Visitor information and tourist guide for Cordoba Spain by Infocordoba

 

Trying to Sum up the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba

 

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Simple Labels for a Complicated Edifice

Many people are taken aback when trying to quickly absorb such a heady mix such as the Mezquita, which is like trying to see the Louvre in a hurry. It's not easy for the casual observer to describe what he has seen. In the Louvre he's left with "lots of paintings" and in the Mezquita it's "a forest of columns and arches marred by an unspectacular cathedral." These hasty generalizations don't even begin to describe either the Louvre or the Cordoba Cathedral, but they do provide easy labels for tourists with little time for serious art history.

Of Spanish Mosques and Cathedrals: 16th-Century Building Projects

Perhaps a few notes about the history of Andalusia's cathedrals are in order. It's interesting to note that neither Granada's or Malaga's were actually finished. Seville Cathedral is the largest gothic church in the world, making it a natural must-see for tourists, but it is not particularly beautiful. The central 16th-century structure of the Cordoba Cathedral is neither large, nor easy to view because of its location in the center of a very large mosque.

In terms of respecting former mosques, none of the other cities actually conserved part of the former edifices, much less the majority. The main mosque of Seville was pulled down (except the minaret) beginning in 1402 to make room for the the largest gothic cathedral in the world (finished in 1520). Jaen demolished its main mosque in 1500 and commenced construction of its cathedral. Granada's original cathedral was built within the mosque, like Cordoba's, but in the end it was completely demolished to make way for the unfinished Granada Cathedral (started in 1521, with work lasting until 1714). In 1528, Malaga's mosque was also knocked down for the construction of Malaga Cathedral. Nor was the fate of smaller mosques much better. Only one minaret and a few architectural traces remain of them in Cordoba.

One more item to provide a historical context is that the tearing down of mosques to make way for cathedrals was not unique to Andalusia. In 1226 King Ferdinand and Archbishop Ximenez laid the first stone of the Toledo Cathedral, on the site of the former mosque. The same King Ferdinand conquered Cordoba 10 years later, yet the monarchy protected the mosque up through the reign of Isabel of Castile, when other mosques were disappearing from the urban landscape. Perhaps, then, Cordoba's Mosque-Cathedral deserves some praise, as a miracle of late-medieval historical conservation. Indeed, there were some very active conservationists who defended the Mezquita, as we will see.

Cordoba Divided Over The New Cathedral: King Felipe Intervenes

In this context of massive building projects around Spain in the year 1523, and perhaps financed in part by Spain's economic boom, the church cannons of Cordoba decided to build a central choir and relocate the high altar, building the small cathedral which would eventually include gothic, renaissance and baroque elements. It wasn't a popular decision. The City Hall and the Church crossed threats of death sentences and excommunications. King Felipe, who had never seen the Cordoba's Mosque-Cathedral, was forced to resolve the disputes and authorize the building project, but when he came through Cordoba he was not impressed with the beginnings of the new cathedral, in comparison with the tremendous beauty of the Umayyad Mosque.

We cannot know what happened during Felipe's visit to Cordoba, whether he was particularly bitter at the church cannons, or whether he was impressed with the talents of his local authorities, who had attempted to preserve the edifice completely intact, or whether he was sensitive to the loss of the spectacular diagonal vistas which had been lost. But for whatever reason, he pronounced the words which were to forever mar the image of the Cathedral and the Mosque of Cordoba: the cathedral was commonplace, whereas the mosque had been unique. These words continue to haunt the edifice and modern-day tour guides, despite the Mezquita's incredible importance and beauty.

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