Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar, Barcelona Cathedral of the Sea
SECRETS OF THE CHURCH OF SANTA MARIA DEL MAR IN BARCELONA
There are three churches in Barcelona that people call “cathedral”: The Cathedral of Saint Eulalia, the Cathedral of the Poor (Sagrada Familia) and the Cathedral of the Sea (Santa Maria del Mar). But only one of them is officially so.
In order to be a Cathedral, a church must be the headquarters of the Bishopric, and that honor only falls to the Cathedral of Saint Eulalia. The Basilica of the Sagrada Familia started being called “Cathedral of the Poor” (Catedral dels Pobres) because its enormous size and because its construction was paid through humble donations. And because of a painting by the impressionist artist Joaquim Mir called precisely like this.
And the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar was called “Cathedral of the Sea” because its proximity to the port, its large size (for a medieval church) and the novel by Ildefonso Falcones about its construction. And this is the site I want to discuss in today’s post.
Santa Maria del Mar Basilica is one of the most important churches in the Old Town of Barcelona, and a uniquely pure example of Catalan Gothic style. It's architecture is elegant and slim, and its stained glasses make it light and spiritual inside. It's definitely a site not to miss when visiting Barcelona.
Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar History
Origins of the name of the church
The current Basilica was built where used to stand a smaller church documented from 998 and called “Santa Maria de les Arenes” (Our Lady of the Sands). Some recent studies suggest it could have been the previous location of the Roman amphitheater or “Arena”.
That would explain the name of the church. But it could also be a reference to the sands of the nearby beaches. That could also have been the place where the reliques of Saint Eulalia, patron saint of Barcelona, where found in 887.
1005 is the first time we hear it called “Santa Maria del Mar” (Our Lady of the Sea). And little afterwards it becomes the parish church of the district of Vilanova de la Mar.
Construction of the Basilica
But in the meantime, the original Santa Maria del Mar had become too small for a wealthy district of craftsmen and merchants. Eventually, their priest Bernat Llull got permission from the Bishop to build a new church. The only condition is that the Bishopric wouldn’t fund them: they already had enough expenses building the Cathedral!
That’s how Santa Maria del Mar was paid exclusively from donations or the work of the local middle class. And also of King Alphonse the Benign, who laid its foundational stone in 1329. He expressed like this his gratitude to the Virgin Mary for the help during the war of conquest of Sardinia.
Berenguer de Montagut and Ramon Despuig were the master builders that designed and co-directed the works, according to the contract that is still preserved.
The enthusiasm of the neighborhood, with its guilds so committed to it, allowed for a rapid construction. It wasn’t even much delayed by a destructive fire that took place in 1378. So in 1383 the last keystone is set to hold the last vault. And the first mass takes place in August 15th, 1384.
It had been only 54 years of construction works: a ground breaking record considering most cathedrals took centuries to be finished. And that allowed for something quite unique too: Santa Maria del Mar was started and finished in Gothic style. Its architecture is pure and has no interference of other later trends.
Other important moments in the history of Santa Maria del Mar
- 1428. A violent earthquake makes the rose window fall down, killing some thirty people. The new one wasn’t finished until 1460.
- 1496. The first belltower is crowned. The other was already used as a clock tower since 1674, but wouldn’t be completed until 1902.
- 1771. Construction of the Baroque altar and the presbiterium.
- 1832-34. Construction of the Chapel of the Most Holy.
- 1923. Pope Pius XI declares Santa Maria del Mar a Basilica.
- 1936. A fire burning for 11 days destroys all the interior decoration during the Spanish Civil War.
- Between 1967 and the 1990’s. Campaigns of restauration of the church.
Art and architecture of Santa Maria del Mar Church
Main Façade (on Plaça de Santa Maria)
- Porters high relieves. The porters (in Catalan, bastaixos) were the poorest guild of the district and they chose to contribute to the construction of the Church by working for free. They brought the stone blocks from the quarries in Montjuic, earning the right to be represented at the gate of the church.
- Sculptures. In each side stand Saint Peter and Saint Paul, heads of the Catholic Church. On top of the gate seats Jesus showing the stigmas on his hands. He is flanked by the Virgin Mary and Saint John Evangelist.
- Fresco. If you pay attention you’ll notice the wall behind Jesus is painted in faint colors. It’s a fresco found during the restoration works in 1999 and it represents the resurrection of the souls during the Apocalypse. The head of a reptilian monster can be seen in the right hand corner.
Eastern Façade (on Santa Maria st.)
- Upper part. The opening of the Fossar de les Moreres, the old parish cemetery, allows you to look up and appreciate the top of the church buttresses as well as the gargoyles.
- Inscriptions. To each side of the gate you can see medieval inscriptions celebrating the layout of the foundational stone by King Alphonse the Benign and the Conquest of Sardinia. One is in Latin and the other in Catalan.
Western Façade (on Sombrerers st.)
- Austerity. The narrow alley where this side of the church faces reinforces the idea of austere horizontality, only broken by the tall and thin windows in the upper level.
