Gothic art in Spain I, Cathedrals

In Spain, as it was also the case in all other countries in Europe, Gothic art was a French import though was in that country where it was better assimilated. Furthermore, in Spain the Gothic style didn’t remained static, but instead it evolved and produced new forms that led to the Gothic style of Flanders and Burgundy commonly called “flamboyant*“.

Initially, Spain was prepared to receive the Gothic styles influenced by the Cistercian monks, who in the early XIII century or even earlier, built large convents. Later on in the kingdom of Aragon, the relation between the House of Barcelona with those of Languedoc and Provence greatly influenced the penetration of Gothic styles into the Iberian peninsula as well as the relation between Catalan bishops with those of Narbonne, Montpellier and other venues in the Midi of France.

The Castilian-Leonine kingdom was as well also prepared for the influx of French Gothic styles in the art schools of Galicia. But ultimately were the marriages of several Spanish kings with princesses of the French houses of Anjou, Burgundy and Plantagenet which led to the introduction of the French Gothic in the center of the Iberian peninsula. It was also very common to find in Spain “transitional” monuments built by Spanish masters. These are monuments with Romanesque floor plans and layouts in their supporting elements, but whose vaults were covered with the typical features of the Gothic art. There were regional characteristics in the Spanish Gothic art. The Gothic styles of the territories of the kingdom of Aragon, comprising also Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands, derived from the particular methods of the Gothic style of Provence and Languedoc; while in the center of the Peninsula, in Castile, Leon and northern Spain, these medieval monuments were originated in the local schools of the French royal domain, of Anjou and of Burgundy, areas with which the Castilian monarchs maintained close relations.

The cathedrals of Sigüenza-ca. 1144 in Castile-La Mancha (top left); Ávila-between XI to XV centuries in the south of Old Castile (top right); Ciudad Rodrigo in the province of Salamanca, Castile and León (bottom left) and Las Huelgas-ca. 1187 near Burgos (bottom right).

In Castile, to this “transitional” period between the Romanesque and the Gothic  belong the cathedrals of Siguenza, Avila and Ciudad Rodrigo. They started as Romanesque buildings, but in fact their vaults are Gothic. The cathedral of Siguenza was also a fortress: it has a facade flanked by two defensive towers. The cathedral of Avila has an apse with a strong military design: its chapels are embedded in a thick cylindrical wall covered on the outside by large stones and three floors of battlements for defensive purposes. These cathedrals of Sigüenza and Avila were started in the twelfth century, but the Gothic style characterizes them inside. The cathedral of Ciudad Rodrigo was also started in the twelfth century in Cistercian style, but was covered with Gothic vaults. The same is true for the church of the monastery of Las Huelgas, near Burgos.

The first monument to be studied to describe the Gothic art in the center of the Iberian Peninsula is the cathedral of Leon, started in the early thirteenth century, that although is not the oldest Gothic cathedral in Spain, it is the one that preserves a purer French influence that would make it to be confused with a typical French Gothic cathedral. What characterizes the Leon cathedral are its magnificent stained glass windows.

The cathedral of Leon, north-western Spain (top) and one of its stained glass rose windows (bottom).

The cathedral of Burgos is also a purely Gothic monument. It has been said that there are two overlapping cathedrals in Burgos: one of the thirteenth century and one of the fifteenth. The floor plan of the cathedral of Burgos includes three naves with ambulatory and chapels in the apse; the transept has a single nave, and the pillars flanking the crossing in the center of the church, are very large as in the Romanesque churches in order to hold an octagonal tower. In the outside has two other towers on the facade. We see that its appearance is of a typical French-style cathedral. The naves are supported by a skillful combination of buttresses, and has large stained glass windows, though not as large as those of the Leon cathedral.

A view of the vaults over the crossing of the cathedral of Burgos-ca. 1260 (left) and a exterior view of the same cathedral (right).

