The Old Cathedral, born and raised with Vitoria

The Cathedral of Santa María de Vitoria, popularly known as the Old Cathedral, is a Gothic temple that began to be built in the 13th century and whose construction, it could be said, has not yet been completed. Many problems have beset it throughout history, although this has not prevented it from becoming the symbol of the city or from receiving numerous awards. It has been a Historic-Artistic Asset since 1931, an Asset of Cultural Interest since 2002, a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the denomination Way to Santiago: French Way and Northern Way. In short, it is a symbol of the city, with which it was born and with which it continues to grow.

A history linked to the city itself

Old Cathedral of Vitoria

Old Cathedral of Vitoria. | Jean-Christophe BENOIST, Wikimedia

The history of the Old Cathedral is linked to the history of the city itself, so the origins of the latter must be summarized to understand the foundations of the former. Sancho VI founded Vitoria in 1181, on the village of Gasteiz, with the intention of making it part of the line of defense of the kingdom of Navarre. At that time, Navarre and Castile were in conflict. This defense was of little use: in 1202, the Castilian King Alfonso VIII conquered it.

After a fire in 1202, the monarch rebuilt part of the city and the original church of Santa Maria was built. It was built to fulfill the defense function with which the entire population center was emerging, but also, of course, as a place of worship. For its location a privileged space was chosen: the building began to be built on top of an old temple, in the highest part of the city. It was integrated as part of the wall, even forcing the main entrance gate to be pulled down to make room for the monumental temple that was to be built. It was during the 13th and 14th centuries when it acquired the Gothic appearance that it still retains today.

At the end of the 15th century, the parish became a collegiate church. Thus, Santa Maria became the most important ecclesiastical center in the area, converted into a cathedral with the creation of the diocese of Vitoria in 1862. Before this last conversion, the reforms and the processes of beautification of the complex began, which in no case was prepared to sustain the changes that were coming. For example, the substitution of a light wooden vault for a heavy stone one. Unable to sustain these horizontal thrusts, the structural balance was altered and there was no turning back. The pillars and arches were deformed, the vaults were filled with cracks and by the 17th century the situation was one of imminent ruin.

The construction of the Cathedral of María Inmaculada, known by the obvious as the New Cathedral, left this half-ruined complex without functions, which began to officiate a daily mass and a major mass on Sundays. The lack of maintenance and conservation worsened the situation. Likewise, the intervention carried out in the sixties of the last century only aggravated the problems that had existed practically since its conception. In 1994 it was closed to the public to undergo a complex restoration plan. The objective was to tackle once and for all the structural problems of this great Gothic temple.

A great Gothic temple

old cathedral

Portico of the Cathedral of Santa Maria. | Zarateman, Wikimedia

Because, in spite of everything, the Old Cathedral of Vitoria is a marvelous temple. It is possible to identify different styles in the complex, since the numerous buildings that make it up were erected at different times. The main and oldest is the church of Santa María. With a Latin cross plan, it has three naves, the central one of greater height, covered with ribbed vaults. Its enormity is surprising.

Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries other elements were added: the bell tower, the choir, the chapels, the altars and the tombs. Most of them have been modified over time. The chapel of Santiago, which was one of the first to be built, is currently the parish church of Santa María. It has an independent access from the square of the same name. Also noteworthy is the portico and the triple doorway, in correspondence with the three naves.

Large, bright and full of details, a visit to this temple is a must when you stop in Vitoria. One must begin by getting to know its foundations. During the last excavation works, more than 200 burials were discovered in the subsoil, a hundred belonging to the XI and XII centuries. Its history is vast. Not in vain, it seems that this Old Cathedral was the inspiration for Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth.

Open for works

Vitoria at nightfall

The rooftops of Vitoria at nightfall. | Shutterstock

In June 2000, the Cathedral of Santa María offered its visitors a different way of getting to know the temple. After putting on a helmet to protect their heads, the curious could discover many nooks and crannies of the cathedral, some of which were under construction. Under the ingenious slogan ‘open for works’, the doors of this historic building were opened to allow those who wished to know the symbol of a city with which it grew up at the same time. The architectural, archaeological and restoration work began to be presented to the public, clearly and openly. This initiative is still going strong and has managed to capture the attention of the whole world.

Since 2014, the Old Cathedral is once again open for worship. The main reason for its conception was thus restored, combining it with the work that is still being carried out. In June of last year, its oldest, the Santa Ana façade, was recovered. It is expected that soon it will be able to shine with the splendor that this temple that was born with the city and that has not stopped growing, even with many obstacles, with this one, deserves.

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