In 1665, Fray Lorenzo de San Nicolás (1593–1679), wrote, ‘Los edificios grandes son los que hazen grandes Maestros: oy està España, y las demas Provincias, no para emprender edificios grandes, sino para conservar los que tienen hechos’ [Great buildings are done by great Masters: the current situation in Spain and its Provinces is not for undertaking grand projects, but rather maintaining those that we already have] (San Nicolás 1665: 216). For Fray Lorenzo de San Nicolás, one of the leading voices in seventeenth-century Spanish architecture, to publish this statement (Díaz Moreno 2004: 162), it could be assumed that the financial and social crises that had been affecting Spain since the close of the sixteenth century were also having an impact on the practice and praxis of architecture. The wars on multiple fronts — both at home and abroad — were the prime cause of the financial instability that crippled seventeenth-century Spain (Font de Villanueva 2005: 330). Domestic and foreign capital was siphoned northwards to pay for these bellicose ventures, leaving the Crown repeatedly bankrupt and the nation drained. The social, economic and spiritual situation was further compounded by the bouts of pestilence that struck throughout the century, decimating the population of major cities, most notably that of Seville. It seemed that this alchemical reversal of fortune had turned Spain’s ‘golden age’ into ‘one of bronze’, as was wryly noted by the economic historian Earl J. Hamilton (1943: 477). When it came time to constructing the narrative of Spanish architecture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, historians similarly looked back at this period and the paucity of large-scale new projects it had bequeathed, viewing its production, and those responsible for it, as a tarnished shadow of the preceding century. Historians and critics have written that the decline of the empire was accompanied by the decadence of its architecture. The construction of this position as assumed historical fact can be clearly seen in the words of the influential architect and theoretician Diego de Villanueva (1715–1774), who pronounced in 1766 that ‘Architecture’ had ‘died together with those masters who had worked on El Escorial’ (Villanueva 1979: 317).

These negative topoi associated with crisis and failure have, in many cases, been integrated into much of the contemporary historiography of Spanish architecture of the seventeenth century, consequently relegating that architecture to a place of lesser importance within the western-European canon. This is especially the case in non-Spanish language literature that has yet to assimilate recent scholarship about the architecture of the Iberian Baroque. Within the extant historiography, a thread of teleological reasoning continues to address ‘what went wrong’ in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Spain (Ringrose 1996: 14, 23). Of particular concern to this investigation is the role that this question played in the writing of Spanish architectural history.

Despite the set of unfavourable circumstances that mediated the operation and development of architecture during the Castilian crisis, it may seem surprising, if not contradictory, that the period from 1630 through to the close of the century should be labelled as anything but ‘vacant’ (García Morales 1991: 57). This most unlikely of ground fomented a revolutionary change in the manner in which architecture was conceived, practiced and consumed. Instead of focussing on the ‘death of architecture’ as a foregone assumption, this paper asks how our reading of this period in crisis shifts if the conventional association of a lack of grand architectural markers is disengaged from the rhetoric of failure. By re-reading this moment of ‘crisis’, aspects typically ignored or disparaged by conventional historiography begin to emerge as innovative and significant developments, in particular those that relate to the money management of projects and the new modes of architectural production and practice that arose with the intromission of artists and artisans into the design market.

Whereas the initial — and subsequent — histories coupled architecture and crisis together without taking into account the complexities of fiscal and monetary instabilities, this investigation draws on recent scholarship on the economic conditions in Castile, and in particular, those of cathedral fábricas, as a basis for the analysis. Despite the economic turbulence of the seventeenth century, the Church remained by far the largest commissioning body of new architectural work. Architects protested over the erosion of their position and remuneration within Castilian society, and theoreticians lamented the risks of lapsing decorum, whereas the Church was far more concerned with the economic reality which forcibly altered the commissioning, contracting and construction of works. Historiography has been markedly biased in giving voice to the former, whilst ignoring, almost in totality, the latter. Taking as an example the Cathedral of Seville and in particular, the course of the construction of the church of the Sagrario (Fig. 1), the principal building project undertaken by the Cathedral Chapter during the first half of the seventeenth century, it will be argued that the financial concerns of inflation and monetary instability, together with the emergent cultural conditions of the time, encouraged a shift away from the construction of large architectural ventures with long time-frame projections, to those of a more immediate, even ephemeral, nature with high rhetorical expediency.

Figure 1 

Exterior view of the church of the Sagrario, Seville Cathedral. Photo by author.

The contexts of the economic conditions that ushered in the seventeenth century and the effect these had on cathedrals and their building programmes are presented in the first two sections of the paper. It will be shown that far from acting as one monolithic nation-state or empire — and thus subject to a single historical argument (Kamen 2008: 15) — the multitude of regions, cities and archdioceses that formed ‘Castile’ operated within the crisis in varying manners dependent on the resources available to them.

The central sections of the paper focus on the city of Seville and in particular the construction of the church of the Sagrario. As Seville had been the wealthiest city in the Empire’s ‘golden age’ and its Parnassus of artistic and architectural production, the case of the Sagrario — straddling a period of socio-economic apogee and decline — serves as a salient example of the changes that occurred in the procurement, design and execution of architecture in seventeenth-century Castile. Particular focus will be paid to the money management strategies of the cathedral fábrica and the ramifications these had on the design decision making for the completion of the interior. It will question the accepted historical supposition that Castilian architecture was in fact in crisis. Was the negative perception of architects of the time one purely conditioned from the consequences of the financial uncertainty of the period, or can the erosion of the traditional role of the architect be attributed to a radical shift in the conception, creation and consumption of design as offered by its alternate practitioners? By citing key architectural projects undertaken in late-seventeenth century Seville, it will be argued that the collaborative process of realising architecture — architects together with participation from other guilds — produced a highly effective method of designing and delivering projects.

Eighteenth and nineteenth-century critics have generally cited the realisation of the interior of the Sagrario as the moment at which the architecture of Seville began its decadence at the hands of painters, sculptors, silversmiths and cabinet makers (Ceán Bermúdez 1804: 158). As a means of concluding the argument, the rhetoric and framing of the ‘architectural crisis’ of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries will be analysed through the lens of the architectural historiography and critique that proceeded it. The accounts presented of the Sagrario by the two pioneering historians and commentators of the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth century — Antonio Ponz and Agustín Ceán Bermúdez — will be used to demonstrate the Spanish Enlightenment’s complete rejection of the work of the previous age, the perceived ignorance of their creators and the wanton squander of the patrons. The abhorrence of the Baroque is cast as an essential act of moral and political reform, one in which the academies and academicians were seen to play an important role in restoring architecture to its rightful place. It will be argued that it is this legacy that has shaped the historiography of seventeenth-century Castilian architecture, one that explicitly sought to render innovation into crisis.

