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  • Writer's pictureSonia Cuesta Maniar, PhD

A Brief History of Santa María del Mar in Barcelona

What is Santa María del Mar?

Basilica of Santa María del Mar is an imposing 14th-century church, built by local parishioners, that exemplifies Catalan Gothic architecture.

Santa María del Ma

Santa María del Mar History

In the heart of Barcelona's La Ribera neighbourhood stands an emblem of Catalan Gothic art, built with the toil of the area’s citizens. Today, it’s one of Barcelona’s most popular churches, and two small iron figurines on the basilica's main door tell the story of its roots. The figures represent the bastaixos, the humble porters who carried the stones that would shape the Basílica de Santa María del Mar.

The church, designed by Berenguer de Montagut and Ramon Despuig, is one of the most iconic examples of Catalan Gothic architecture. Its façade, framed by two octagonal towers, presides over an austere, imposing space devoid of lavish ornamentation. The building's interior is structured in three naves (the areas intended to accommodate the congregation) of similar height with numerous chapels, but with an almost total absence of visual obstacles. The result is a unitary, light and airy space. Eight columns delimit the high altar and separate it from the ambulatory, which continues behind it. Despite all this restraint and austerity, one of the most notable elements of the church is the wonderful stained glass present throughout the building that was added from the 15th to the 18th centuries.

Santa María del Mar is not the first church on the site. It’s preceded by Santa María de les Arenes (or Saint Mary of the Sands), which was said to have housed the remains of the martyr Saint Eulalia, Barcelona's co-patron saint; she suffered a series of horrible tortures and was martyred for refusing to make sacrifices to the Roman gods. The small church got its name from the city’s sandy shoreline on which it was built, however over time it became separated from the sands of the coast. Instead, it became known as Santa María del Mar (or Saint Mary of the Sea) since all those who made their living from the sea worshipped here.

During the 14th century, the Crown of Aragon, which governed Barcelona at the time, experienced a period of social stability and economic prosperity. In Barcelona this fuelled a sharp increase in the population, which began to expand beyond the city walls into new areas. Vilanova del Mar - today's neighbourhood of La Ribera - was one of these new outposts. Given its proximity to one of the central Mediterranean ports, the area became a thriving hub of maritime trade.

The residents of Vilanova del Mar felt alienated from the Barcelona Cathedral, as it was very closely associated with the noble elites. To resolve this, Vilanova del Mar's inhabitants appealed to the diocese for a church of their own in their neighbourhood. The ecclesiastical authorities soon approved the project and the great families of the community contributed financially to its construction. Yet it was the inhabitants themselves, together with the shipowners, merchants and workers, who acted as labourers in the construction of the basilica. The most challenging work fell on the port dockers, the bastaixos, who carried the heavy blocks of stone on their backs from the quarries of Montjuïc to La Ribera.

In 1329, construction began on one of the most remarkable temples of Catalan Gothic architecture; the last stone was laid over 50 years later. In the meantime, the same port that had brought prosperity to the neighbourhood would also serve as the unwitting gateway to one of the deadliest calamities to visit medieval Europe: the Black Death. But the terrible plague (which killed between 30 and 50% of the European population) would by no means prove the last calamity to be endured or witnessed by the church. Its walls have been the victim of earthquakes, attacks during the Spanish Civil War, and multiple fires. However, after seven centuries and several restorations, the slender octagonal towers of the main façade continue to offer a welcoming sight to visitors.

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