Gothic Art in Spain IV, Sculpture and Royal Tombs

Most of the kings of Aragon were buried in the monastery of Poblet. The royal tombs of Poblet were placed over some low Gothic arches located in the church’s crossing, thus forming a sort of platform to support the royal tombs which have the shape of a mortuary box with a small canopy covering them. Above the mortuary marble box were the statues of the deceased princes.

In Santes Creus are the royal tombs of Peter the Great and James II. Peter the Great, the conqueror of Sicily, is buried in an urn of red porphyry, and James II lies alongside one of his wives (Blanca de Anjou) in a Gothic casket with their carved portraits.

The royal tombs of King Pedro III of Aragon (front) and of King James II of Aragon and his second wife Queen Blanca of Naples (in the background) (Monastery of Santes Creus, Tarragona, España).
Detail of the royal tomb of king Pedro III by Bartomeu de Gerona (between 1291-1307). Here it’s seen the sarcophagus of red porphyry topped by an urn with the images of the Apostles and saints (Monastery of Santes Creus, Tarragona, España).
The Royal Mausoleum of King James II and his wife Queen Blanca of Naples by Bertrán Riquer and Pere de Prenafeta (between 1311-1315). The double sarcophagus of white marble is covered by the effigies of the monarchs who thus form the cover of the tomb. The recumbent effigies of the royal couple are dressed in Cistercian robes and wearing royal crowns; next to their heads are two angels, possibly represented in the act of collecting their souls, and at the feet of the queen there’s a dog, symbol of fidelity, while at the feet of the king there’s a lion representing strength and courage.

Throughout the Iberian Peninsula the Romanesque burial style was repeated, that is, the sepulcher was either placed inside a niche opened on the wall, or in the form of a sarcophagus, or the sepulcher was placed directly on the ground and covered with a tombstone with reliefs. The sepulcher often had the sculpture with the portrait of the deceased placed on the front cover of the sarcophagus while at the place of the feet there are dogs as a symbol of fidelity. Of this type is the tomb of Carlos the Noble of Navarre and his wife Leonor de Castilla located in the cathedral of Pamplona, a work of the first third of the XV century by the French artist Jeannin Lomme. On other occasions in front of the funerary urn sometimes is represented a group of monks with their prelate intoning liturgical chants.

Sepulcher in partially polychrome alabaster of Carlos III the Noble of Navarre and his wife Leonor de Castilla by the Flemish artist Johan Le Home (between 1413-1419). It is considered as the masterpiece of Gothic sculpture in Navarre. The royal figures lie on top of the tomb resting on a bed, their heads are framed by ostentatious canopies with two rows of ogival arches. Around the bed there is a sequence of 28 figures in prayer, each one enclosed within Gothic architectural designs. At the feet of the monarchs lie some symbolic animals: a lion next to the King alluding to courage, and a pair of dogs with a bone next to Doña Leonor, which symbolize fidelity (cathedral of Pamplona).

The royal tombs of Seville are rare, while most of the kings of Castile were buried in the cathedral of Toledo or in the monastery of Las Huelgas, near Burgos. These recumbent effigies of the Gothic Spanish tombs are works of great beauty. Sometimes the deceased appeared as if he/she would be sleeping; other times they have their eyes opened, or they appeared praying or reading a devotional.

The type of sepulcher placed in a niche opened in the wall, frequent in Castile and Andalusia, often presents the arcosolium* decorated with Mudejar ornamentation. One of the most beautiful examples of Castilian funerary monument of this type, from the last years of the fifteenth century, is that of Don Juan de Padilla, entirely gothic, today in the Museum of Burgos, and that was originally placed in the monastery of Fresdelval. The noble man appeared kneeling above the urn, in front of a reclinatory and in the bottom of the niche is a small altar with the image of the Descent of the Cross.

Tomb in alabaster of Don Juan de Padilla, favorite page-boy of Queen Isabella the Catholic, by Gil de Siloé (ca. 1493-1500). Don Juan appears covered with warrior armor, chain mail and brocade cape, and praying in front of a recliner with an open book. The page-boy behind Don Juan holds the sword and helmet. To the right of the statue of Don Juan is a relief with the image of the Pietà, which includes the figure of dead Christ on the lap of the Virgin occupying the center of the composition, which is highlighted by the cross in the background. To one side, San Juan with childish face removes the crown of thorns and to the other Maria Magdalene unveils a jar of perfumes. The scene takes place in a rocky and wooded landscape next to a series of buildings that suggest the city of Jerusalem (Museum of Burgos).

These statues and funerary monuments illustrate about the evolution of the art of sculpture in Gothic Spain. They reveal a gradual nationalization of imported models, the same phenomenon that we already studied when we talk about Gothic architecture in Spain. At first, the sculptures were strictly the product of foreign artists. For example, it is possible that the recumbent effigy of the archbishop Juan de Aragón in the cathedral of Tarragona, is the work of a disciple of the great Tuscan sculptor of the XIV century Tino de Camaino. The sarcophagus of Santa Eulalia, in the cathedral of Barcelona, is also considered to be the work of a Pisan artist. But marked Iberian characteristics are found in other contemporary sculptures, such as the portrait of Elisenda de Montada in her tomb of the monastery of Pedralbes, and those of Jaime II and his second wife in Santes Creus already mentioned. The same happened in the central region of Spain, with the particularity that there the artistic influences came from French artists instead of Italian. The most convincing example of this French influence is the relief of the door of the Sarmental in Burgos. On the other hand, in the mullion of the facade of the cathedral of Leon is the sculpture of the White Virgin, a wonderful sculpture entirely carved in pure Spanish style. Here the type of French maiden-queen has become a totally Castilian young lady, intelligent, without coquetry or vanity, carrying the child with a lively and funny face.

