Postcard from Sevilla, Spain: Former Convent home to Bellas Artes

The former Convent of Merced Calzada dates from the early 1600s, but since 1841 it has been open to the public as the Museo de Bellas Artes.

The fine arts museum originally preserved and showcased works from closed convents and monasteries around Seville. The collection has grown through the years and includes works by some of the most famous painters associated with the city – Murillo, Zurbaran and Leal.

Not uncharacteristically, I often found myself distracted by the tilework and the devils in the details.

As we were headed into the season of Semana Santa processions, the paintings of enormous horse-drawn floats from 18th-century Seville proved of particular interest. Although these bacchanalian-themed floats appear to be more closely associated with rowdy pre-Lenten Carnaval celebrations.

Postcard from Sevilla, Spain: Size foremost in the minds of Cathedral founders

In the year 1482, Pierre Dancart began carving the High Altar for the Cathedral of Seville, el Catedral de Santa MarĂ­a de la Sede. The enormous project probably consumed most of his life, as he did not finish until 44 years later. The sheer size of the altar overwhelms the vignettes from the Bible and lives of saints contained within it, such as the rather gory spearing of children above.

But size was what mattered most to those who determined to build the grand Cathedral in 1401.

Prior to that time, the site was occupied by a major mosque with a minaret designed by architect Ahamed ben Basso for Almodhad Caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf (1135-1185). When King Ferdinand III of Castile (1199-1252) conquered Sevilla in 1248, both the city and the mosque were Christianized. Chapels were inserted to convert the interior into a more Catholic appearing space.

Seville became a center of wealth, and the initial redo of the mosque was not as grandiose as the city’s leaders vision for the city. They wanted an awe-inspiring Cathedral, so work commenced.

The resulting Cathedral was built astride the mosque and inside some of the walls of its compound. The imposing edifice covers close to six acres, with the center transept soaring to a height equal to a 12-story building – by most measurements, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. The minaret was converted into a bell tower, the Giralda, and rises more than 30 stories in height.

Perhaps some of the plans were more grandiose than practical. The center dome collapsed in 1511, only five years after its completion. Its replacement, however, lasted until an earthquake in 1888. The newest one was completed in 1903.

The Cathedral contains the tombs of several kings as well as that of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506). The riches within are suitably impressive, and art includes works by Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) and Francisco de Goya (1746-1828).

One can be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the Cathedral, or zoom in on the details, such as tiny shards of saints held in reliquaries or predatory, the Moorish lock on a door or wolves topping pilasters at one of the entrances.