Standing prominently in Seville’s old town is one of the grandest Cathedrals in the world. Accompanying it and adding to its diverse history, is the Giralda Tower. If you’re in the old town of Seville, it is impossible to miss. With its Gothic structures reaching out high into the sky, it overshadows the low buildings surrounding it.
I was really glad we stayed in Hotel Simon, only a stone’s throw away from the Cathedral. It was incredible to venture out from the hotel and be greeted almost immediately by this magnificent church. Its Gothic architecture strongly contrasts with the neighbouring Mudéjar buildings, with its pinnacles, elaborate reliefs and striking silhouette against the simpler blocks of the commercial and residential buildings of Seville’s old town.
Seville Cathedral’s Grand History
I was amazed to learn that, when the Seville Cathedral was built, it was the grandest church of its time. Surpassing even the Byzantine Hagia Sophia, which had held the title of largest church since 537 AD. A title it had kept for almost one millennium.
The decision to build the Seville Cathedral was not taken by the King of Spain who ruled at the time, nor by the Bishop of Seville. Instead, the local council had decided on it after an earthquake had destroyed the pre-existing church on the site. The leaders of Seville saw it as an opportunity to build, in its place, something worthy of Seville’s status as the richest city of the 14th Century.
Today, the Seville Cathedral stands only second to St. Peter’s Basilica in terms of both size and artistry. In fact, in St. Peter’s Basilica, you can see an imprint of the name of the Seville Cathedral on its floor, denoting how much of the Basilica it will fill if you put the Cathedral in it.
Looking at the Cathedral, I had to marvel at the engineering and craft it took to build it. Our modern buildings might dwarf it in height and size, but there is no doubt that a building like the Seville Cathedral required craftsmanship we no longer have.
FUN FACT: WHEN WAS THE SEVILLE CATHEDRAL BUILT?
The Seville Cathedral is one of the world’s most impressive churches. This Gothic church was built between 1434 and 1517. Before the Gothic cathedral, a mosque, built in 1172, was located on the same site. The mosque was destroyed in an earthquake in 1356 and the Seville Cathedral is a completely new construction in its place. Save for the Giralda tower and the courtyard, nothing remains of the old mosque.
Before its current iteration as a Gothic church, it was a mosque in the 12th and 13th Century before being converted into a church in 1248. The conversion of churches into mosques was a common concept all through Andalusia when the Christian king, Ferdinand III, conquered these lands.
How does one “Christianise” a mosque, you might ask. This was certainly a question I had. For one, the orientation of where things are is really important. In general, Churches are oriented to the east, with the entrances in the west. Mosque are of course oriented to face Mecca. Another big distinction is how mosques tend to be simple and for one purpose (prayer), while churches are more than just places of worship. For example, the Seville Cathedral has 80 Chapels, and any of these may be used depending on what’s needed. For example, weddings and christenings.
The Architecture of the Seville Cathedral
One of the best tours we’ve done is the Sunset Rooftop Tour of the Seville Cathedral. We highly recommend this tour, especially if you are interested in architecture and engineering. This tour is truly special as not all cathedrals have roofs you can walk on. The roofs of the Seville Cathedral allow this because they are flat.
The tour opened my eyes to how advanced these fields were in Europe, during a time we call the “dark ages”. I think this is truly a misnomer, especially when you see a building like the Seville Cathedral. Here, its designers have combined utility with beauty and spiritual purpose – something that very few modern buildings have achieved.
I always thought the flying buttresses and elaborately decorated pinnacles on Gothic churches were a design feature, symbolising man’s reach towards the heavens. Maybe so, but their primary purpose was a much more earthly one – to ensure the Cathedral remains standing by providing structural support. Because the Seville Cathedral is so large and so tall, it has quite a great number of them.
During the rooftop tour, we got up close and personal with these structures. It was simply magnificent to get to walk under the flying buttresses and touch the Renaissance dome of the church.
The Courtyard of the Seville Cathedral
Our first experience of the Cathedral was walking into its beautiful courtyard, covered with the famous orange trees of Seville. Under the shade of the trees and the shadow of it stone walls, I felt myself transported back to its heyday. As I walked the length of the courtyard, I encountered a simple but elegant fountain. A feature reminiscent of the Cathedral’s Muslim past, standing at its centre, symbolising the source of life.
