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La Catedral

La Catedral (4)

The Cathedral of St. Eulalia, popularly known as La Seu, is the see of the Archbishop of Barcelona and is one of the most significant monuments of Catalan Gothic architecture.

Worship and history are linked here, on the highest point of the ancient Roman colony, the tiny Mons Taber. The city has had three basilicas over the centuries, starting with the fourth-century Palaeo-Christian one, whose remains under the cathedral can be visited. In the fifth and sixth centuries the city already had a monumental religious complex, which in 985 was destroyed by Al-Mansur.

With the temple in ruins, the Count of Barcelona, Ramon Berenguer I, initiated the construction of a new Romanesque basilica, which was consecrated in 1058.

However, we know little of this building and the one that preceded it or of their decoration, apart from some sculpture pieces preserved in museums or re-used in neighbouring buildings and the new Gothic cathedral that replaced the Romanesque one.

The building you can see today was planned during the reign of Jaume II. The works of the current Gothic cathedral started on May 1, 1298, and were practically finished by the middle of the fifteenth century.

It is named after the Holy Cross and St. Eulalia. In the Visigoth period it was already called sanctae crucis. For this reason the dome is crowned with the image of St. Helen, mother of Constantine, who tradition holds found the True Cross in Jerusalem.

The name of St. Eulalia was added later. At the start of the fourth century, the Emperor Diocletian decreed the merciless persecution of the Christians. St. Eulalia was a young virgin, martyred on the orders of the governor Dacian for refusing to give up her Christian faith. He condemned her to thirteen tortures, as she was thirteen years old. It is told that she was exposed naked in the Forum of the city and that miraculously, in the middle of Spring, a snow-storm fell and covered her nudity. At this, the enraged Roman authorities had her put in a barrel full of broken glass and nails, which was rolled down a slope. According to tradition, this slope was the Baixada de Santa Eulàlia, St. Eulalia’s Slope. Finally, it is said that she was crucified in Barcelona’s Plaça de l’Àngel.

For many years no-one knew where her remains lay, but they were discovered in the ninth century in the chapel of Santa Maria del Mar and transferred to the Cathedral in 1339.

St. Eulalia was the patron saint of Barcelona until 1687. In this year, it is said, the Virgin of la Mercè (Mercy) freed the city from a plague of locusts and, in thanks, the City Council decided to name her patron of Barcelona. The feast day in her honour is held every year on September 24, when Barcelona celebrates its main festival, La Mercè. Often it rains just around this time and people say that it is St. Eulalia crying.

Over the centuries, the cathedral has undergone major changes. And many have been the architects and master builders who took part in constructing it. The main facade is the work of the architects Mestres and Font at the start of the twentieth century. Though a controversial and highly criticised design, it was probably inspired by the original drawings of the French architect Carlí, dating from 1408.

The entire cathedral is an authentic jewel-case replete with treasures: its magnificent chapels, the sacristy, the crypt with the sarcophagus of St. Eulalia, the stupendous cloister... it all merits an attentive visit.

The dome rises 70 metres high. Its two lateral towers and the facade were completed in 1913.

The inside of the cathedral is grandiose and austere at the same time. It has three naves that constitute one of the purest examples of Catalan Gothic. Illuminated by beautiful fifteenth-century stained-glass windows.

The side-chapels contain important works of art. For example, on one side of the main entrance you find the Capella del Baptisteri, with its marble baptismal fonts, the work of Onofre Julià in 1443. In the chapels surrounding the back of the presbistery, numerous fourteenth- and fifteenth-century reredoses, maximum expression of Catalan art, can be admired. Among the masterpieces the reredos of the Transfiguration by Bernat Martorell in his unmistakeable affected style, crammed with detail, stands out. The centre of this reredos shows the figure of Jesus talking to his disciples and accompanied by Moses and Elijah. On each side there are two panels, referring to the Transfiguration and the miracles of the breads and fishes and of the Wedding at Cana.

The reredos of the Visitation dates from the fifteenth century; and that of the Archangel Gabriel, from the fourteenth century.

There are magnificent funeral monuments from the Gothic period, of which we select the tomb of Bishop Ramon d’Escales, work of Antoni Canet in 1409 and showing the Bishop’s funeral procession. And the fourteenth-century tomb of St. Eulalia by the sculptor Lupo di Francesco. 

In addition, a highly representative ensemble of Catalan polychrome sculpture has been conserved. Most notable is the Roser (Rosary) reredos, carved by Agustín Pujol around 1619, with magnificent reliefs of the lives of Jesus and Mary.

