Built between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Santa Iglesia Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción y de San Frutos, (literally “The Holy Cathedral of Our Lady of the Holy Assumption and Saint Frutos”), is late Gothic in style. It is one of the last Gothic cathedrals to be built in Europe. Its construction spanned the entire 16th century, from 1525 to 1768 to be precise. In this period, architecture in Europe was largely Renaissance in style, which is why while Segovia Cathedral was built in a predominantly Late Gothic style, it also displays some Renaissance elements.
Its beauty and elegance, together with its visual impact and size, caused the President of the First Spanish Republic, Emilio Castelar to call it The Lady of Cathedrals. Located in Segovia’s Plaza Mayoror main square, it lies half way between the city’s two monuments of great historic and architectural worth: the Roman aqueduct and the medieval Alcázaror fortress. It should also be noted that Segovia is one of the Spanish cities with the most churches.
Each of the stones making up the Santa Iglesia Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción y de San Frutostells a story of century upon century of magnificent history. The same history that permeates the entire city, which in 1985 was designated as a World Heritage Site.
From the first cathedral of Segovia to the one that stands today we can identify three main periods:
First period: up to the year 516 AD
The story begins with the first cathedral, commonly referred to as the early cathedral. It was located in the Alameda del Parral, on the banks of the River Eresma, and was destroyed during the Arianist persecution of 516 AD. It is interesting to note that the Eresma Valley was at that time already the site of many ancient churches.
Second period: 12th c. to 1525
The second period started in the 12th century, around the year 1117, with the new cathedral being built opposite the Alcázar. According to the writings of the canons of the day, the Romanesque cathedral was quite small and featured three naves, a transept and a chancel with three apses dedicated to Saint Mary, Saint James, Saint Frutos and the two Saint Johns. It also had a crypt dedicated to San Salvador and a bell tower of a height similar to that of the tower of the Alcázar.
One of the first mentions we have of this new cathedral dates from the year 1117 when the knight Domingo Petit, a Frenchman living in Segovia, bequeathed part of his fortune to cover the cost of building the new Segovia Cathedral, evidence that work on building the cathedral was about to start.
Earlier, in 1115, Pedro de Agen had been appointed Bishop of Segovia. This was the result of an order in 1085 from King Alfonso VI to repopulate Segovia and the need to set up its relevant institutions, among the most important of which were its bishop and a cathedral.
Once Pedro de Agen had been appointed bishop, the city council donated the land that lay between the Church of San Andrés and the Alcázar to the Cathedral Chapter. In addition to the new Segovia Cathedral, this space between the town and the fortress was also used to build a hospital and the bishop’s palace. This created a space in which political power represented by noblemen, and religious power, with the bishop at its head, lived and ruled together.
Alfonso VII was crowned in the year 1126, becoming King of León and Castile. His reign was vital to the building of the cathedral. On completion it was consecrated on July 16, 1228 by the Bishop of Sabina, but in the year 1257 it was consecrated again after a number of alterations were made in 1247.
Since the 8th century Segovia had enjoyed an age of splendor thanks to its strategic position on the transhumance route which made it an important wool and textile trading center. King Enrique IV (1425-1474) saw this splendor in Segovia and also the need for political and religious power to be separate, so he asked for the cathedral to be moved to the Plaza de San Miguel. This request was rejected by the Cathedral Chapter.
Isabel the Catholic was crowned Queen of Castile in the Church of San Miguel in Segovia, indicative of the importance that this city would have during her reign. In 1520, during the reign of Carlos I and V of the Holy Roman Empire (Queen Juana of Castile’s successor), the ComunerosRevolt began (1520-1522) in which commoners from all over Castile rose up against King Carlos I. In the year 1521 the cathedral came under attack many times until eventually, in 1525, the king declared it to be a ruin, due to its damaged state and also due to his desire to remove it from the area of the Alcázar. The Gothic cloister was one of the few parts of the old cathedral not to be demolished.
Third period: 1525 to the present day
Once the ComunerosRevolt was over and the rebels crushed, Charles I of Spain and V of Germany ordered the Cathedral Chapter to build a new cathedral away from the royal palace. The site was chosen and a master builder was sought. The present day cathedral was built on one of the highest points of the city, in the “Plaza Grande”, and on the site of the old Santa Clara Convent.
