St. Mary’s Cathedral of Burgos is the only Spanish cathedral that has earned UNESCO World Heritage accreditation independent of its surroundings.
When you travel north through Castile’s dry flatlands on Spain’s National highway 1, a striking image stands out in the distance; a massive structure that rises above a city silhouette and boldly displays lofty tower spires pointing up toward the skies. This is Burgos Cathedral.
Its full name is the Catedral de Santa María de Burgos (St. Mary’s Cathedral of Burgos), and it is the only Spanish cathedral that has earned UNESCO World Heritage accreditation independent of its surroundings. The cathedrals of Salamanca, Santiago de Compostela, Ávila, Córdoba, Toledo and Cuenca are all World Heritage Sites, but they are recognized together with the historic districts they are located in.
Burgos Cathedral features a rich variety of architectural styles, which range from 13th century to 17th century gothic and include restoration works carried out in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The cathedral’s first stone was placed in 1221 under the direction of Maestro Enrique, a Frenchman who would go on to head the construction of the Leon Cathedral. Enrique drew inspiration from the Reims Cathedral for the Burgos Cathedral, which was consecrated in 1260, a time when the headpiece, the transept, and the naves were nearly complete.
Works on the side chapels continued until the early 14th century, a time when a new cloister was built.
German inspired tower spires were added to the main façade in the 15th century as were the dome and the Condastable Chapel. The dome was destroyed in a storm and rebuilt in the 16th century. In the 18th century, construction finally concluded with the erection of the Chapel of St. Thecla.
Outside of the cathedral, the western façade (accessed by St. Mary’s Square [la Plaza de Santa María]) is clearly inspired by the cathedrals of both Reims and Paris. The Puerta del Perdón (door of forgiveness), is considered the best representation of gothic sculpture in Castile. The Puerta Sacramental (the sacramental door), better known as the Sarmental, on the southern façade, through which visitors today enter the temple, dates back to the 13th century and exhibits clear influences from Amiens Cathedral. The Puerta de la Coronería faces north to Fernán González street, a few meters above the level of the base of the nave. Inside sits the Escalera Dorada (golden staircase) of Diego de Siloé. This door is closed off.
The cathedral’s interior offers a number of artistic attractions that may prolong the interested observer’s visit by several hours.
To the right of the visitor’s entrance on the southern façade is the uniquely beautiful cloister. The clock is on the main nave about 10 meters above the ground, where bells have been struck on the hour since the 18th century by the famous automated figure known as Papamoscas. To his right is another animated figure (Martinillo) in charge of striking the bells on the quarter of the hour.
The Capilla Mayor (main chapel), dominated by the 16th century alter piece by brothers Rodrigo y Martín de la Haya, is an example of gothic-flamenco style. The impressively large, plateresque-style choir stalls are carved in walnut.
The tomb of El Cid and his wife doña Jimena have been located in the transept since 1921, after it was moved from the Monestary of San Pedro de Cardeña.
The magnificent Escalera Dorada (golden staircase) de Diego de Siloé is on the north side, designed in a renaissance style with Italian influences. Although the stair case has no practical use today, as the Puerta de la Coronería is closed off, it is still a magnificent decorative element. The designer of the stair case in the Paris opera, Charles Garnier, drew inspiration from Escalera Dorada for his Parisian creation.
Finally, the Condestable Chapel, with its impressive marble reliquary by Carrara, the altar pieces by Gil and Diego de Siloé and Felipe Bigarny and the magnificent paintings of Mary Magdalene and the Crucifixion by an apprentice of Leonardo da Vinci, is a treasure trove of splendors protected by a spectacular gate of bars that is considered a masterpiece in itself.
After this overwhelming show of historical arts, the visitor still has 16 chapels, the sacristy, and the chapter house to see.
Taking a break in the Plaza del Rey San Fernando, which is located next to the cathedral and back dropped by the massive structure towering into the sky, is an ideal way to cap off your tour of the cathedral. Here you can enjoy tapas and a glass of wine at any of the bars and restaurants around the square, as you consider all the historic architecture and artistry you have just beheld.