Madrid, Seville & Barcelona

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Santa Maria del Mar - an excerpt from Madrid, Seville & Barcelona

Santa Maria del Mar is the most beautiful and pure of all Catalan Gothic churches, if not all churches, full stop. It occupies a spot that has long been holy: an earlier chapel here was built over the tomb of the city's patron Santa Eulàlia, who was buried here in AD 303 before her relics were transferred to the Cathedral.

In 1235, when Jaume I conquered Mallorca, he promised his sailors he would build a fine new church to their patroness, Mary, Star of the Sea. It was a promise that remained unfulfilled but unforgotten until another king, Alfons III, took Sardinia with the aid of the sailors’ great grandsons, and celebrated the conquest by laying the first stone in 1329.

The sculptor Berenguer de Montagut drew up the design, basing it on the model of an ancient Roman basilica. La Ribera at the time had a booming population of sailors, porters, tradesmen and small merchants divided into guilds, who donated their labour to build it, completing the church in a mere 50 years, which more than anything contributed to its rare stylistic purity.

Exterior decoration is minimal: Santa Maria presents an austere mass of sandstone masonry to the world, a cliff broken only by a rose window framed by a pair of plain buttresses and twin octagonal towers. A vague hint of tracery runs over the windows and door, and a simple relief of Christ. Two small 15th-century bronze figures of the builders decorate the doors.

Yet this citadel of a church hides a sublime interior of airy spaciousness and light. Ironically, we have the Anarchists to thank; in 1936 they started a fire in the church that burned for ten days, destroying 600 years’ worth of art and Baroque fittings. The naked stones that remain emphasize Berengeur de Montagut’s use of harmonious proportions — the church is as wide as it is high, for starters — and his daring genius, using only the absolute minimum of interior supports: the piers of the nave stand 42ft apart, a distance unsurpassed in any medieval building. The slender columns that transform the apse into an enchanted forest, with light streaming in through the clerestory windows.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this luminous, numinous church is that it was built when Barcelona was writing some of the most traumatic pages in its history — during the ravages of the Inquisition and Black Death, a subject covered by Ildefonso Falcone's historical novel, La Catedral del Mar (2006).

© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls