Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Barcelona cathedral and its (more interesting) cloister

Our first full day in Barcelona, a Sunday, was the busiest day of our trip. That was by design. Since it was our first day, our energy level was high. We also knew many of the tourist sites in the city center were closed the next day, Monday, so we squeezed in a lot of sightseeing on Sunday to make sure we could see as much as possible. And we wanted to make the beginning of the week busy so later in the week we'd have some free time to wander and relax.

We were up at dawn; having a toddler, that's par for the course. In the early morning, the Barri Gòtic is at its quietest. We strolled to the Gothic cathedral at the heart of the neighborhood. It stands on a spot where two millennia ago the Romans built their temple to Jupiter. Several hundred years later the Christians replaced the temple with a church; then a Romanesque church in the 11th century; and then finally the Gothic cathedral in 1450. When Barcelona got rich again in the 1800s, they made a fancier neo-Gothic facade on the western front and completed the 230-foot central spire in 1913. The spiky towers are a late Gothic "French Flamboyant" (i.e., flaming) style, depicting the towers as flickering with spiritual fire.

Western neo-Gothic facade of the Barcelona Cathedral.
"French Flamboyant" spires of spiritual flames rising toward heaven.
View of the central spire from the cathedral rooftop.
We walked into the nearly empty nave, expecting a quick tour through the cathedral. No such luck. A poorly-attended Sunday service was being held, and we could only look at a fraction of the building. No complaints here -- it is a church, after all -- so we resolved to come back later. Which we did, only to find another service being held in the later morning. So we came back yet again, late afternoon, and I finally had a chance to take a spin through the place.

As cathedrals go, it's kind of a dud. There's nothing inherently bad about the cathedral, but there's also nothing especially interesting to see. The architecture is uninspired. For me, its main architectural point of interest is that it doesn't have flying buttresses outside the walls (imagine Notre Dame in Paris), but instead incorporated those buttresses as part of the interior of the building as the ceiling supports for 28 side chapels. The cathedral's decorations (statuary, stained glass, etc.) are fine -- and especially shiny in some of the gold-covered chapels -- but there's no must-see sight in the building. A crypt houses a tomb to the city's patron saint, St. Eulàlia, who according to tradition was martyred in 304 A.D. at age 13 by the Romans after being subjected to thirteen tortures.

Looking down the nave of the cathedral, the view is partly blocked by the stone choir. The cathedral has an "ambulatory" plan, meaning you can circulate around the sides of the nave and behind the altar to visit the various chapels.
Shiny gold -- did I mention shiny? did I mention gold? -- side chapel.
Sarcophagus of St. Eulàlia within her tomb.
Each keystone of the crossing arches features a different saint.
The altar in the apse.
Tomb of St. Raymond of Penyafort, codifier of canon law in the Decretals of (Pope) Gregory IX, and patron saint of lawyers, especially canon lawyers.
Choir stalls for the high nobility, originally painted in 1518 for a gathering of the knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece to honor King Charles V. [Ed.'s note: For those of you concerned with such things, that's the Spanish order and not the Austrian or Hapsburg order, of course.]
See how the figure of Christ is shifted over a little? According to legend, this crucifix was on a ship during the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, and the body of Christ miraculously shifted to its right to avoid being hit by a cannonball. Jesus -- helluva good dodgeball player.
While we found the cathedral to be dull, the attached cloister was charming. Mostly because of the geese.



In a tradition going back more than 500 years, there are always 13 geese -- in honor of St. Eulàlia's age and her tortures -- within the cloister. The geese enjoy a green and fruited garden ringed by a tall-ceilinged arcade. They have a pond in which to float and an endless supply of humans to observe. The humans like to observe them right back. Especially the little humans.

High-arched arcade creating a square around the geese.
For hundreds of years, the geese functioned as an alarm system to honk at intruders. Nowadays, there are a lot of intruding tourists.
Like this intruder, who could slip through the fence.
Hey, buddy, you got any bread?
Once all of the cathedral's 28 side chapels were filled by various wealthy patrons or guilds, they needed more space for further donors. So the cloister served not as a space for monks to ruminate on the daily teachings, but instead as a place for even more donor chapels. Another 20-30 side chapels ring the cloister. One of these spaces is now a tiny museum of three rooms with some altar pieces. And tucked into a corner of the cloister is a fountain topped by a small statue of St. Jordi (i.e., George) slaying the dragon. St. Jordi is one of Catalonia's patron saints, just as he is of England.

St. Jordi slaying a supine dragon.
Drinking from the fountain.
In our travels, we haven't encountered any other cathedrals with animals kept as pets (or guards). Compared to the generic interior of the cathedral, the cloister is a much more interesting and unique spot for visitors. If you were visiting Barcelona and pressed for time, I'd advise you to skip the cathedral altogether and just visit the cloister.

The calm before the honk.

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