THE RENAISSANCE IN SPAIN. The Architecture, Part 1

At the end of the 15th century Spain was invaded by foreign artists. The Catholic Monarchs, as well as magnates and great ecclesiastics called for Dutch, Burgundian, German, and French architects, sculptors, and carvers. This migration of artists was a general phenomenon in Europe at the time. Until the middle of the 16th century Flemish and Italian artists went to the courts of England and France, as numerous as they were in Spain.

Only one artistic tradition with ancient peninsular roots remained intact during those years: the Mudéjar art and its application to architecture, the so called “white carpentry”, in which Moorish craftsmen continued to display great activity, particularly in the construction of coffered ceilings and doors. The treatise by Diego López de Arenas entitled “Breve tratado de la carpintería de lo blanco y tratado de alarifes” (1633 – ‘Brief treatise on white carpentry and treatise on master builders’, reprinted in 1727), with abundant engravings of Mudéjar tracery, gives an idea of ​​how deeply rooted Mudéjar forms were in the south of Spain. During the rule of the Catholic Monarchs, when artists still fluctuated between old and new styles, this neo-Muslim hybrid art obsessed them with its application reaching a high point in the restoration efforts of the Alcázar of Seville and the Aljafería of Zaragoza and, above all, in the ceilings of the Palace of the Dukes of El Infantado in Guadalajara.                                               

The ‘Ambassadors Hall” at the Alcázar of Seville (Spain). Its original Arabic name was al-Qasr al-Muriq (“The Verdant Palace”). It was built by Castilian Christians on the site of a Muslim residential fortress after it was destroyed during the Christian conquest of Seville in 1248. The ‘Ambassadors Hall’ is the ancient throne room built during Muslim reign in the 11th century.
North side halls of the Moorish Taifal* Palace at the Aljafería Palace in Zaragoza (Spain). This fortified medieval palace was built during the second half of the 11th century. The Aljafería in Zaragoza, with the Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba and the Alhambra, are the three best examples of Hispano-Muslim architecture of Spain.
Mudéjar style in the ceilings of the Hall of the Lineages (‘Salón de Linajes”) of the Palace of El Infantado in Guadalajara (Spain).

At the end of the 15th century coats of arms and heraldic names acquired enormous importance, mainly as architectural decorative elements, this lasted until well into the 16th century. Large coats of arms flanked by Herculean figures and supported by the eagle of Saint John in the time of the kings, or by the imperial eagle (with outstretched wings) under the time of Emperor Charles V, are present on the facades to which they stamp a seal of majesty. At first the decorative repertoire was completely Gothic as were the moldings, although they were combined within sinuous lines which departed from the forms of the Flamboyant Gothic and then acquired an almost ‘baroque’ significance. We can see this in the large, ornate facades of the old Iglesia Conventual de San Pablo and in the Colegio de San Gregorio in Valladolid, attributed to Simón de Colonia and Gil de Siloé respectively.

The Iglesia Conventual de San Pablo (Valladolid, Castile and León, Spain) is a church and former convent of Isabelline style. It was built between 1445 and 1468 and later expanded and refurbished until 1616.
Facade of the Iglesia Conventual de San Pablo (Valladolid, Castile and León, Spain). It was designed by Simón de Colonia and completed in 1500. The stars in the background allude to the coat of arms of the Sandoval y Rojas family, of which the Duke of Lerma was a member, he funded the renovation program of the church and is buried inside.
The facade of the Colegio de San Gregorio (Valladolid, Castile and León, Spain). The Colegio was founded as a teaching institution as the College of Theology for Dominican friars. Built in Isabelline style, the building now houses the Museo Nacional de Escultura. The Colegio de San Gregorio is one of the best examples of the Isabelline architectural style characteristic of the Crown of Castile region during the Catholic Monarchs’ reign (late-15th century to early-16th century). The facade includes refined decoration, elegant proportions, and a wide array of symbolic elements.

