Part of a cathedral with blue skies
Architecture,  History,  Seville

Catedral de Santa María de la Sede: Seville’s cathedral

Seville’s cathedral was built on the footprint of the city’s grand mosque, originally constructed in the 12th century. When the cathedral was finished in the early 16th century it was the largest in the world. Although that may no longer be the case*, it is still an awe-inspiring space.

*It is today considered by most sources to be the world’s the fourth largest cathedral, and is the largest Gothic religious building.

The mosque was a considerable size, measuring 113 by 135 metres, making it over 15,000 square metres. In the 13th century it was destroyed, apart from the minaret and ablutions courtyard. Construction work on the cathedral began in 1403 and was completed in 1507.

Arched carving
Above an entrance door, the Adoration of the Magi

The cathedral building that replaced it is 127 metres long, 83 metres wide and 43 metres high. But it also incorporates the minaret, which serves as its bell tower; and the ablutions courtyard which is now known as the Patio de los Naranjos (Courtyard of the Oranges).

La Giralda

We started our visit by climbing the bell tower, La Giralda (formerly the mosque’s minaret). The tower is 105 metres tall and was built in the late 12th century to resemble the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakesh. The belfry was added in the 16th century; and the famous statue / weather vane that gives it its name (La Giralda means weather vane) was installed in 1568. It is nicknamed Il Giraldillo and intended to represent the triumph of the Christian faith over others.

I was pleased to make it up the 35 ramps and 17 steep marble steps without too much difficulty and loved the views from the top! Going down was actually tougher because of the strain it put on my knees. But it was more than worth it.  

Gargoyles seen on the way up

City view from above
City view from La Giralda (Is it just me who sees a dinosaur in that cloud?!)

City view with old buildings and squares
View from La Giralda: la Plaza del Triunfo, Alcázar, Archivo de Indias and distant river
City view with a large bull ring
View from La Giralda: the bullring and Triana district
Looking down at a cathedral roof and courtyard with trees
Looking down on the cathedral roof and the Patio de los Naranjos from La Giralda

Cathedral interior

We then had a thorough look around the cathedral itself. I was pleased to find that photography was allowed throughout, naturally without flash. The building is awesome, in the proper sense of that word. Any description must include a lot of statistics! It has the longest nave of any cathedral in Spain, and it rises to a height of 42 metres. It has 80 chapels, including the central Royal Chapel.

The main altarpiece is stunning. It is considered to be the largest in Christendom and was created in phases over the period of almost a century. It was started by a Flemish sculptor, Pieter Dancart, in 1482. He was followed by a succession of Flemish and Spanish artists until the work was finally completed in 1564. Made of polychrome wood, it depicts scenes from the life of Christ; it features 44 reliefs and over 200 individual figures of saints. Its surface covers almost 400 square metres and I struggled to photograph it in its entirety!

I was also struck by the golden ceiling of the main nave, which was very effectively lit.

The tomb of Christopher Columbus

Another famous sight here is the tomb of Christopher Columbus – or is it? Two places in the world lay claim to holding his remains, here in Seville and in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. The explorer was originally buried in Valladolid before being moved by his son to a monastery in Seville, and later to Santo Domingo’s grand new cathedral. But in 1795, when France ejected Spain from Hispaniola (the island now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic), his remains were taken to Havana, Cuba. Following Cuba’s 1898 independence from Spain, he moved again, back to Seville to be interred in this ornate tomb in the cathedral.

So far, so clear, but there is more! Some time after this a worker at the Cathedral of Santa Maria in Santo Domingo discovered a box of bones. It was marked: ‘The illustrious and excellent man, Don Colon, Admiral of the Ocean Sea’. ‘Colon’ is the Spanish for Columbus), so had a mistake been made, and the wrong bones shipped to Seville? Or were the ones in the box those of Diego, Columbus’ son, who was also known as Don Colon, Admiral of the Sea? Of course Santo Domingo insists it still has the rightful remains; while Seville is equally insistent they lie here in the cathedral.

And science is on the side of Seville; in 2006, DNA testing on the Seville bone fragments confirmed they belonged to Columbus. Not being a scientist I have no idea how they distinguish between him and his son when testing the DNA; but I’m happy to go along with their verdict and accept this as his tomb. Unlike the people of the Dominican Republic, who have built a massive (and rather ugly) lighthouse to hold ‘their’ bones of Columbus!

Meanwhile back here in Seville Columbus’ tomb is held aloft by four allegorical figures representing the four kingdoms of Spain during his life: Castille, Aragon, Navara, and Leon.

Carving of man in armour, wearing a small crown
Detail of one of the carriers
Some other highlights
Renaissance additions

Leading off from the body of the cathedral are the Renaissance additions, including the Sacristy with a stunning ceiling. A large mirror has been cleverly positioned to allow you to study this without craning your neck, which I also found useful for photos. The three concentric circles of the dome are carved with a depiction of the Last Judgement, with the damned occupying the lowest of the three.

The ceiling of the Chapter House is perhaps even more striking, with delicate gold and white carvings and paintings of saints associated with Seville. This room is oval in shape so that all who attended the meetings of the cathedral chapter could be seen and heard.

Looking up at ornate dome with gold details on white
Chapter House ceiling

These and various smaller rooms in this part of the cathedral contain displays of treasures. I was taken by the simplicity of the Virgin of the Battles, dating from 1230; and by the much more recent (1910) and ornate Crown of the Virgin of Los Reyes.

Part of the main body of the cathedral is also devoted to the display of treasures; this is clearly a wealthy cathedral. I was especially drawn to the elaborate processional monstrances. The one left and centre below dates from 1580. An internet search tells me that it is over three metres tall and weighs over 113 kilos! It was the work of the goldsmith Juan de Arfe. The one on the right is newer, from 1858, but is no less impressive.

The Patio de los Naranjos

We exited the cathedral through the Patio de los Naranjos, the former ablutions courtyard of the mosque. As the name suggests, today it is planted with orange trees which were, on this sunny November day, laden with fruit glowing in the afternoon light. I spent a while before we left trying to capture their warmth glowing against the stone work, as well as the unusual sundial on the wall above the gate.

Part of a cathedral with blue skies
The gate from the other side, as we exited

I visited Seville in November 2021

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