Gothic Art in Spain II, The Catalan-Aragonese Gothic

Similar artistic trends took place in Portugal. See the Royal Monastery of Alcobaça built mainly during the 12th century but completed later, and the monastery of Santa Maria de la Victoria, or da Batalha, probably begun in 1388 but whose construction lasted throughout most of the fifteenth century.

In the territories of the Catalan-Aragonese confederation (South Eastern Spain on the Mediterranean coast) the climate is warmer than in the center of the Iberian peninsula, and in consequence buildings don’t require gable roofs. Instead, roofs were flat and vaults’ spandrels were filled with mortar and rubble. The flying buttresses were reduced to their minimum expression: the thrust was counteracted by using buttresses built inside the temple like “division walls” between the chapels. All these features gave to the buildings located in the Mediterranean regions of the Iberian peninsula a rather poor exterior appearance, but instead, their interiors have a more aesthetic simplicity, less sumptuary than the monuments of the Castilian school. What especially distinguishes the Catalan Gothic architecture to that of the rest of Europe is its tendency to create wide open and balanced spaces, like large halls, pulling away from the “longitudinal” scheme of the “corridor-churches” typical of French and Castilian Gothic. Hence we can find now those large wide central naves: compared to the widths of 12 or 14 m typical of the French Gothic cathedrals, the Cathedral of Manresa is 18 m wide and the Cathedral of Gerona is 23 m. Often, the vaults were replaced by wooden ceilings supported on diaphragm arches* which in turn divided the nave in equal segments. Finally, these cathedrals mimicked the layout and constructive methods of the schools of Southern France with some influences of the Italian art. In the territories of the Catalan-Aragonese monarchy there are no examples of Gothic styles coming from northern France, as it happened in the cathedrals of Leon, Burgos and Cuenca, discussed before.

The Alcobaça monastery-ca. 1153, in Portugal (top left); the Batalha monastery-XIV century, in Portugal (top right); Seu Manresa-XIV century, in Catalonia, northern Spain (bottom left) and the Girona cathedral-ca. 1064, in Catalonia, Spain.

The monuments built using the traditions of the Cistercian school are often treated as part of the transitional period. The cathedral of Lleida, a masterpiece of this transitional art, reflects all the experience of the last Romanesque builders and has three naves with crossing and a dome, it also has compound pillars envisioning the groin vaults that in coming years will be of common use. Begun in 1203 by the master Pere Ça Coma, it was consecrated in 1278.

The cathedral of Tarragona is a Cistercian-type building with some Gothic influences. The apse, begun in 1171, is still a hemispherical shell without groins and there isn’t an ambulatory, though it has an octagonal tower on the crossing, a typical feature of the great monastic churches of the Cistercian Order. The pillars have robust moldings in order to support the groin vaults of the naves. The main nave, which is much higher than the two aisles as in the French and Castilian cathedrals, is counteracted by some rectangular buttresses. The facade is Gothic, but was never finished. In the cathedral of Tarragona there is a pediment on the facade, a simple triangular wall resting up in the air. This enigmatic crowning of the cathedral of Tarragona is an attempt of a bell-gable*, a traditional architectural element in Catalonia. The cloister of the Tarragona cathedral is Cistercian and resembles that of the Fontfroide Abbey in Provence.

The Old Lleida cathedral-ca. 1203, in Catalonia (top left); the Tarragona cathedral-XII century, in Catalonia (top right); the monastery of Sant Cugat-XII century, in Catalonia (bottom left) and its apse (bottom right).

The Monastery of Sant Cugat, near Barcelona, is a typical case of a Cistercian work influenced by Gothic forms. The apse, dome, and the lower parts of the rest of the monument are purely Cistercian, but the facade is Gothic with large Gothic door jambs and a big rose window on top.

The cathedral of Barcelona, begun in 1298 and built during the fourteenth century, is a monument that entirely represents the pure Spanish Gothic style. It has three naves and ambulatory, and the Gothic forms are applied here with intense originality. The crossing is rudimentary and the small arms forming the transept carry two large towers; the dome, instead of being placed on the crossing, was located at the bottom of the church which was an unprecedented innovation. In addition, the layout of the naves is very clever with the main nave of the same height as the two aisles. The chapels are low, but on top of them run galleries forming what seems to be two tall naves. The buttresses are internal, that is, they form the dividing walls between the chapels and the spaces over them, thus allowing high elevations to the two aisles and giving the monument an overall architectural unity. One of Barcelona cathedral’s main features is its inner lighting: the sun light penetrates through the chapels and galleries and filters through the columns before reaching the ground level. For its atmosphere and interior lighting, the cathedral of Barcelona is the most distinctive of the Castilian cathedrals which are excessively illuminated as a result of using an arrange of windows typically used in the Northern countries. It is nice to note, that the builders of the cathedral of Barcelona were completely Catalan: Riquer, Fabré, Bertran, Roquer, Franch, Solá, Gual, Escuder…

The Barcelona cathedral-ca. 1339 (top left) and a view of its interior (top right); the cathedral of Santa Maria del Mar-ca. 1329, in Barcelona (bottom left) and a view of its interior (bottom right).