I thought the courtyard was a very special place. Here, the trees are completely agnostic – unlike decorations on the cathedral or on the tower, they are neither Christian or Muslim. They are just trees, creations of nature.
Inside the Seville Cathedral
The interior of the Seville Cathedral is as impressive as its facade and history. As I entered, I was awed by the height of the central nave. The columns, huge towers of stone, reach up over ten floors high. At the top, they join up into beautiful Gothic arches – the engineering invention of the medieval era.
TIP: BUYING TICKETS FOR THE SEVILLE CATHEDRAL
Tickets to enter the Seville Cathedral will also include entry into the Giralda Tower. They are €9 per person, €4 for students and seniors. Entry is free for children. However, we would highly recommend trying to book the Seville Cathedral rooftop tour for just €15, which will give you free entry to the Cathedral and the Giralda Tower as well.
The Main Altar
Interestingly, the main altarpiece is not located at the end of the Cathedral but rather at its heart. In the centre of the Seville Cathedral stands the Great Chapel, which features one of the most impressive altarpieces I’ve ever seen. It is a large wood carving made up of several pieces of wood, the largest piece being 30 metres high and 20 metres wide. The altar tells the story of the life of Jesus in 44 reliefs, each as detailed as the other. As an artist myself, I was overwhelmed by the amount of detail present in every diorama. From start to finish, this altarpiece took almost a century and ten different artists to complete.
The Tomb of Christopher Columbus
In the Seville Cathedral lies the tomb of Christopher Columbus, one of the greatest figures in Western history. This tomb is impressive, as befits a great explorer. There are many controversies surrounding Columbus and his discovery of the Americas. But regardless, I still think his life and achievements are still worth remembering. After all, his discoveries were one of the heralds that brought Europe out of the “dark ages”. Interestingly, this tomb was build in 1899, during the Age of Enlightenment.
As for the tomb itself, it is made from alabaster and bronze. The male figures holding the coffin represent the four kingdoms of Spain at the time – Castile, Leon, Aragón and Navarre. On their armour they wear the coat of arms of each kingdom.
Now, whether or not his remains really lie in Seville is a subject of debate – for over a century, the Dominican Republic has claimed that his remains lie in Santo Domingo, but a recent DNA analysis of the remains against a living relative of Columbus has proved (according to Spain) that his remains are in the Seville Cathedral. Regardless, I was pleased to hear that history was being placed under scientific scrutiny.
The Organ of the Seville Cathedral
Inside the Seville Cathedral, in the main chapel, is the Organ of the Seville Cathedral. This impressive instrument boasts 7000 pipes and has been in service for centuries. The organ is gloriously carved from mahogany, which came from the West Indies, a Spanish colony during Seville’s heyday. If you want to hear its pipes come to life, you can attend mass on Sunday.
The Rose Window
After its arches, a Gothic church needs to have rose windows. These are the two features that truly characterise the Gothic cathedral. The rose window is only possible because of the invention of stone tracery, the decorative and supportive stonework you see supporting the stained glass. Without it, it would not have been possible to install such large pieces of glass into the cathedral.
The Chapter Room
The most beautiful room in the Seville Cathedral (at least in my opinion) is the Chapter Room. Completed in 1592, the style here is distinctly Renaissance. Instead of cold, dark, stone walls, we have an upholstered interior of pure white walls stretching into the heaven. On the lowest level are beautifully illustrated scenes depicting the five virtues, Justice, Charity, Faith, Mercy and Hope, each represented by a different female saint.
There is a 17th Century painting by the the Spanish artist, Bartolomé Murillo, that sits in an impressive gilded frame in a place of pride. This painting of the Virgin Mary is one of the best religious paintings I’ve seen. Compared to other church paintings of the Virgin, Murillo’s Virgin is quite realistic – and so are the cherubs around her.
Also in the middle of the room stands an impressive armchair, carved entirely out of mahogany. I believe this chair is still in use as the Chapter Room continues to host papal meetings today, as it did in the past.
