1902 Encyclopedia > Architecture > Gothic Architecture in Spain

(Part 98)

Gothic Architecture in Spain

That which strikes the architectural student most forcibly in Spain is the concurrent existence of two schools of art during the best part of the Gothic period.

The Moors invaded Spain in 711 A.D., and were not finally expelled from Granada until 1492 A.D.. During the whole of this period they were engaged, with more or less success, in contests for superiority with the Christian natives. In those portions of the country which they held longest, and with the firmest hand, they enforced their own customs and taste in art almost to the exclusion of all Gothic work. Where their rule was not permanent their artistic influence was still felt, and even beyond what were ever the boundaries of their dominion, there are still to be seen in Gothic buildings some traces of acquaintance with Arabic art not seen elsewhere in Europe, with the exception, perhaps of the southern part of the Italian peninsula, and there differing much in its development. The mosque of Cordova in the 9th century, the Alcazar and Giralda at Seville in the 13th, the Court of Lions in the Alhambra in the 14th, several houses in Toledo in the 15th century, are examples of what the Moors were building during the period of the Middle Ages in which the best Gothic buildings were being erected. Some portions of Spain were never conquered by the Moors. These were the greater part of Aragon, Navarre, the Asturias, Biscay, and the northern portion of Galicia. Toledo was retaken by the Christians in 1085 A.D., Tarragona in 1089, Saragossa in 1118, Lérida in 1149, Valencia in 1239, and Seville in 1248. In the districts occupied by the Moors Gothic architecture had no natural growth, whilst even in those which were not held by them the arts of war were necessity so much more thought of than those of peace, that the services of foreign architects were made use of to an extent unequalled in any other part of Europe.

Of early Christian buildings, erected probably from the 8th to the 11th centuries, there is every reason to believe that some remains still exist. The most interesting of these is Sta Maria de Naranco, near Oviedo, a building whose details are founded on Roman, but whose plan has all that adaptation to special requirements which is so distinct a mark of mediaeval work. The buildings which come next in point of date to these are all evidently derived from, or erected by the architects of those which were at the time being built in the south of France. These churches are uniform in plan, with central lanterns and three eastern apses. The nave has usually a waggon or barrel vault, supported by quadrant vaults in the aisles, and the steeples are frequently polygonal in plan.

If these churches are compared with examples like that of the cathedral at Carcassonne on the other side of the Pyrenees, their identity in style will at once be seen. A still more remarkable evidence of similarity has been pointed out between the church of St Sernin, Toulouse, and the cathedral of Santiago. The plan, proportions, and general design of the two churches are identical. Here we see a noble ground-plan, consisting of nave with aisles, transepts, central lantern, and chevet, consisting of an apsidal choir, with a surrounding aisle and chapels opening into it at intervals. This example is the more remarkable, inasmuch as the early Spanish architects very rarely built a regular chevet, and almost always preferred the simpler plan of apsidal chapels on either side of the choir. And its magnificent scale and perfect preservation to the present day combine to make it one of the most interesting architectural relics in the country.

Among the more remarkable buildings of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th century are San Isidoro, Leon; San Vicente, Avila; several churches in Segovia; and the old cathedral at Lérida.

They are much more uniform in character than are the churches of the same period in the various provinces of France, and the developments in style, where they are seen at all, seldom have much appearance of being natural local developments.

This, indeed, is the most marked feature of Spanish architecture in all periods of its history. In such a country it might have been expected that many interesting local developments would have been seen; but of these there are but one or two that deserve notice. One of them is illustrated admirably in the church of St. Millan, Segovia, where beyond the aisles of the nave are open cloisters or aisles arcaded on the outside, and opening by doors into the aisles of the nave. It would be difficult to devise a more charming arrangement for buildings in a hot country, whilst at the same time the architecture effect is in the highest degree beautiful.

The universality of the central tower and lantern has been already mentioned. This was often polygonal, and its use led to the erection of some lanterns or domes of almost unique beauty and interest. The old cathedral at Salamanca, the church at Toro, and the cathedral of Zamora, all deserve most careful study on this score.

Their lanterns are almost too lofty in proportion to be properly called domes, and yet their treatment inside and outside suggests a very beautiful form of raised dome. They are carried on pointed arches, and are circular in plan internally, and octagonal on the exterior, the angles of the octagon being filled with large turrets, which add much to the beauty of the design, and greatly also to its strength.

Between the supporting arches and the vault there are, at Salamanca, two tiers of arcades continued all round the lantern, the lower one pierced with four, and the upper with twelve lights, and the vault or dome is decorated with ribs radiating from the center. On the exterior the effect is rather that of a low steeple covered with a stone roof with spherical sides than of a dome, but the design is so novel and so suggestive, that it is well worth detailed description.

Nothing can be more happy than the way in which the light is admitted, whilst it is also to be noted that the whole work is of stone, and that there is nothing in the design but what is essentially permanent and monumental in construction.

The only other Spanish development is the introduction, to a very moderate extent, of features derived form the practice of the Moorish architects. This is, however, much less seen than might have been expected, and is usually confined to some small feature of detail, such, e.g., as the carving of a boss, or the filling in of small tracery in circular windows, where it would in no way clash with the generally Christian character of the art.

The debateable period of transition which is usually so interesting is very sterile in Spain. A good model once adopted from the French was adhered to with but little modification, and it was not till the 13th century style was well established in France and England that any introduction of its features is seen here; and then, again, it is the work of foreign architects imported for the work and occasion, brining with them a fully developed style to which nothing whatever in Spain itself led up by a natural or evident development.

