Catedral de Palma
What the cathedral conceals
Palma’s cathedral - “La Seu” – conceals stories that go unnoticed by the faithful and visitors: flashes of light, secret mysteries, unusual numerology…
photography Íñigo Vega
For centuries, the cathedral of Santa María in Palma reflected its majesty in the sea, when the waves of the Mediterranean broke below its walls. A witness of this, as it is no less than 700 years old, was the archangel Saint Gabriel, Palma’s old protector and patron, a bronze weathervane-sculpture that points with its finger from the homage tower of the Almudaina Palace, the sculpture’s place of residence since 1310. Thus Saint Gabriel saw the cathedral’s first façade from his privileged position. Back then the Virgin with outstretched arms was not there, and nor was the neo-Gothic pediment, but two rose windows through which light never entered were; today, bricked up, they can still be seen from the inside of the building. Saint Gabriel survived the earthquake of 1851, too, which left the façade facing the Almudaina on the point of collapse.
Over the days when construction of the cathedral began, after the conquest of Mallorca by the Crown of Aragon in 1229, the mosque of Medina Mayurqa, which occupied the same location next to the bay, was simultaneously demolished. The only visible Muslim legacy is the deviated walls of the belltower. An architect’s error? No. It is simply that this part of the Seu still faces Mecca, a detail that can be observed perfectly from the north terrace. This tower which is askew with regard to the rest of the building also houses the bells, some of which have curious nicknames like Antònia, Nova, Tèrcia and Picarol (all of which ring out on Sundays and holidays), Bàrbara, Mitja and Matines (for the deceased faithful), or n’Aloy, the largest bell, which tolls exclusively on Corpus Christi day or when a new bishop is consecrated.
To reach the highest point of the cathedral one has to go up the 215 steps that form the spiral leading from the earth to heaven… stopping for breath on the terraces, which have been open to the public for over a year now. And in the Sala Primera of the belltower, a former prison or refuge for asylum seekers who left incisions and inscriptions when they were shut in here between the 15th and 18th century, the most striking of which are a face and a medieval boat.
In the Portal del Mirador doorway, which faces the sea, there is a sculpture paying tribute to the book Tree of Science, by Ramón Llull, the most relevant Mallorcan intellectual of all time. Legend has it that a woman was walled into this part of the cathedral, Doña Elisabet Safortesa Gual-Desmur. A member of the Mallorcan nobility, she had in her service the woman who would later become the blessed Saint Catalina Thomàs. When she was widowed a few days after her wedding, Elisabet asked to be enclosed in a small room beside the chapel of Sant Pere. Only a small gap was left through which she was given food, and there was a tiny window which still exists, where she could breathe a little of the sea breeze during the thirteen years of her immurement, until she died in 1589. She is not the only woman who rests here. Esclaramunda of Mallorca (Mallorca, ? – 1371), a direct descendent of the Mallorcan royal family and the niece of King Sancho I is also here; and Beatriu de Pinós (Catalonia, 1433 – Palma, 1485), the founder of the Estudio General Luliano, the origin of the University of the Balearic Islands. In the darkness of the crypt of the epistolary nave, on a wall the inscription reads, “Here lie the ashes of Maria Jusepa Desbrui”, whose story is unknown.
One of the most curious graves in the cathedral is that of the bishop Gil Sánchez Muñoz, in the centre of the Gothic chapterhouse. Tradition has it that there was a capelo or hat on the cleric’s tomb. When it fell onto it, his soul rose up to heaven. However, Gil Sánchez Muñoz’s has been hanging there since the 15th century. His bad relationship with the cabildo council translated into a stout iron chain that prevents his spirit from escaping. In the same space where the grave is, two altarpieces, of the Crucifixion and the Mercy, pay homage to the victims of the massive floods that occurred when the Riera torrent bed overflowed in the year 1403, a catastrophe in which over 5,000 people died. Most of them sleep forever between the pillars of the Seu.
Returning to the Gospel nave, six lions hold up the pulpit along with six atlases, each with a different expression and factions, bearded, unbearded, with a moustache… in what has been interpreted as the representation of the passage of time. This interpretation is also given to the mosaic on the floor opposite the main altar, where a golden angel plays with bubbles that dilute, just as life does.
The main altar, made from a large piece of alabaster, is held up by eight 13th-century columns. In the centre, a ninth column from the 6th century AD had concealed inside it, until the last century, a document that appears to show the different conserations over history. The Virgin one can see behind it, Our Lady of the Cathedral, was a would-be 14th-century Russian matryoshkas doll, because behind a little door on one side of the sculpture, there is a shrine.
Under this chapel of the Santísima Trinidad, or Holy Trinity, where the kings Jaume II and Jaume III also lie, is the sacristy, which is not accessible to the general public. Here we see a 16th-century cupboard, which may have been made by Juan Salas, using stone from Santanyí. It is full of articles of worship, dozens of chalices, crosses of all sizes, swords, skulls with floral crowns and relics of saints who protect some beautiful Gothic wooden, tempera-painted coffering with Mudejar decoration. But one of the great treasures the Seu contains is an exotic jewel, the rimmonims, which the Hebrews used to protect the scroll of the law. This piece of crafted medieval precious metal is so important to them that rumour has it that the Jewish community demanded it be returned to them. The rimmonims came from the synagogue of Cammarata, in Agrigento, and it is believed that they were purchased by the Mallorcan merchant Francesc Puig, who sent them as an offering to the Virgin of the cathedral in 1493.
Behind the great religious artworks of each of the cathedral’s chapels there are some curious little stories. Like that of the location of the saints Nympha and Christina, unusual names for saints on our island. The justification is that they came from Palermo, Italy. Or the two identical 18th-century graves commissioned in the chapel of Saint Benet, each headed with the same skeleton symbolising the death of the bishop Benet Panyelles and his great friend, the commander general of the Balearic Islands, a native of Ireland, Patrick Lawles O’Brian. Not to forget the tomb of Antoni de Galiana, Mallorca’s first bishop from 1363 to 1375, in one of the most privileged rooms, the Capilla de la Corona, or chapel of the crown.
The colourful ceramic mural at the front of the Capilla Real was designed by Josep Maria Jujol, who collaborated closely with the architect Antoni Gaudí. Together they carried out the liturgical renovation of the cathedral from 1904 to 1915. For this mural they used ceramics from the Mallorcan factory of La Roqueta. The drawings represent 230 olive branches each with the same number of leaves, thirteen on one side and fourteen on the other. And the coats of arms of the 53 bishops who passed through here since the conquest of the island by the Crown of Aragon, and some stars with roman numerals where Jujol and Gaudí envisaged the location of the future coats of arms on the wall.
Antoni Gaudí left an [...]