28 January 2020

In search of the ‘Holy Grail’
at Valencia’s Gothic cathedral

Valencia Cathedral was first built in the 13th century but stands on the site of a Roman temple, a Visigoth cathedral and a mosque (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

One of the first places I visited in Valencia yesterday was Valencia Cathedral, the Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady of Valencia (Iglesia Catedral-Basílica Metropolitana de la Asunción de Nuestra Señora de Valencia).

The cathedral, which is almost 800 years old, is said to have been consecrated in 1238 by Archbishop Pere d’Albalat of Tarragona after the Reconquista or Christian conquest of Valencia, and was dedicated to Saint Mary on the orders of James I the Conqueror.

However, this was a site of religious worship from many centuries earlier. At first, a Roman temple stood here, later the Visigoths built a cathedral here, and this was converted into a mosque by the Moors.

There is evidence that some decades after the Christian conquest of Valencia in 1238, the mosque-cathedral remained standing, even with Quranic inscriptions on the walls, until 22 June 1262, when Bishop Andreu d’Albalat resolved to knock it down and build a new cathedral in its place to plans by the architect Arnau Vidal.

Inside Valencia Cathedral … the Muslim mosque corresponded to the transepts (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Hypothetically, the Muslim mosque corresponded to the current transepts of the cathedral, the ‘Apostles’ Gate’ would be the entrance to the mosque, and the Almoina (‘alms’) gate the mihrab.

Most of Valencia Cathedral was built between the 13th century and the 15th century. The predominant architectural style of the cathedral is Valencian Gothic, although it also contains Romanesque, French Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical elements.

The Romanesque Almoina (‘alms’) gate may correspond with the mihrab of the Moorish mosque (Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Stones from neighbouring quarries in Burjassot and Godella were used to build the cathedral, but also from other more distant quarries such as those in Benidorm and Xàbia brough by boat.

The simplicity and sobriety of the cathedral are explained by the fact that it was built quickly to mark the Christian territory against the Muslims, and that it was built not by a king but by the local bourgeoisie.

The ‘Apostles’ Gate’ corresponds to the entrance to the mosque (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Although there are several styles of construction, this cathedral is basically a Gothic building, a cruciform plan with north and south transepts, and a crossing covered by an octagonal tower (cimbori), with an ambulatory and a polygonal apse.

This cathedral was begun at the end of the 13th century (1270-1300) at the same time as the mosque was being demolished. The first part to be finished was the ambulatory with its eight radiating chapels, and the Almoina Romanesque gate.

The crossing was finished between 1300 and 1350 and its west side went up as far as the Baroque ‘Apostles’ Gate.’ Three out of the four sections of the naves and transepts were also built. The crossing tower (cimbori) or eight-sided dome was also begun.

The crossing is covered by an octagonal tower or ‘cimbori’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The chapter house (today the Chapel of the Holy Grail Chapel) dates from 1356-1369). The belfry, known as Micalet or El Miguelete, was built in 1381-1425.

Both the chapter house and the belfry were initially separate from the rest of the church, but in 1459 the architects Francesc Baldomar and Pere Compte expanded the nave and transepts in a further section, known as Arcada Nova, and finally joined both the chapter house and the Micalet with the rest of the cathedral. When this work was completed, the cathedral was 94 metres long and 53.65 metres wide.

Looking towards the west end of Valencia Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Renaissance in the 15th to 16th centuries had little influence on the appearance of the cathedral, but its influences can be seen in the pictorial decoration, such as the High Altar, and the sculptural decoration, including the Resurrection chapel.

Pope Alexander VI, who was born Rodrigo de Borja near Valencia, was still a cardinal when he petitioned the Pope to have Valencia raised to the status of a metropolitan see, a request granted by Pope Innocent VIII in 1492, shortly before Rodrigo de Borja became Pope.

The ‘Iron Gate’ was added in the 18th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

During the Baroque period, the German Konrad Rudolf designed in 1703 the main door of the cathedral in 1703. This is known as the ‘Iron Gate’ because of the cast-iron fence that surrounds it. Rudolf could not finish this because of the War of the Spanish Succession, and this task fell mainly to the sculptors Francisco Vergara and Ignacio Vergara. Its concave shape which gives a unique and studied perspective.

A project to renew the cathedral at the last third of the 18th century aimed to give it a uniform neoclassical appearance, for fashions had changed and the Gothic style was then considered vulgar. Works started in 1774 under the architect Antoni Gilabert Fornés.

During this renovation, the pinnacles were removed outside, and the Gothic structure was masked by stucco and other pseudo-classical elements.

The perspective of the ‘Iron Gate’ was distorted in the 20th century because of the demolition of some adjacent buildings in what was formerly Saragossa Street to expand the square in front of the cathedral, Plaza de la Reina.

The High Altar in Valencia Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The cathedral was declared an historic and artistic landmark by the Spanish government in 1931. However, it was burned during the Spanish Civil War and many of its decorative elements were lost. The choir, located in the central part, was dismantled in 1940 and moved to the bottom of the high altar. The organs, which had suffered major damage during the civil war, were never rebuilt.

The Houses of Canons, once attached to the chapels facing Micalet Street, were demolished in 1970 to restore the earlier appearance of the cathedral, and elements of little or no architectural value were removed.

The Neoclassical elements were removed in 1972 to recover the original Gothic aspect. The only Neoclassical elements spared were most of the ambulatory chapels, and some isolated elements, including the sculptures at the base of the dome (cimbori).

The colourful apse in Valencia Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

After several restorations, the cathedral is now in a good state of preservation, especially after the exhibition in 1999, ‘The Image’s Light.’

The cathedral has many 15th century paintings, some are by local artists, such as Jacomart, others by artists from Rome.

The shrine of the Holy Grail in the chapter house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

But the cathedral’s greatest treasure is a chalice said to be the true Holy Grail. This chalice with Arabic inscriptions was given to the cathedral by king Alfonso V of Aragon in 1436.

This chalice is held in the Chapel of the Holy Grail, where it continues to attract pilgrims. It is made of dark red agate which is mounted by means of a knobbed stem and two curved handles onto a base made from an inverted cup of chalcedony.

The agate cup is about 9 cm in diameter and the total height, including base, is about 17 cm high. The lower part has Arabic inscriptions. It was most likely produced in a Palestinian or Egyptian workshop between the 4th century BC and the 1st century AD.

It is kept with an inventory list on vellum, said to date from AD 262, that came with a lost letter that detailed state-sponsored Roman persecution of Christians that forced the church to split up its treasury and hide it with members, specifically the deacon Saint Lawrence. It is claimed the chalice was used by early Popes.

Christ of the Eucharist by Juan Juanes … a 16th century painting depicting the Valencia Chalice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

However, the first explicit reference to the present Chalice of Valencia is in an inventory of the treasury of the monastery of San Juan de la Peña drawn up by Don Carreras Ramírez, Canon of Zaragoza, on 14 December 1134, when the chalice is described as the one in which ‘Christ Our Lord consecrated his blood.’

The chalice is referred to again in 1399, when it was given by the monastery of San Juan de la Peña to King Martin I of Aragon in exchange for a gold cup.

Pope John Paul II celebrated mass with the chalice in Valencia in 1982. At the closing Mass of the fifth World Meeting of Families in Valencia in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI also celebrated Mass with the chalice, on this occasion saying hunc praeclarum Calicem (‘this most famous chalice’), words in the Roman Canon said to have been used by popes in Rome until the 4th century.

The belfry, known as ‘Micalet’ or ‘El Miguelete’, was built in 1381-1425 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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