On the road to Spain – cathedral, churches, and monasteries in Burgos

In rainy November 2019, we spend four days in Burgos. We stroll through the charming city center and we visit the Cathedral, the Monastery Las Huelgas and various churches. I am now telling about us discovering the cultural-religious side of Burgos.

 

The Cathedral of Santa Maria – overwhelming treasures

The fine towers of the Cathedral Santa Maria in Burgos have been built by Hans von Köln who had been influenced by the plans for the Dome of Cologne (Köln). The Cathedral was built and inaugurated in the 13th century, whereby constructions continued for 300 years more.

We enter the Cathedral through the southern porch. Christ, the judge, is surrounded by the four evangelists. Below are the twelve apostles. A bishop stands in the middle of the porch.

Inside, the overview of the nave is impeded by the choir that, as in most Spanish churches, has been placed in the middle. I walk around it and enjoy these fine stairs with the golden balustrade (escalera dorada). The king used them to enter the Cathedral through the western porch which is higher than the main floor, as the Cathedral has been built into the castle hill of Burgos.

Above the stairs I locate Papamoscas, a figure made from iron sheet that opens the mouth, when the bells ring. Papamoscas means “catch-flies”. There is room for humor in the Catholic religion – nice.

The graceful cupola tops the intersection of the naves. The fine pattern has a Moorish appeal, I believe. The grid of the choir (located in the middle) is pointing to the cupola. El Cid has been buried just in front of the choir and under the cupola. .

This is the chapel of the Condestable Pedro Fernandez de Velasco (ca 1425-1492). He was crown commander and died during the conquest of Granada. The Flamboyant-Gothic chapel has been constructed by the son of Hans von Köln, Simon. It is from the end of the 15th century. The noble grave of the crown commander has been made from Carrrara marble.

The crown commander and his wife look up to the altar in Renaissance style…

… and into this elegant cupola – it is like a heaven with stars.

The small dog sleeps at the feet of the commander’s wife.

Around the cloister are many, many treasures. My take aways are the Mudejar ceiling in the chapter house…

… and the wall hanging that shows Adam and Eva in Paradise being seduced by the snake to take the apple.

 

The Monastery de Las Huelgas – a wealthy church with Mudejar chapels and the flag captured from the Moors

From our hotel it takes us half an hour along the promenades of the river Arlanzón to reach the Monastery Las Huelgas. “huelga” today means “strike”. But no one is on strike in this monastery. Once the Castilian king had a hunting palace here. “Hunting” was leisure and, in Spanish, “holgar” is one of the synonyms for “descansar” or “to have a rest”. In the 11th century,  king Alfonso VIII (1155-1214, married to the daughter of the king of England, Eleanor) decided to reuse his leisure palace for a Cistercian monastery. It was then named “Monastery of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas”. The nuns originated from noble families, the first abbot being the youngest daughter of the king. Furthermore, the abbey was used as a wedding and  burial place for the Castilian royal family. Today 30 nuns live in the monastery.

This large square with the fountain is part of the monastery and can be accessed freely through the solid gate.

Only guided tours are possible in the monastery. No photos are allowed, except in the cloister. This is the elegant cloister surrounded by double columns…

… with mostly floral decoration as well as some architectural representations such as this one.

We buy the “Guía Santa María Real de Huelgas – Burgos” which will remind us of all the treasures seen in this monastery.

The church contains Royal tombs of the kings of Castile from the 12th to the 14th century. Also the founder of the monastery, Alfonso VIII and his wife, Eleanor, are buried here.

In the church, the entrance to the choir shows the battle of Navas de Tolosa of 1212, where the confederated kings of Navarra, Aragón, Castile and Portugal defeated the Moorish Almohads decisively. We had come across this battle in Roncesvalles, where king Sancho VII the Strong is buried. Lead by him, the Navarrese broke the ring of slaves that were chained together as bodyguards of the Almohad calif (it is said that for this reason Navarra’s flag contains chains). The calif flew and so did his army leaving their treasures on the battlefield. One of these treasures, the standard (pendón) is hanging in the chapter house of Las Huelgas.

I very much like the Mudejar chapels of Ascension and of Santiago as well as the Mudejar ceilings in one of the cloisters. The visit closes with the exhibition of clothes from the 13th and 14th century – most of them are in perfect condition.

 

The gorgeous alabaster altar in the San Nicolas church

San Nicolas de Bari is the name of the church just opposite of the Cathedral of Burgos. This carved door gives access to it.

The gem inside is the alabaster altar made by Hans von Köln (who had already worked for the Cathedral of Burgos). 465 figures can be found here, mostly telling the life of Saint Nicolas. He stands in the middle of the altar. Above him is the Coronation of Maria occurring in a ring of angels – interesting, how the rectangular structure of the altar is broken up by circles and half circles.

Thinking about Saint Nicolas… when I was a child, he came from the Black Forest on 6th of December, was also called “Santi Niggi Näggi”, and he brought gifts, but also punished the nasty children, even taking them home to the Black Forest to peel carrots for a year (that was what we children were told – we then calmed him down by singing for him). When traveling to Turkey, I discovered that Saint Nicolas actually was bishop of Myra (Asia Minor) in the 4th century… Myra is called Demre in Turkey today and it is located not far from Antalya. Saint Nicolas was said to have distributed his wealth amongst the poor. Saint Nicolas later became patron of the seafarers, because he is said to have stopped a storm near Myra and saved the life of the sailors in distress at sea. Therefore the altar shows scenes with boats and sailors.

Before the Seljuks conquered Asia Minor, Italians transfered the relics of Saint Nicolas to Bari. Now I understand, why, this church is called “Saint Nicolas de Bari”. (Source: Wikipedia)

The life of Christ and Maria are also represented on the altar such as this Annunciation and Last Supper.

 

Church San Gil – charming gothic with filigree pulpit 

To the north east of the city center and built into the town wall is the smaller church San Gil, also gothic in style from the end of the 13 to the 14th century. Later a series of chapels were added, the most famous of them holding the Christ of Burgos. The altar is Renaissance and tells about Maria and her son.

My favourite item in this church is the wooden pulpit, finely carved and adorned with a pigeon under the cupola. May the Holy Spirit inspire the priest and his speech.

I could not find any explanations about this outstanding pulpit.

 

The church Saint Stefan or San Estebán

The last church we visit is Saint Stefan or San Estebán, not far from the Cathedral. The church is from the 13th century. In the 1980’s the church was converted into the museum for altars and treasures that have been collected from churches decaying in the province of Burgos. In addition, the original altar dedicated to Saint Stefan has been kept in the choir. The altars are mostly from Renaissance and Baroque. Many of the altars on display are dedicated to martyrs. It is not allowed to take photos. The Website of Saint Stefan gives an impression of the overwhelming wealth shown in this church. We are overwhelmed and have our welfare dinner in the friendly and cosy restaurant Rincón de España.

 

Good-bye Burgos, our next target will be Soria.

 

Source: Marion Golder: “Nordspanien und der Jakonsweg”, Dumont Reisehandbuch, Ostfildern 2018; “Guía Santa María la Real de las Huelgas – Burgos”, Reales Sitios de España 2014.

 

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