Spain is home to many sites important to religious pilgrims. One can follow the Way of Saint James on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, participate in religious festivals or visit important monasteries, churches and shrines.
THE CAMINO DE SANTIAGO AND THE CATHEDRAL OF SANTIAGO
The Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) is an ancient pilgrimage route, which dates back to the 9th century. It has linked the city with the rest of Europe ever since. Every year many thousands of pilgrims set out on foot, by bike, or even on horseback, with the Cathedral of Santiagoas their destination. Traditionally, it is the burial-place of Saint James, one of the apostles of Jesus. According to legend, Saint James brought Christianity to the Celts in the Iberian Peninsula. In 44 AD, he was beheaded in Jerusalem. His remains were later brought to Spain. However, following Roman persecutions of Spanish Christians, his tomb was abandoned in the 3rd century. Still according to legend, this tomb was rediscovered in 814 AD and gradually developed into a a major place of pilgrimage. Construction of the present cathedral began in 1075 and it was consecrated in 1128. The Portico de la Gloria is the main entrance. In it, the figure of the Apostle St. James, sustained on a column, appears to welcome pilgrims. The crypt of the Apostle St. James is located beneath the main altar.
Madrid, the capital of Spain, is a city with a large cultural and artistic heritage and centuries of history.
Almudena Cathedral was constructed on the site of the old Santa María la Mayor Church to honor the Virgin Mary, patron of Madrid. Building began in 1883 and in 1911 the crypt was opened for worship, but construction was halted until after the Civil War. Even then, the building process was extremely slow. In 1993, the cathedral was consecrated for worship by His Holiness Pope John Paul II. The inside of the church is in Gothic style, although the outside is Classicist.
San Lorenzo de El Escorial Monastery, 45 km northeast of Madrid, is a granite building which takes us back to another time when El Escorial was an important political center. The 16th century monastery was built in honor of Saint Lawrence after he supposedly aided the king to a great victory. Since this time it has gone on to become the resting place of the Spanish nobility as well as a museum housing a unique collection of manuscripts and various famous art pieces. The Shrine of the Virgen de Gracia is located near the monastery of El Escorial. The shrine is located in a small building located within a scenic pine forest in Herrería Park. From there the monarch is said to have supervised the progress of the work on the Monastery of El Escorial.
The Santa Cruz Basilica is located 10 km northeast of El Escorial, northwest of Madrid, at a site known as “Valle de los Caídos” (Valley of the Fallen). It is an impressive funeral monument built between 1940 and 1956 in memory of the victims of the 1936 Civil War. It is made up of a huge stone cross, more than 350 ft. high, and the basilica itself, which is carved out of the rock. The basilica is decorated with mosaics and a crypt dug out of the rock, home to the main altar. There is a funicular that connects the basilica with the base of the cross.
The Royal Monastery of La Encarnación was built in the 17th century. The highlight of the monastery is the reliquary room which includes a container of the blood of St. Pantaleon which returns to its liquid state every year on July 27th.
Avila, a World Heritage Site, is the capital of the Castile-León Region of Spain. Throughout history, Avila was the birthplace of famous Spanish mystics, like St. Teresa and Saint John of the Cross. There are churches and convents scattered around the city. In Plaza de Santa Teresa, there is the convent built in 1636 on top of the house where Saint Teresa was born. The building houses a chapel devoted to the Saint. In the interior there is an orchard where, according to legend, St. Teresa played as a child. Outside the city walls, one can visit the Monastery of Encarnación, where St. Theresa lived for 20 years as a nun and had many of her mystical experiences. Also outside walls of Avila, is a shrine called Los Cuatro Postes ("The Four Posts"). There a cross marks the spot where St. Teresa's uncle stopped her, at age seven, from running off with her brother to battle with the Moors. The site is atop a small hill which also provides views of the town of Avila.
Construction of the Avila Cathedral, begun in 1095, was originally begun in the Romanesque style, but the project was taken over by the master architect Fruchel, who built one of the first Gothic cathedrals in Spain. The cathedral sanctuary is integrated into the city wall, which formed part of the city’s defensive fortifications. It is laid out in the shape of a Latin cross. Most of the cathedral that can be seen today was built between the 12th and 14th centuries. The stained-glass windows date from the 15th century and the choir and the cloister were added later in the 16th century.
The Basilica of St. Vincent, erected in the 12th century, is next to the site where three Saints were martyred during times of the Roman emperor Diocletianus. It contains the tomb of Saint Vincent, sculpted with events of the saint's execution.
Traditionally, the Monastery of Santo Tomás, finished in 1493 during the reign of Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, was the summer residence of the Spanish Royal Family. The group of buildings is dominated by a monumental church. It holds the marble sarcophagus of the Infant Don Juan, son of the monarchs.
