It is an animated scene. Pilgrims looking upwards in awe at the dazzling array of figures must have felt their faith strengthened. And standing in the single central column (aka the mullion) of the door, there is the figure of a priest (Bishop Mauricio?) with his right hand raised to greet and bless them as they passed into the church. A fitting climax to a long day’s journey!
On the other side of the cathedral, along the Calle de Fernán González, two adjoining and contrasting portals, the 13th-century Puerta de la Coronería and the early 16th-century Puerta de Pellejería provide a useful synthesis of Gothic and Renaissance/Plateresque styles.
The former has almost life-size sculptures of the Apostles flanking the entrance while in the tympanum above the doorway the Virgin Mary and Saint John intercede with the seated Christ on behalf of humanity. Beneath the Virgin and the Saint, people representing humanity are engaged in assorted activities.
The large, pointed Gothic arch of the Coronería portal and the numerous, lively-looking figures in various poses are good examples of early Gothic sculptural art. Out of character, however, is the rounded doorway and its severe rectangular frame, an unfortunate16th-century modification in the style of Renaissance/Italian ornamentation.
The Puerta de Pellejería (1516) by Francisco de Colonia maintains the biblical narrative. Within the semicircle on top, the adoration of the baby Jesus on his mother’s lap. Beneath and to the left, the beheading of John the Baptist.
To the left of the frame, a page holds a platter which presumably will bear John’s head to Herod and Salome –the dancing girl in the right square– and her mother.
All this is framed in vertical and horizontal lines, and the arches are not pointed but semicircular, all characteristics of the recently introduced vogue of Renaissance designs. Within the frame, the intricate decorative motifs that embellish all the non-figural parts are typical of the plateresque style, very much in vogue in Spain at the beginning of the 16th century.
The interior is enormous and contains a wealth of remarkable sculptures, carvings and paintings. It has numerous side chapels and a superbly carved Choir with seats depicting realistic scenes from the bible and the lives of saints (one carving has angels urinating !).
The location of the Choir –set right in the middle of the nave– impedes a clear view down the nave, and is disorienting for those accustomed to the typically unobstructed line from the west door to the altar in most Gothic cathedrals. It is, however, a feature of several Castilian Gothic cathedrals and, being invariably made of dark wood (here walnut), it introduces a heavy note against the light filtering in through the stained glass windows above.
It’s easy to spend hours wandering and if you have limited time, you can give many of the side chapels a miss. But you can’t miss the Main Altar, the Capilla Mayor. Approached between three lateral Gothic arches filled with ornate grille work (rejas), the huge, late 16th-century Renaissance altarpiece (retablo) fills the high altar (presbytery) wall.
What could be dark and heavy is relieved by the stained glass windows above the retablo, the tracery-filled windows above the rejas, and the delicate ribbing of the vaulting. The gold encrusted retablo is subdivided into square and rectangular panels containing elaborately and realistically carved biblical figures, with episodes from the life of the Virgin Mary featured prominently in the central panels.
Roped off at the transept crossing between the choir and the chancel is a plain slab marking the tomb of El Cid and his wife, Jimena, whose remains were brought to the cathedral from nearby San Pedro de Cardeña in 1921. A simple epitaph in Latin identifies their resting place.
Above them rises a remarkable Renaissance Lantern Vaulting which Philip II allegedly praised as “more a work of angels than of men” (transl. from the official Cathedral website). Rising to an octagonal shape above four large Gothic arches, the lantern is sumptuously decorated in the plateresque style. and adorned with the arms of Charles V and the city of Burgos and biblical prophets.
Light filtering through two levels of 16 mullioned windows, illuminates the whole space, the highlights (literally) of which are two 8-sided stars (one within the other) so perforated by openings that they seem to be hovering in the air
Less ornate but more elegant, another 8-sided star shines in the cupola of the cathedral’s most impressive and grandest chapel, the opulent late 15th-century) Capilla de los Condestables (below), located behind the Capilla Mayor.Designed by Simón de Colonia and completed by his son, Francisco, the chapel was built as a mausoleum for Pedro Fernández de Velasco and his wife dona Mencía de Mendoza.
With three retablos, intricate ornamentation, a wealth of art work, stained glass and a high dome, this large chapel has been called a “cathedral within a cathedral” (transl. from the official Cathedral website). Octagonal in shape, the chapel’s walls carry the coats of arms of the Velasco family, and of Charles V and the city of Burgos, as well as accommodating three altars with their respective retablos. One retablo is dedicated to Sta. Ana, another to St. Peter and the third, over the main altar to the Presentation of Christ in the temple.
On the upper level, the octagonal motif is maintained with eight stained glass windows illuminating the 8-sided star, in the dome. Pierced by flamboyant tracery, this star is actually embedded within a larger 8-sided star the ends of which intersect with the windows and join with eight slender fluted pilasters reaching down to the ground. Structurally, the cupola is a harmonious tour de force and a fitting climax to a chapel which elevates the combination of architecture, art and sculpture to an extraordinary level.
Other chapels have interesting features: ceilings, tombs, statues, retablos, paintings etc. although they suffer in comparison with the Capilla de los Condestables. There’s a touch of the macabre in the Capilla del Santísimo Cristo, where a graphic, emaciated 14th-century statue of the crucified Christ is covered with real hair and skin (according to the cathedral’s official site, the hair is human, the skin is bovine, probably oxen). According to legend, the statue was found floating in the sea by a merchant who left it in the care of an Augustinian monastery in the city.
The Escalera dorada (Golden Staircase), located inside the Puerta de la Coronaría, is worth seeing. This imposing and profusely decorated staircase of marble and black and gold railings is the work of Diego de Siloé, begun in 1519.
The 13th-14th-century Cloister is an impressive double arcaded space, with beautiful tracery highlighting each window. The corridors contain many tombs and statues. Off to one side is the cathedral museum with a wealth of Hispano-Flemish paintings and Flemish tapestries. On one wall hangs the chest that El Cid supposedly used to deceive two Jewish money lenders before he left on his exile.
Finally, for a bit of whimsy, look for the Papamoscas (flycatcher) located high on a wall near the Capilla de Sta. Tecla, just inside the left door of the main or western entrance. Papamoscas is an ancient, colourful figure visible only from the waist up; beneath him is a clock.
Every hour on the dot, Papamoscas opens his mouth at the same time that he moves his arm and hand and pulls a bell to mark the hour. Logically the best time to see him in action is midday when the bell chimes twelve times.
See the Papamoscas in action on youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aj6f9HIx7Q4
In 1984, UNESCO World Heritage recognised Burgos Cathedral as “a comprehensive example of the evolution of Gothic style, with the entire history of Gothic art exhibited in its superb architecture and unique collection of art, including paintings, choir stalls, reredos, tombs, and stained-glass windows.” It is a testament to its unique qualities that it has the unusual distinction of being a “stand alone” heritage site, independent of the historical quarter around it or other outstanding historical buildings nearby. It is the only cathedral in Spain to be so designated.
Gitlitz, David M & Davidson, Linda Kay The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook New York 2000. (An excellent guide. Fine introduction followed by an outline of how to read the book. Main text is full of geographic, historic, cultural, artistic and architectural information. Ends with Spanish-English Glossary, an excellent guide to artistic styles with diagrams, artists cited, saints and religious iconography, time line of rulers and events, and an excellent index. Plenty of town centre maps in the text, and maps of stages covered in following chapters. No photos.)
Jacobs, Michael The Road to Santiago de Compostela London 1991
Lapunzina, Alejandro Architecture of Spain Westport, Connecticut, London 2005
UNESCO World Heritage Site: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/316
http://catedraldeburgos.es/ useful for readers of Spanish; even non-speakers can navigate their way in it for some very good photos.
View from castle by FAR: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burgos_Cathedral#/media/File:Catedral_de_Burgos-Parador.JPG
Main facade by Zarateman: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burgos_Cathedral#/media/File:Burgos_-_Catedral_002.jpg
Cathedral from south side by Camino del Cid https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Catedral_de_Burgos_II.jpg
Sarmental door by Zarateman: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burgos_Cathedral#/media/File:Burgos_-_Catedral_007_-_Puerta_del_Sarmental.jpg
Facade of Sarmental By Zarateman – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5396888
February 18, 2021.The proposed installation of new doors for the cathedral has provoked a lot of reaction. See https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/18/an-eyesore-thousands-protest-against-spanish-cathedrals-new-doors