Behind the Mosque: The Appropriation of Mosques into Gothic Cathedrals in Reconquista Spain by Claire Sandberg

File:Mosque of Cordoba.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
The Great Mosque of Cordoba

The construction of religious spaces within a society has long served as an important part in establishing authority and creating a community. As the Muslims conquered Spain, they constructed mosques to mark their authority and rule over the country, creating a Muslim community center. As the Christians reclaimed Spain through the Reconquista throughout the 13th to 15th century, rather than destroying these mosques, they renovated and appropriated them as a way of establishing dominance over the previous rulers. 

One of the earliest examples of appropriation of Islamic mosques into Gothic cathedrals can be seen in the reuse and renovation to the Great Mosque of Cordoba. This city of Cordoba was reclaimed by King Fernando III in 1236, at which time all residing Muslims were forced to evacuate. The fall of that year, Fernando had repopulated the city with Christian settlers but the city suffered a drastic population decrease as the settlers had little interest in taking up permanent residence within the city. Following their evacuation from the city, the king drew up a treatise which allowed artisan Muslims to return to the city in exchange for providing the king and his new kingdom their services. These artisans were employed in masonry and carpentry and the treatise required each artisan to provide at least two days of work a year on the new cathedral and other new Christian structures. These skills were put to immediate use in restoring the great jewel of the city, the Great Mosque. After the city changed hands over many years, the mosque had fallen into disrepair. Fernando recognized the importance of the structure in the center of the city and had Muslim carpenters and masons restore the mosque using outdated techniques so as to keep the structure original using original techniques. Mixed in with these restorations were minor renovations to the structure to convert it into a cathedral space for the new Christian city. 

When the Christians first arrived in Cordoba, the first bishop of Córdoba, Lope de Fitero, reconsecrated the mosque into a Christian sacred space through an elaborate seven-step process which was standard practice at the time. This process included the hanging of crosses upon the four major walls, the removal of all corpses not associated with the faith and the mixing of ashes, salt, water and wine into a paste which would then be used to write the Greek and Latin alphabet across the church floor in the shape of a cross.

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Dome of the Villaviciosa

After the church was reconsecrated, the first altar was installed under the Dome of the Villaviciosa, with the nave created by fifteen preceding columns approaching the altar from the west. Major renovations of the mosque were not made until the sixteenth century, but during the period of the Reconquista, certain spaces within the church were altered and privileged over other sections. Other privileged sections within the previous mosque include the baptistry, located near the far west wall of the mosque near the courtyard, and the mihrab. The mihrab, a small niche in the wall facing Mecca, was converted into a safe space for the host, which lined up with the first nave and altar so the worshippers could face the host during their mass. This may have been a key reason in picking the Dome of the Villaviciosa as the new altar. The appropriations and renovations created a “church within a church” space where the Christians could worship without disturbing too much of the original architecture. In the decades following the conquest of Cordoba, small funerary altars and chapels were constructed around the perimeter of the “church-within-a-church” for the wealthier members and private patrons of the society. The relative preservation of the mosque during this time was due to the large impression the mosque had made upon the Christians. The Archbishop of Toledo is said to have considered the Great Mosque of Cordoba to be the most beautiful mosque in the world.


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Floor Plan of Mosque of Cordoba, showing 16th Century church located in the middle

As mentioned previously, the structure was in disrepair when the Christians arrived and the renovations made on the mosque/cathedral caused the understanding of what was Christian modification and what was original to be muddled. Much of the mosque is still intact, including the large courtyard and the iconic multicolored horseshoe arches. In 1489, Bishop Inigo Manrique requested to demolish the central part of the ancient mosque to “create more space for liturgical celebrations.” However, Queen Isabella refused to allow it and a compromise was reached in which five columns were removed near the site of the first altar and the west wall. Two continuous walls were built, connected by arches, to create a compact rectangular Gothic hall. In April 1523, Manrique’s desires were finally fulfilled with new plans for the construction of a large-scale choir and high altar chapel. There was an outcry by the city and town council against the idea, even so far as that the council threatened death to any workmen who helped in the construction of the cathedral without the approval of the monarchy. Unfortunately, Emperor Charles V, who had never visited the mosque, approved the renovation. The center of the mosque was taken down and a new cathedral was built on the space in September of 1523. On a later visit to the new cathedral three years later on his way to Granada, the Emperor regretted his decision to allow the construction, stating “you have built here what you or anyone might have built anywhere else, but you have destroyed what was unique in the world.”  

The act of appropriating an important religious building, such as the Great Mosque of Cordoba, is a clear display of authority. By converting the mosque into a cathedral and forcing the Muslims to work on it, it established Christianity as the new power within the city and illustrated their strength and power through control over the Muslim population. The Great Mosque is one of, if not the most important Islamic structure for the Muslims of Spain. By appropriating it, the Christians were working to erase or dominate that powerful history. The Islamic architecture became a part of Christian design, not just appropriating the Muslim’s architecture, but appropriating their history. Appropriating the structure also served as a display of the Christian’s conquest, exoticising the Muslims and using their architectural features and structures as a sign of conquest and domination. Notably, Fernando III reclaimed the bells of Santiago de Compostela that had been looted by Almanzor and installed them as lamps at Cordoba. This was just another public sign of their victory over the Muslims. This domination was also illustrated in the removal of the shops that surrounded the mosque, which served as a community space for the city and a source of income for many Muslims. Destorying them gave control over the community spaces of the city and depleted the income for many Muslims, another way of controlling them. 

