Palma de Mallorca Cathedral | Majorca
The Jewel in the Crown
Palma de Mallorca Cathedral History
(Visiting hours and how to get there)
The Palma de Mallorca Cathedral or ‘La Seu’, as it is known in Mallorca (Majorca), is the jewel in the crown of Mallorcan architecture. Apart from being one of the most famous Gothic buildings in Europe, it represents Mallorca (Majorca) and is a symbol of the whole of the Balearic archipelago. It is considered one of the most magnificent buildings ever built and encompasses almost all artistic styles since the Middle Ages.
It has its origins in the very beginnings of the Christian take over of the island back in the 13th century. In the autumn of 1229, King James I and his men sailed to the island to defeat the Arabs and it was on this crossing that the seed of the cathedral was sown. A storm raged so violently during the 3-and-half day journey that the young king feared for his life, so he made an oath to God promising, should his enterprise succeed, to erect a temple dedicated to the Virgin Mary. He was lucky, not only did he arrive safely but he also defeated the Arabs. And as a God-fearing Christian he did not forget his promise and quickly set about putting into practice his oath.
The decision for the site was obvious. The Muslims were already using the perfect position for their mosque. So by razing the mosque and constructing a house of God on its foundations, King James knew he would be highlighting the victory of Christianity over Islam. However, in doing so he would also create one of the great, all-time historical paradoxes; anyone kneeling at the altar in Mallorca’s cathedral (Majorca's) does so in the direction of Mecca like a Muslim not, as should be the case for a Christian, towards Jerusalem.
The mosque however was not demolished immediately but was repeatedly restored and used well in to the 14th century, most probably, and ironically, as a place of Christian worship. Construction of the present Palma de Mallorca Cathedral began with the east end in about 1300 during the reign of James II, the son of James I. He was the first monarch of the island dynasty and in his will of 1306 he left a large bequest for the construction of the apse, which was to serve as a funeral chapel. Today, it is called the Chapel of Trinity and contains the royal tombs of the first dynasty of the Kingdom of Mallorca, King James II and III.
The architect who designed the three-aisle church, with its 24 vaulted sections was Jaume Mates, son of the Master Pere Mates who also worked on the Mallorca cathedral, sourcing the best Mallorcan (Majorcan) sandstone. Jaume Mates was extremely ambitious in his design and aimed to create columns so fine that the roof would appear to defy gravity itself. The weight, however, was greater than he had anticipated and the first two columns tested, threatened to collapse immediately. They were left with no choice but to widen their diameter. Nevertheless, in relation to their height they are still among the slimmest load bearing columns in the world today.
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Palma de Mallorca Cathedral Audio Guide
Work went on and on for several centuries with people from all social classes contributing financially until finally in 1601, well into the Renaissance period, the main façade was completed and the masterpiece began to take shape.
From the 17th century until the present day, alterations have frequently been made to the vaults. After a section collapsed in 1698, was rebuilt but collapsed again, reconstruction of all the vaults was then undertaken.
The last two centuries have witnessed the last two, large-scale reforms, which are also those that arouse the greatest controversy. The first in the mid-19th century by the Madrilenian architect Juan Bautista Peyronnet and the second at the beginning of the 20th century by the great Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi.
The former was precipitated by an earthquake in May 1851 that left the main façade in grave danger of collapse, and prompted the bishop to commission its reconstruction. Peyronnet was duly appointed chief architect and decided to adopt a Gothic style in order, as a he affirmed, to confer greater harmony to the site. However, he died in 1875 and a series of interventions by other architects lead to a controversial result – controversial, because in the opinion of experts, it looks more nineteenth century than it does Gothic.
The second reform began at the end of the 19th century when Joan Campins i Barcelo, the Bishop of Mallorca (Majorca) and a man of modern views, thought the interior of the church was in need of refurbishment. He wanted to liberate the Mallorca cathedral from the burden of previous centuries and adapt it to more contemporary trends. He knew the reforms would demand exact knowledge of the original plans and profound research to be implemented correctly and being a fan of Modernismo, the Spanish variant of Art Nouveau, he knew immediately to whom he would entrust this task - Antonio Gaudi.
Recommended Book - Gaudi in the Cathedral of Mallorca
Gaudi was the master of Modernismo and had already established his reputation with his work on the cathedral of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. His projects evoked the same response, as would those of the English architect Sir Norman Foster later in the same century.
For three years he studied and sketched until finally in 1904 he presented his drawings and work could begin. Then, for another ten years he laboured without interruption, completing some incredible work, until suddenly from one day to the next he decided not to finish. Why this happened is still not quite clear today but it may have been due to criticism he received at the hands of the Mallorcans (Majorcans). Some claimed he was acting more like a revolutionary than a restorer and that he should place himself at the service of God rather than trying to outdo him.
