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The Cathedral of Seville

Your first impression when you walk round the cathedral of Seville, noting with dismay the crushed cupolas and unsightly excrescences, the dinginess of colour, is not enthusiastic. It was built by German architects without a thought for the surrounding houses, brilliantly whitewashed, and the blue sky, and it proves the incongruity of northern art in a southern country; but even lowering clouds and mist could lend no charm to the late Gothic of Santa Maria de la Sede.

The interior fortunately is very different. Notwithstanding the Gothic groining, as you enter from the splendid heat of noonday, (in the Plaza del Triunfo the sun beats down and the houses are more dazzling than snow,) the effect is thoroughly and delightfully Spanish. Light is very fatal to devotion and the Spaniards have been so wise as to make their churches extremely dark. At first you can see nothing. Incense floats heavily about you, filling the air, and the coolness is like a draught of fresh, perfumed water. But gradually the church detaches itself from the obscurity and you see great columns, immensely lofty. The spaces are large and simple, giving an impression of vast room; and the choir, walled up on three sides, in the middle of the nave as in all Spanish cathedrals, by obstructing the view gives an appearance of almost unlimited extent. To me it seems that in such a place it is easier to comprehend the majesty wherewith man has equipped himself. Science offers only thoughts of human insignificance; the vastness of the sea, the terror of the mountains, emphasise the fact that man is of no account, ephemeral as the leaves of summer. But in those bold aisles, by the pillars rising with such a confident pride towards heaven, it is almost impossible not to feel that man indeed is god-like, lord of the earth; and that the great array of nature is builded for his purpose.

Typically Spanish also is the decoration, and very rich. The choir-stalls are of carved wood, florid and exuberant like the Spanish imagination; the altars gleam with gold; pictures of saints are framed by golden pillars carved with huge bunches of grapes and fruit and fantastic leaves. I was astounded at the opulence of the treasure; there were gorgeous altars of precious metal, great saints of silver, caskets of gold, monstrances studded with rare stones, crosses and crucifixes. The vestments were of unimaginable splendour: there were two hundred copes of all ages and of every variety, fifty of each colour, white for Christmas and Easter, red for Corpus Christi, blue for the Immaculate Conception, violet for Holy Week; there were the special copes of the Primate, copes for officiating bishops, copes for dignitaries from other countries and dioceses. They were of the richest velvet and satin, heavily embroidered with gold, many with saints worked in silk, so heavy that it seemed hardly possible for a man to bear them.

In the Baptistery, filling it with warm light, is the San Antonio of Murillo, than which no picture gives more intensely the religious emotion. The saint, tall and meagre, beautiful of face, looks at the Divine Child hovering in a golden mist with an ecstasy that is no longer human.

It is interesting to consider whether an artist need feel the sentiment he desires to convey. Certainly many pictures have been painted under the influence of profound feeling which leave the spectator entirely cold, and it is probable enough that the early Italians felt few of the emotions which their pictures call forth. We know that the masterpieces of Perugino, so moving, so instinct with religious tenderness, were very much a matter of pounds, shillings and pence. But Luis de Vargas, on the other hand, daily humbled himself by scourging and by wearing a hair shirt, and Vicente Joanes prepared himself for a new picture by communion and confession; so that it is impossible to wonder at the rude and savage ardour of their work. And the impression that may be gathered of Murillo from his pictures is borne out by the study of his grave and simple life. He had not the turbulent piety of the other two, but a calm and sweet devotion, which led him to spend long hours in church, meditating. He, at any rate, felt all that he expressed.

I do not know a church that gives the religious sentiment more completely than Seville Cathedral. The worship of the Spaniards is sombre, full-blooded, a thing of dark rich colours; it requires the heaviness of incense and that overloading of rococo decoration. It is curious that notwithstanding their extreme similarity to the Neapolitans, the Andalusians should in their faith differ so entirely. Of course, in Southern Italy religion is as full of superstition--an adoration of images in which all symbolism is lost and only the gross idol remains; but it is a gayer and a lighter thing than in Spain. Most characteristic of this is the difference between the churches; and with Santa Maria de la Sede may well be contrasted the Neapolitan Santa Chiara, with its great windows, so airy and spacious, sparkling with white and gold. The paintings are almost frolicsome. It is like a ballroom, a typical place of worship for a generation that had no desire to pray, but strutted in gaudy silks and ogled over pretty fans, pretending to discuss the latest audacity of Monsieur Arouet de Voltaire.


William Somerset Maugham