Toledo is a Spanish city with a wealth of monuments. It is known as the “city of the three cultures”, because Christians, Arabs and Jews lived together there for centuries. Its great diversity has led to Toledo being declared a World Heritage Site. One of the most outstanding buildings in the city is the Cathedral. Its construction began in 1226, although it was not finished until the 15th century. One of its most impressive features is its main doorway, which is made up of three doors representing hell, forgiveness and judgment. One of the main features inside is the Arfe Processional Monstrance. This is a huge piece of precious metalwork made by Enrique de Arfe between 1517 and 1524. It is decorated with 260 images and made of silver bathed in gold. The Monstrance is used in the Procession of the Most Holy Corpus Christi, Toledo's most important religious festival, celebrated on the feast day of Corpus Christi.
Segovia is a World Heritage City with unique monuments like its well-preserved Roman aqueduct, as well as important religious sites. The Segovia Cathedral is built at the highest point of the town. Construction on it began in the year 1525. It was the last Gothic cathedral built in Spain and was built after a fire in the old Romanesque cathedral in the year 1520. It was consecrated in the year 1768.
The Convent of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns houses the mausoleum of Saint John of the Cross, constructed of bronze and marble, in the chapel on the Gospel side.
Santa Cruz la Real Convent includes a convent, church and St. Dominic's Cave, where the saint withdrew for penance. The most notable feature is the church doorway, which was personally commissioned by Queen Isabella. Her figure sculpted in wood appears praying together with her husband.
San Millán Church is located in the Segovian Moorish quarter, a district of Mozarab artisans. It was built in the 12th century in Romanesque style. It contains interesting Mudejar handicraft, along with a 14th-century Gothic depiction of the crucifixion and some important carvings.
Vera Cruz Church was founded by the Knights Templarin the 13th century. It is an unusual Romanesque church with a floorplan in the shape of a 12-sided polygon. The church, inspired by the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, housed a relic of the True Cross; however, the relic is now kept in a nearby village, and each year on Good Friday, the relic is brought to Vera Cruz Church. One can climb up the tower for great views of the Alcazar in the distance.
The Alcazar of Segovia is a fortress that probably dates back to Roman times, although the first documented record is from the 12th century. It served as a residence for Alfonso VIII and this was the place where the Catholic Isabella was proclaimed Queen of Castile. The building has a number of secret passageways that lead to the river and connect several of the city's palaces together.
Barcelona is the capital of the Catalonia region of Spain. It is home to Barcelona Cathedral (also known as La Seu), the symbol of the Barcelona diocese and an example of Catalan Gothic architecture dating from the 14th century. Santa Maria del Mar is another example of 14th century Catalonian Gothic architecture. It was the temple of the shipowners and merchants. The Sagrada Familia Basilica is a work-in-progress to which Antoni Gaudí dedicated more than 40 years, and after his death in 1926, the project continued according to his original plans and drawings. It is a massive church, and once completed, it will have eighteen towers, its highest reaching 170 meters.
The Monastery of Montserrat is located near the top of a 4,000-foot mountain near Barcelona. The Basilica near the monastery is home to the Black Virgin. The statue of the Virgin, known in Spanish as La Moreneta, is a small statue made of wood. It depicts a Virgin with the child Jesus on her lap. Its varnish has darkened over time.
It is said that an image of the Virgin of Montserrat appeared in a cave in the mountain near Barcelona. A monastery was founded there in 1025, although there is evidence that there was a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary on this site in the year 888. A church was built in the 12th century and in 1223, the first European School for boy singers was established at the church. The Virgin of Montserrat was declared the patron saint of Catalonia by Pope Leon XIII and numerous miracles were associated with the intercession of the Black Virgin of Montserrat. In the year 1500, St. Ignatius of Loyola traveled here on a pilgrimage.
FOOTSTEPS OF ST. IGNATIUS
The basilica in Loyola, Spain was completed in 1738. It is baroque in style, with a circular floor plan and a 65 meter-high dome. A few meters from the Basilica one can visit the old Loyola House-Tower, where Saint Ignatius was born in 1491. The house was renovated in the late 1980s to return it to its original condition.
St. Ignatius intended to make a brief visit to the shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat on his way to the Holy Land in 1522; however, he remained in Manresa, Spain for many months struggling with spiritual growth. The notes he took during his stay there eventually developed into the Spiritual Exercises. The cave where tradition says he used to go to pray is now a shrine. It is contained within the Jesuit retreat house built on the spot.
St. Francis Xavier of Javier, Spain was born in a castle overlooking the valley of Aragón. He was a founding member of the Society of Jesus and devoted much of his life to missions in foreign countries including Mozambique, India and Japan. Located near Sangües and Leyre, the birth place of St. Francis Xavier lies on the traditional pilgrim road to Santiago. The castle and the adjoining church, added after the death of Xavier, have been recently renovated for the five hundredth anniversary of his birth in 1506.
