Cathedrals of Spain

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Faerie Queene, book 2, c. xii.


The first stars shone pale in the fields of upper air over walls and towers wrapt in the mystery of twilight which softened every outline and cast a kindly veil over the decay of a thousand years. The air was oppressively sweet with the fragrance exhaled by southern vegetation on a summer evening. The roses had climbed to the top of the walls, where they could cool their flushed cheeks on the marble copings of the battlements. The myrtle and ivy trembled in the evening breeze, and through the broken casements the aloes whispered to the sweet-breathing orange trees in the courtyards. The martlet twittered in the branches. On all sides was heard in cool silvery continuity the gurgle and plash of streams which, issuing from mountain snows, had wound their loitering way through fields of violets and forget-me-nots to the "large and spacious plaine" of the Vega. The fairy palace of the Alhambra, the Acropolis that once held forty thousand defenders of the faith, crowns and encircles the hill. From its watch-tower the nightingales pour forth lovers' songs, plaintive and passionate, heightening the enchantment of a scene unsurpassed in natural loveliness and the charm of a romantic past.

The hillsides undulating from the vermilion ramparts of the Alhambra are clad with graceful elms, with orange and pomegranate trees bearing deep red and golden fruit and with the mulberry's glistening olive green. Here and there are open spaces between the groves; fields of roses and lilies. The Darro and the Xenil flow by the foot of the hill, and from their banks for almost thirty miles stretches the Vega. At the base of the fortress, between the rivers, lies the city of Granada,--

The artist's and the poet's theme, The young man's vision, the old man's dream,-- Granada, by its winding stream, The City of the Moor.

Out on the plain the settlement becomes gradually sparser, the houses more scattered. White stucco walls are interspersed with plots of green garden, the ochre houses are smaller shining patches amid the yellow-flowering fig-cactus and the regularly planted olive groves, until finally the eye must search for the farmhouse hidden among vineyards, orchards and waving fields of corn. The gleaming villas and farmhouses still look as they did to the Moor, like "oriental pearls set in a cup of emeralds."

The endless plain, once the fertile bosom of fourteen cities, innumerable strong castles and high watch-towers, is shut in from the outside world like a very Garden of Eden, by the mountain walls of the Alpujarras and Sierra Alhama. Far away on the horizon the barrier is broken at a single point, the Loja gorge. This was once guarded by sentinels ever on the watch for the distant gleam of Christian lances to light the fires that signaled approaching danger to the distant citadel. Most Spanish cities were densely built within high walls, but Granada felt so secure in her mountain fortress that her dwellings were strewn broadcast over the plain. Behind the walls of the Alhambra, on a second slope wooded with cypress, the brilliant towers of the Generaliffe gleam against the dark foliage. Beyond, across the whole southern sweep, rises the chalky, hazy blue of the Sierra Nevada, capped with glittering, everlasting snow. Gazing up from the valley below, one might fancy it a white veil thrown back from the lovely features of the landscape.

Thus lies Granada, a verdant and perfumed valley wrapt in the soft mystery of its hazy atmosphere,--"Grenade,--plus éclatante que la fleur et plus savoureuse que le fruit, dont elle porte le nom, semble une vierge paresseuse qui s'est couchée au soleil depuis le jour de la création dans un lit de bruyères et de mousse, défendue par une muraille de cactus et d'aloes,--elle s'endort gaiement aux chansons des oiseaux et le matin s'éveille souriante au murmure de ses cascatelles."[19]

More than any other spot on earth, Granada seems haunted by memories of bygone glory. The wide plains, now inhabited by less than seventy-five thousand, once swarmed with over half a million souls. The artist feels poignantly the charm of those long centuries of Arabian Days and Nights that were forever blotted out by the zeal of the Christian sword. The ruined temples still attest the thrift and industry, the refinement and learning of the vanished race; the squalid poverty that has replaced it is deaf and blind to the records of ancient grandeur, but the traveler and the historian may still be thrilled by the struggle that destroyed "the most voluptuous of all retirements" and feel there as nowhere else the relentless power of the most Catholic Kings, the pathos of the Moor.

Granada is a very old city, and like Cordova and Seville, it was one of the principal Moorish centres; in fact after their fall, the industries and culture which had been theirs went to swell the inheritance of Granada. Its name has always been associated with the scarlet-blossoming tree which covers its slopes, whose fruit the Catholic sovereigns proudly placed in the point of their shield, with stalks and leaves and shell open-grained. During the Roman occupation, a settlement had been made on the wooded slopes at the foot of the Sierra Nevada and called Granatum (pomegranate). The Goths in their turn swept over the peninsula until, in 711, they were driven out of the valley by the advancing Arab hordes. These transformed the name given it by the Romans to Karnattah. Seven hundred and eighty-two years passed before the Crescent set forever on the Iberian peninsula. Dynasties had succeeded one another in the various kingdoms formed of larger and smaller portions of southern and central Spain, but in the north, hardy monarchs had founded more stable thrones on the ruins of the Gothic Empire, and they were eagerly watching the advancing decay, the domestic discord of the Mohammedan power and grasping every opportunity for the aggrandizement of their own states.


A. Sagrario. B. Royal Chapel. C. Capilla Mayor. D. Choir. E. Door of the Perdon. F. Door of St. Jeronimo. G. Main Entrance.]

In the tenth century, the Moorish power was at its zenith. During the eleventh, Granada had become strong enough to break away from the caliphate of Cordova. There the Almorvides and Almohades dynasties had alternated while the Nasrides ruled in the kingdom and city of Granada until the luckless Boabdil surrendered its keys.

