Some of architecture’s most stunning successes can be found in religious buildings. The eternal repetition of the forest of pink and white marble pillars in Cordoba’s La Mesquita is one of the most enthralling sights of the ancient Islamic world, while at the centre of the Catholic world, the sheer scale and magnificence of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican makes it clear to all who come close that this place is the all powerful centre of Christianity. In Roman times, religion was the instigator of some of the most brilliant of all architectural creations, such as the ground-breaking single expanse dome of the ancient Pantheon temple in Rome, while in more modern times, it has inspired some of the most jaw-dropping creations ever made by man, such as the stunning realisation of a creative genius: Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
Nevertheless, when you think about the religious treasures of the world, you will find that proportionately few of them are gothic. The reason for this is clear: the gothic style is largely synonymous with austerity, with its soaring naves and high-winged buttresses leading to vast expanses of cold space; gothic churches are more often places of fear, with their grim faced gargoyles and sinister dark angels, and even Paris’s Notre Dame, surely one of the most famous examples of gothic architecture, is better associated with the haunting tale of a hunchback living within the cathedral’s inhospitable bell towers than with any illusion that the church is in any aesthetic sense a thing of beauty. Yet while this idea of the gothic has long lingered in my mind, all of my pre-held conceptions about gothic architecture were challenged last weekend when in Palma de Mallorca, capital of Spain’s Balearic Islands, I realised just how stunning the gothic can be.
La Seu’s imposing gothic exterior
Palma’s Cathedral, known locally as La Seu, is indeed a masterpiece of the catholic gothic style. Completed in 1601, it is a soaring vast temple to christianity, with a dominant position over the waterfront of Palma, and comprising the 7th highest nave in the world. But what makes this palace of gothic architecture different from all of the other churches of the genre, enabling it to dispel the associations of dark, dank solemnity which is inherent in the gothic style, is colour. Pure, dazzling, multi-coloured samplings from every stretch of the rainbow. For in Palma’s Cathedral, there is not a single clear pane of glass. Rather, its many windows are fitted with coloured stained glass so rich in its vivacity and complexity, that when the sun shines on the outside of the cathedral (which it invariably does in Mallorca), the result on the inside is to fill every gothic stone and structure, ever eave and buttress, every flag stone and pew with the most dazzling multi-coloured light.
The effect is astounding, and dispels every known stereotype about gothic architecture, which is utterly transformed under the warming dazzle of a hundred shades of multi-coloured light. At times, when you are looking directly into the light as it shines through one of the cathedral’s impressive stained glass windows, a moment of epiphany overcomes you, as everywhere you look you see shards of colour bouncing across the vast space. If that was the intention of the architects, it is an objective universally achieved, so that you leave the cathedral if not religiously converted then certainly spiritually touched.
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