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Spanish Gothic Cathedrals are treasure houses of Christian craftsmanship, and form the chief museums of Spain. Generally the churches are comparatively short in height, but rather wide. Chapels are numerous and large. Choirs are usually large, located west of the crossing, and sometimes form a church within a church. Sometimes, as in Seville, the local Parish church (parroquia) is included within the cathedral design.

Moorish influence can be felt in the octagonal vaults over the crossings of nave and transepts as well as in chapels. Design intricacies can also be attributed to Moorish influence.

Walls of Spanish churches are heavier, with less openings than in France. Arcades are very common, Spain having a rather warm climate, and so the need for shade provided by those arcades. There was an early use of pointed arches, resulting from earlier Moorish influences, and not structurally significant as in the Gothic period. Originally, French influence in design was strong, with large windows a major item; however, the windows were often blocked up because there was just too much sunlight.

We need to learn a few words of Spanish design. First, “retablo” refers to a ledge or shelf behind the altar. Second, the “reredos” often resulted from an expansion in design – quite intricately carved – of the retablo. Both items were often created in wood, finely carved, and seemingly oiled on a daily basis, their sheen giving them a golden hue. Third, we have the “reja,” or iron grille, often placed around the choir. Since choirs were usually placed in the middle of the nave, there was a need to create their enclosure in some see-through manner, and a grille answered that need.


This is La Mancha country. The city lies in the center of Spain, just south of Madrid. Perched on a granite hill, it was protected on three sides by deep gorges formed by the Río Tajo. The past tense was used because the gorges did protect the city until modern warfare overcame that protection. At the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 the city’s fortress, the Alcázar, was chosen as a defensive site against the Republicans – the anti-Franco forces. Prior to the more recent “unpleasantries,” the city was noted for the fact that Moors, Jews, and Christians not only lived here together in the age of al-Andalus (modern-day Andalusia, but the name given to Iberian territory occupied by Muslims between 711 and 1492), but prospered, and developed serious cultural and intellectual achievements. There is some dispute among scholars as to the “equality” granted non-Muslims, but that can be the subject of research. What is not disputed is the fact that during periods of violence against non-Muslims, many Jews as well as Muslim scholars retreated to Toledo, which had been reconquered by Christian forces in 1085.

The illustration shows the Alcázar on the right, and the taller of the two western towers of the Cathedral on the left. The hill on which I am standing was undoubtedly used for artillery shelling of the Alcazar. The word, by the way, stems from the Arabic al-qasr, meaning “castle” or “fortress.” Alcazars are all over Spain. The site is of Franco's Nationalists, who held out against an almost savage siege by the Republican forces. The Alcazar de Toledo was originally built by Charles V. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936 the citiy's military garrison was overrun and General Moscardo and his soldiers retreated to the Alcazar.

This is an original artillery piece, on display in the late 1960s, but removed about the time of Franco's death. I am personally not certain if it was used by the defending forces or the attackers. That's your Professor examining the ordnance in 1969.

Artillery shells from cliff tops above the gorges nearly destroyed the Alcázar, and defenders were forced to resort to all sorts of ingenious methods of survival. Stories are told that elaborate door fixtures were pulled from the doors, filled with gunpowder, and used as grenades. Lasting three months, the siege virtually destroyed the Alcazar, forcing its defenders into basement rooms - only the office of the General remained intact, but shredded. Survivors were holed up in the basement of the structure, awaiting death, when Franco and his army arrived.

The building was completely rebuilt, except for a command room, which was salvaged and stands as a reminder of the onslaught, its walls filled with bullet holes.

The building was originally begun in 1181, with seemingly almost total reconstruction in the 16th century, prior to its more recent “renovation.” What we see is basically Renaissance, and will be discussed in greater detail in our second semester.

The main courtyard within the Alcázar. Not to confuse you, but you will notice that semi-circular arches were back in style. This was the Renaissance, when a return to original Roman character permeated all design. The arches were especially graceful in Spain.

Originally the city was the capital of an Iberian tribe, the Carpetani. It was captured by who else, but the Romans in 192 B.C.E., and given the name Toletum. Visigoths came in 534 A.D., and again in 712. Moors occupied the area from 712 until 1085. The Kings of Castile resided here from 1087 until the middle of the 16th century, when Philip II transferred the area to the Royal Court of Spain. We shall leave further study of the Alcázar for the second semester – it is basically Spanish Renaissance.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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