In other essays when dealing with the last stage of Spanish Gothic, we discussed several foreign architects, carvers, and sculptors that worked in Castile during the early years of this period. They included also artists like Juan de Colonia, Juan Guas, Enrique Egas, the French sculptor Felipe Bigarny, etc. Alongside them, or collaborating with them, were Spaniards such as Juan de Badajoz and his son and namesake (who worked in León), Juan de Alava, Lorenzo Vázquez, Juan Gil de Hontañón, father of Rodrigo Gil de Hontañón who alongside Pedro Machuca shared the glory of having established a clearly Spanish Renaissance style way before the rigorist style later established by Juan de Herrera.

Enrique Egas, son of Annequin Egas from Brussels, was the advisor and inspector of the works paid for by the Catholic Monarchs. His work was largely anonymous; although he played a part in everything, little works can be attributed to him. It was he who designed the layout of the last great Gothic cathedral in Spain, the old cathedral of Salamanca begun in 1512 and whose construction was interrupted several times to be continued until 1560, when the cathedrals of Granada and Malaga were already built in Renaissance style.

Exterior view of the Old Cathedral of Salamanca (Spain). The old cathedral was founded in the 12th century and completed in Romanesque/Gothic style in the 14th century. The crossing tower of the old cathedral is seen to the right of the picture.
View of the central nave of the Old Cathedral of Salamanca (Spain) towards the main altar and apse.

The foreign origin of the brothers Enrique and Juan Guas is doubtful. They were thought to be the authors of the Palace of the Mendoza (or of El Infantado) in Guadalajara, today attributed to Lorenzo Vázquez. From the legend of their sepulcher we know that Juan Guas designed San Juan de los Reyes, the vast royal chapel for the Franciscans of Toledo, a place that the Catholic Monarchs had destined for his burial before deciding that they wanted to lay rest in Granada, a city so dear to them. But posterity has to admire San Juan de los Reyes as a royal pantheon. Its interior decoration filled with the crowned figures of Fernando and Isabel, with their mottos and enormous coat of arms held up by gigantic eagles, remained with the white color of the stone without any sign of polychrome or gilding. With the exception of the cathedrals of Granada, Salamanca and Malaga, this was not a time when great churches were built in Spain. The old cities in the center of the Iberian Peninsula already had their enormous Gothic cathedrals and they were more than enough. The kings only focused on building chapels next to monasteries, which they visited frequently.

The Palace of El Infantado (Guadalajara, Spain) from the 15th century also features a Isabelline architectural style. The building used to be the seat of the Dukes of El Infantado.
The central courtyard of the Palace of El Infantado (Guadalajara, Spain), 15th century.
Exterior view of the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes (Toledo, Castile-La Mancha, Spain). It was build in Isabelline style by order of the Catholic Monarchs between 1477–1504. The monastery commemorated both the birth of King Fernando II of Aragon and Queen Isabel I of Castile’s son, Prince Juan, and their victory at the Battle of Toro in 1476.
View of the cloister’s halls and cross vaulting of the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes (Toledo, Castile-La Mancha, Spain).
The church of the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes (Toledo, Castile-La Mancha, Spain) features an impressive decoration scheme which includes large coats of arms of the Catholic Monarchs held by eagles a symbol of St. Jhon, a favorite of Queen Isabel I of Castile.