The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century

Dos daños se conocen temporales, que son pobreza, y falta de gente; los Espirituales son infinitos […] el Reino en peligro, de que resulta un general desconsuelo, y tal que casi toca en desesperación de remedio. Una cosa es verlo, y otra decirlo. [Two of the afflictions are known to be worldly, they are poverty and depopulation; those of the spirit however, are infinite […] the Kingdom is in danger, this results in general despondency, affecting nearly everyone, all so desperate for a cure. It is one thing to observe it and another to pronounce it.] (Moncada 1619/1794: 2)

By 1618 it had become apparent to Felipe III that the economic and societal conditions of Spain were grave. The proposition of reform that the Consejo de Castilla presented to the king the following year outlined the litany of afflictions, their perceived sources and the proposed action for their solution. The issues cited ranged from depopulation of rural areas, oppressive taxation of the lower classes, excessive spending on luxury goods, the lack of enterprise and uncontrolled clericism (Fernández Navarrete 1792: 1–32). The following reigns of Felipe IV and Carlos II oversaw what have come to be considered as years of ‘total crisis’, with wars on multiple fronts, further financial instability and decimating plagues (Bonet Correa 1984: 13). Throughout the century numerous remedies were proposed and applied to address the problems besetting the Spanish empire, and in particular, the kingdom of Castile that bore the brunt of the financial responsibilities of its maintenance. Yet despite this programme of treatment, the tangible consequence of reform was not felt until the end of the seventeenth century. According to the economic historian David Ringrose (1987: 13) Spain was defined by a condition whereby ‘dynastic and religious principles were put above economic stability, peace and prosperity’, inherently rendering efforts of reform as ineffectual at worst, or painfully slow at best. The implications for architecture of this position indicate a contradictory panorama of the seventeenth century. On the one hand, the two institutional pillars of Church and state guaranteed a continuation of commissions, albeit of varying scale and nature. On the other hand, the maintenance of this paradigm exaggerated an overall economic climate unfavourable towards the general flourishing of the profession outside of these limited realms.

The Church was by far the larger protagonist in terms of the geographic scope and variety of commissions instigated throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Belda et al. 1997: 48). Whereas the Crown principally constricted its building programme within the orbit of its Madrid-centred universe, the Counter Reformation expanded its spiritual world into the chancels, bays and niches of every cathedral, church, and convent throughout Castile, the Americas and Asia. This opened up an almost inexhaustible physical space for new architectural intervention. In addition to the new interior ventures, there was also the obligation to continue and complete the building programmes that had been instigated previously, especially in the case of large-scale projects such as cathedrals. It is in these instances that the effects of the economic crisis can most clearly be seen.

Cathedral building in the age of crisis: The fábrica and its financing

Distinct from its northern European counterparts, the cathedral-age of Spain lasted well into the eighteenth century. The seven-hundred-year campaign against the Muslim territories of the Iberian Peninsula reached its conclusion in 1492 with the capture of Granada. As new territories were gained from north to south, mosques were initially adapted and reconfigured to serve the Christian rite that was now enacted inside. Over time, as resources became available, many of these structures were demolished and new gothic cathedrals — a lo moderno — built in their place. In areas such as Andalusia where the transferal from Muslim to Christian control occurred much later than the rest of the peninsula, the lag between occupation and reconstruction extended through to the sixteenth century. The gargantuan project of Seville was one of the few Andalusian cathedrals to be completed in one continuous phase between 1402 and 1519 — excluding the Royal Chapel and other dependant spaces discussed in the second section of the paper. Those in the other episcopates were still not near completion by the commencement of the seventeenth century. The consequences of the crisis on major cathedral works varied from diocese to diocese, though across the range there was a general reduction in the workforce employed. Accompanying this was an elongation of the time frame.

The panorama of cathedral building in the seventeenth century was anything but homogenous. For long-established dioceses or those of particular prestige and financial means, the period of the seventeenth century presented a variety of conditions in relation to architectural works undertaken. In general, for large-scale works such as major rebuilding of the fabric or substantial additions, delays, paralysations and financial shortfalls were equally as common in wealthy dioceses as in those of more recent establishment or lesser prestige and patrimony. However, despite the dilatation of building works, the larger and richer dioceses were better able to ride out the severest moments of the crisis and had greater economic resilience, enabling the commissioning and provision of new architectural and interior projects, once conditions had improved.

Castilian ecclesiastical income was drawn from three primary sources: landholdings (both urban and rural), tithes, and donative offerings (Rodríguez Molina 2004: 114). Whilst income from rented lands was more or less stable, tithes, which were tied to agricultural production and incomes, were a volatile component of the income base, as were the vagaries of votive offerings. Of the income derived from tithes, one third was nominally given over to the fábrica — the administrative department of an ecclesiastical establishment that managed the maintenance of the church building and the provision of the liturgy. Of this share, only a third was actually dedicated to the maintenance and construction of the edifice, wages of general staff, the cost of the liturgy and liturgical ornaments, as well as the costs and salaries of the musical chapel. The other two thirds was claimed by the Crown from the fábrica as a required contribution (Rodríguez Molina 2004: 121), though often much of this money eventually found its way back into the Church, returned as pious donations. The actual manner of how each diocese allocated money to the fábrica varied, as in some cases such as Seville, the fábrica had its own stream of income generated from assets associated with its own accounts, whilst others were purely dependent on the general diocesan income. The fábricas of parishes and convents within a diocese likewise typically received a portion of the one third of the respective tithe contribution to a fábrica. The fábricas of many collegiate churches and religious houses with aristocratic ties often received additional annual donations which increased the possibilities of instigating or maintaining works during difficult financial periods (Martín Riego 1991: 65).

It should be noted that the principal role of the fábrica and its systems of finance was for the general performance and maintenance of the liturgy and the spaces that housed it. New architectural work, or large-scale interior ventures, were considered as ‘extraordinary’ expenses outside normal, relatively fixed and forecasted budgeting (Rey Castelao 2010: 312). The burden of these ‘extraordinary’ expenses fell on the shoulders of the members of the chapter — archbishop, bishop and benefice holders. The total income of the prelate and chapter was one third of the tithes, in addition to other pensions, incomes and benefits received. As such, these individuals were considered obliged to contribute substantially to the funding of major works. As part of his legacy, a prelate was also expected to promote projects and works that would enhance the splendour and solemnity of the liturgy, either through new or improved architecture, art works, furnishings, ornaments, and musical instruments such as organs. Aside from the contributions by prelates and chapter, in certain circumstances donations from the Crown, nobility, city council and citizens also supplemented the funding of these extraordinary projects (Rodríguez de Ceballos 1989: 80).

