The Cathedral-Basilica of the Holy Cross and of St. Eulalia of Barcelona, more commonly known as “La Seu”, meaning a bishop’s “see” or “seat”, is of very ancient origin. Bishop Pretextat, who held the office of Bishop of Barcelona from 290 A.D. until his death in 343 A.D., was said to have consecrated the first building to be used as the city’s cathedral. This church stood on the ruins of a temple dedicated to Jupiter, which itself stood on a small hill the Romans had called Mount Jupiter, close to the Roman forum. With the legalization of Christianity under Constantine, the Christians had re-named this hill Mount Tabor; it has been the site of Barcelona’s cathedral ever since its dedication.
Interestingly enough, the remains of this first Christian structure were uncovered during structural foundation work in the 1940’s, and can be visited on a guided tour. As the small building eventually proved to be insufficient for the increasing needs of the diocese, a diocesan council was held in 599 A.D. to plan how to raise funds for the first large cathedral to be built on the hill. During the course of the meetings it was decided that the building would be dedicated to the Holy Cross – which is why a statue of the Empress Helena holding aloft the True Cross stands on the top of the present Cathedral.
Following the Muslim invasions of the 8th century, when Barcelona briefly fell under Islamic rule, the cathedral was turned into a mosque. When the Franks took Barcelona back from the Muslims in 801 A.D., the Mosque was either significantly damaged or destroyed, and plans for a new cathedral to replace it were made. In 877 A.D., when the new cathedral was completed, the relics of Saint Eulalia were transferred to the building from the church of Our Lady of the Sands, the church that was the precursor of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar. In honor of this acquisition, the diocese decided to name St. Eulalia as co-patroness of the cathedral.
Unfortunately, this cathedral was destroyed by Al-Mansur during the Muslim raids of 985 A.D. A Romanesque-style building, with a central nave and two side aisles, was begun in 1046, and work had sufficiently progressed to allow its consecration in 1058. However as Barcelona’s empire expanded, it soon became clear to the diocese and to the monarchy that the scale of the building was not grand enough for an imperial capital. Scholars are not certain whether or not this Romanesque structure was ever fully completed, although parts of this building – such as elements of the Portal of Saint Ives, with its amusing scenes of men battling mythological beasts – were incorporated into the grand Catalan Gothic Cathedral which was begun in 1298.
The bulk of the new cathedral, much larger than its predecessors, was completed around 1448, but as occurred in other cities such as Florence, funds for finishing the facade of the West Front ran out before the building could be completed. As a result, other than the twin octagonal bell towers at the back of the building, the Cathedral was without a public face on its main square for about 400 years. Fortunately, by the time Barcelona’s fortunes revived in the 19th century, the original Medieval plans of 1408 for the Cathedral facade had been preserved, and were used to execute the West Front as it stands today, exactly as had been intended.
The Cathedral was raised to the status of a Minor Basilica in 1867 by Blessed Pope Pius IX. During the Civil War the Cathedral suffered some minor vandalism, as well as bombing damage to the roof from both sides in the fighting, but generally speaking was left in good shape compared to most of the other churches in the city. As a result many of the Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque altarpieces and shrines inside the Cathedral were preserved, as well as some of the royal tombs on the site.
Some of the significant highlights of the Cathedral are:
The Shrine of Saint Eulalia
This 13th century alabaster and marble sarcophagus on columns, located in the magnificent crypt directly below the main altar, is speculated by some art historians to be the work of one of the Pisano family, or at the very least by one of their pupils.
The Christ of Lepanto
In the Blessed Sacrament Chapel of Perpetual Adoration, to the right as one enters the Cathedral, is a large wooden crucifix which was carried on the flagship of Don Juan of Austria at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Pious tradition says that the reason the corpus leans to the side to such an exaggerated degree is that at the beginning of the battle, the Turks fired a cannonball at it, and the figure leaned to the side to avoid being struck. This encouraged the Hapsburg side, which ultimately defeated the Muslim invaders.
The Shrine of Saint Raymond of Penyafort
The great Dominican saint is buried in the Cathedral, inside a spectacular Gothic gilded sarcophagus supported on columns with the effigy of the saint displayed underneath in black and white marble.
– The Choir of the Golden Fleece
Like many Gothic cathedrals, the choir at La Seu sits in the nave, a little more than halfway to the crossing. While the marble sculptures and architectural details that make up the choir are impressive, the real interest for many visitors are the choir stalls themselves. A meeting was held in the Cathedral of the Order of the Golden Fleece in 1519, and in honor of the occasion the backs of the seats in the choir were painted with the coat-of-arms of the European monarch who was to sit there – rather like putting a place card on the table at a dinner party. One of these bears the arms of King Henry VIII of England, obviously from the period before he went off the rails.
– The Cloister
The beautiful garden cloister of the Cathedral, completed around 1450, is home to a number of tombs and chapels. It is also home to a flock of 13 white geese. White geese have always been kept in the cathedral, although no one knows exactly why. The general consensus is that these are the descendants of the Capitoline Geese, kept in the Temple of Jupiter which originally stood on the site, and that the number 13 stands for the age of Saint Eulalia when she was martyred by the Emperor Diocletian in 303 A.D. Also in the cloister is a Medieval fountain dedicated to St. George, patron saint of Barcelona; every Corpus Christi a hollowed-out egg is placed on the stream of water jetting up from the statue, and children are taken to marvel at how it dances on the spray.