The cathedral of Toledo has thick pillars and its system of buttresses is extremely small, almost incipient. It has five staggered naves from the central to the lateral naves, which greatly contributes to counteract the thrust. The two lateral naves go around the apse forming a double ambulatory of an extraordinary effect. It also has large windows along the central nave and in the transept’s facades so that the church appears extremely illuminated inside.

The Toledo cathedral-ca. 1227 (left) and a view of its ambulatories (right).

The cathedral of Cuenca is unique in Spain, its apse was consecrated in 1208. Cuenca was re-conquered by Alfonso VIII who married an English princess, Eleanor of England, and it is believed that the queen must have called Anglo-Norman architects to direct the construction of the new cathedral. The church of Cuenca has details that are only found in Norman or English cathedrals.

In summary, the cathedrals of Avila, Siguenza and Ciudad Rodrigo are examples of transitional monuments between the Romanesque and Gothic styles; while the cathedrals of Toledo, Burgos and Leon show a clear influence of the pure French Gothic style of the thirteenth century.

The cathedrals of Salamanca and Granada are examples of another transitional period between the Gothic and the first Spanish Renaissance style that has been called plateresque*. This artistic change was driven by Flemish and German artists. The cathedral of Salamanca was completed until the late eighteenth century, but the structure of its main parts and even its decoration are in Gothic style although totally interpreted with a new artistic spirit. The columns’ bases have complicated moldings and the vaults are “star” ribbed vaults. In the outside, pinnacles and towers are filled with overlapping ornaments established with exquisite order and taste. The cathedrals of Segovia and Granada belong to the same transitional style of the cathedral of Salamanca.

A view of the seven sided polygonal apse of the Cuenca cathedral-ca. 1196, Castile-La Mancha region (left) and the facade of the same cathedral (right).

The cathedral of Seville was begun in 1402, nearly a century before Columbus’ first voyage. This gigantic cathedral still shows French Gothic forms but ordered in an original way that does not resemble any other monument of the time. It is the largest Gothic church in the world. It has five naves and its chapels are so high that almost constitute two more naves, that is seven naves as a whole. The central nave is much higher than its two adjacent ones, and to counteract their thrust it has double very low buttresses that in the exterior are barely visible as they seem hidden by the chapels. The cathedral of Seville ends in a flat apse without ambulatory, perhaps due to interruption of the constructive work during the sixteenth century. The same transition from Romanesque to Gothic forms took place in Portugal. Take a look at the Royal Monastery of Alcobaça, built mainly during the XII century, and the monastery of Santa Maria de la Victoria, or da Batalha, probably begun in 1388 and built during most of the fifteenth century.

The cathedrals of Salamanca-XII century (top) and Segovia-ca. 1525, in Castile-Leon (bottom left) and Granada-ca. 1518, in Andalusia (bottom right).

Other minor Gothic cathedrals are those of Burgo de Osma, Palencia, Oviedo, Calahorra, Astorga, Alcalá, Bilbao, etc. From the Gothic building of the cathedral of Pamplona only the cloister remains intact.

Exterior view of the Sevilla cathedral-ca. 1401, in Andalusia (left) and its interior with groin vaults (“bóveda de crucería” in Spanish) (right).


Flamboyant: (from French meaning “flaming”) is the name given to a florid style of late Gothic architecture in vogue in France from about 1350 until it was superseded by Renaissance architecture during the early 16th century, and mainly used in describing French buildings. The name derives from the flame-like windings of its tracery and the dramatic lengthening of gables and the tops of arches. It was marked by greater attention to decoration and the use of double curved tracery. A version of the style spread to Spain and Portugal during the 15th century. 


Plateresque: Meaning “in the manner of a silversmith” (from the Spanish word for silver, “Plata“), was an artistic movement exclusive to 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. The Plateresque was 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. The style is characterized by ornate decorative facades covered with floral designs, chandeliers, festoons, fantastic creatures and all sorts of configurations.