- Gate. This church gate, that is rarely open, is topped with a sculpture of the Virgin Mary with the Child. You’ll be able to admire its details better by stepping a bit down Mirallers street. There’s also some frescos in the background, representing angels playing instruments.
Apse (on Passeig del Born)
- Adjacent buildings. The apse of Santa Maria del Mar is partially covered by two buildings: the rector house (now an apartment building) and the Chapel of the Most Holy, added in 1834.
- Gate. This gate is the back entrance to the Basilica, and it was open in the 1540’s. The sculpture of the Virgin Mary that presides it is much more recent, though: it’s the work of artist Frederic Marès after 1939.
- Side chapels. In the Middle Ages, in Catalonia it was common to reuse the space between buttresses inside the church for side chapels. In Santa Maria del Mar the space between two buttresses was wide enough to divide it in three chapels each. Unfortunately, the original decoration was destroyed in the Spanish Civil War fire. The only pieces that survived are two images of Jesus Christ (1), in chapels near the Altar.
- Stained glass windows. The oldest fragments date from the 1300’s, but they kept in the museum of the church. One of the oldest pieces is the stained glass of the Last Judgment (2), from 1494. Other personal favorites are the Fountain of Live Water (3), the Cypress Tree and the Moon (4), the Palm Tree and the Sun (5), and the Eucharist (6).
- Sports and Santa Maria del Mar (7). There’s one very contemporary stained glass added in the occasion of the Barcelona 1992 Olympics. It has the names of medal winners and sport celebrities engraved on it in tiny letters. Then the window on top was one of the many damaged during the Civil War fire. In the 1960’s the FC Barcelona team decided to pay for its restoration, and the stained glass maker put the team coat of arms at the bottom of the window.
- Rose Window (8). Done in 1459 in flamboyant gothic, it represents the Coronation of Mary as Queen of the Heavens. She is surrounded by the four Gospels, the Apostles, angels, saints and bishops. However, it vibrant colors and shine make difficult to appreciate the small characters that look more like little flames from the distance.
- Saint Ignatius of Loyola (9). The founder of the Jesuits spent some time in Barcelona on his way to Holy Land. And he used to seat in Santa Maria del Mar to beg charity while attending mass. Nowadays there’s a chapel dedicated to him, with a small plate indicating the steps where he used to seat and a sculpture of the saint inaugurated in 2016.
Santa Maria del Mar Worship and Visit information
Free access to ground level
Monday thru Saturday: 10AM-1.30PM and 5PM-8.30PM.
Friday thru Sunday and holidays: 10AM-8.30PM.
Paid entrace to ground level, crypt, tribunes and rooftop
Monday thru Saturday: 9AM-1.30PM and 5PM-8.30PM.
Friday thru Sunday and holidays: 10AM-2PM and 5PM-8.30PM.
Catholic Mass Times
Monday thru Saturday at 7.30PM (in Catalan)
Sunday at 12 noon (International mass) and at 7.30PM (in Spanish)
- Only the ground level is accessible to wheelchairs. the Access to the tribunes, the crypt and the rooftop involves flights of stairs.
- Kids under 8 years old are not admitted to the rooftop. Minors between 8 and 18 years old must be scorted by an adult.
- The itinerary of the visit can be altered due to mass and other events taking place in the basilica.
- The access to the rooftop may close due to bad weather conditions.
To join one of the group guided tours organized by the church, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Plus our Walking Tour of the Gothic Quarter Barcelona also takes you there. We can even customize a private tour of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar just for you, or a tour based on the Cathedral of the Sea Book and TV show locations. Ask us!
The Cathedral of the Sea
The Cathedral of de Sea (La Catedral del Mar) is the opera prima of the Spanish writer Ildefonso Falcones. It was published in 2006 and quickly became a best-seller. It was translated to English in 2008. In 2018 Netflix released a TV series based on it.
The book tells the story of Arnau Estanyol, born a serf of a feudal lord that arrives to Barcelona as a young kid when his father runs away from his lord. They eventually achieve freedom and become free citizens. Arnau starts then a new live involved in the construction works of Santa Maria del Mar. First a stone porter, he’ll climb the society ladder little by little.
While The Cathedral of the Sea is not a true story and most of the characters are made up, the narration is very well researched. Some characters are inspired in real people that appear in the city records and history books. And the institutions, traditions, customs and historical events are described quite accurately in the book.
The TV series is a Spanish production of 8 episodes. Both the book and the TV show were followed by a sequel called Heirs to the Land.
The surroundings of the Santa Maria del Mar Basilica
The church of Santa Maria del Mar is located in the district of El Born, also known as La Ribera. It’s a great area to explore, full of history, museums, lovely cafés and restaurants, and fun shops. Here are some posts that will help come useful organizing your visit to the area:
Will you be visiting the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar soon?
Marta is the founder of ForeverBarcelona. She is a passionate tour guide that loves Barcelona and loves writing too. She is the main author of our Blog, and is committed to sharing her knowledge about Barcelona and her best tips with our readers.
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