The seventeenth century presented the Church with many threats to its income base, especially war, environmental disasters and pestilence. During the Spanish-Portuguese war of the 1640s, those dioceses whose frontier territories were subject to the theatre of war experienced a sharp drop in income. Those greatest affected were the reinos of Seville, Extremadura, León and Galicia (Catalán Martínez 1997: 196). As a consequence, there is evidence of a retardation or cessation in building work throughout the affected dioceses (Bonet Correa 1984: 20). In the face of volatile income the Church, and in particular, the secular clergy, developed a series of strategies to minimise the consequences, where possible, of financial instabilities, crown taxes and internal competition from within itself for the provision of spiritual services (Catalán Martínez 2010: 190). Despite the general condition of crisis, the financial state of the Castilian Church was in fact quite resilient. Its broad base of multiple income streams and its enormous influence on the economy allowed its interests to be well protected, though not completely immune to the turbulence that faced many other sectors of the society, as shall be seen in the examples of large-scale architectural projects cited below (Rawlings 2006: 36).

A relatively wealthy diocese, such as the Andalusian see of Jaén, struggled throughout the seventeenth century to maintain constancy in the construction of its cathedral project. A large portion of the funds came directly from the donation of bishops and benefices, both incumbent and vacant. The shortfalls in funds and the associated cash flow issues were further compounded by the taxes payable to the Crown — subsidio and the excusado — for the war campaigns being waged, an inescapable condition faced by all dioceses (Higueras Maldonado 2006: 132).

A case in point from the middle of the seventeenth century illustrates the financial difficulties associated with personal subsidisation of such massive projects, even for wealthy individuals. Bishop Fernando Andrade Castro (bp. 1648–64) had promised a decennial donation of his annual remuneration of 7000 ducados, with an additional 2000 ducados that had been committed by his predecessor. For reasons undisclosed, Andrade had difficulties in fulfilling his donative promise of the additional 2000 ducados from 1658 onwards (Higueras Maldonado 2006: 116). The poor financial state of the cathedral’s fábrica in 1678 forced it to dismiss labourers on the works. Rather than a total paralysation, which risked deterioration in the fabric of the already constructed sections, the work force was reduced to a skeletal minimum as evidenced by the Chapter minutes that recorded ‘solo queden los que pudiere conservar con tan poca renta que le esta aplicada’ [only keep those we can maintain with the limited funds that are available] (Higueras Maldonado 2005: 242). This form of action was repeated again some six years later when the Chapter was faced with similar financial difficulties.

In the case of the cathedral of Málaga, work stopped in the year 1632, leaving only the chancel complete. Work on the nave was not resumed until the last decade of the century (Camacho Martínez 2010: 234). A worse situation was encountered in Guadix, where work on the new cathedral stopped entirely in 1594 and did not resume until the beginning of the eighteenth century (Gómez-Moreno Calera 2009: 212).

The cities of Andalusia were not the only sites of large-scale cathedral construction. The construction of the new cathedral of Segovia stalled in 1630. The economic hardships faced by the populace of the city greatly affected the revenue of the diocese and as such the funds available to the fábrica. Expenses relating to the construction were pared back to the minimum needed to save the works from total paralysis, a state which was to remain for a good part of the century (Cillanueva de Santos 2009: 166). A similarly slow evolution of works occurred in the new cathedral of Salamanca (Berriochoa Sánchez-Moreno 1986: 404). In the capital of the kingdom and heart of the empire ambitious plans for a new cathedral in Madrid never rose from the ground (Banner 2009: 178). Perhaps the clearest testament to the consequences of the economic crisis of the seventeenth century is the ‘glorious shipwreck’ of Valladolid cathedral (Chueca Goitia 1999: 21). Begun as a grand collegiate church, only the nave section of Juan de Herrera’s project had been completed by its 1668 consecration as a cathedral, after which point the Chapter seemed to have accepted the impossibility of funding the construction of the remaining half. Future funds were instead used for the façades and interior (Fig. 2).

Figure 2 

The incomplete Cathedral of Valladolid. Image from Photo by Angeldp (Creative Commons license).

The problems surrounding the financing of the church of the Sagrario of Seville Cathedral — seat of the second wealthiest archdiocese in the Spanish empire, only after the primacy of Toledo — highlight the extent to which the economic and social crises of the seventeenth century influenced the architectural production of the time. In the following section an analysis of the constrained financial conditions that accompanied its construction will be used to elucidate a number of influencing factors that may have contributed to a shift in design practices from the 1630s onwards.

The Sagrario of Seville Cathedral

The plan to construct a new sacramental chapel for Seville Cathedral was approved in 1615. The project was aimed at addressing the inadequacies of the extant chapel, deemed to be inappropriate in scale and poor in condition. Construction of the new chapel and parish church commenced in 1618. The design was by Miguel de Zumárraga (d. 1630), an aparejador — the term for an architectural assistant who had not undergone guild examination — who assumed the title and duties of maestro mayor for the project until his death in 1630 (Bravo Bernal 2008: 67). From this date onwards progress on the work slowed down: the vaulting had not yet commenced, and workers were beginning to be dismissed owing to a deterioration in the finances of the fábrica — a direct cause of inflation and shortages throughout the 1630s (Bravo Bernal 2008: 112). This is further evidenced by the delays in completing the vaulting in the following decade when another six workers were dismissed, seriously compromising the progress of the project.

In 1641 war began between Spain and Portugal, reducing the revenues of the archdiocese whose western edge formed a lengthy border with its neighbour. Whilst the battle with Portugal may have affected the income of the Cathedral, the greatest social and spiritual disaster came with the devastating plague of 1649. Work on construction stopped completely. The brick flooring installed in 1643 had to be ripped up to accommodate mass graves for the enormous number of dead; the resultant stench was apparently so foul that no work could be done on the site for five months.

After the setbacks of the 1640s the vaults were finally closed in 1655 and the Sagrario was inaugurated with much pomp and splendour in 1662. The events were documented in prose by the Cathedral canon and poet Fernando de la Torre Farfán (1609–77) in Templo Panegírico (Torre Farfán 1663) and through a vivid colour painting held in the Cathedral collection. Whilst the eulogic texts of Templo Panegírico and the sheer magnificence of the inauguration ceremonies are masterful examples of seventeenth-century rhetoric and propaganda, they nonetheless testify to the ability of the Cathedral Chapter, its patrons, the architects, craftspeople and the citizens of Seville to undertake and realise major architectural endeavours during times of crisis. The trade-off for the eventual completion displays the two-fold compromise that mark nearly all architectural projects faced with financing issues: dilatation of the time frame of works and the lowering of specifications and finishes.

