Palma’s amazing Cathedral, La Seu, should not be able to stand upright.
Scholars at the Balearic university made the calculations, and found that the Cathedral is a mathematical impossibility.
But the legendary Cathedral still stands! And there are lots more exciting and little known facts about La Seu…
When king Jaime I of Aragón came by ship to conquer Mallorca from Arab hands, he encountered a most terrible storm. He fervently prayed to the Virgin Mary promising to build a cathedral in her honour if he and his noblemen survived. The ships landed on the beach of what is now the town of Santa Ponsa, about 22 kilometres west of Palma.
They dined well
They continued on horse arriving late at night at the old Bendinat Castle, where they were well received. Legend has it that there was no food to eat so the desperate cook took the one single garlic head he had and roasted it for the conqueror. Jaime I divided the head into small pieces and handed them out among those at the table. According to legend, when they had finished eating it, King Jaime said “Ben em dinat” which in Catalán means “We have dined well”, and hence the name of the castle nowadays: Bendinat. Today this small beautiful neo gothic jewel situated in the Bendinat neighbourhood is in private hands, and you can catch a glimpse of it while driving on the highway from Palma to Portals Nous.
After the conquest was successfully completed in 1229 work on the Cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary was started by King Jaime. It was built right on top of an old Mosque, and for this reason it is the only Catholic cathedral facing directly in the direction of Mecca. Once consecrated, it became the official Cathedral of Mallorca and the temple of Santa Eulalia, which had previously been the Cathedral was “demoted” to just a plain church. Santa Eulalia is also beautiful, but very small and is situated around the corner from Plaza Cort in Palma where you can also enjoy the beauty of the Baroque building housing the Palma Town Hall , built between 1649 and 1680. Before becoming the seat of the Town Hall in the 18th century, this building was used first as a hospital and later as a university.
The rosette window
Construction on the Cathedral started around 1229 and was completed circa 1630. At the Cathedral of today you can enjoy the incredibly spectacular rosette (rose window), the largest in Gothic style, measuring 13 metres in diameter. It is true there are others measuring 15 metres elsewhere, but they are not Gothic, rather Neo-gothic. Curiously, it including a typical Jewish six-point star of David diagram, and it has 1.115 individual pieces of coloured glass, most of which are almost paperthin, being only 12 mm thick and therefore very delicate. This is the reason that in modern times the yearly firecracker show on 24th June , San Juan, Saint John’s day, was moved over to a new venue over at the far pier, where it can be enjoyed from on top of the wall over the Parc de la Mar in front of the Cathedral, without endangering the rose window. As the rosette is situated to coincide with the winter solstice sun rays penetrate it twice a year, on the 2nd of February and on the 11th of November. The light crosses the whole of the Cathedral and reflects a perfect image of the rosette on the opposite wall, thus creating the figure of an 8 – the number of the Infinite. One part of the eight being the actual sun rays coloured by the rosette glass, and the other being a reflection. Both events are open to the public. Another wonderful light effect is produced thanks to the Cathedral’s 61 stained-glass windows which is the reason this church is also known as The Cathedral of Light.
Art and reforms
Famous artists have participated in the decoration or renovation of the Cathedral, the two most famous being Antoni Gaudí (creator of the Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona), and in modern times Miquel Barceló has contributed art work to the inside.
At one point in distant times, there was an architect commissioned to carry out some renovations at the Cathedral. The night before the Archbishop was to inaugurate and bless the completed work, the architect checked over his calculations and discovered he had made a terrible mistake which meant that when the sacks of sand holding up the completed flying buttresses were removed, the whole thing would collapse. Distraught, he committed suicide without telling anybody about the problem, just leaving a note in his books.
An act of God’s will
The sacks were removed, the Archbishop came and blessed the temple, and nothing happened. The Cathedral remained in its place. In the 90’s mathematicians at the Balearic university analysed his calculations and confirmed that the Cathedral is a mathematical impossibility and it can therefore be assumed to be standing only as an Act of God’s Will.
In recent years it has become possible to visit the upper external terraces of the Cathedral, standing over the flying buttresses and offering spectacular views of the sea and old Palma Town. Reservations needed. www.catedraldemallorca.org
Text: Astrid A. Möller.
Photo: Thomas Engstrom.