Salamanca: Part 1 (Cathedrals)

You, dear reader, must believe us when we tell you how hard we tried to stay up and go out late on a Saturday night in such a fun college town. Alas, it was not to be.

However, even after sleeping close to 9 hours, we had little competition from other tourists in viewing the cathedral this Sunday morning.

Salamanca is actually home to two cathedrals, appropriately named the New Cathedral and (yep, you guessed it) the Old Cathedral. The elder of the two was built between the 12th and 14th centuries while the larger and newer cathedral was a 16th to the 18th-century project. However, instead of tearing down or cannibalizing the older edifice, the church fathers connected them and both have remained in use under the same diocese.

Yes, you guessed it again – Mikey had to climb it. In this shot, we are standing above the Old Cathedral and looking onto the new. Although you can make out a more Baroque style on the dome and its surroundings, the dead giveaway is the battlements in the foreground. Given that the Old Cathedral was the ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Salamanca, a both religious and political office, the building was well fortified against attack.

This is another view looking down onto the Old Cathedral. Battlements are again present, but you can also see the Romanesque dome with its thick walls and narrow windows. Again, these would be useful to an archery defense force.

Soaring high above both the church and city is the New Cathedral’s bell tower.

This was perhaps the most orderly bell tower we have ever ascended. Although an interminably long wait, the efficiency in directing tourists up and down the narrow staircases was quite admirable. (Mikey thinks it is a German design.)

Well, even if the design is German, the Spanish always find a way to inject their own hilariously threatening warnings of imminent peril.

Assuming that the tourist survives the most dangerous climb, he is rewarded with excellent views of Salamanca’s rooftops.

Yes, the cathedral complex is quite amazing, but there are other wonderful edifices that we hope to tour.

Perhaps an overlooked aspect of the bell tower is the very support which keeps it so rigidly upright. Massive wooden beams like these cross the tower’s interior at critical points and are literally the size of tree trunks.

These are a trio of smaller bells which now chime via automated mallets. Perhaps it makes for a prettier picture with no Quasimodo to spoil the view.

This is a now retired mechanism that was once used in the clockwork of the bell tower.

Having descended from the bell tower, we now took the opportunity to walk around the exterior of the cathedral. This is a part of the New Cathedral’s facade which abuts that of the older building.

Again, we can see the thicker and very plain walls and narrow windows of the Old Cathedral’s exterior.

Conversely, the Baroque adornments on the New Cathedral are very ornate and captivating. Now just imagine that you were an illiterate Salamancan in the 1700’s. This would have been like television to you.

Yes, you might have heard about Palm Sunday at the start of Holy Week, but actually seeing a carved depiction of the Savior on a donkey riding into the Holy City would have captivated you.

Even minor decorative embellishments along the columns would have been cause for much discussion and praise in the 18th-century.

Let’s face it, astronauts and ice cream eating fawns would have … wait a second! What are astronauts doing in the 1700’s?!

Before you confirm all those “ancient alien” theories, let’s breathe and talk about this. 1) Church buildings do not last forever. 2) The more ornate decorations are, the more they can deteriorate. 3) If a building is actively being used, it will be maintained by the diocese. 4) A long-standing tradition is that some minor contemporary decorative element is introduced as a signature when restoring a building such as this.

Ergo, when this part of the New Cathedral’s facade was being restored in 1992, the artists inserted a few modern images along with more benign and timeless alterations.

Speaking of timeless, Mikey was proud to capture an image of Dan Brown’s next book cover. We have to say, the monseñor’s shadow and solitude are pretty epic in this shot.

But there really weren’t many bad shots inside such a beautiful and sparsely populated cathedral. Viewed from the tribune, the choir and main altar are almost dollhouses in size.

But, up close, the altar is impressively large and overbearing. Although not clad from top to bottom in gold, its size is quite daunting.

Even more so is the view looking up interesting the main dome.

Once again, Mikey loves capturing those perfectly geometric shots.

The choir was also very impressive. While we get geometry, art, and some various architectural bits, there exists a whole genre of math and science that explains the correct proportions of the building, distance to the altar, and other variables in correctly placing the choir where it is. Surely intriguing, but Mikey’s just trusting his betters on this one.

This medieval organ is quite the jewel in the choir’s crown. Originally, the decorative side panels would have closed when the organ was not in use, but the Baroque trumpets (the pipes sticking out perpendicular to the others) now prevent this.

While there were many chapels inside the cathedral, Mikey lit a candle at this one – Our Lady of Solitude. It just seemed to fit.

We also encountered our friend and patron saint, St James, at various places throughout the cathedral. Although we will encounter Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moor Slayer) as we approach our destination, it is James the Pilgrim that we choose to venerate.

Passing into the Old Cathedral, we immediately noticed the simplistic and seemingly rustic decor. The clearly Gothic style had a chillingly somber feel as the altar took pride of place.

The side chapels here were far fewer and dedicated more to the tombs of past church leaders.

While very ornate and well preserved, we couldn’t help but notice the Arab influences on them. Still, given that the Spanish Reconquista would have been contemporaneous with the building of the Old Cathedral, it does make stylistic sense.

Speaking of style, the altarpiece was humbling in size and sheer grandeur.

Most of the scenes depicted on it were of the life of Christ or that of various saints. Regardless, the altar’s immensity created something of a vacuum in the space and overwhelmed even the most oblivious visitor.

Oy, that’s quite a lot for one post. Mikey had originally planned on consolidating both rest days into a single post, but let’s call it quits for now and just publish this part of our adventure. Ergo, we’ll return soon with the rest of Salamanca. Until then, we hope you enjoyed a rather detailed Sunday trip to the cathedrals of Salamanca. Hasta pronto.

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