The two principal projects undertaken by the Cathedral during the 1600s were the Sagrario and the retrochoir, also work of Zumárraga. The ambition of the Cathedral Chapter to build, or rebuild, was far more restrained in the seventeenth century, especially compared with the architectural legacy of the previous century. This is best exemplified by a survey of the building programme of the sixteenth century: the sacristy, the Chapter House, the Royal Chapel and a new belfry.

The new sacristy, designed by the Cathedral’s maestro mayor, Diego de Riaño (d. 1534), was commenced in 1530 and completed by his successor, Martín de Gaínza (d. 1566), in 1543 — a total of thirteen years (Fig. 3). The construction process of the elliptical Chapter House, commenced in 1558 by Hernan Ruíz II (c.1514–69), spanned thirty-four years, owing not so much to financial problems as to project-management issues conflicting with the other major building works taking place in the Cathedral, namely the Royal Chapel (Morales 1996: 47). This voluminous addition to the eastern end of the cathedral was begun in 1551 by Gaínza. After the death of the architect in 1556, Ruiz II finished the Chapel’s cupola, completed in 1568 in a time span of seventeen years (Fig. 4).

Figure 3 

Interior of the sacristy, Seville Cathedral. Image by author.

Figure 4 

Interior of the Royal Chapel, Seville Cathedral. Image from Photo by José Luis Filipo Cabana (Creative Commons license).

Simultaneously, the ancient Almoravid minaret was being modernised with a new belfry, also designed by Ruiz II. Begun in the same year as the Chapter House, it was completed in ten years. These grand projects, all of stone save the belfry, rendered the periphery of the Gothic structure an almost continuous work zone for the majority of the sixteenth century, bequeathing Spain with the finest suite of ecclesiastical architecture from the period (Fig. 5).

Figure 5 

The Giralda in the background, with the cupola of the sacristy in the foreground, Seville Cathedral. Photo by author.

The works on the Cathedral formed the nucleus of an intense building programme that occurred in the city during the entire sixteenth century. Other major projects were the enormous extra-muros Hospital de las Cinco Llagas, also the work of Gaínza and later Ruiz II (Fig. 6); the new city hall by Riaño, Ruiz II and Benvenuto Tortello (1558–91); the church of the Jesuit professed house by cleric-architect Bartolomé Bustamante (1501–70), later completed by Ruiz II; and the last monument of the century, the Exchange, built opposite the Cathedral, designed by the royal architect Juan de Herrera (1530–97) in 1584.

Figure 6 

The principal façade of the former Hospital de las Cinco Llagas. Image from Photo by Turismo Sevilla (Creative Commons license).

In the case of Seville, not only do the majority of these projects exemplify the sixteenth-century model of uninterrupted work, free from critical shortages of funding (Gardoqui García 2002: 126), they also continued the relatively new practice of stone-based architecture. Large-scale use of stonework was only introduced to the city with the commencement of the Cathedral in the fifteenth century. The completion of the Sagrario, with its elaborately carved stone vaults, is the last example of this tradition in Seville. As shall be analysed in the following section, the combination of inflation, instability in monetary value and decreased Church income meant that architecture, like that realised in Seville in the 1500s, could no longer be sustained as the paradigm. It did not, however, signify the end of architecture as so many critics of the late-eighteenth century lamented.

Money Matters

Pero al paso que con las riquezas nacionales ivan faltando las obras, faltaron los Arquitectos, y á mediado el siglo XVII ya no quedaba ninguno. [With the passing of the nation’s wealth new works were wanting, architects became scarce, and by the middle of the 17th century there were none left.] (Mengs 1780: 180)

Seville, being sited on an alluvial plain without easy access to quality stone, developed a highly sophisticated tradition of brick-based architecture, taking advantage of the readily available clay. Before the construction of the present cathedral in the fifteenth century the use of stone was so uncommon in the city that a stonemasons’ guild never formed (Ollero Lobato 2001: 136). The nearest suitable quarries were some seventy-five kilometres down-river, where stone was extracted from the Sierra San Cristóbal near Jeréz de la Frontera and ferried through to Seville. The closest overland sources were ten kilometres away in Alcalá de Guadaíra; sixty-five kilometres away in Móron de la Frontera; or further afield in Estepa, some one hundred kilometres away (Cómez Ramos 2001: 147). Irrespective of its source, the operation of transporting large blocks of stone more than one day’s haulage distance was an incredibly expensive exercise (Rodríguez Estévez 2006: 182). The closing of the vaults in the Sagrario was to mark the end of the use of stone construction for churches within Seville, and future use of the material was reserved for façades and other key detailing elements of the interior and exterior. Important ecclesiastical structures such as the collegiate church of El Salvador (1682 rebuild) reserved the use of stonework for the principal structural elements — columns, buttressing, arches and bracing elements — whilst the other major projects of the latter half of the seventeenth century, including the convent church of San Pablo el Real, the hospital and church of la Santa Caridad, the naval college of San Telmo and all conventual chapels, re-embraced the use of brickwork (Sancho Corbacho 1984: 15). Was it the economic crisis that led to the abandonment of stone as the material of primary architectural expression for large-scale architecture in Seville, or was it a shift in the manner in which architecture was beginning to be conceived?

Evidence from the Sagrario project sheds some light on the question. In April 1658 a decision was reached by members of the Chapter in regard to the materials to be used for the construction of the sacristy of the new church. One of the more vocal members of the Chapter, Rodrigo de Quintanilla, Archdean of Jérez, argued that the sacristy should be realised in stone to conform with the grandeur of the Sagrario, similar to the impressive sixteenth-century one that the Cathedral possessed. The administrator of the fábrica, the Archdean of Seville, Alonso Ramírez de Arellano, argued that it should be of brick for better union with the extant Almoravid fabric of the cloister. The Chapter decided on brick as stone was more expensive and especially given as they had ‘little money to spend’ (Bravo Bernal 2008: 117) — poignant words for one of the grandest ecclesiastical institutions in Christendom. A similar point relating to the issues of the cash flow of the fábrica and materials can be found back in May 1656. The stone for the flooring was to be ordered from Genoa, yet the fábrica at that point had no money to pay for it. Desperate to reach completion of the works, the fábrica took out a three-month loan from a wealthy citizen, at a five-percent interest rate (Bravo Bernal 2008: 116).

