Lonely Planet review
Seville’s immense cathedral, officially the biggest in the world (by volume), is awe-inspiring in its scale and sheer majesty. It stands on the site of the great 12th-century Almohad mosque, with the mosque’s minaret (the Giralda) still towering beside it.
After Seville fell to the Christians in 1248, the mosque was used as a church until 1401. Then, in view of its decaying state, the church authorities decided to knock it down and start again. 'Let's construct a church so large future generations will think we were mad,’ they decided (or so legend has it). The result is a cathedral measuring 126m long and 83m wide.
The entry system and timetable for visiting Seville’s cathedral change frequently. Current regulations are usually displayed fairly clearly.
From close up, the bulky exterior of the cathedral gives few hints of the treasures within. But have a look at the Puerta del Perdón on Calle Alemanes (a legacy of the Islamic mosque).
The Giralda, the 104m decorative brick tower on the northeastern side of the cathedral, was the minaret of the mosque, constructed between 1184 and 1198 at the height of Almohad power. Its proportions, delicate brick-pattern decoration and colour, which changes with the light, make it perhaps Spain’s most perfect Islamic building. The top-most parts of the Giralda – from the bell level up – were added in the 16th century, when Spanish Christians were busy ‘improving on’ surviving Islamic buildings. At the very top is El Giraldillo , a 16th-century bronze weathervane representing ‘faith’ that has become a symbol of Seville. The entrance to the Giralda is inside the cathedral.
Sala del Pabellón
Selected treasures from the cathedral’s art collection are exhibited in this room, the first after the ticket office. Much of what’s displayed here, as elsewhere in the cathedral, is the work of masters from Seville’s 17th-century artistic golden age.
Southern & Northern Chapels
The chapels along the southern and northern sides of the cathedral hold riches of sculpture and painting. Near the western end of the northern side is the Capilla de San Antonio , housing Murillo’s 1666 canvas depicting the vision of St Anthony of Padua; thieves cut out the kneeling saint in 1874 but he was later found in New York and put back.
Tomb of Christopher Columbus
Inside the Puerta de los Príncipes (Door of the Princes) stands the monumental tomb of Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón in Spanish) – the subject of a continuous riddle – containing what were long believed to be the great explorer’s bones, brought here from Cuba in 1898.
Columbus died in 1506 in Valladolid, in northern Spain. His remains lay at La Cartuja monastery in Seville before being moved to Hispaniola in 1536. Even though there were suggestions that the bones kept in Seville’s cathedral were possibly those of his son Diego (who was buried with his father in Santo Domingo, Hispaniola), recent DNA tests seemed to finally prove that it really is Christopher Columbus lying in that box. Yet, unfortunately, to confuse matters further, the researchers also say that the bones in Santo Domingo could also be real, since Columbus’ body was moved several times after his death. It seems that even death couldn’t dampen the great explorer’s urge to travel.
East of the choir is the Capilla Mayor (Main Chapel). Its Gothic retable is the jewel of the cathedral and reckoned to be the biggest altarpiece in the world. Begun by Flemish sculptor Pieter Dancart in 1482 and finished by others in 1564, this sea of gilt and polychromed wood holds over 1000 carved biblical figures. At the centre of the lowest level is the tiny 13th-century silver-plated cedar image of the Virgen de la Sede (Virgin of the See), patron of the cathedral.
Sacristía de los Cálices
South of the Capilla Mayor are rooms containing some of the cathedral’s main art treasures. The westernmost of these is the Sacristy of the Chalices, where Francisco de Goya’s painting of the Seville martyrs, Santas Justa y Rufina (1817), hangs above the altar.
This large room with a finely carved stone dome was created between 1528 and 1547: the arch over its portal has carvings of 16th-century foods. Pedro de Campaña’s 1547 Descendimiento (Descent from the Cross), above the central altar at the southern end, and Francisco de Zurbarán’s Santa Teresa , to its right, are two of the cathedral’s most precious paintings. The room’s centrepiece is the Custodia de Juan de Arfe , a huge 475kg silver monstrance made in the 1580s by Renaissance metalsmith Juan de Arfe.
The beautifully domed chapter house, also called the Sala Capitular, in the southeastern corner, was originally built between 1558 and 1592 as a venue for meetings of the cathedral hierarchy. Hanging high above the archbishop’s throne at the southern end is a Murillo masterpiece, La Inmaculada.
In the northeastern corner of the cathedral you’ll find the passage for the climb up to the belfry of the Giralda. The ascent is quite easy, as a series of ramps goes all the way up to the top, built so that the guards could ride up on horseback.
Patio de los Naranjos
Outside the cathedral’s northern side, this patio was originally the courtyard of the mosque. It’s planted with 66 naranjos (orange trees), and a Visigothic fountain sits in the centre. Hanging from the ceiling in the patio’s southeastern corner is a replica stuffed crocodile – the original was a gift to Alfonso X from the Sultan of Egypt.