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  • Writer's pictureSonia Cuesta Maniar, PhD

A Brief History of Catedral de Barcelona

What is Catedral de Barcelona?

The Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia, also known as La Catedral, Catedral de Barcelona, Barcelona Cathedral or Cathedral of Barcelona, is a richly decorated medieval cathedral built on the foundations of a 4th-century church, and dedicated to Barcelona’s co-patron saint, Eulalia.

Catedral de Barcelona exterior

Barcelona Cathedral History

La Catedral (also known as La Seu) has been a site for religious ceremony for almost the whole duration of Barcelona’s existence. Erected on the foundations of a 4th-century church, La Seu has undergone many architectural changes to realise its present form. Nestled within the Gothic Quarter, it has modestly overseen the rise and fall of multiple civilisations. The cathedral remains a place of rich atmosphere and historical legacy.

La Seu is dedicated to Barcelona’s co-patron saint, Saint Eulalia. Her story dates back to the early 4th century, when the Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered the intensified persecution of Christians. An outraged 13-year-old Eulalia confronted Dacian, then governor of Barcelona, about his merciless persecution of people for their faith. Dacian, unable to dismiss her eloquent appeals, sentenced her to 13 different tortures (one for each year of her young life), followed by crucifixion. Eulalia's tragic story defined early Catholicism in Barcelona and is intertwined with the history of the cathedral itself.

Catedral de Barcelona interior

20th-century excavations along the cathedral's eastern wall exposed remains of a 4th-century church featuring white marble columns. From that time onward, this primitive church housed Eulalia's relics until 985, when Muslim leader Al-Mansur, ransacked Barcelona and burnt and destroyed the cathedral. Construction on the Gothic cathedral as we know it today began in 1298; the project would only finish 150 years later. Completed in 1460, the cathedral consists of three naves (the areas intended for the congregation), a colossal organ, and 28 interior chapels. Saint Eulalia's remains, which the people of Barcelona hid in the early 8th century to protect them from the Muslim forces who had invaded the Iberian peninsula, were eventually returned to the cathedral crypt in the 14th century. Her alabaster sarcophagus, located below the main altar, remains one of the cathedral's most beloved features.

Arguably, however, the cathedral's most stunning section is the 14th-century cloister. Catalan historian Alexandre Cirici i Pellicer called it ‘the loveliest oasis in Barcelona’. In tombs beneath the stone floor's well-worn slabs rest prominent members of the Gothic Quarter's ancient guilds. Above them, vaulted galleries overlook a lush garden filled with orange, medlar, palm trees, and a central pond. Unusually, the cloister is also home to a gaggle of 13 white geese whose ancestors have lived in the cathedral grounds for over five centuries. The 13 birds are said to allude to Eulalia's age when she was martyred.

Catedral de Barcelona gaggle of geese

Another notable feature of the cathedral is the ‘Christ of Lepanto’ chapel. The room contains a crucifix from a ship used at the Battle of Lepanto against the Ottoman Empire in 1571. (Spain was fighting with the Holy League, an alliance of Catholic states, giving aid to the Venetian Empire). According to tradition, during the battle, Christ’s torso miraculously shifted to the right, preventing the cross from being hit by a cannonball. Soldiers attributed the event to a miracle from God, a divine token that the Ottomans could and would be defeated.

Like the city itself, La Seu has been under constant development; the construction of the neo-Gothic façade we see today was only completed in 1890. As a result, Barcelona's cathedral preserves a stunning array of architectural styles and eight centuries of stories. Despite its convoluted architectural history and dark past, today, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia endures as a haven of peace – and a sanctuary for a surprising amount of natural and animal life – within Barcelona's loud and busy city centre.

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