The three great Spanish churches of this period are the cathedrals of Toledo, Leon, and Burgos. Those of Siguenza, Lerida, and Tarragona, fine as they are, illustrate the art of the 12th rather than of the 13th century, but these three great churches are perfect Early Pointed works, and most complete in all their parts.

The cathedral of Toledo is one of the most nobly designed churches in Europe. In dimensions it is surpassed only by the cathedrals of Milan and Seville, whilst in beauty of plan it leaves both those great churches far behind. The chevet, in which two broad aisles are carried round the apse with chapels alternately square and apsidal opening out of them, is perhaps the most perfect of all the schemes we know. It is as if the French chevets, all of which were more or less tentative in their plan, had culminated in this grand work to which they had led the way.

The architectural detail of this great church is generally on a par with the beauty and grandeur of its plan, but is perhaps surpassed by the somewhat later church at Leon. Here we have a church built by architects, whose sole idea was the erection of a building with as few and small points of support as possible, and with the largest possible amount of window opening. It was the work of men whose art had been formed in a country where as much sun and light as possible were necessary, and is quite unsuited for such a country as Spain. Nevertheless it is a building of rare beauty and delicacy of design.

Burgos, better known than either oft the others, is inferior in scale and interest, and its character has been much altered by added works more or less Rococo in character, so that it is only by analysis and investigation that the 13th century church is still seen under and behind the more modern excrescences.

The next period is again marked by work which seems to be that of foreigners. The fully developed Middle Pointed or Geometrical Gothic is indeed very uniform all over Europe. Here, however, its efforts were neither grand in scale nor interesting. Some of the church furniture, as e.g., the choir screens at Toledo, and some of the cloisters, are among the best features. The work is all correct, tame, and academical, and has none of the dignity, power, and interest which marked the earlier Spanish buildings.

Towards the end of the 14th century the work of Spanish architect becomes infinitely more interesting. The country was free from trouble with the Moors; it was rich and prosperous, and certainly its buildings at this period were so numerous, so grand, and so original, that they cannot be too much praised. Moreover, they were carefully designed to suit the requirements of the climate, and also with a sole view to the accommodation conveniently of enormous congregations, all within sight of the preacher or the altar.

This last development seems to have been very much the work of a great architect of Majorca, Jayme Fabre by name. The grandest works of his school are still to be seen in Catalonia. Their churches are so vast in their dimensions that the largest French and English buildings seem to be small by comparison, and being invariantly covered with stone vaults, they cannot be compared to the great wooden-roofed churches of the preaching orders in Italy and elsewhere, in which the only approach is made to their magnificent dimension.

The cathedral of Gerona is the most remarkable example. Here the choir is planned like the French chevet with an aisle and chapels round it, and opens with three lofty arches into the east wall of a nave which measures no less than 73 feet in the clear, and is covered with a stone vaulted ceiling. In Barcelona there are several churches of very similar description; at Manresa another, but with aisles to its nave; and at Palma in Majorca one of the same plan as the last, but of even much larger dimensions. Perhaps there is no effort of any local school of architects more worthy of study and respect than this Catalonian work of the 14th and 15th centuries. Such a happy combination of noble design and proportions with entirely practical objects places its author among the very greatest architects of any time. It is one thing to develop patiently step by step from the work of one’s fathers in art, quite another to strike out an entirely new form by a new combination of the old elements.

In comparison with the works just mentioned the other great Spanish churches of the 15th century are uninteresting. But still their scale is grand, and though their detail is over-elaborated and not beautiful, it is impossible to deny the superb effect of the interior of such churches as those of Seville, Segovia, and Salamanca (new cathedral). They are very similar in their character, their columns are formed by the prolongation of the reedy mouldings of the arches, their window traceries are poorly designed, and their roofs are covered with a complex multitude of lierne ribs. Yet the scale is fine, the admission of light, generally high up and in sparing quantity, is artistic, and much of the furniture is either picturesque or interesting. The tout ensemble is generally very striking, even where the architectural purist is apt to grumble at the shortcomings of most of the detail.

The remarks which have been made so far have been confined to the fabrics of the churches of Spain. It would be easy to add largely to them by reference to the furniture which still so often adorns them, unaltered even if uncared for; to the monuments of the mighty dead, in which Spain is a worthy rival of our own country; to the sculpture which frequently adorns the doorways and screens; and to the cloisters, chapter houses, and other dependent buildings, which add so much charm in every way to them.

Besides this, there are very numerous castles, often planned on the grandest scale, and some, if not very many, interesting remains of domestic houses and palaces; and most of these, being to some extent flavoured by the neighbourhood of Moorish architects, have more character of their own than has been accorded to the churches.

Finally, there are considerable tracts of country in which brick was the only material used; and it is curious that this is almost always more or less Moorish in the character of its detail. The Moors were great brickmakers. Their elaborate reticulated enrichments were easily executed in it, and the example set by them was, of course, more likely to be followed by Spaniards than that of the nearest French brick building district in the region of Toulouse. The brick towers are often very picturesque; several are to be seen at Toledo, others at Saragossa, and, perhaps the most graceful of all, in the old city of Tarazona in Aragon, where the proportions are extremely lofty, the face of the walls everywhere adorned with sunk panels, arcading; or ornamental brickwork, and at the base there is a bold battered slope which gives a great air of strength and stability to the whole.

On the whole, to must be concluded that the mediaeval architecture of Spain is of less interest than that of most other countries, because its development was hardly ever a national one. The architects were imported at one time from France, at another from the Low Countries, and they brought with them all their own local fashion, and carried them into execution in the strictest manner; and it was not till the end of the 14th century, and even then only in Catalonia, that any buildings which could be called really Spanish in their character were erected.

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