Whatever the reason, it left the Bishop at his wits’ end: the Mallorca cathedral had now exhausted 15 generations of architects and still was not properly finished. Fortunately, a glimmer of light appeared in the form of Joan Rubio, one of Gaudi’s pupils, and his colleague Gillem Reynes. Together, they offered to complete the work.
The work undertaken by Gaudi and his 2 successors was immense and had a huge impact on the Mallorca cathedral. It included:
- Recovery of the nave and The Chapel Royal
- Construction of a baldachin over the altar and restoration of the bishop’s throne
- The making of a much lighter interior thanks to the creation of more stained glass windows and the installation of lamps
- The design and manufacture of various liturgical objects and ornaments which were rich in symbolism
Interestingly, although the crucial renovations were carried out under the direction of Rubio and Reynes, they are still attributed to Gaudi. Whether this is because Gaudi’s name has a greater cachet than those of his lesser-known pupils, or for reasons of negligence, is unknown but some might say Rubio and Reynes have been denied the recognition they deserve in the upper echelons of architecture.
In any case, La Seu Cathedral was finally finished and more magnificent than anyone had imagined. It wasn’t the biggest, or even the most technically difficult cathedral built in Spain, but it was without doubt considered the most joyous. If you catch the sun falling through the rose window on a bright morning, every nook and cranny in the Mallorca cathedral lights up like a rainbow and you will understand why it is commonly referred to as ‘The Cathedral of Light’.
Palma de Mallorca Cathedral Architecture
As the Mallorca Cathedral stands today it reaches a height of 44 metres and covers an area of just under 7000 square metres, which is about the same size as the football pitch at Wembley. It consists of three façades each offering a unique entrance portal. The most spectacular and technically perfect façade is the southern that looks out on to the bay of Palma. Here we can clearly appreciate the Gothic style of the Mallorca cathedral, with domination of horizontal over vertical lines, and decorative features such as the gargoyles, railings and spires. Its structural audacity manifests itself through the rhythmical series of abutments and flying buttresses, forming a cadence of lights and shadows visible from the seaside.
On this side also lies the jewel in the crown of the Palma de Mallorca cathedral - the Mirador portal. This is the huge arched entrance half way along the façade, which surely contributes the most important Gothic group of sculptures in Mallorca (Majorca). Between 1380 and 1422, Northern European and Mallorcan artists worked on this Gothic masterpiece, with the Mallorcan architect and sculptor Guillem Sagrera being the leading local contributor.
Within the arches are two clearly differentiated horizontal sculptures: the first depicting the Eternal father with adoring angels and the other, directly below, the last supper. On the pillar between the two doors is a delightful Virgin Mary with child and in the niche of each arch are the sculptures of five saints; James, John and Peter on the left, and Andrew and Paul on the right. Together, they make this portal one of the most important examples of Mallorcan medieval art on the island.
On the west side of the Mallorca Cathedral, which looks on to the Almudaina Palace, is the Main façade. The only feature on this side to survive the earthquake of 1851 was the portal, so the rest of the architecture is the fruit of the neo-Gothic reforms carried out in 1852 by Peyronnet. It appears he didn’t know how to imitate its structural logic, which has resulted in a rather eclectic composition.
The portal itself, built at the very end of the 16th century, is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and is, for the most part, the work of Miquel Verger. Between the columns are statues of more saints, sculpted one above the other. On the left are Saint Gregory and Jerome and on the right Saint Ambrose and Augustine. The upper section houses sculptures of John the Evangelist and John the Baptist. But what really attracts the eye is the image of the Virgin Mary surrounded by a symmetrical representation of symbols: the lily, the well, the gateway to heaven, the rose, the palm, the fountain and the ivory tower, to name some of the less obvious. Gaudi couldn’t improve much on all this but he did add the large, circular, mosaic stone carpet on the floor bearing Eucharistic symbols.
The north facing facade of the Palma de Mallorca Cathedral is the Almoina façade. Visually less spectacular than the south it is interrupted at the fifth buttress by the Belltower. This contains nine bells: the largest of which even has its own name and dates back to at least 1389.
In the corner we can see the portal. Begun in 1498 by Francesc Sagrera, Guillem’s son, it is Gothic in style but frugal in decoration. Framed within a perfect rectangle, it is defined at either side by fine pilasters. The decoration is mainly floral and is accentuated by the detail on the Gothic arch, within which sits a tiny statue of the Immaculate Virgin dating back to the late-16th century. Adorning the floor is another mosaic contribution by Gaudi.
More information on the history of Mallorca.
Mallorca Cathedral visiting hours and how to get there.