The Giralda Tower dominates views of Seville’s old town. Standing 94 metres high, it is an elegant building that perfectly mixes Islamic and Christian architecture. This mixture of styles gives away the age of the tower – it was completed in 1198, when Seville was under Muslim rule. However, the tower can lay claim to even older origins. The base on which it stands can be dated all the way back to Roman times!
Looking at the tower, it is quite clear which portion of it is Christian and which Muslim. Most of its floors are in the Islamic style, with elegant and simple lattice work patterns and windows with curved frames. These windows can be found on all sides and are bright and airy, in the Islamic fashion.
The upper part of the tower is Renaissance in style. Featuring the clean, symmetrical design of the era. Although the styles have very different origins, one Islamic, the other Hellenistic they work tremendously well together.
To cap off the tower’s beauty and also to add to its height is the Giraldillo. This bronze statue, a woman symbolising faith, stands four meters high. Along with her base, the Giralda tops up to an impressive 100 metres. Incidentally, this was also how the tower got its name. “La Giralda” actually refers to wind vanes that have human or animal representations.
Climbing the Giralda Tower
The experience of climbing up this tower is quite unique. Firstly, instead of steps, the way up is a gentle ramp. This was because Muslims pray five times a day and the Imam had to be on the top of the tower to lead the prayers. Although the tower was shorter during its Islamic days, having to climb up five times a day would still have been difficult. For this reason, ramps, instead of stairs, were used so that religious officials could ride donkeys to the very top.
I throughly enjoyed the climb up the tower. It goes up pretty high, but the slope is gentle and there’s quite a lot of breathing space, so you don’t feel claustrophobic. Along the way are many viewing points that offer fantastic views of Seville. We stopped often to take a breath, enjoy the breeze blowing through and make a photo or two.
The Giralda Bell Tower
I will have to admit though, the last few stories did get me to wonder if we were ever going to reach the top! However, after fifteen minutes (including all those photo breaks), we finally emerged onto the impressive bell tower. La Giralda is definitely one of the coolest bell towers I’ve been on. It made me feel a little like I was on the set of some steam punk movie.
The Giralda bell tower was built by a Spanish architect, Hernan Ruiz II, in 1558. This was almost four centuries after the original Islamic portion of the tower was completed by Muslim architects. Isn’t it amazing how these two cultures, separated by hundreds of years, came together in such a perfect way?
View From the Giralda Bell Tower
If anything, the view of the very top of the Giralda Tower makes climbing it totally worth it. We spent quite some time up here, taking in the beautiful cityscape of Seville. From here, you can see how neat and charming the city is. In some ways, it looks almost too perfect, like a toy model of a city, with its vibrantly coloured buildings against the bright blue sky.
Up here, we got to see all the icons of Seville, including the Real Alcálzar, the Santiago Calatrava bridge and the “lipstick” building (which locals love to hate). This view is everything I love about European cities. Here we have history and modernity existing perfectly alongside each other. In one view, we get to appreciate the architectural developments of almost an entire millennia.
After spending some time up on the bell tower and soaking in as much of the view as we possibly could, we reluctantly made our way down. I think climbing up the Giralda Tower is probably the best way to get introduced to the city of Seville. By becoming acquainted with it, we got to appreciate Seville’s multicultural past and appreciate how it was looking to the future while staying rooted in its rich history.
FAQs for the Seville Cathedral and Giralda Tower
The Seville Cathedral was build in the 15th Century, between 1434 and 1517. It was built on the site of a mosque which, itself, was built in 1172 and destroyed in an earthquake in the 14th Century. Read More
The Seville Cathedral was built by the city council of Seville. They had decided to build the Cathedral after the pre-existing church was destroyed in an earthquake. Read More
The Giralda Tower is 100 metres high, so that’s about 20 to 25 floors. Read More
The Islamic portion of the Giralda Tower was built by the Islamic architect Ahmed Ibn Baso and completed by another, Ali de Gomara. After the top was destroyed, the Spanish architect, Hernan Ruiz II, designed and oversaw the building of the Renaissance bell tower. Read More