Some magnates, without commissioning special buildings destined for pantheons, built sepulchral chapels in the apses of the old cathedrals with a superb display of decoration. This is the case of the chapel that Cardinal Mendoza commissioned by transforming two old chapels with royal sepulchers in the apse of the cathedral of Toledo. The tomb of Cardinal Mendoza occupies the center of the space, while the royal remains were placed in grandiose niches cut into the wall, reason why the cardinal’s pantheon continued to be called the ‘Chapel of the Old Kings’. Its profusion of moldings and reliefs is surpassed by those at the Chapel of the Constable in Burgos Cathedral, whose construction was overseen by Doña Mencía de Mendoza during the years that her husband, Pedro Fernández de Velasco Constable of Castile, spent in the war of Granada. This construction projects out from the floor plan of the cathedral, as if it was a separate monument, and its dome constitutes one of the external characteristics of the enormous church. Its author, Simón de Colonia, was the son of Juan de Colonia a German and director of the works of the cathedral by 1466. The Chapel of the Constable of Burgos Cathedral brings together the sumptuousness of the Mendoza chapel and the ostentatious taste of the Burgundian and German Flamboyant. In this chapel two sepulchers are placed in the center, like rich sarcophagi, on which the reclining effigies of the constable and his wife rest. The general composition is also much more orderly than that of the chapel of Mendoza in Toledo; the walls are decorated with grandiose coats of arms carved in stone and on top runs a huge and highly decorated ambulatory. Its stone altarpieces were by Gil de Siloé (perhaps also the author of the dome), to who Queen Isabel had entrusted the construction of the sepulchral chapel of her parents, Juan II and Isabel of Portugal in the charterhouse of Miraflores.

The monument to the Sepulcher of Cardinal Mendoza (“Chapel of the Old Kings”) at the Toledo Cathedral (Toledo, Spain). As it is located in the presbytery, a space exclusively reserved for the monarchs, the structure of the choir had to be altered and the royal tombs moved to accommodate the sepulcher. This monument was the first Castilian Renaissance sepulcher.
Exterior view of the Chapel of the Constable or Chapel of the Constables in the cathedral of Burgos (Burgos, Spain). The construction is a funerary chapel with a centralized floor plan built in the ambulatory of the cathedral in flamboyant Gothic style and an incipient Spanish Renaissance style. It was built by artist Simón de Colonia between 1482 and 1494.
The openwork* starry vault of the Chapel of the Constable in the cathedral of Burgos (Burgos, Spain). The vault’s design was intended to illuminate the centralized space thus exalting the light of Christ. 
Interior view of the Chapel of the Constable in the cathedral of Burgos (Burgos, Spain). The interior space was designed to convey a formidable display of power of the Velasco-Mendoza couple (patrons of the chapel), whose coat of arms showcase prominently on the walls with evident ostentation.
The sepulcher of the constables with the reclining effigies of Pedro Fernández de Velasco and Manrique de Lara and 
Mencía de Mendoza y Figueroa, the patrons of the Chapel of the Constable in the cathedral of Burgos (Burgos, Spain), a work by Felipe Bigarny ca. 1492, a sculptor from Burgundy (France) but who made his career in Spain and became one of the leading sculptors of the Spanish Renaissance.

Whoever that carefully contemplates these monuments will notice that they have little or nothing of the classical forms that the Renaissance had already restored in Italy. However, the momentum with which they were built was already Renaissance in its ambitions. Contemporary to this ostentatious late Gothic that today tends to be called the Isabel style or Isabelino* (‘Isabelline’ architectural style), it appeared an architectural formula inspired by the Bolognese or Lombard Renaissance. This ornate Renaissance style is what we now know as Plateresque*, a term coined in the 17th century by the Andalusian scholar and treatise writer Diego Ortiz de Zúñiga, because this new style seemed to apply the forms of goldsmiths or silversmiths to the great architectures made in stone. It is still somewhat an obscure point in the history of art to know how this style originated. It has been argued by some scholars that it was Enrique Egas himself who learned this decorative grammar from Italian marble workers, mainly Lombards, who came to Spain to sell tombs or to sculpt reliefs, and later applied these decorative motifs to his own compositions but with Burgundian lines. According to others, it was always Egas who was enthusiastic about the technique of a German silversmith, Enrique de Arfe established in Castile at the beginning of the 16th century, whose fame and skill led to countless crosses and monstrances being commissioned for the great cathedrals and collegiate churches of that region.