Sepulcher of Juan de Aragón Archbishop of Toledo, possibly the work of a disciple of the sculptor Giovanni Pisano (Cathedral of Tarragona).
Sarcophagus in alabaster of Santa Eulalia by the Pisan sculptor Lupo di Francesco (XIV century). This tomb is exposed behind the altar table in the center of the crypt located under the cathedral’s presbytery and is supported by eight columns of different styles with golden Corinthian capitals. On the cover and sides of the sarcophagus are carved scenes of the martyrdom of Santa Eulalia, in the four upper angles there are angels acting as lamps and in the center a Virgin and Child (Cathedral of Barcelona).
Sepulcher of Elisenda queen consort of the crown of Aragon, located next to the wall that separates the church from the cloister in the monastery of Pedralbes. Due to its location within the monastery, part of this monument is inside the church and part in the cloister. The tomb is a magnificent work of the Catalan Gothic. On the side of the church Elisenda is dressed as a queen and on the side of the cloister is dressed as a penitent. The detail reproduced here is the one corresponding to the side of the church: the reclining figure of the queen is clothed with majesty and wearing a crown, while on the side of the cloister she wears austere widow/nun garments (Monasterio de Pedralbes, Barcelona).
Tympanum of the “Door of the Sarmental” in the Burgos cathedral, attributed to a French artist known at the time as the Master of the Beau Dieu of Amiens. Represents a seated Jesus as Pantocrator showing the Book of the Law and surrounded by the Four Evangelists represented in two ways: as themselves bent over their desks writing the Gospels, and symbolically by the figure of the Tetramorph. Below, separated by a lintel, is the full Apostolate in a seated pose, attributed to a French artist known as the Master of the Sarmental. The tympanum is surrounded by three archivolts with the figures of the 24 elders of the Apocalypse, playing or tuning medieval musical instruments, several choirs of angels and an allegory of the Arts.
The White Virgin of the mullion of the main door of the cathedral of Leon. Considered one of the best works of Hispanic Gothic sculpture, the Virgin appears here represented as Queen (with the typical royal Gothic crown) standing on the dragon, blessing, and carrying the smiling Child (who’s also blessing). Both figures are covered by a Gothic canopy (13th century).
The White Virgin (detail).

Ornamental sculpture, which faithfully imitated French styles in the first cathedrals of León, Burgos and Toledo, gradually nationalized and took an Iberian spirit during the middle of the fourteenth century. The frieze that represents the celestial court located in the door of the cathedral of Leon is of pure Spanish style. In Catalonia the decoration is precise, with a repertoire that includes very few plant decorative elements. This style is seen in many other examples, such as the altarpiece carved in alabaster in 1420 for the cathedral of Vich, by Pere Oller, and the top portion of the facade of the Palace of the Generalitat in Catalonia, with the medallion of Saint George and the dragon sculpted by Pere Johan in 1418 at the age of twenty. Very characteristic of the Catalan decoration are the reliefs or little heads that, serving as corbels, adorn the windows and that sometimes represented humorous themes, like those of the palace of King Martin in Poblet.

Main altarpiece of the cathedral of Vich (between 1420-1428), work of Pere Oller (Vich cathedral, Barcelona).
The sculptural decoration (ca. 1418) of the facade of the Palace of the Generalitat of Catalonia was the work of the artist Pere Johan, who carved over the door a frieze with blind ogival arches with small sculpted heads and a rail of Gothic tracery that included a large central medallion with the image of St. George and the dragon (reproduced here), as well as gargoyles, one of which was replaced by the image of the princess whom Saint George defended; the ornamentation also includes some Gothic pinnacles.


The “Retable of the Virgin”, once the altarpiece of the church of Anglesola (Lérida, Spain), ca. 1320, made in limestone (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

Another school of sculpture was that of Poblet exemplified in its royal pantheons. An excellent example is the altarpiece of the church of Anglesola, currently in the Museum of Boston, and the tombs with the recumbent effigies of the counts of Urgel from the monastery of Bellpuig de les Avellanes currently in the Cloisters museum of New York.

Sepulchral Monument of Ermengol X, Count of Urgell, ca. 1300–1350, in Limestone, originally in the monastery chapel of Santa Maria de Bellpuig de les Avellanes, near Lleida, Catalunya (Spain) and one of several sarcophagi of the Counts of Urgell now in display at The Cloisters Museum (New York). The sarcophagus is probably an XVIII century replacement made during the restoration of the church.

Finally, from the middle of the fourteenth century is the polychrome alabaster statue of the treasure of the cathedral of Gerona called Charlemagne by Jaume Cascalls. It is believed to represent the effigy of a king of Aragon because carries its crest in the band and in the weapons.

Statue of St. Charlemagne (ca. 1345), probably representing Pedro IV of Aragon, in polychrome alabaster, a work of Jaume Cascalls one of the most outstanding sculptors of the Catalan Gothic School (Museo Capitular de la Catedral de Santa María de Gerona, Spain). This sculpture represents a man dressed with the attributes of the Kingdom of Aragon and standing on three summoned monsters.


Arcosolium: (from Latin arcus, “arch”, and solium, “throne”; plural “arcosolia”). An arched recess used as a place of entombment. Early arcosolia were carved out of the living rock in catacombs. From the 13th century onwards, and continuing into the Renaissance, arcosolia were built above ground, particularly in the walls of churches. In these post-Roman era recesses, which were built of brick and marble, the sarcophagi are usually separate from the arch. These tombs are highly ornamented in the styles of those periods.