The cathedral of Barcelona was imitated in other Catalan monument, the Cathedral of Manresa. In Barcelona itself, the great basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, a work of Berenguer de Montagut, is another building full of spirituality. Begun in 1329, it is perhaps the architectural work that shows with greater purity the characteristics of the Catalan Gothic: outside it is dominated by smooth surfaces, filled spaces were preferred over empty spaces, and the roof is flat without cover; inside includes a magnificent hall with three naves of equal height dominating also the horizontal space and not just the vertical space as in the hall-churches of the continental Gothic.

The Girona cathedral-ca. 1038, in Catalonia: view of its interior (top); the Tortosa cathedral-ca. XIV century, in Catalonia: view of its baroque facade (bottom left) and its flying buttresses (bottom right).

The cathedral of Gerona has an apse with ambulatory very similar to the Cathedral of Barcelona, although on a smaller scale. The architect in chief, who in the early fifteenth century was Guillem Bofill, ordered to cover the entire width of the cathedral with a single vault that should have no less than 23 meters wide by 34 m high and 50 m long. Thus, the cathedral of Gerona has the widest Gothic nave that has ever been covered with a stone vault. Bofill also solved the difficult problem of joining a single nave to a triple apse, and above the arches of the naves of the presbytery he opened three rose windows in order to lighten the smooth wall between arches.

The cathedral of Tortosa is a reminiscent of the cathedral of Barcelona, particularly by the structure of the frontal side of its naves. It also has ambulatory, and the apse chapels instead of being separated by a wall are separated by a simple stone fretwork. In the outside also has original flying buttresses which rest on octagonal turrets, especially in the apse where they produce a highly original effect.

The Palma cathedral-ca. 1229, in Palma de Mallorca (top left) and a view of its interior (top tight); the Valencia cathedral-ca. 1262 (bottom left) and its bell tower called the Miquelet (bottom right).

The cathedral of Palma, begun by Jaime II de Mallorca, employs all the resources of the Gothic art. The columns separating the three naves are high and light, up to 44 m high in the central nave, even taller than the highest central European naves (Chartres, 32 m height; Reims, 38 m; Amiens, 43 m). The chapels are low and lack the high galleries of the cathedral of Barcelona, reason why the flying buttresses are exterior instead of interior. The greatest novelty of the Cathedral of Mallorca is the apse, which closes in a straight line and that includes a spacious rectangular chapel with a width equivalent of that of the entire main nave. This chapel, however, does not have the same height of the nave as it is lower, leaving room for a huge rose window above that helps to illuminate the whole church. At the bottom of this mayor chapel there is a kind of small chapel, called the Trinity chapel, also very brightly illuminated.

The cathedral of Valencia is included in the group of Catalan churches, with three naves and ambulatory plus a reduced crossing. The most characteristic feature of this cathedral is its exterior, with many Gothic elements. The bell tower*, called the Miquelet, is an octagonal tower only decorated with windows and small pinnacles as were also the bell towers of other Mediterranean Gothic churches. The bell towers of Catalonia, with straight silhouettes, prismatic and compact, are capable of transmitting such beauty as the tall spears of the French cathedrals. This cathedral has two robust octagonal bell towers on the crossing; there is one in the royal chapel of Santa Agueda; two in Santa María del Mar; another in Santa María del Pino; one beautiful, totally polyhedral, in the Catalan temple of the monastery of Pedralbes…

The Seo de Zaragoza-ca. 1318, in Aragon (top left) and a view of its interior (top right).

Some of this Catalan style influenced the design of the cathedral of Zaragoza with an almost square floor plan with five naves and “star” groin vaults. It also includes a beautiful chapel of Aragonese mudejar style.

Most of the cathedrals of the Catalan-Aragonese countries had cloisters; the weather was favorable to allow the use of these open courtyards located at the shade of the churches. The cloisters of the cathedrals of Lleida and Tarragona are Cistercian in style. The cloister of the Cathedral of Barcelona, so harmonious with its church, includes a pavilion with the fountain of Saint George from mid-fifteenth century and is covered with a “star” groin-vault. This fountain was a reminiscent of the ancient monastic cloisters where the fountain for hand-washing was in front of the refectory. The cathedral of Vich has other sumptuous cloister with the arcades featuring fretwork as it is also the case in the cloister of the monastery of Santes Creus (Tarragona), built between 1332 and 1341 by the English master architect Reinard Fonoyll, who made the first flamboyant construction in the Iberian Peninsula when he carved the stone tracery that fills the arches of the arcades.

The cloisters of the Old Cathedral of Lleida (top left), the Tarragona cathedral (top right), the Barcelona cathedral (bottom left) and the cloister of the monsatery of Santes Creus-ca. 1158, in Catalonia (bottom right).


Diaphragm arch: A transverse wall-bearing arch forming a partial wall dividing a vault or a ceiling into compartments. It was first used in Roman Syria, during the 2nd century AD.




Bell-Gable: (in Spanish: espadaña), an architectural element crowning at the upper end of the wall of church buildings, usually in lieu of a church tower. It consists of a gable end in stone, with small hollow semi-circular arches where the church bells are placed.




Bell Tower: A tower that contains one or more bells, or that is designed to hold bells.