Enrique de Arfe’s works were admirable: his monstrances, more than jewels, are small buildings in gold and silver. The Toledo monstrance weighs 200 kilograms and has more than 260 statuettes within its buttresses and openings. It is understandable that these small ‘buildings’ executed by a silversmith could be of interest to an architect like Egas, who was very prone to transforming his excessively decorated buildings into stone jewels. But it seems something strange, however, that an artist alone came up with a brand new style; at least it goes against all the laws of art, since a new repertoire of artistic forms always appears by evolution. What it is certain is that one of the first and most characteristic works of the Plateresque style was the facade of the Hospital de la Santa Cruz in Toledo, begun by Enrique Egas in 1504 and completed by Alonso de Covarrubias. The door, framed by pilasters that curve into the archivolt, has a top in the form of a temple with figurines and candlesticks, just like a piece by a silversmith. The two upper windows also appear to be composed of applied pieces, small metallic elements twisted and refined by the chisel, which have been joined to form a miniature stone frame.

The great monstrance of the Toledo Cathedral (Toledo, Spain) was the work of the metalworker Enrique de Arfe, born Heinrich von Harff, originally from Jülich or Harff near Cologne (Germany) and made between 1517-1524 in late Gothic design. The monstrance is used in the annual feast of Corpus Christi of Toledo. The monstrance was made with the finest silver and gold of the time: 18 kilograms of 18 karat gold and 183 kilograms of pure silver were used in its fabrication, and it is said to contain the first gold brought by Columbus from the New World.
The Plateresque Renaissance facade of the Hospital de Santa Cruz in Toledo (Spain). The building is from the 16th century and now houses the Museo de Santa Cruz. The hospital was founded at the end of the 15th century to attend orphan kids in the city. The plateresque facade is the work of Alonso de Covarrubias.
Detail of the facade of Hospital de Santa Cruz in Toledo (Spain). Above the tympanum is a ‘pediment’ representing the “Betrothal of the Virgin”.

The facade of the University of Salamanca was also attributed to Egas (or more recently to Juan de Talavera), which resembles a stone tapestry totally sculpted with coats of arms and set within ornamental motifs whose author or authors are actually unknown. The lower double door has lowered arches, still Gothic in its outline and moldings; its low curves increase the effect of the magnitude of the upper relief divided into squares by friezes and pilasters. At the top there is a crest interrupted by candlesticks and drawn like the miniature metal crest that a silversmith might carve for a monstrance. The reliefs also appear to be embossed on a silver plate.

The facade of the University of Salamanca (Spain) dates from 1529 and was carved in Plateresque style, a style that flourished during the first 30 years of the 16th century. This facade is considered as the masterpiece of Spanish Plateresque. The decorative program was divided into three bodies; i) the most basal, right above the doors, contains the medallion of the Catholic Monarchs holding a scepter; ii) the following level has three shields, the central and largest has representations of the kingdoms of the Hispanic Crown; iii) the third un uppermost includes in the center an image of a pope. The authorship of the facade has been attributed to Enrique Egas, or more recently, to Juan de Talavera.
Detail of the plateresque facade of the University of Salamanca (Spain) from 1529. 

In Plateresque architecture, the decorative themes are mainly Lombard in origin with clear influences from the style of decoration used around Milan in the late 15th century. At first we see columns with wider shafts and collars, like those used in the Carthusian monastery of Pavia and in other Milanese monuments. The grotesques or arabesques are more easily reminiscent of the Lombard than of the Roman decoration. The niches with pendentive-shaped vaults, the pedestals and the frames, and above all the decorative candlesticks are all profusely distributed on the crests and crown the pilasters. It is wrong to say, then, that the forms of this Plateresque art (which depended more than any other on the forms of the Lombard art of the Quattrocento) were produced in Spain by the work of a German silversmith, such as Enrique de Arfe who, moreover, used in his monstrances Gothic forms. Forms that he and his son Juan de Arfe called modern work, as opposed to ancient or Renaissance work. There is, therefore, the need to assume an Italian or Lombard influence to explain the production of the Spanish Plateresque.