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Cathedral of Seville

While appropriation worked as a tool for dominance in Cordoba, as the Reconquista moved further south towards North Africa, the appropriation wasn’t enough to establish a strong presence along the border of Christian and Muslim rule. The second-to-last city conquered by the Christians before the final conquest of Spain with the capture of Granada was the city of Seville. Just north of Granada, the city was right on the border of the Muslim rule. After conquering the city in 1248, the Reconquista slowed and did not reach Granada until 1492. 

The city of Seville was conquered by King Fernando III in 1248, with much help from his son, Alfonso X. The rulers understood the importance of capturing Seville, the last major city before Granada. Their control over Seville allowed the Christians to establish their authority and prepare for the final conquest of Granada almost 250 years later. It placed the Christians right at the Muslim’s doorstep, a move that was important politically and tactically for the Spanish Monarchy who made Seville their new Royal city. The Muslims also recognized the importance of this move and realized what was in store for their beloved city when the Christians arrived. The conquest of Seville saw the Muslims beg with Alfonso, who served as head of the conquest as his father was growing old, and pleaded for him to allow them to destroy their much loved mosque and it’s glorious minaret, the Giralda. They would have rather seen their beautiful mosque destroyed than allow it to be converted to a monument of Christianity like they had seen throughout Spain during the Reconquista. Alfonso refused their offer, threatening to kill any Muslim who removed so much as one brick from the mosque. The new king was making plans to preserve the iconic Giralda and transform the mosque into the royal Cathedral within the new royal city. 

Original floor plan of Mosque at Seville
Floor Plan of Seville Cathedral after alterations

The conquest of Seville was the realization of many political ambitions for the soon-to-be king, Alfonso X. Following the death of his father, Fernando III, in 1252, Alfonso began construction to modify the existing mosque. His modifications were done in an attempt to proclaim his father’s great successes and devotion to Christianity. The new cathedral also worked to prove Alfonso’s devotion during his campaign to become Holy Roman Emperor. His dream was to create a glorious Gothic cathedral which would display his power and devotion, as well as connect his new royal city back to Christian Europe. 

During the 13th and 14th centuries, the mosque was kept intact because of financial constraints that did not allow for the construction of the grand new cathedral of Alfonso’s dreams. During this period, there were only small changes made to the structure, most notably was the burial of King Fernando III under the main altar as a symbol of his great devotion to the conversion of Spain to Christianity. Alfonso also moved the body of his mother from Burgos to Seville so she could be buried next to her husband. The mosque was officially proclaimed a cathedral on December 22nd, 1248, which marked the 185th anniversary of the removal of the remains of St. Isidore from Muslim Seville to Christian Leon. Following the burial of Fernando, the cathedral at Seville was made the new royal funerary church and saw many notable Spaniards buried beneath its floors before and after the construction of the grand Gothic cathedral in the 15th century. During his reign, Alfonso X set forth to convert every mosque in Seville to gothic cathedrals. This resulted in a drastic increase in churches and there were more churches in the city of Seville than there were people to attend them. While this may seem wasteful, it created a heavy presence of Christianity in the city. These churches served as physical and symbolic reminders of the authority that the Christians had over the Muslims and also created a symbolic fortress of faith within the city.

The cathedral-mosque was divided up into parts by various groups, who limited their attention to particular areas only. The actual structure of the mosque went neglected and fell into severe disrepair. On August 14th, 1356, a large earthquake damaged much of the cathedral which sped up the process to construct the Gothic cathedral of Alfonso X’s dreams. Only the minaret and the doorway remained after the earthquake. Information about the cathedral-mosque seems to stop by 1454, at which point it is assumed that the earlier building no longer existed apart from the courtyard, the Courtyard of the Orange Trees and the minaret, which had become a belltower for the cathedral. The construction of the existing structure began in 1433 and the final stone was laid on October 10th, 1506. This was a relatively quick construction in comparison to other cathedrals built in the Iberian Peninsula, only taking around seventy years. The seventy-three year construction raised what would later become known as the third largest Gothic cathedral in Europe. The grandiose cathedral required more materials and workmen than the city could provide, much of the ashlar and timber were imported by sea and river. The workforce was also imported and was comprised of members of the entirety of European Christendom, from modern-day Italy, France, Germany and the Netherlands. The construction was conducted under the observation of the Cathedral Chapter and the funds needed to construct the glorious cathedral were collected through indulgences from the city. The cathedral was built directly on the foundation of the mosque, which lead to a unique rectangular shaped cathedral with a minimal transept. Even before the cathedral was fully finished, it was setting for the christening of John, Prince of the Asturias, the only male offspring of Ferdinand and Isabella who survived to adulthood. The ceremony took place within the Capilla de la Antigua chapel, which includes an old pillar from the old cathedral-mosque that had the image of ‘Blessed Virgin Mary’ on it. It is the only pillar preserved in situ because of its popularity and serves as a site of much veneration. The choice to save and restore spaces within the Cathedral of Seville centered around the opinion of the public and the royal family. Many aspects of the original mosque were recognized as beautiful by the royal family and the citizens of the city, most notably the bell-tower, La Giralda. It is for that reason that the minaret/bell-tower was prominently featured and is still a jewel of the city of Seville. 

