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Seville's cathedral can be described only in superlatives: it's the largest and highest cathedral in Spain, the largest Gothic building in the world, and the world's third-largest church, after St. Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London. After Ferdinand III captured Seville from the Moors in 1248, the great mosque begun by Yusuf II in 1171 was reconsecrated to the Virgin Mary and used as a Christian cathedral. In 1401 the people of Seville decided to erect a new cathedral, one that would equal the glory of their great city. They pulled down the old mosque, leaving only its minaret and outer courtyard, and built the existing building in just over a century—a remarkable feat for the time.
The cathedral's dimly illuminated interior, aside from the well-lighted high altar, can be disappointing: Gothic purity has been largely submerged in ornate baroque decoration. In the central nave rises the Capilla Mayor (Main Chapel). Its magnificent retablo (altarpiece) is the largest in Christendom (65 feet by 43 feet). It depicts some 36 scenes from the life of Christ, with pillars carved with more than 200 figures. Restoration of the altarpiece is set to start in March 2014 and will continue until the fall.
On the south side of the cathedral is the monument to Christopher Columbus : his coffin is borne aloft by the four kings representing the medieval kingdoms of Spain: Castile, León, Aragón, and Navarra. Columbus's son Fernando Colón (1488–1539) is also interred here; his tombstone is inscribed with the words "A Castilla y a León, mundo nuevo dio Colón" (To Castile and León, Columbus gave a new world).
In the Sacristía de los Cálices (Sacristy of the Chalices) look for Juan Martínez Montañés's wood carving Crucifixion, Merciful Christ; Juan de Valdés Leal's St. Peter Freed by an Angel; Francisco de Zurbarán's Virgin and Child; and Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes's St. Justa and St. Rufina. The Sacristía Mayor (Main Sacristy) holds the keys to the city, which Seville's Moors and Jews presented to their conqueror, Ferdinand III. Finally, in the dome of the Sala Capitular (Chapter House), in the cathedral's southeastern corner, is Bartolomé Estéban Murillo's Immaculate Conception, painted in 1668.
One of the cathedral's highlights, the Capilla Real (Royal Chapel), is concealed behind a ponderous curtain, but you can duck in if you're quick, quiet, and properly dressed (no shorts or sleeveless tops): enter from the Puerta de los Palos, on Plaza Virgen de los Reyes (signposted "Entrada para Culto"—entrance for worship). Along the sides of the chapel are the tombs of the Beatrix of Swabia, wife of the 13th century's Ferdinand III, and their son Alfonso X ("the Wise"); in a silver urn before the high altar rest the relics of Ferdinand III himself, Seville's liberator. Canonized in 1671, he was said to have died from excessive fasting.
Don't forget the Patio de los Naranjos (Courtyard of Orange Trees), on the church's northern side, where the fountain in the center was used for ablutions before people entered the original mosque. Near the Puerta del Lagarto (Lizard's Gate), in the corner near the Giralda, try to find the wooden crocodile—thought to have been a gift from the emir of Egypt in 1260 as he sought the hand of the daughter of Alfonso the Wise—and the elephant tusk, found in the ruins of Itálica.
The Christians could not bring themselves to destroy the tower when they tore down the mosque, so they incorporated it into their new cathedral. In 1565–68 they added a lantern and belfry to the old minaret and installed 24 bells, one for each of Seville's 24 parishes and the 24 Christian knights who fought with Ferdinand III in the reconquest. They also added the bronze statue of Faith, which turned as a weather vane—el giraldillo, or "something that turns," thus the whole tower became known as the Giralda. With its baroque additions, the slender Giralda rises 322 feet. Inside, instead of steps, 35 sloping ramps—wide enough for two horsemen to pass abreast—climb to a viewing platform 230 feet up. It is said that Ferdinand III rode his horse to the top to admire the city he had conquered. Admission also includes the visit to the Iglesia del Salvador.
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