Whilst there is no data pertaining to the cost of stone and labour in Seville at this point in the century, there is evidence from within the Castilian context that in the first decade of the 1600s, the price of materials and the wages of stonemasons were twice those of the 1590s (Losada Varea 2007: 23). Nominal wages had increased due to high inflation, whereas the real wages of workers had decreased owing to the devaluation of the Castilian currency. This ‘masks’ the reality of the situation in relation to high-cost, long-term ventures such as large-scale construction (Rey Castelao 2010: 314). The scholar Fernando Quiles García saw the difference in positions of the archdeans Quintanilla and Ramírez as representative of the shift that was occurring in Seville within the patronage and practice of architecture during the crisis. Quiles argued that Quintanilla, with his concern for a maintenance of stone construction and grandness, desired a continuation of the pre-crisis architectural legacy of the city, whilst Ramírez represented the new breed of patrons — progressive promoters of emergent practices, economic and material frugality and expeditious project management (Quiles García 2007: 90).

Another case from the completion of the sacristy — the plaster decoration of the vaults — further highlights the problematic of material specification, financing and a shift in the architectural paradigm of seventeenth-century Castile. The Sagrario is seen to hold a special place in the canon of Spanish architectural history. Its commencement in 1618 and its belated completion in 1662 spans a watershed period around the 1630s. The historian Francisco Javier Herrera García (1992: 117) saw this point as a ‘change of direction’ for Spanish architecture and an ‘overcoming’ of the ‘cold and technical forms’ of the Herreran school and its variants. José Miguel Muñoz Jiménez (1992) cited this period as the one in which ended the ‘Mannerist experiment’ in Spain that had started in 1560 with the commencement of El Escorial. In his study on seventeenth-century Seville architecture Juan Antonio Arenillas (2005) hypothesised that the ‘change of direction’ that occurred at this time was the result of an evolution in the role of design and design practitioners within architectural production, a situation further accentuated by the crisis. Arenillas argued that in the traditional model of architectural production, as exemplified in the works of the sixteenth century, the project was embodied in the design or traza by the architect — maestro mayor. It was the maestro mayor’s vision, knowledge, skill and experience of the rules of both correct architecture and practical construction that governed all aspects of the project, whether it was brickwork, stonemasonry, carpentry or the elaboration of interior detail and ornament. With the economic crisis of the 1630s, the time frame of projects was elongated, opening up opportunity for a wider range of disciplines to participate in the design process, especially those traditionally external to it (Arenillas 2005: 57). In the case of the Sagrario, as with many other examples for the following one hundred years, painters, sculptors, joiners and silversmiths actively began to engage in the design of architecture and most potently within the interior.

Within the interior of the Sagrario the first manifestation of this shift was in the carving of the nave vaults in 1655 by the brothers Borja (Figs. 7, 8, 9). Pedro and Miguel Borja were commissioned to carve the stone vault immediately before the crossing and again the following year to realise further work on the remaining bays (Bravo Bernal 2008: 116), in effect ‘camouflaging’ the sober classical structure of Zumárraga’s design (Recio Mir 2003: 56). The historian Álvaro Recio Mir (2002:135) described the process of transformation taking place within the Sagrario as ‘baroquización’ — becoming baroque. After completing the work on the nave vaults they were then commissioned to realise similar work on the sacristy vaults, though this time in plaster — yeseria — and in a space half the size. Whilst the plasterwork in the sacristy no longer survives, contemporary examples, possibly by the Borjas, can be found in the church of Santa María la Blanca, a few streets away from the Cathedral (Fig. 10).

Figure 7 

Interior of the Sagrario, looking from the entry towards the high altar. Photo by author.

Figure 8 

Interior of the Sagrario. Termination of the nave. The door that connects the Sagrario with the Cathedral is at the base of the image. The carving work by the Borjas can be seen in the vaults above. Image from Photo by Turismo de Sevilla (Creative Commons license).

Figure 9 

Interior of the Sagrario. The Epistle side of the nave. Image from Photo by Turismo de Sevilla (Creative Commons license).

Figure 10 

The yeserias on the vaults of the church of Santa María la Blanca, Seville. Image from Photo by Isabel Moguer (Creative Commons license).

As previously mentioned, the construction of the sacristy was executed in brick and not stone, as in the main church, owing to a lack of funds. For the stone carving work the Borjas were paid a total of 22,000 reales. The payment was delivered in three sums upon the termination of each section of the works between 1655 and 1666. For the work in the sacristy they received a total of 33,400 reales, paid in two portions, the first amount of 15,400 in 1657 and the remaining 18,000 in 1659 (Recio Mir 2001: 802). It is curious that the amount paid for work in plaster — a supposedly cheap and common material — should cost almost fifty percent more than the same task in stone. Recio Mir put forward the idea that the high cost and prolonged time frame for the yeserias of the Sagrario allude to complex and costly techniques used at the time that are now lost to contemporary researchers, making comparison between the two materials — stone and plaster — difficult (Recio Mir 2001: 802).

Was the aesthetic result of yeserias so desirable that a price higher than stonework was accepted? In essence Recio Mir questioned the hypothesis of the architectural historian George Kubler (1957: 36). Kubler, and many other historians, posited that the use of cheaper, more common materials such as brick, plaster and paints — characteristic of Spanish ecclesiastical architecture and interiors of the Baroque — was a result of economic imperatives brought ahead by the crisis. In the face of an uncertain economic, political and spiritual climate, it is thought that designers and patrons attempted to maintain, at least in terms of appearance, the image of the glory days of the recent past, adopting an intensification of ornament and detail as a ‘mask that hid the real situation’ (Rodríguez de Ceballos 1985: 43).

It is precisely during the period in which the Borjas were realising and charging for their work on the Sagrario that the monetary situation in Spain was at its most perilous. The real value of Castilian money had been falling since the beginning of the century, causing an increase in the nominal salaries of building labourers of around fifty percent between 1590 and 1630 (Pleguezuelo 2000: 78). However, the actual income earned by artisans such as the Borjas decreased somewhere between 14 to 28 per cent (Losada Vera 2007: 23). As silver and gold was removed from the domestic economy to pay for the external wars, copper money in the form of the vellón became the day-to-day coinage, even though amounts paid may appear cited as other silver-based, or gold-based denominations such as ducado or real (Motomura 1997: 346). With each new issue of a debased and revalued coinage, the Church was obliged by the Crown to ‘buy’ the new money and trade in their reserves of older-issue coinage of higher real worth (Rey Castelao 2010: 315). One such instance occurred during the period in question with the Borjas. In 1651 a series of conflicting royal edicts relating to the restamping and revaluing of copper coinage were issued, retracted and emended, causing general confusion and high level anxiety amongst those who held large reserves of capital in the form of metal currency (Mateu Ibars 1982). In 1654 the calderilla, copper coinage removed in the edict from three years prior, was reissued, or extant examples restamped with a 50 per cent withholding. In September 1658 another edict to restamp the vellón was issued, rescinded in May 1659, newly issued in September 1660 and rescinded in October of the same year (Velde & Weber 2000: 16). Each time a coin was restamped or reissued its face value would have increased whilst its real value in metal had decreased.