Santa Clara Convent, which was located at the chevet end of the cathedral, comprised a two-story cloister with its outbuildings, houses, corrals, kitchen garden and church. In the first years of the construction of Segovia Cathedral, which began with what is now the western facade, this church served as the city’s main place of worship before it was finally demolished.
The cathedral’s first architect was Juan Gil de Hontañón. He was aided by his master builder, García de Cubillas, and both were attentively supervised by Canon Juan Rodríguez.
The first stone was placed at the western facade on June 8, 1525 and the cathedral was consecrated on July 16, 1768 by Bishop Juan José Martínez Escalzo, 243 years later. In order to reduce costs, some elements of the old cathedral were moved to the new site. These included the magnificent 15th century cloister designed by Juan Guas and paid for by Bishop Juan Arias Dávila, the chancel, also dating from the 15th century, made of walnut with seats for King Enrique IV and his wife, Juana de Portugal, and various sculptures and paintings.
Rodrigo Gil de Hontañón, the son of Juan Gil de Hontañón, succeeded his father as the cathedral’s architect. He died in 1577, by which year the ambulatory with its 18 chapels had already been started, to be completed in 1607. Gil de Hontañón was succeeded by Juan de Mugaguren who was appointed master builder and, among other tasks, he would be responsible for redesigning the bell tower in 1615.
The final phase of the construction of the cathedral spanned from 1607 to 1685 and the architects Pedro de Brizuela and Francisco de Viadero would play an important part in the shaping of the transept and dome, respectively. Outside, the granite porch of San Frutos, the main entrance to the cathedral, was started in 1608 but not finished until 1633. The design of this porch mimics that of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, albeit on a smaller scale. The image of San Frutos, the patron saint of Segovia, was sculpted by Felipe de Aragón in 1611. There are another two doorways serving as entrances to the cathedral, the Perdón(Forgiveness) doorway on the west façade and the San Geroteo doorway to the south.
Inside the interior of the cathedral there are works that stand out not only for their artistic quality but also because through their beauty they speak of the History of Salvation, the most beautiful of all love stories. Among these works we would highlight the Lamentation over the Body of Christ by Juan de Juni (1571), the triptych by the Flemish painter Ambrosius Benson (c.1532-36); the Tree of Life by Ignacio de Ríes (17th century), the Supine Christ by Gregorio Fernández (17th century), and an altarpiece by José de Churriguer.
Inside the cloister you can visit the Chapter Hall, designed by García de Cubillas. It has a marvelous coffered ceiling dating back to 1559 and a collection of Flemish tapestries which depict scenes from the life of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. In the anteroom to the Chapter Hall you can see the gilded silver monstrance which is used in Corpus Christi processions. Next there is a small museum room with works by Sánchez Coello and Pedro Berruguete, among others. In the middle of the room lies the tomb of Pedro Enríquez de Castilla.
In the interior of Segovia Cathedral the light passing through the Flemish windows immerses visitors in a fascinating world of color. The finest stained glass windows, by such designers as Pierre de Holanda, Pierre de Chiberry, Walter de Roch, Nicolás de Holanda, and Nicolás de Vergara, were installed between 1539 and 1544. Various scenes from the Old and New Testaments and the life of the Virgin Mary, remind we humans that the cathedral evokes the Heavenly Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God on Earth. God is mysteriously present in the cathedral; this is a place of theophany, of the manifestation of the sacred. As written in Saint John's Revelation “it was pure gold, like transparent glass”. In the 18th century some of the stained glass windows were removed and replaced with clear glass in order to give more light to the chancel and the high altar.
The altarpiece of the high altar is the work of the Italian architect Francesco Sabatini. It is dedicated to Our Lady of Peace and created using marble of various colors and bronze, in a clearly Neoclassical style. On its completion the cathedral was consecrated in the year 1768.
In this tour through the magnificent wealth of history that is the cathedral, we should highlight an event of signal importance: the fire caused by a lightning strike on the old, 25 meter tall wooden spire on September 18, 1614. This led to a major redesign of the bell tower that would have an impact on Segovia Cathedral’s current silhouette. The rebuild was funded by donations from institutions and the people of Segovia. Its current structure was designed by the Baroque architect Pedro de Brizuela and built by Juan de Mugaguren at a total cost of 11,000 ducats. The four Gothic buttresses, which had previously supported the American mahogany steeple, were retained, but the new structure was built in stone.