Since it’s at the top of the Barcelona tourist’s ticklist, most people assume that the Sagrada Familia is the city’s cathedral yet clearly this would be absurd. Barcelona’s history reaches back for two millennia. The Sagrada, still unfinished, has been a feature of the city for only a fraction of this.
Local legend tells the tale of a young girl, Eulalia, martyred by the Romans in the early 4th Century for refusing to recant her Christian faith. Given that her short life seems to have overlapped with the rein of the Emperor Diocletian her fate is quite plausible. Many external religions were assimilated into the Roman pantheon. In Bath the goddess of the thermal springs was Sulis, who was upgraded to Sulis Minerva by the Romans, thereby ensuring that any sacrifices and offerings were made to a deity who would favour Rome and prolong the empire’s dominance. Christians were different and eschewed sacrifice so they were seen as a threat that could dilute the power of the official religions.
Which is why a 13-year-old virgin who stubbornly refused to bend to the edicts of the Tetrarchs was subject to a range of tortures (one for each year of her life) that culminated in her decapitation. That number 13 is commemorated in an unusual way (see below), making the cathedral an unattractive place for triskaedekaphobics! Her body lies in the crypt beneath the altar of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia, the true seat of Barcelona’s archbishop. Construction of the church began in the thirteenth century, though most of the work was undertaken in the 14th.
I say most of the work, for although it was built concurrently with the rise of the Gothic style of architecture, the Catalan tradition was for plainer, featureless exteriors. Internally it works though here you will also find a Gothic masterpiece; the choir stalls. These intricately carved benches scream for attention with their multicoloured decoration. They bear the coats of arms of the knights who made up the Catholic order of chivalry known as The Order of the Golden Fleece.
I wish I’d known more about the cathedral prior to my visit, for I would then have allowed more time to explore and include the cloister that is home to a group of 13 white geese, the Chapel of Lepanto (though I was then more ignorant of this historic naval battle), and the fountain where a strange ritual called the “Dancing Egg” takes place each year at the feast of Corpus Christi. The process, which involves “balancing” an egg atop a jet of water is now undertaken at fountains around the region, but is thought to have begun in the cathedral centuries ago. There’s a little trickery involved; to give the egg the necessary stability its contents are blown out and the hole plugged with wax thus changing the centre of gravity.
Fittingly the illusion has parallels with the building where it originated.
Barcelona’s cathedral is at the heart of the city’s Gothic Quarter, and it’s quite the centrepiece, for that plain building now wears a different skin. Just as work was beginning on the construction of the Sagrada in the late 19th century, so a new façade was built over the cathedral exterior, at a time when the Neo-Gothic style had fully matured.
It fits right in.