La Giralda Bell Tower In Seville Photograph by Artur Bogacki
La Giralda

The belltower of the Cathedral of Seville, La Giralda, has a powerful history that the Christians were more than happy to appropriate. Built in Seville around 1184 under the supervision of al-Mansur at the dying request of his father, the minaret was built upon the site of a Roman spring. The tower has lasted eight centuries and survived a number of earthquakes, including the one that destroyed the mosque in the 15th century. The tower has remained primarily the same throughout the eight centuries, only seeing changes to the top of the minaret as it came under new rule. When the Christians arrived in 1248, they removed the tower of golden “apples” which topped the minaret and replaced it with a bell so it could serve as their new belltower. The tower is a beacon of victory for the Christians as well as a trophy of war. The tower is decorated in interlacing arches that create an elegant diamond pattern that is celebrated by Christians and Muslims alike. It was a motif that would be repeated by Christians and preserved throughout the Iberian Peninsula.The Christians also inclosed the top level and created windows around the level from which it would have been possible to see for miles. This was another important feature of the new bell-tower for the Christians; the ability to watch over their new royal city and protect it from any impending attacks. Seville is located just barely 250 miles from Granada, the capital of the Andalusia at the time, a distance that may have made more than a few members of the city uneasy. The bell-tower serves as a look-out place where the Christians could protect the new royal city from any invaders from the South. This tower, the beacon of victory over the city, only added to Alfonso’s desired “fortress of faith” within the city of Seville. 

Fernando III de Castilla 02.jpg
Fernando III
Alfonso X el Sabio en El libro de los juegos.jpg
Alfonso X

A complication in the reclaiming of these mosques is that both Fernando III and his son Alfonso X referred to themselves as the “Kings of the Three Religions”. In the lands that the Christians conquered, they promised the Muslims and Jews could continue to practice their religion and during the rule of these two kings, there was relative coexistence. Despite this toleration, every conquered town’s principal mosque was seized by the Christians and transformed into a cathedral. By capturing the most important religious building and celebrating Mass in its interior, they created a public display of the Christians superiority. They often found more elaborate ways to justify their reclamation, commonly through miracles and their connection to the Visigoths.  At both Cordoba and Seville, tradition says that the mosques were built upon the foundation of Visigothic churches and gave the sacred spaces a deeper connection to Christianity before the Christians even arrived. An example of this is the appearance of the Virgin at Seville. When the Muslims conquered Seville, it is said that they walled over an image of “Nuestra Senora de la Antigua” after unsuccessful attempts at erasing it from the pillar.

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Nuestra Senora de Antiqua, Capilla de la Antique

When Fernando III arrived in Seville, it was said that the wall tumbled down and the image of the Virgin was revealed to dispel any doubts that the site had Visigothic origins. The image is the painting of the Virgin much venerated within the Capilla de la Antigua chapel, celebrated to this day. While these stories may not be completely true, they only added to the Christian’s belief that the city and the mosque was rightfully theirs to rule and convert. 

The conversion of mosques into cathedrals serves as a way for the Christian Kingdom to establish themselves as a powerful and undeniable presence in their new cities. Upon their arrival, their authority was uncertain because of the large Muslim populations and even stronger Islamic cultural heritage. It was through appropriation rather than complete destruction that they proclaimed the established heritage as their own, manipulating it into a new Christian heritage. The Islamic motifs became well-loved and integrated into the Spanish Christian identity as a way of stripping the Muslim’s of their stylistic heritage in another way of domination. The appropriation of heritage is amongst one of the largest acts of dominance used by conquers, seen in other examples throughout history such as the Greeks over the Romans. The disallowing of existing culture to make claim to the years of history and work that went into the architecture and designs gives the new rulers power over the people and power over history. While there may have been smaller reasons that caused delays of construction and remodeling, such as financial constraints in Seville or the hesitation to ruin something as beautiful as the Great Mosque of Cordoba, the power was there. It was a power that was supported by God, established by kings dedicated to purifying and uniting their country, and marked in history by years of blood, sweat and stone. 

-Claire Sandberg


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Edwards, J. H. “Religious Belief and Social Conformity: The ‘Converso’ Problem in Late-Medieval Cordoba.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 31 (1981): 115. Print.

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“Historic Centre of Cordoba.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Web. 21 May 2015.

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Ruiz, Begoña Alonso  and Alfonso Jiménes Martín. “A Fifteenth-Century Plan of the Cathedral of Seville.” Architectural History 55 (2012): 57-77.

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