Cathedrals of Spain

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The Cathedral of San Salvador is the strongest link in the chain that encircles the city of Avila,--"cuidad de Castilla la vieja." Avila lies on a ridge in the corner of a great, undulating plain, clothed with fields of grain, bleached light yellow at harvest, occasional groups of ilex and straggling pine and dusty olives scrambling up and down the slopes. Beyond is the hazy grayish-green of stubble and dwarfed woodland, with blue peaks closing the horizon. To the south rises the Sierra Gredos, and eastwards, in the direction of Segovia, the Sierra de Guadarrama. The narrow, murky Adaja that loiters through the upland plain is quite insufficient to water the thirsty land. Thistles and scrub oak dot the rocky fields. Here and there migratory flocks of sheep nibble their way across the unsavory stubble, while the dogs longingly turn their heads after whistling quails and the passing hunter.

The crenelated, ochre walls and bastions that, like a string of amber beads, have girdled the little city since its early days, remain practically unbroken, despite the furious sieges she has sustained and the battles in which her lords were engaged for ten centuries. As many as eighty-six towers crown, and no less than ten gateways pierce, the walls which follow the rise or fall of the ground on which the city has been compactly and narrowly constructed for safest defense. It must look to-day almost exactly as it did to the approaching armies of the Middle Ages, except that the men-at-arms are gone. The defenses are so high that what is inside is practically hidden from view and all that can be seen of the city so rich in saints and stones[7] are the loftiest spires of her churches.

To the Romans, Avela, to the Moors, Abila, the ancient city, powerfully garrisoned, lay in the territory of the Vaccæi and belonged to the province of Hispania Citerior. During three later centuries, from time to time she became Abila, and one of the strongest outposts of Mussulman defense against the raids of Christian bands from the north. Under both Goths and Saracens, Avila belonged to the province of Merida. At a very early date she boasted an episcopal seat, mentioned in church councils convoked during the seventh century, but, during temporary ascendencies of the Crescent, she vanishes from ecclesiastical history. For a while Alfonso I held the city against the Moors, but not until the reign of Alfonso VI did she permanently become "Avila del rey," and the quarterings of her arms, "a king appearing at the window of a tower," were left unchallenged on her walls.


A. Capilla Mayor. B. Crossing. C. Cloisters. D. Towers. E. Main Entrance. F. Northern Portal.]

By the eleventh century the cities of Old Castile were ruined and depopulated by the ravages of war. Even the walls of Avila were well-nigh demolished, when Count Raymond laid them out anew and with the blessing of Bishop Pedro Sanchez they rose again in the few years between 1090 and the turning of the century. The material lay ready to hand in the huge granite boulders sown broadcast on the bleak hills around Avila, and from these the walls were rebuilt, fourteen feet thick with towers forty feet high. The old Spanish writer Cean Bermudez describes this epoch of Avila's history.

"When," he says, "Don Alfonso VI won Toledo, he had in continuous wars depopulated Segovia, Avila and Salamanca of their Moorish inhabitants. He gave his son-in-law, the Count Don Raymond of the house of Burgundy, married to the Princess Doña Urraca, the charge to repeople them. Avila had been so utterly destroyed that the soil was covered with stones and the materials of its ruined houses. To rebuild and repopulate it, the Count brought illustrious knights, soldiers, architects, officials and gentlemen from Leon, the Asturias, Vizcaya and France, and from other places. They began to construct the walls in 1090, 800 men working from the very beginning, and among them were many masters who came from Leon and Vizcaya. All obeyed Casandro Romano and Florin de Pituenga, Masters of Geometry, as they are called in the history of this population, which is attributed to the Bishop of Oviedo, D. Pilayo, who lived at that time and who treats of these things."

During these perilous years, Count Raymond wisely lodged his masons in different quarters of the city, grouping them according to the locality they came from, whether from Cantabria, the Asturias, or the territory of Burgos.

A nobility, as quarrelsome as it was powerful, must have answered Count Raymond's call for new citizens, for during centuries to come, the streets, like those of mediæval Siena and Florence, constantly ran with the blood of opposing factions. Warring families dared walk only certain streets after nightfall, and battles were carried on between the different castles and in the streets as between cities and on battlefields. In the quarrels between royal brothers and cousins, Avila played a very prominent part. The nurse and protectress of their tender years, and the guardian of their childhood through successive reigns of Castilian kings, she became a very vital factor in the fortunes of kings, prelates, and nobles. In feuds like those of Don Pedro and his brother Enrique II, she was a turbulent centre. Great figures in Spanish history ruled from her episcopal throne, especially during the thirteenth century. There was Pedro, a militant bishop and one of the most valiant on the glorious battlefield of Las Navas; Benilo, lover of and beloved by Saint Ferdinand; and Aymar, the loyal champion of Alfonso the Wise through dark as well as sunny hours.