Who was this Italian artist who came to Castile or what Castilian artist went to Lombardy to learn the Milanese style in the first half of the 16th century before Herrera and Berruguete came with their miguelangelesque Roman techniques? Currently, the role of Lorenzo Vázquez, almost unknown until recently, is seen as important to understand this. He was an artist who produced his most important works for members of the Mendoza lineage. In addition to the palace of the Dukes of El Infantado in Guadalajara, the Palacio de Santa Cruz in Valladolid, and the Medinaceli Palace in Cogolludo, are attributed to him. This last construction, built between 1402 and 1502, shows a decidedly Italian style and must be placed at the base of Spanish Renaissance architecture. Indeed, the facade of the Hospital de la Santa Cruz in Toledo was begun by Enrique Egas only in 1504 and its Italian style appears more seasoned inside, which today is known to be the work of Lorenzo Vázquez.

Exterior view of the Palacio de Santa Cruz in Valladolid (Castile and León, Spain). This is an Early-Renaissance palace begun in 1486 and completed in 1491. This is considered as the earliest extant building of the Spanish Renaissance.
Exterior view of the Palace of the Dukes of Medinaceli (Cogolludo, Spain). Built between 1402-1502, this Renaissance palace is a perfect example of the Spanish renaissance architecture.
View of one of the inner courtyards of the Hospital de Santa Cruz in Toledo (Spain). The floor plan of the Hospital de Santa Cruz was conceived with six corridors that intersect to form four courtyards. In general, there is a symbiosis of Moorish tradition with flamenco art.

Other buildings in which the plateresque shines with splendor, and which seem influenced by the works of Vázquez, are the Castle of Pañaranda de Duero, which was erected by the Viceroy of Navarre Don Francisco de Zúñiga y Velasco, and the so-called Casa de Las Conchas in Salamanca, residence of a high ecclesiastical figure.

View of the castle of Peñaranda de Duero (Peñaranda de Duero, Spain) built in Gothic style. The castle originally dates from the 10th century but was reformed in the 15th century. This castle was an important point on the fortified line which existed between the medieval Christian Kingdom of Castile and the Moor state of Al Andalus during the 10th century.
Exterior view of the Casa de las Conchas (Salamanca, Spain). The ‘house’ was built between 1493 to 1517 by Rodrigo Arias de Maldonado, a knight of the Order of Santiago de Compostela and a professor in the University of Salamanca. Its most peculiar feature is the facade with a late Gothic and Plateresque style, decorated with more than 300 shells, symbol of the order of Santiago, as well as of the pilgrims performing the Way of St. James, and with four windows in Gothic style each one having a different shape. It currently houses a public library.
View of the inner courtyard of the Casa de las Conchas (Salamanca, Spain). The lower floor of this courtyard is characterized by arches supported by square pilasters, while in the upper bays they are supported by shorter columns in Carrara marble.

While magnates built such sumptuous mansions, the monarchy didn’t have a royal residence in Castile where the Court could settle with dignity. The Catholic Monarchs almost always resided in castles, such as La Mota near Medina del Campo, or in apartments, such as the convent of San Juan de Huila and the one next to the Royal Hospital in Santiago. It is easy that during their stays in Granada they lived in the Alhambra itself, at least it is known that they allocated some funds to its conservation and restoration.