One can only imagine the confusion and uncertainty that this must have caused for those responsible for the accounting in the fábricas across the dioceses of Castile — such as Archdean Ramírez de Arellano — especially in relation to the adjustment of architectural works: existing quotes and contracts, material purchase, orders placed, forecasting for future expenses, reserves and income. The increased sum that the Borjas received for their work in plaster between 1657 and 1659 may have been due to the changing value (both face and real) of the coinage, which if in essence was devalued, would have meant that the nominal wage received would be a higher figure, also taking into account the high rate of inflation.

In an attempt to control the costs in relation to the completion of the Sagrario, new means of managing the project were implemented in terms of design, labour and materials. From 1654 onwards contracts for works on the Sagrario changed from a per-diem rate to an up-front fixed price. This safeguarded the fábrica against any delays that may have resulted on its part due to the paralysis of works, shortages of funds, acts of God such as the plague, or attempts by the artisans to increase their diminishing real income by dragging out the time frame of the work. In addition to these measures, staff fortunate enough to be on a wage from the fábrica saw their rates frozen (Bravo Bernal 2008: 114).

Similar situations can be seen in other ecclesiastical ventures throughout Castile. The work on the Cathedral of Segovia gives us further insight into the effects of inflation on the nominal costs of a project. From the beginning of construction in 1524 through to 1699 the average inflation on the build was 275 per cent, though in the period between 1664 and 1679 it was an astonishing 400 per cent (Cillanueva Santos 2009: 160). During this same period, the great pilgrimage cathedral of Santiago de Compostela initiated a massive building programme of interior remodelling and exterior reconstruction under the direction of the visionary canon José Vega y Verdugo (1623–96). His time as administrator of the Cathedral fábrica (1658–72) was marked by ‘uncontrolled spending’ during the height of inflationary pressures (Rey Castelao 2010: 314). Similarly, Alonso Ramírez de Arellano expedited the works on the Sagrario of Seville Cathedral, resulting in its eventual completion, and like Vega y Verdugo, he actively promoted and implemented the most innovative artistic and design practices to be found.

The apparent paradox manifest in commissioning new works in times of crisis can be explained in part on the desire by those who held reserves of capital in the form of currency to dispose of it as quickly as possible, lest its value be eroded by the dual threats of further devaluations of the currency or inflation. This was the situation that faced the Castilian Church. Whilst their income was no doubt affected by plagues, wars, low returns on bonds, loans and rentals, it was nonetheless a guaranteed stream of money that never stopped (Rodríguez Molina 2004: 130), meaning that stocked reserves of currency were at risk. Building activity was weak, especially when compared with that of the sixteenth century, yet like the income stream that supported it, it did not stop completely, instead changing course. Whatever remained of the limited ecclesiastical resources was now being channelled into renovations, remodelling and high-cost sumptuary items such as ecclesiastical ornaments, furnishings and ephemerae (Cruz Isidoro 2001: 230). The historian Ofelia Rey Castelao (2010: 315) noted, of the nature of spending of the fábrica under Vega y Verdugo, that investing in sumptuary items was a means of negating high inflation. By diverting funds into the accounts of the fábrica — whether they derived from the personal incomes of prelates or through other diocesan dependencies — and investing, or spending, the totality of the capital in symbolic items and works, inflation could be combatted. In this manner it was still possible for the Church to hold onto its assets, even though they may have been physically transformed by the process of design. The Crown — either through taxation, poor fiscal or monetary policy — could not raid the Church’s reserves of metallic money if it was invested in material objects and forms dedicated to the realisation of the liturgical rite.

This tactic addressed the clergy’s own anxiety of maintaining a dignified level of material comfort accorded to their stature within society. This was a real concern for a highly clericised society such as Spain, especially in the face of a consistent decline in the general real standard of living during the seventeenth century (Barrio Gozalo 2010: 255). It could also be read as a spiritual manoeuvre, sealing a pact between the citizens of a city, its Church and God, gambling, as it were, for a better future through architecture (Cruz Isidoro 2001: 230). The splendour that Seville manifested throughout the 1660s and 1670s in devotional architecture and ephemerae, during the worst years of the plague and financial crisis, best illustrate this last point (Romero Torres 2006: 180). In the case of Seville, drawn-out projects, such as new architecture in stone, were perhaps no longer seen as appealing or wise investments for patrons. Nor may they have satisfied the immediacy demanded of a populace whose existence was rendered precarious in the face of pestilence. Whether this was the nascence of the chronophobic ‘modern’ in Castilian architecture (Trachtenberg 2010: 15, 17), new projects that could be realised quickly and with high rhetorical expediency became the new design paradigm in the culture of the Castilian Baroque. These were designs that could elicit maximum emotional response from a visitor whilst simultaneously reflecting the maximum glory onto the patron and creators. As shall be discussed in the following section, this new mode of creation and production sparked fierce debate between architects, artists and artisans. For the traditional practitioners of architecture it was evidence of a culture and kingdom in crisis, whereas for painters, joiners and silversmiths it heralded new opportunities in markets that had been previously closed.

The End of Architecture?

Porque que tiene que ver la viçarria de una pintura, con la fortaleza de un edificio? ¿qué los cortes de un retablo, con los cortes de la canteri? […] El daño del Reyno es notable […] luciendo ellos a su costa, mueren en los hospitales, como yo los he visto. [What does the gallantry of a painting have to do with the strength of a building? What does the carving of a timber reredos have to do with the carving of stonework? […] The damage to the kingdom is grave […] They shine at the cost of the architects who are dying in the poor house, as I have witnessed.] (San Nicolás 1639: 164)

The historian Agustín Ceán Bermúdez (1749–1829) put the date that marked the total decadence of Spanish architecture as 1648, the year that Juan Gómez de Mora died: royal architect, nephew of Francisco de Mora the disciple of Juan de Herrera, and the last of the grand legacy (1804: 135). Whilst for later historians of the generation of Ceán Bermúdez this was a year of lament, for others closer to the event in question it was one of celebration. Writing from the first quarter of the eighteenth century, Antonio Palomino (1653–1726) showered praise on the painter-cum-architect Alonso Cano (1601–67) in 1649 for his innovative and novel designs — ‘obra de tan nuevo gusto’ [work of such new style]. According to Palomino, Cano’s design for an ephemeral arch erected in Madrid demonstrated ‘such new taste in the members and proportions of the architecture’ that the arch was admired by all those in the fields of architecture, art and design — artifices. Cano had, it seemed, in one deft stroke ‘brushed aside’ the formulaic rules of the ‘classical tradition that had, to that date been the norm’ (Palomino 1724: 576). Abstract, intellectual concerns of space and correctness of rule were being displaced with designs and experiences that offered direct appeal and engagement with the masses, as the noted historian Antonio Bonet Correa put it — a general desire to ‘be amazed’ (Bonet Correa 1990: 10).

