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Cathedral of Palma: “La Seu”

The cathedral of Palma is called La Seu and it is considered the fourth most beautiful church in the world. The famous Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí said about La Seu that it was “the greatest and most perfect achievement of gothic style in terms of harmony, construction and mechanics”.

After his victory against the Muslims in 1229 King Jaume I wrote in his diary that his wish was to build a church in gratitude. The construction site was chosen as the place where the biggest mosque in the island had been built and the King ordered the placing of the first stone of the Christian cathedral in 1230.

The cathedral is totally built of sandstone blocks or ashlars. The choir in the east part was built first and then the north and west façades, where we can find the imposing Puerta de Almudaina – Almudaina Entranc, followed. Finally, the towers and the supporting pillars that face the sea were built. Here the Portal el Mirador – Viewpoint Portal, (which is currently closed) can be found. Standing at 15 meters high is one of the most beautiful testimonies of the Spanish civil architecture. The south part of the cathedral can be observed in all its magnificence from the Parc de la Mar – Park by the sea.

King Jaume I lived to see its dedication which was led by the second bishop of Palma and after the death of the Conqueror the building work continued, funded by the viceroys, the rich merchants and the wealthy bourgeoisie of Palma.

Nearly 400 years passed between the placing of the first stone and the last, on 29th July 1578. There are archives in the cathedral commemorating the names of all the foremen. We don’t know how many workers helped to build it stone on stone or even their names, although they were certainly thousands and thousands who transported the ashlars with carts pulled by mules along rough tracks to Palma.

The ashlars were lifted to huge heights with pulleys and their joints were filled with plaster: the work was done without cranes or concrete, but only using wood frames and stones. The work on the cathedral took over ten generations, (based on an average life expectancy). The building of La Seu in Palma, like other churches of gothic style, was developed in such a long period of time that it is difficult for us to imagine.

Any observer that goes into the cathedral´s basilica and looks upwards may wonder how this work of art could have been constructed. The columns, almost 22 meters high and less than two meters wide, withstand the pointed arches that ornament the elevation of the ceiling. The inside of the temple is not only impressive due to its height, but also because of the play of light and shadows. The high sided naves were built in such a way that the entry of light to the central nave is not obstructed.

Gothic churches were not built for electric lighting. Amongst other things, their height was used to stand out prominently over the city buildings and the light of the sun could be captured through the large glass windows. The rosettes of the west and east sides of the cathedral are located one in front of the other in such a way that the sunlight shines through both of them at the same time in certain hours of the day, inundating the central nave with light of many colours.

In 1851 an earthquake destroyed several parts of the cathedral. Most of the renovation work was made in a neogothic style. The original strict and sublime character of the gothic cathedral was substituted more and more by a neogothic style that caused an artificial effect.

In 1902 the famous Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí arrived to Palma with the commission to restore the gothic style of the cathedral. The central nave was reserved for the faithful, following his advice, the baroque altar of the 18th century was dismantled and the old gothic altar was cleared. But when the great artist began to make designs for a big canopy of seven sides the head of the church, the cathedral council, thought that he had gone too far. Gaudí was too creative for the conservative religious people because, in their opinion, he wanted to include too many elements from modernist art to the gothic cathedral. He had designed sumptuous lighting with electricity and stained glass windows. The seven-sided canopy ought to substitute the simple one that already existed, but only one of the sides could be finished. We can find a reminiscence of the original design by Antonio Gaudí in the lighting on the main altar. In 1914 the Catalan architect gave up the work at the cathedral of Palma. Perhaps it was because of the outstanding arguments that he decided not to accept more commissions and instead to devote himself exclusively to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

The surface area of the cathedral is 6,600 constructed square meters, with a supposed capacity for 18,000 people, although there are only a few festive occasions when the church is really crowded. Then, when the visitors listen to the organ music, they can feel a bit of the attraction that constitutes the grandeur of the gothic style.

Each year the chant of the Sibil·la is sung on Christmas Eve, during the midnight mass in the Cathedral of Palma. The Sibil·la is one of the best known oracle characters of the classical antiquity and her announcement announces the arrival of the Last Judgment, for everyone.

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