Charles V Holy Roman Emperor couldn’t be content with this lack of a Royal domicile. His first initiative was the construction of the new palace within the gardens of the Alhambra, next to the old Muslim fortress. The architect in chief was a Spaniard educated in Italy called Pedro Machuca, who had learned in Rome from Bramante and Raphael and who returned to Spain in 1520. Its layout was intended to imitate that of the Roman school: it has a square floor plan with a central circular courtyard and two floors with columns. Therefore, it reminds us of the layout of the semicircular courtyard of the villa of Pope Julius II in Rome and that of the Farnese Palace in Caprarola. This great building commissioned by Charles V in the Alhambra remained unfinished. The upper bay was never covered. Pedro Machuca forgot, in Granada, that he was in Spain: not for a single moment was he impressed with the wonders that the Arabs left a few steps from his new construction in the Alhambra palace itself. He was a convert, he only thought of Italy and the models he had seen in Rome.

West facade of the Palace of Charles V inside the Alhambra (Granada, Spain). The palace was built in Renaissance style started in 1527 but was left unfinished after 1637. Today, it houses the Alhambra Museum on its ground floor and the Fine Arts Museum of Granada on its upper floor.
Aerial view of the Palace of Charles V in the Alhambra (Granada, Spain) showing the square floor plan enclosing and inner central and circular courtyard.

When he died towards the middle of the century, there was still a long way to go to complete the imperial palace of the Alhambra. Luis Machuca, his son, continued the work following his father’s plans, but the colossal building was destined never to see its completion. The exterior wall is also very regular and monotonous, with the windows all the same; but there is a body in the facade, flat, with a large door and windows that has some dignity.

Vies of the Southern facade of the Palace of Charles V in the Alhambra (Granada, Spain).
The inner patio of the Palace of Charles V in the Alhambra (Granada, Spain). This circular patio has two levels. The lower includes a Doric colonnade supporting a classical entablature with triglyphs and metopes. The upper floor is formed by a stylized Ionic colonnade supporting a entablature with no decoration.

The Palace of Charles V in the Alhambra was the first Italian-style monument from the 16th century that was built in central Spain. Such was its novelty and its contrast with the traditional Spanish Plateresque, that there was a need to give it a name. In consequence, the Castilian treatise writers who saw in this building something more Classical in its forms than any other thing that was build in the Iberian Peninsula at the time, described it with the name of ‘Greco-Roman style’, an unfortunate denomination.


Taifa: (From Arabic meaning “a party, band or faction”). Term that refers to the independent Muslim principalities and kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula (modern Portugal and Spain), referred to by Muslims as al-Andalus, that emerged from the decline and fall of the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba between 1009 and 1031. The taifa courts were renowned centers of cultural excellence in which poets, scientists, and other scholars were able to thrive.

Openwork: A term in art history, architecture and related fields for any technique that produces decoration by creating holes, piercings, or gaps that go right through a solid material such as metal, wood, stone, pottery, cloth, leather, or ivory.

Isabelline: (Also known as Isabelline Gothic or Castilian Late Gothic). An architectural style dominant of the Crown of Castile during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs in the late-15th century to early-16th century in Spain. The Frenchman Émile Bertaux named the style after Queen Isabel I of Castile. It represents the transition between late Gothic and early Renaissance architecture, with original features and decorative influences of the Castilian tradition, the Flemish, the Mudéjar, and much less the Italian architecture.

Plateresque: (From the Spanish meaning “in the manner of a silversmith”). An artistic movement, especially architectural, developed in Spain and its territories, which appeared between the late Gothic and early Renaissance in the late 15th century, and spread over the next two centuries. It is a modification of Gothic spatial concepts and a blend of Mudéjar, Flamboyant Gothic, and Lombard decorative components, as well as Renaissance elements of Tuscan origin. It reached its peak during the reign of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, especially in Salamanca, but also flourished in other such cities of the Iberian Peninsula as León, Burgos, Santiago de Compostela, and also in the territory of New Spain, which is now Mexico, and in Bogotá (Colombia). The style is characterized by ornate decorative facades covered with floral designs, chandeliers, festoons, fantastic creatures, and all sorts of configurations. The spatial arrangement, however, is more clearly Gothic-inspired. In New Spain the Plateresque acquired its own configuration, showing more its Mudéjar heritage and blending with Native American influences.