Whilst San Nicolás was accurate in his observation of the encroaching role of painters, sculptors and other guilds into the design market traditionally held solely by architects, it did not signify the end of architecture. Architects and the mode of architecture they had been practising seemed no longer to respond to the needs of a society in crisis, not economically, politically or spiritually. A city in its political and economic ascendency, such as Seville in the 1500s, had previously provided a rich panorama for architects, according them with both fame and fortune, as was the case with Ruíz II (Morales 1996: 87). This is in contrast to the following century, where the general condition of crisis offered few new large-scale architectural projects and where penury was never far away, even for the most illustrious of the maestros mayores (García Morales 1991: 233). As exemplified in Cano, it was painters and sculptors who were now being hailed as the heroes of architecture. The crisis meant that the classical stone-based architectural tradition that had become rooted in Seville at the very first rumblings of economic reversal in the 1590s had undergone a ‘forced adaptation’ commencing around 1630 (Pleguezuelo 2000: 95), and finally reaching its new state towards the last third of the century with the interior of the Sagrario (Recio Mir 2003: 65). This was seen as a defeat by the historians of the late eighteenth century, symbolic of a country and culture that had lost its way. It was evidence of a culture where the insatiable pursuit of novelty reigned over the moderating measure of reason. However, if we take the attitude of Palomino, accepting forced change as a process of reinvention, and a demonstration of astute, responsive design thinking and practice, perhaps the presence of crisis can be read as an instigator of progress rather than one of paucity.

The debate, which had started in the first quarter of the seventeenth century as a theoretical basis for the defence of architecture, had by the 1650s come to represent a real ‘battle’ of social and economic imperatives for all parties concerned (Blasco Esquivias 2005: 141). The battle lines were drawn between those who viewed architecture as that which was conceived and produced by maestros, who had received theoretical and practical training as well as experience on site, against the ‘universal artists’ who posited expertise through the rules of painting, sculpture, perspective and associated sciences. As has been reiterated in this investigation, the commissioning or continuation of new projects did not cease in totality, even during the most severe periods of crisis. However, there was a clear decrease in the amount and nature of new architecture commissioned in the seventeenth century in comparison to the prior century. One key source of commissions for new architectural projects, the regular clergy, showed such a reduction. In relation to the archdiocese of Seville, 169 convents and monasteries were built in the sixteenth century, the number decreasing to half this figure in the next century (Rodríguez Molina 2004: 130). Besides the economic contexts there is also the issue of saturation, both in the physical terms of available land as well as in terms of number of souls. For the most populous city in Castile, the seventeenth century opened in a manner in which the majority of its parishes found their churches in relatively good repair; whatever overflow of parishioners there may have been was absorbed by the glut of conventual chapels (Pleguezuelo 2000: 20). It appears that patrons heeded the words of San Nicolás and did not venture on grand new building projects, rather maintaining the architectural fabric they had and investing their capital into the interior renovation or remodelling (García Morales 1991: 57). If the pretext of the case in defence of traditional architecture was the experience, knowledge and implementation of the rules of sound construction and building, architects and their defenders made themselves redundant in the new market established by the crisis. Their skill set was no longer unique nor necessarily needed for the forms of architectural interventions that now encrusted themselves onto extant structures and spaces, whose existence was fleeting and liminal or whose design emphasised the illusionary and theatrical. The model of the El Escorial and its abstraction had passed; what was now in demand was a ‘pictorial and illusionist art that satisfied allegoric and emblematic programmes’ (Tovar Martín 2002: 303). This opened the way into architecture for painters and other artisans more accustomed and attuned to working in this manner. In addition to the rhetorical demands was the economic imperative that work should be realised in a shorter period of time than traditional architectural work and with fewer funds.

This new mode of architecture is perhaps best illustrated by the series of projects that the Chapter of Seville Cathedral commissioned for the canonisation festivities of Saint Ferdinand III in 1671. Saint Ferdinand III was the Castilian monarch who had returned Seville to Christian rule in 1248. After years of concerted petitioning to Rome, official recognition of his cult was granted in early 1671. By this stage of the century the city had lost half its population to the plague of 1649 and was in general economic decline as other competing port cities, notably Cádiz, eroded Seville’s precarious trade monopoly to the Americas. The spectacular festivities brought together the creative talents of Estebán Murillo (1617–82), Juan Valdés Leal (1622–90), Francisco de Herrera el mozo (1622–85), Bernardo Simón de Pineda (1638–1702), Pedro Roldán (1624–99) and Francisco de Ribas (1616–79) under the patronage of Archbishop Ambrosio Spínola y Guzmán (bp. 1669–84). The creative direction and rhetorical programme were principally devised by the canons Justino de Neve y Chaves (1625–85), Juan de Loaysa (1633–1709) and Fernando de la Torre Farfán, the latter responsible for the production of a book documenting the celebrations and ephemerae (Torre Farfán 1671). The team of artists and their studios collaborated on all aspects of the production, from the design of interior decorations and architectural ephemerae through to the planning of the large pictographic painted cloth cycles that enveloped the interior and the exterior of the cathedral (d’Arcy 2013: 89) (Fig. 11).

Figure 11 

The ephemeral altarpiece erected in the Sagrario, Seville Cathedral, 1671. Source: Torre Farfán 1671: 227. Image reproduced with permission from the Biblioteca de la Universidad de Sevilla.

The interior of the cathedral and its immediate surrounds were transformed through a series of large-scale ephemeral architectural installations. These ‘stupendous machines’ (Palomino 1724: 645) were constructed out of painted cloth on timber frame structures and combined with elements of sculpture, painting and silverwork, devised and assembled in just over two months (Torre Farfán 1671: 9). It is of interest that not a single arquitecto puro was counted amongst the stellar team. Murillo, Valdés Leal and Herrera were painters — though Herrera would come to be appointed Royal Architect in 1677 — whilst Roldán was a sculptor. Pineda and Ribas, both ensambladores — a form of specialised joinery relating particularly to altarpieces and liturgical furnishings — were lauded as the city’s top architects equal to the masters of ancient Greece or Rome (Ortiz de Zúñiga 1677: 801). Despite the fleeting nature of the ephemeral constructions, the cost of their production was still large. After the festivities had come to their conclusion Neve was charged with auctioning off the material of the ephemerae to recuperate as much of the costs as possible.

