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Finding the Art in Architecture

Cathedral of Toledo
Photo by Emma Hebertson

A country known for its art, Spain houses some of the world’s greatest masterpieces in its famous museums—the Prado, the Rein
a Sofia, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. But arguably, the biggest works of art do not lie inside the walls nor even outside the walls . . . they are the walls.

Preserved in the walls of each building are stories of clashes of culture and reconciliations of religion, of ballads of battles and poems of peace.

Aqueduct of Segovia
Photo by Emma Hebertson


Perhaps the oldest architectural structure still standing on the Iberian Peninsula is the aqueduct of Segovia. Built by the Romans around the first century AD, it is one of the greatest works of Roman engineering—so much so that it was still in use during the 20th century.

In the fifth century AD, the Roman empire started to crumble, and the Visigoths replaced the Romans in Iberia. Their pre-romanesque building style was simple. The Visigoths weren’t around for long, though, before the Islamic Empire entered the scene.

Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba
Photo by Emma Hebertson


The Moors lasted the longest in the southern region of Spain: Andalusia. In Cordoba, the capital of Muslim Spain, stands a famous mosque built between 784 AD and 987 AD, when the Islamic Empire was at its strongest. After the city was recaptured by the Christians two-anda-half centuries later, parts of it were added to and altered. Standing today is Cordoba’s famous “Mosque-Cathedral” that boasts both red-and-white horseshoe arches and a gold-encrusted mihrab of the Muslims and the vaulted ceilings and intricate chapels of the Christians.

Close by, Seville is home to the Royal Alcazar (the oldest Spanish palace still in use). The Alcazar was originally built by Muslim rulers in the tenth century, but it later became home to Christian monarchs, who updated the palace in several styles up until the 19th century. It features impressive Islamic multifoil arches and traditional plasterwork, as well as Gothic rib vaults and Renaissance friezes.

Just a thirty second walk from the Alcazar stands the largest Gothic-style cathedral in the world: the Cathedral of Seville. Also originally a mosque, this cathedral is an impressive piece of art that displays a famous minaretturned-bell tower, the Giralda, as well as the flying buttresses and stained glass windows that the Gothic style is known for.

The last Moorish city to fall to the invading Christians, Granada, is also home to the most impressive example of Islamic architecture in Europe. The Alhambra fortress, built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, that towers above Granada. It features several palaces decorated with geometric Arabesque carvings, colorful tile mosaics, and honeycomb-like stalactite arches. These are features of the Mudejar style, a type of Spanish architecture that combines Islamic and Gothic Christian styles.

Generalife by the Alhambra
Photo by Emma Hebertson


In central Spain, we find the country’s magnum opus of High Gothic architecture: the Cathedral of Toledo. It displays all of the classic Gothic elements, including pointed arches and rose windows. Closely following the Gothic period is the first, transitional stage of the Spanish Renaissance. The Gothic-inspired Plateresque is a richly ornate style that resembled the work of silversmiths at the time. It is exemplified by San Juan de los Reyes, a monastery and chapel originally built to be the final resting place of Isabel and Ferdinand. The the monastery and the Cathedral of Toledo were fitting for Toledo, Spain’s capital, up until the sixteenth century, when the capital was moved to Madrid.

Royal Palace of Madrid
Photo by Emma Hebertson


Because of this timely move, Madrid and its surrounding towns house prime examples of Spanish architecture from the Renaissance onward. The second phase of the Spanish Renaissance brought in classical elements as an influence of the Italian Renaissance. But because of the Counter-Reformation occurring in severely Catholic Spain, the Spanish Renaissance architectural style was quite austere and minimalistic in comparison to other European countries. This is especially apparent in the third phase of the Renaissance: the Herrerian style of, for example, El Escorial.

Architectural flourish, however, came back in full force during the Baroque period. The Royal Palace of Madrid features these Baroque elements in both the exterior and interior, apparent in its vaulted dome and rows of pillars on the outside and ornamental decoration and frescoes on the inside.

Spain’s capital also boasts a number of examples of Neoclassical architecture. The famous Plaza de Cibeles is a square in Madrid’s city center, featuring the Baroquestyle Cybele Palace (now serving as the city hall) and the Neoclassical statue of Cybele. Just down the street is Spain’s largest and most well-known art museum, the Prado, also built in the Neoclassical style.

Park Guell in Barcelona
Photo by Emma Hebertson


The last great architectural movement in Spain was Modernisme, a version of Art Nouveau, led by Spain’s most famous architect in Barcelona. Antoni Gaudi is most known for his design of Barcelona’s cathedral Sagrada Familia and Park Güell, the latter of which is now a touristic emblem of the city. Characterized by freedom of form and variety of color and texture, Gaudi’s Modernism is highly recognizable, especially in the inside structure of la Sagrada Familia.

Spain built its soul into works of art that will stand for centuries so that the future will never be able to shake its past. Next time you find yourself in Spain, remember that the greatest works of art aren’t always found in museums—you can find the art in architecture.

—Emma Hebertson