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: