As the monks of France had brought Romanesque architecture to Spain in the eleventh century, so in the twelfth they carried Gothic over the Pyrenees. In the picturesque little town of Avila the cathedral of San Salvador (1091f inaugurated the transition with round arches, a Gothic portal, and, in the apse, elegant columns rising to pointed ribs in the vault. At Salamanca piety preserved the old transitional cathedral of the twelfth century beside the new one of the sixteenth; the two together form one of the most imposing architectural ensembles in Spain. At Tarragona difficulties of finance prolonged the building of the seo or episcopal see from 1089 to 1375; the simple solidity of the older elements forms a fit background for the Gothic and Moorish decoration; and the cloisters—Romanesque colonnades under a Gothic vault—are among the most beautiful productions of medieval art.
Tarragona is distinctly Spanish; Burgos, Toledo, and Leon are progressively more French. The marriage of Blanche of Castile to Louis VIII of France (1200) widened the road of intercourse already opened by migratory monks. It was her nephew, Fernando III of Castile, who laid the first stone of Burgos Cathedral in 1221; it was an unknown French architect who designed the structure; a German of Cologne—Juan de Colonia—who raised the spires (1442); a Burgundian, Felipé de Borgoña, who rebuilt the great lantern over the transept cross (1539–43); at last his pupil, the Spaniard Juan de Vallejo, completed the edifice in 1567. The ornate traceried spires, the open towers that uphold them, and the sculptured arcade give to the west front of Santa Maria la Mayor a dignity and splendor that one cannot soon forget. Originally all this stone façade was painted; the colors have long since worn away; we can only try to imagine the resplendent mass that here once rivaled the sun.
The same Fernando III provided the funds for the still more magnificent cathedral of Toledo. Few inland cities have a more scenic site—nestling in a bend of the Tagus River, and hidden by protective hills; none would guess from its present poverty that once Visigothic kings, then Moorish emirs, then the Christian monarchs of Leon and Castile made it their capital. Begun in 1227, the cathedral rose in slow installments, and was hardly finished by 1493. Only one tower was executed on the original plan; it is half Moorish in the style of the Giralda at Seville, and almost as elegant. The other tower was capped in the seventeenth century with a dome designed by Toledo’s most famous citizen, Domingo Teotocópuli—El Greco. The interior, 395 feet long and 178 feet wide, is a live-aisled maze of tall piers, ornate chapels, ascetic stone saints, iron grilles, and 750 windows of stained glass. All the energy of the Spanish character, all the gloom and passion of Spanish piety, all the elegance of Spanish manners, and something of the Moslem’s flair for ornament find form and voice in this immense cathedral.
It is a proverb in Spain that “Toledo has the richest of our cathedrals, Oviedo the holiest, Salamanca the strongest, Leon the most beautiful.”34 Begun by Bishop Manrique in 1205, the cathedral of Leon was financed by small contributions rewarded with indulgences, and was completed in 1303. It adopted the French Gothic plan of building a cathedral chiefly of windows; and its stained glass ranks high among the masterpieces of that art. It may be true that the ground plan is taken from Reims, the west front from Chartres, the south portal from Burgos; the result is a charming cento of the French cathedrals—with finished towers and spires.
Many other shrines rose to celebrate the reconquest of Spain for Christianity—at Zamora in 1174, Tudela in 1188, Lerida in 1203, Palma in 1229, Valencia in 1262, Barcelona in 1298. But, excepting Leon, we should hardly describe the Spanish cathedrals of this period as Gothic. They avoided large windows and flying buttresses; they rested their weight on heavy walls and piers; instead of arch ribs running from base to ceiling, the piers themselves rose almost to the vault; and these tall columns, rising like stone giants in the caverns of immense naves, give to Spanish cathedral interiors a dark grandeur that subdues the soul with terror, while Northern Gothic lifts it up with light. Portals and windows, in Spanish Gothic, often kept the Romanesque arch; amid the Gothic ornament the decoration by diverse layers and patterns of colored brick preserved a Moorish element; and the Byzantine influence survived in domes and half domes rising with pendentive modulations from a polygonal base. It was from these varied constituents that Spain evolved a unique style for some of the finest cathedrals in Europe.
Not the least notable achievements of medieval architecture were the castles and fortresses of the countryside, and the walls and gates of the towns. The walls of Avila still stand to prove the medieval sense of form; and such gates as the Puerto del Sol in Toledo typically married beauty to use. From memories of the Roman castellum, and perhaps from observation of Moslem forts,35 the Crusaders built in the Near East mighty fortresses like that of Kerak (1121), superior in both mass and form to anything of their kind in that warlike age. Hungary, the bastion of Europe against the Mongols, raised magnificent castle-fortresses in the thirteenth century. The art flowed west, and left in Italy such masterpieces of military art as the fortress-tower of Volterra, and in France the thirteenth-century castles of Coucy and Pierrefonds, and the famous Château Gaillard that Richard Coeur de Lion constructed (1197) on returning from Palestine. Castles in Spain were no figments of fancy, but powerful masses of masonry that kept back the Moors and gave a name to Castile. When Alfonso VI of Castile (1073–1108) captured Segovia from the Moslems he built there a castle-fortress on the plan of the Alcazar of Toledo. In Italy castles rose as urban citadels for nobles; the towns of Tuscany and Lombardy still bristle with them; San Gimignano alone had thirteen before the Second World War. As early as the tenth century, at Châteaudun, France began to build the châteaux that in the Renaissance period were to form a lordly feature of her art. The technique of erecting stone castles passed into England with the Norman favorites of Edward the Confessor; it was advanced by the offensive and defensive measures of William the Conqueror, under whose iron hand the Tower of London, Windsor Castle, and Durham Castle took their earliest forms. From France, again, castle-building migrated to Germany, where it became a passion with lawless barons, warrior kings, and conquering saints. The monstrous Schloss of Königsberg, built (1257) as a fortress from which the Teutonic Knights might rule a hostile population, was a proper victim of the Second World War.