Beside the main altar you can see the two tombs of the founders of the cathedral, Count Ramon Berenguer I and his wife Almodis.

In the sacristy, to the right of the Main Chapel, the Treasury of the Cathedral, a beautiful collection of objects for worship and sacred art, is kept.

The Renaissance enclosure of the Choir, begun in 1380, stands in the centre of the main nave. We highlight the high wooden seats, where you can appreciate forty-eight miserichords on profane themes, among which there are very curious ones, such as one in which the figures are holding sticks and appear to be playing something like hockey, one of a couple being amorous, or the scene of an old woman threatening her husband with a kind of broom while a young couple watches them.

Beneath the main chapel lies the crypt with a broad staircase leading down to it. You can see sculptured reliefs of the Virgin and St. Eulalia. The crypt is presided over by the white marble sepulchre of St. Eulalia, with the sculptured image of the saint surrounded by two angels and reliefs on all its sides about the life and martyrdom of the saint. Pope John-Paul II prayed here on his 1982 visit.

The cloister was built between 1350 and 1448. And it can be said to be one of the most beautiful in the Gothic world. It has four galleries with openings onto the central space.

On the inside, three of the wings contain chapels, enclosed with artistic grilles.

In the fourth, we find the chapel that contains the wooden carving known as the Christ of Lepanto, sixteenth-century piece carried by Don John of Austria on the main ship of the fleet of the Holy League during the Battle of Lepanto on October 7, 1571. Legend has it that a cannon-ball was heading straight for the carving, but in a miracle the statue turned slightly sideways and the ball missed. And so the image remained slightly tilted. This is one of the cathedral’s most revered images.

The same gallery brings us to the Cathedral Museum. Among the artworks it conserves, we highlight the famous 1490 Pietà of the Renaissance painter of genius, Bartolomé Bermejo. 

In the floor of the cloister you can see a large number of tomb-stones, many of which belong to guilds. If you look carefully, you can discern their shields and insigniae.

In a corner of the cloister you will find a fountain under a small covering, the Pavelló de Sant Jordi (Pavilion of St. George), whose vault shows sculptural adornments of St. George, the patron saint of Catalonia.

The fountain is very well known because every year, for the festival of Corpus Christi, the traditional l’ou com balla, the dancing egg, occurs, in which an egg is raised by the force of the water of the fountain and seems to dance. This is a tradition of uncertain origin. In Christian rites, the egg that is broken symbolises the tomb that opens, as a witness of Christ resurrected. However, in popular culture, if it does not break, this is a good omen. It also represents the fullness of Spring, the breaking out of fecundity and the rebirth of life.

You will also see the peculiar inhabitants of the cloister, thirteen white geese.

They are a mystery, as no-one knows how they came to be living here. And they have been bred for over 500 years. Tradition tells that there were 13 geese because St. Eulalia was thirteen years old when she was martyred.

The chapel of Santa Llúcia (St. Lucia), located in the remains of the thirteenth-century Romanesque cathedral, is also highly revered. Consecrated to the Virgin in 1268, its front has a beautiful Romanesque door. The architecture inside is very simple and sober. We highlight the thirteenth-century tomb of the founder of the chapel, Bishop Arnau de Gurb, the fourteenth-century one of Canon Francesc de Santa Coloma, the fourteenth-century marble basin of holy water and the image of the Saint adorning the main altar. Protector of sight and patron saint of dressmakers and seamstresses, she receives many worshippers on December 13. At Christmas, from December 1 to 23, the traditional Santa Llúcia Fair is held: the cathedral square and its surrounds are filled with stalls selling Christmas trees, Christmas decorations and cribs.

A square where there is nearly always activity, especially at weekends, with musicians, dancers, craft fairs, antiques stalls and where the typical sardana is danced by Barcelona residents. It even functions as a stage for concerts: for example, Lou Reed played a concert here.

Don’t miss the curious gargoyles around the cathedral, especially those in the Carrer del Bisbe (Bishop). Also very close to here, on one of the corners of the square, stands the College of Architects, whose outer wall boasts a frieze to a design of Picasso.

You are in the middle of the Gothic quarter, with workshops of young artists, original fashion boutiques, design studios, fashionable restaurants, tapas bars etc.. Situated between the Rambles and Via Laietana, and between Plaça Catalunya and the sea, Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter is the ideal place to lose yourself in. Its narrow, cobbled streets and its squares hide a thousand and one corners full of history.

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