© Halie Cousineau/ Fodor’s Travel
The most beautiful example of early Catalan Gothic architecture, Santa Maria del Mar is extraordinary for its unbroken lines and elegance. The lightness of the interior is especially surprising considering the blocky exterior. The site, originally outside the 1st- to 4th-century Roman walls at what was then the water's edge, was home to a Christian cult from the late 3rd century. Built by stonemasons who chose, fitted, and carved each stone hauled down from the same Montjuïc quarry that provided the sandstone for the 4th-century Roman walls, Santa Maria del Mar is breathtakingly and nearly hypnotically symmetrical. The medieval numerological symbol for the Virgin Mary, the number eight (or multiples thereof) runs through every element of the basilica: The 16 octagonal pillars are 2 meters in diameter and spread out into rib vaulting arches at a height of 16 meters. The painted keystones at the apex of the arches are 32 meters from the floor. The central nave is twice as wide as the
lateral naves (8 meters each); their width equals the difference (8 meters) between their height and that of the main nave. The result of all this proportional balance and harmony is a sense of uplift that, especially in baroque and Moderniste Barcelona, is both exhilarating and soothing.
Ironically, the church owes its present form to the anticlerical fury of anarchists who, on July 18, 1936, burned nearly all of Barcelona's churches as a reprisal against the alliance of army, church, and oligarchy during the military rebellion. The basilica, filled with ornate side chapels and choir stalls, burned for 11 days, and nearly crumbled as a result of the heat. Restored after the end of the Civil War by a series of Bauhaus-trained architects, Santa Maria del Mar has become one of the city's most universally admired architectural gems.
The paintings in the keystones overhead represent, from the front, the Coronation of the Virgin, the Nativity, the Annunciation, the equestrian figure of the father of Pedro IV, King Alfons, and the Barcelona coat of arms.
The 34 lateral chapels are dedicated to different saints and images. The first chapel to the left of the altar (No. 20) is the Capella del Santo Cristo (Chapel of the Holy Christ), its stained-glass window an allegory of Barcelona's 1992 Olympic Games, complete with names of medalists and key personalities of the day in tiny letters.
An engraved stone riser to the left of the side door onto Carrer Sombrerers commemorates the spot where San Ignacio de Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Order, begged for alms in 1524 and 1525.
Set aside at least a half hour to see Santa Maria del Mar. La Catedral del Mar (the Cathedral of the Sea) by Ildefonso Falcons chronicles the construction of the basilica and 14th-century life in Barcelona. Check the leisure announcements in the weekly magazines for concerts in the basilica; the setting and the acoustics here make the performance of the Mozart Requiem, for example, an unforgettable experience.
Pl. de Santa Maria, Barcelona, Catalonia, 08003, Spain