Zaragoza, the capital of the Region of Aragonis located on the banks of the Ebro River, halfway between Madrid and Barcelona. It shows traces of four civilizations: Roman, Muslim, Jewish and Christian. Of particular interest is the Basilica-Cathedral of Our Lady of the Pillar.
According to ancient local tradition, soon after the resurrection of Jesus, Saint James was preaching the Gospel in Spain, but without much success. Tradition holds that while he was deep in prayer, the Virgin Mary appeared to him and gave him a small wooden statue of herself and a column of jasper and instructed him to build a church in her honor. About a year after the apparition, James arranged to build a small chapel in Mary's honor, the first church ever dedicated to the honor of the Virgin Mary. This first chapel was eventually destroyed but the statue and the pillar were protected by the people of Zaragoza. Many churches were built on the site, ending with the one built in 1681, and completed in 1686. In 1725, the building was transformed into its present dimensions with its eleven cupolas and four towers. The area most visited is the eastern part of the chapel because this part houses the venerated image of the Virgin.
THE CATHEDRALS OF CASTILE-LEON
In the Region of Castile-León, in northern, inland Spain, you will find beautiful cathedrals in Gothic style with decorative stained glass windows and pointed arches
Burgos is home to one of the most impressive Gothic cathedrals in the world, with the UNESCO World Heritage designation. It was built over a 500-year period, and visitors will marvel at its main facade, its six-pointed rose window and its slender towers. Legend has it that Napoleon Bonaparte was the last person to come down the cathedral’s 16th-century golden staircase.
In the city of León, you will find another important Gothic cathedral with 737 stained glass windows, including a spectacular rose window. Its choir stalls are some of the oldest in Spain and it holds a famous statue known as the "Virgen Blanca." In addition, its cathedral museum is home to a collection with more than 1,500 items of religious art.
Other cathedrals in the region that combine Gothic with other styles of architecture are important for various reasons. The one in Ávila, described above, is interesting because it is a cathedral-castle in which historic events have taken place. Ones in the following places each has its own special characteristics: El Burgo de Osma with its doorway containing almost 400 sculptures; Palencia, with major works of painting and sculpture; Salamanca with its Baroque dome; Segovia, whose tower is the tallest anywhere in Spain and Astorga, outstanding for its red color and twin towers.
THE CATHEDRALS OF ANDALUSIA
The eleven cathedrals found in the Andalusia region of southern Spain are a good representation of the history of the region. They unite the different cultures that have been part of Southern Spain over the ages.
Situated on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, Seville has a rich Moorish heritage, and used to be a prosperous port that carried out trade with the Americas. The Cathedral of Seville has the UNESCO World Heritage designation, and is Europe's largest Gothic building. It is on the site of the Great Mosque of the 12th century. It was converted into a Christian church when the city was conquered by Ferdinand III of Castile in 1248. The remains of Christopher Columbus lie in the cathedral.
In Cordoba, the combination of Christian and Moorish art comes together to form a unique site in the heart of the old town - the Great Mosque Cathedral. The Moslem emir Abderrahman I ordered construction of the temple in the year 785 on the ruins of the old Church of St. Vincent. During the centuries that followed, the Mosque underwent several changes. The last of the reforms was carried out in 987. As a result of all the work, the interior of the building contains many rows of columns and horseshoe arches. In 1523, following the Christian conquest, the cathedral was built inside. In the midst the of columns, mosaics and Moorish horseshoe arches, you will find the Gothic-Baroque architecture of the Cathedral, with its Renaissance dome, its marble altarpiece and its mahogany choir stalls.
The remaining cathedrals of Andalusia also display varied architectural styles. The Renaissance Cathedral in Jaén (which according to tradition is home to the Holy Veil used by Saint Veronica to clean Christ’s face) is a building that has Gothic and Mudejar elements. It is in the same artistic style as Baeza Cathedral, which is less than 40 minutes away by car. This, along with the other Renaissance buildings in the town, has the UNESCO World Heritage designation. Almería Cathedral, which is built like a fortress, was originally built to defend it against pirates. Granada's Cathedral is considered to be Spain's first Renaissance church. Just 65 kilometers from there, Guadix Cathedral is a blend of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance. As is Malaga Cathedral, located 125 kilometers from Granada. It is commonly known as La Manquita (meaning half-finished), because the main facade and south tower were left incomplete when construction work, which went on for three centuries, was finally halted. A 250 kilometer journey will take you to the Neo-classical Cadiz Cathedral, which is a landmark in this coastal city, with its white walls and golden dome. Meanwhile, half an hour from there, you will find the Baroque architecture of Jerez de la Frontera Cathedral and its Mudejar tower, one of the town's main attractions. Finally, 96 kilometers from Seville, you find the Huelva Cathedral in Colonial style.