During the last three centuries of Moorish rule, the northern Cross cast an ever longer shadow before it. Alfonso of Aragon advanced to within the walls of the outer forts in 1125, and in the two and a half centuries following, tribute was exacted by the crown of Castile. The Moors of Cordova were more hardy and warlike than the Arabs of Granada. The arts of peace flourished with this latter poetical, artistic and commercial race, who as time went on became less and less able to defend themselves against the fanaticism and skill of the Spanish armies. Like Hannibal's soldiers on the fertile plains of Lombardy, they had become enervated in the luxury of their beautiful valley. When their imprudent ruler answered the Castilian envoys who had come to collect the usual tribute, "that the Kings of Granada who paid tribute were dead, and that the mint now only coined blades of scimeters and heads of lances," the hour of Granada's destiny had struck. The smiling valley became for ten years a field of blood and carnage, after which its devastation was relentlessly completed by the Holy Office of the Inquisition.

Ferdinand and Isabella entered the last stronghold of the Moors in the very year when the history of the civilized world was changing its course. Its helmsman, Columbus, was received in the Castilian camp outside the walls of the beleaguered city. On the second of January, 1492, Hernando, Bishop of Avila, raised the Christian Cross beside the banner of Castile on the ramparts of the highest tower of the Alhambra; four days later, on the day of the Kings and the festival of the Epiphany, Ferdinand and Isabella entered the city.

"The royal procession advanced to the principal mosque, which had been consecrated as a cathedral. Here the sovereigns offered up prayers and thanksgivings and the choir of the royal chapel chanted a triumphant anthem, in which they were joined by the courtiers and cavaliers. Nothing could exceed the thankfulness to God of the pious King Ferdinand for having enabled him to eradicate from Spain the empire and name of that accursed heathen race, and for the elevation of the Cross in that city where the impious doctrines of Mohamed had so long been cherished."[20]

Bells were rung and masses celebrated in gratitude throughout the Christian world. As far away as Saint Paul's in London town, a special Te Deum was chanted by order of the good King Henry the Seventh. Spain had reached the summit of her glory, before which yawned the abyss.

And now in the name of Christ the Inquisition was established and one of its chief offices founded; in His name the Jews were driven out, Christian oaths and covenants broken, and the peaceful Moorish inhabitants hounded from their hearths. Under Philip III, in 1609, their last descendants were banished from the realm.

No scene of chivalry during the middle ages displayed a more brilliant and bloody pageant than the battlefield of Granada. It was the culmination of the work of Spain's greatest rulers,--the great crisis in her history.

Here gallants held it little thing for ladies' sake to die, Or for the Prophet's honour, or pride of Soldenry. For here did Valour flourish and deeds of warlike might Ennobled lordly palaces in which was our delight.[21]

Gazing over this famous plain, the Vega, that "Pearl of Price," with its courtyards now desolate, its gardens parched and well-nigh calcined by the sun, one recalls Voltaire's words: "Great wrongs are always recent wounds!" and long years have passed since the iron heel of Austria set its first impress on the soil.

James Howell, the English traveler and busybody in the capital at the time Prince Charles went surreptitiously wooing, writes home in 1623, after visiting Granada: "Since the expulsion of the Moors, it is also grown thinner, and not so full of corn; for those Moors would grub up wheat out of the very tops of the craggy hills, yet they used another grain for their bread, so that the Spaniard had nought else to do but go with his ass to the market and buy the corn of the Moors."

Only once more does Granada's name emerge from the oblivion of ages,--when the Iron Duke occupied the city during the Peninsular War. He covered with a kindly hand some of her barrenness, planting English elms beneath her fortress.


In the heart of a crumbling mass of chalky, chrome-colored walls and vermilion roofs, rises the dome of the Cathedral. Here, as in Seville, the ground once sanctified to Moslem prayer was cleansed by the Catholics from the pollution of the Moor, and the Christian edifice was reared on the foundations of the Mohammedan mosque. As already noted, one of the first religious acts of the conquerors was the consecration, in January, 1492, of the ancient mosque, which thereafter was used for Christian worship under the direction of the wise and tolerant Talavera, as first Bishop of Granada. The new building was not begun until the year 1523, an exceedingly late date in cathedral-building,--a time when the great art was slowly dying down, and, in northern countries, flickering in its last flamboyancy.

On March 25, 1525, the corner stone was laid of the new Cathedral of Santa Maria de la Encarnacion. It was planned on a much more elaborate scale than the previous mosque, which, however, continued to be independently used as a Christian church until the middle of the seventeenth century and was not demolished till the beginning of the eighteenth, to make room for the new sagrario, or parish church, of Santa Maria de la O.

The old mosque was of the usual type of Moslem house of prayer, its eleven aisles subdivided by a forest of columns and resembling in general aspect the far greater mosque of Cordova. Prior to the actual commencement of the new Cathedral, though not to its design, the Royal Chapel was erected, between the years 1506 and 1517, and when the Cathedral was built, it became its southern, lateral termination and by far the most magnificent and interesting portion of the interior. It was planned and executed by the original designer of the church, and even after this was finished, the Royal Chapel remained, like the chapel of Saint Ferdinand of Seville, an independent church with its own Chapter and clergy and independent services.

About a dozen master-builders, almost all working under foreign influence, are known as the architects of the great Spanish cathedrals. They seem generally to have worked more or less in conjunction with each other, several being employed on the same building, or called in turn to advise in one place or superintend in another. Sometimes a whole body of them reported together, or several of them were jointly consulted by a cathedral chapter.

The original conception of the Cathedral of Granada was the work of Enrique de Egas of Brussels, who, when he was commissioned by the new

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