Postcard from Burgos, Spain: A ‘work of angels’

Above: Santiago, Saint James, stands guard under the eight-pointed star of the Spanish Renaissance lantern dome, cimborrio, of the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Burgos.

It seems more like the work of angels than of men.”

King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598)

King Philip II’s glowing description of the gleaming white dome that crowns the intersection of the horizontal arms of a cross with the main nave in the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Burgos seems appropriate. Designed by Juan de Vallejo and Francisco de Colonia, the octagonal dome was completed in 1568 to replace an earlier lantern, less than 50 years old, that collapsed rather spectacularly in 1539. The Latin inscription above Santiago at the base of the dome translates to: “In the midst of your temple I will praise you and give glory to your name because you do wonders.”

As the exterior of the Cathedral makes obvious, the interior’s tall golden altarpieces, soaring domes, choir, chapels and cloisters are overwhelming in scale.

The monumental scale of the Cathedral is humanized by the exquisite details found throughout. They are so numerous that they, too, are hard to take in, but the eye is drawn to them and the stories they relate.

A major detour to my childhood in Virginia Beach: Peering up at the altars, I realized those carved and polychromed details would have enabled my sister, Susan, and me to sit through the longest of masses. When our mother (an excellent cook, but we were kids) would serve us something that we would rather die than eat, say cow’s tongue, we were sentenced to sit at the kitchen table until we cleaned our plates. Fortunately, one wall was papered with intricate sketches of French cafes, markets and street scenes. We resorted to playing I Spy for hours before Mother finally threw in the towel because we still had homework to finish or she wanted to go to bed. Surely through the centuries, siblings sitting in pews before altars in this Cathedral engaged in whispered games of I Spy when sermons extended past their patience. I’d still be a willing participant, or maybe that is why I’m playing with the camera.

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