The Jews and the Moriscoes here, as wherever else their industrious fingers and ingenious minds were at work, did much more than their share towards the prosperity and development of the city. The Jews especially became firmly established in their useful vocations, filling the king's coffers so abundantly that the third of their tribute, which he granted to the Bishop, was not appreciably felt, except in times of armament and war. With the fanatical expulsion of first one, and then the other, race, the city's prosperity departed. Their place was filled by the bloodhounds of the Inquisition, who held their very first, terrible tribunal in the Convent of Saint Thomas, blighting the city and surrounding country with a new and terrible curse. The great rebellion under the Emperor Charles burst from the smouldering wrath of Avila's indignant citizens, and in 1520 she became, for a short time, the seat of the "Junta Santa" of the Comuneros.

It is still easy to discern what a tremendous amount of building must have gone on within the narrow city limits during the early part of its second erection. The streets are still full of bits of Romanesque architecture, palaces, arcades, houses, balconies, towers and windows and one of the finest groups of Romanesque churches in Spain. Of lesser sinew and greater age than San Salvador, they are now breathing their last. San Vicente is almost doomed, while San Pedro and San Segundo are fast falling.

But San Salvador remains still unshaken in her strength,--a fortress within a cathedral, a splendid mailed arm with its closed fist of iron reaching through the outer bastions and threatening the plains. It is a bold cry of Christian defiance to enemies without. If ever there was an embodiment in architecture of the church militant, it is in the Cathedral of Avila. Approaching it by San Pedro, you look in vain for the church, for the great spire that loomed up from the distant hills and was pointed out as the holy edifice. In its place and for the eastern apse, you see only a huge gray bastion, strong and secure, crowned at all points by battlements and galleries for sentinels and fighting men,--inaccessible, grim, and warlike. A fitting abode for the men who rather rode a horse than read a sermon and preferred the breastplate to the cassock, a splendid epitome of that period of Spanish history when the Church fought instead of prying into men's souls. It well represents the unification of the religious and military offices devolving on the Church of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Castile,--a bellicose house rather than one of prayer.

All the old documents and histories of the Church state that the great Cathedral was started as soon as the city walls were well under way in 1091 and was completed after sixteen years of hard work. Alvar Garcia from Estrella in Navarre is recorded as the principal original architect, Don Pedro as the Bishop, and Count Raymond as spurring on the 1900 men at work, while the pilgrims and faithful were soliciting alms and subscriptions through Italy, France, and the Christian portions of the Spanish Peninsula.

Of the earliest church very little remains, possibly only the outer walls of the great bastion that encloses the eastern termination of the present edifice. This is much larger than the other towers of defense, and, judging from the excellent character of its masonry, which is totally different from the coarse rubble of the remaining city walls and towers, it must have been built into them at a later date, as well as with much greater care and skill. Many hypotheses have been suggested, as to why the apse of the original church was thus built as a portion of the walls of defense. All seem doubtful. It was possibly that the altar might come directly above the resting-place of some venerated saint, or perhaps to economize time and construction by placing the apse in a most vulnerable point of attack where lofty and impregnable masonry was requisite.

[Illustration: Photo by J. Lacoste, Madrid


Exterior of the apse turret]

The church grew towards the west and the main entrance,--the transepts themselves, and all work west of them, with the advent of the new style. We thus obtain in Avila, owing to the very early commencement of its apse, a curious and vitally interesting conglomeration of the Romanesque and Gothic. Practically, however, all important portions of the structure were completed in the more vigorous periods of the Gothic style with the resulting felicitous effect.

The building of the apse or the chevet westward must, to judge from its style, have advanced very slowly during the first hundred years, for its general character is rather that of the end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth centuries (the reign of Alfonso VIII) than of the pure Romanesque work which was still executed in Castile at the beginning of the twelfth century. A great portion of the early Gothic work is, apart from its artistic merit, historically interesting, as showing the first tentative, and often groping, steps of the masters who wished to employ the new forms of the north, but followed slowly and with a hesitation that betrayed their inexperience. Arches were spanned and windows broken, later to be braced and blocked up in time to avert a catastrophe. The transepts belong to the earliest part of the fourteenth century. We have their definite dates from records,--the northern arm rose where previously had stood a little chapel and was given by the

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