A predominately Catholic country, Spain has a rich wealth of sacred spaces- architectural havens for contemplative prayer, and solace. My recent visit to Spain included experiencing some of its impressive religious heritage.
1 Catalonian Church Art, Museu Nacional D’Art Catalunya, Barcelona
This beautiful building houses a number of important collections. I am here to view the only one of its kind in the world- the collection of Romanesque church art. The 11th,12th and13th century collections includes nine metre high domed fresco ceilings- magnificently preserved, beautiful carved wooden sculptures of the blessed Virgin, Christ on the Cross, baby Jesus, apostles and saints. The many stone sculptures, altars and artefacts all originate from old Romanesque churches of the Pyrenees.
2 Holy Basilica and Cathedral of Barcelona
An outstanding example of Catalan gothic architecture, it is right in the heart of the gothic precinct of the city, and is described as ‘a meeting place between God and men’. It is a beautiful and serene place to visit in the heat of the day. It is so very old, dating from 1298 and completed in 1450.
A working cathedral, it is the seat of the Cardinal–Archbishop of Barcelona, and an important place of prayer. In the map-guide for the cathedral, visitors are asked to pray for world peace, for the civilisation of love, for the unity of Christians, our needs, and for those in spiritual and material need, however humble our prayer. It was really moving to be asked to be prayerful, in a house led by a Cardinal-Archbishop of the Catholic church.
3 Seville Cathedral
An enormous Gothic architectural building, sacred space, and UNESCO world heritage site, Seville Cathedral is known as the most extensive gothic cathedral in the world. It provides a quiet, peaceful sanctuary in the heart of old Sevilla. It is gothic architecture in its most elaborate form. We soak up the extensive and impressive collection of sculptures fonts, altars, sanctuaries, and paintings under the one roof...and to experience a deeply religious space. One cannot be more at peace than when one leaves this hallowed sacred ground, loved by so many Spaniards.
Known as the world’s third largest church in Europe, and the largest gothic cathedral anywhere else, it is also home of the tomb of the great explorer, Christopher Columbus. We climb the ancient bell-tower to gain great views over Sevilla, and to appreciate the enormous series of working bells housed at the top.
4 Montserrat Monastery
Closer to heaven than earth is Montserrat Monastery- UNESCO world heritage site and mountain retreat of the Benedictine order, set high up in the mountain range…It is a place of serene solitude, spirituality and beauty. We day trip to this remote place,1230 feet high up in the mountains, just an hours train from Barcelona, and then a short ride by cable car.
Woo-ho…the views from the cable car are breath-taking: this is like arriving on a James Bond movie set! Adrenaline rush subsides and we take a funicular car up even higher up to visit some of the 300 hermitages and sacred sites of the mountain, including the site of Saint Joan and caves, before walking back down on a circuit.
Montserrat is a living monastery of Benedictine monks. Although adherent to vows of poverty, the monks are charged with managing what has become a large pilgrimage destination. There is a choirboy school of 50 exclusive scholarship holders to run, as well as the large Basilica, a hotel for conferences and retreats, and a museum of artefacts. Today the pilgrimage queue has a 3 hour waiting time to visit the black virgin- Mother Mary shrine, so named because of her skin colour. By mid afternoon as we leave the mountain, the temperature has soared to 35 degrees in the town of Montserrat below. On our return home we take an unscheduled siesta on the station bench, waiting an hour to pick up our train back to Barcelona!
5 Sagrida Familia, Barcelona
Antoni Gaudi was known as God's architect, and God's architecture doesn't get much better than this. Sagrida Familia- is the temple of Gaudi's creation, in which ‘everything imitates nature.’ This is the last great Cathedral under construction in the world, and a UNESCO world heritage site. When it first came into my view I wondered at its immense scale in the cityscape. The building is such an impressive and a powerful site from the outside, but inside... raising my gaze upwards in this sacred space was like contemplating eternity.
Unlike its gothic counterparts, Gaudi designed this internal space to be light and airy, with its symphony of arched parabolic (u shaped) or hyperbolic (elliptical) structures reaching upwards, like a forest towards heaven. In the central nave section, four huge porphyry columns rise up to the roof like large tree trunks, made of brown clay, grey granite and dark grey basalt. Kiln fired brick detailed tiles line the interior at the top.
A glorious array of stained glass – a symphony of coloured light, is dappled and shimmers like a rainforest canopy. We walk over cool floors of porphyry flagstones, and parquetry. On the exterior of the building, there is a mesmerising maze of gargoyles, frogs, snakes, lizards. I don't know where to look first! On each façade are sculptures, such as the crucified Christ and the nativity scenes. Completed post humorously, these exterior sculptures do not carry the same signature style of the earlier Gaudi work inside. The amazing Sagrida Familia is a work in progress, due to be finished, somewhat optimistically, in twenty years time. I think I'll be back then for a visit.
However, one doesn’t necessarily have to travel to visit Spain to visit a sacred space, to rekindle our spiritual selves. My mother used to speak of this old Gaelic saying as I was growing up:
If we move beyond God's architecture, to amble along a garden path, trek high in the mountains, or along a wild beach; we are at one with nature- in harmony with it, and it is then that we are most in tune with our spiritual selves, more than any other time of our daily life.