An instance from 1665 highlights the severity that the crisis had on financing works, even those of an ephemeral nature. It was customary Castilian habit to commemorate the passing of a monarch by erecting an ephemeral funerary monument, generally commissioned and paid for by the municipal council. In the case of the death of Felipe IV in September 1665, the city council of Seville had to change the designs of the monument and delay the celebrations by seven months. The original tender had been awarded to the city architect Pedro Sánchez Falconete (1586–1666). However, soon afterwards the council broke with convention and opened the design to public tender. This time the architect Diego de Zuñiga was awarded the project for designs that were ‘the most authoritative for the least cost’. Financial difficulty meant that Zuñiga’s project was abandoned soon after construction of it had started. Instead, Falconete was charged with assembling bits and pieces scavenged from the Cathedral stores to create a funerary monument out of extant elements from previous ephemerae, painted cloth on timber frames and sculptural works, realising a saving of 4000 reales in total (Baena Gallé 1995: 389). However, the commissioning and contracting of the ephemeraie for the inauguration of the Sagrario three years earlier, along with those of the grand 1671 festivities, suggests that the scale and production of these events may be a testament to the greater liquidity of the Cathedral rather than that of the city council.

With the stabilisation of the Castilian economy towards the end of the seventeenth century came a renewed programme of large-scale architectural construction in Seville. The reconstruction of the collegiate church of El Salvador commenced in 1674 (Fig. 12), the grandiose naval college of San Telmo in 1682 (Fig. 13), the reconstruction of the convent of San Pablo el Real in 1691 (Fig. 14) and the Jesuit noviciate of San Luis in 1699 are just some of the numerous projects that marked the close of the century.

Figure 12 

Façade of the ex-collegiate church of El Salvador, Seville. Image from Copyright James Gordon (Creative Commons license).

Figure 13 

The exterior of the former naval college of San Telmo. Image from Copyright José Estepa (Creative Commons license).

Figure 14 

The interior of the church of the former convent of San Pablo el Real. View from the narthex towards the High Altar. Image from Copyright Turismo de Sevilla Estepa (Creative Commons license).

Whilst the scale of these projects is on par with those of the sixteenth century, the manner in which they were conceived differs greatly. None of these major ecclesiastical projects were built entirely in stone, instead utilising brick as the principal material, or in the case of El Salvador, stone with brick. In those geographic areas of the archdiocese where stone was readily available it was used. The new collegiate church of Jeréz de la Frontera, a city close to the quarries, echoes formal and spatial traits of its companion in Seville city, though rendered entirely in stone (Fig. 15).

Figure 15 

Exterior of the Cathedral of Jeréz de la Frontera. Image from Copyright Francis Schmitt (Creative Commons license).

El Salvador in Seville only utilised stone for its principal structural elements, whilst the cupola, vaults, and some of the envelope walls were built from brick, because it was a lighter and cheaper option (Mendoza 2008: 143–50) (Fig. 16).

Figure 16 

Interior of the ex–collegiate church of El Salvador, Seville. Photo by author.

Where stone was deployed in the city’s churches, it was for interior applications of high-symbolic function rather than spatial or architectonic, and its precious nature was particularly emphasised. The eighteenth-century examples of the red marble altarpieces found in the crossing of the Sagrario, work of Tomás Sánchez Reciente (c.1690–1776) and the chapel of Nuestra Señora de la Antigua in the Cathedral by Pedro Duque de Cornejo (1677–1757), bear witness to this practice (Fig. 17).

Figure 17 

The red marble retablo of the Magdalene located in the Epistle transept. Image from Copyright Eric Wooten (Creative Commons license).

The return to the traditional building practices of brick, plaster, paint and tiles is evident in the façades, towers and domes of these new churches and chapels; what can actually be perceived within the interior is only the change in design practices that had by this point become institutionalised within the realisation of architecture. Whereas the projects of the sixteenth century typically bore the mark of a sole design vision, with structure, space and ornament carved from one material, the work that emerged as a consequence of the crisis and the cultural contexts that accompanied it resulted in a design process that was far more collaborative in nature.

The monopoly of the architect as the unique provider of design services had been broken. The example of El Salvador provides one such instance. In addition to the two architects Esteban García and Pedro Romero, the names of Pineda, Roldán, Valdés Leal and Francisco Rodríguez, a silversmith, formed part of the design team. However, the near-complete church collapsed only hours after its consecration in 1679. The architectural historian Eugenio Llaguno y Amirola (1724–99) blamed this disaster on what he perceived as the absolute ‘ineptitude’ of the painters and sculptors in ‘architectural matters’ (Llaguno y Amirola 1829b: 67). To ascribe culpability to painters, sculptors and silversmiths is perhaps an act of misrepresentation. Whilst a number of the cross-disciplinary practitioners such as Cano had a background in architecture, because of familial associations, or acquired it independently, many of the new participants in architectural design would not have been involved in the sizing and scaling of structural elements or in the technical realisation of construction details, far beyond their knowledge base and well away from their fields of interest.

The focus of interest for the new practice of design lay in the choreography of light, colour, texture and detail for altarpieces, choir stalls, organ cases, pulpits, sculpture, and niches. It was in many senses an ‘interior architecture’ that drew on skills not necessarily aligned to the traditions of building or stonemasonry. It now became possible for a silversmith to design an interior element, such as an altarpiece, and have it executed by a stonemason with additional figural elements provided by a sculptor, as occurred in the previously cited marble altarpieces of the Sagrario (Cuellar Contreras 1992), or in the case of El Salvador, provide guidance on the design of the façade. These essentially scenographic elements of the exterior and interior without doubt claimed a considerable portion of work that had previously been part of the larger architectural project. Sometimes, as happened in the second half of the seventeenth century, such additional elements came to be seen as integral. Architects and architecture did not disappear as a result of the crisis. New forms and practices of architecture emerged, perhaps best illustrated in the work of the architect Leonardo de Figueroa (c.1650–1730), whose schemes actively engaged with the other architectural participants of the interior. The centralised church of San Luis displays a complete fusion of architecture, art, scenography and sculpture, most significantly with the suite of altarpieces by Pedro Duque de Cornejo, rightly considered as the zenith of this tradition born out of crisis (Figs. 18, 19).

Figure 18 

Exterior of the former Jesuit novitiate church of San Luis de los Franceses, Seville. Image from Copyright José Luis Filpo (Creative Commons license).

Figure 19 

Interior of the former Jesuit novitiate church of San Luis de los Franceses, Seville. View of the High Altar. Photo by author.

A Historiography of Crisis: The Sagrario as a Site of ‘Decadence and Disfigurement’

Para poder desterrar de España la peste anterior era necesario un brazo poderoso y un maestro sabio, quienes con la autoridad y con el ejemplo confundiesen la ignorancia de tanto pseudo-arquitecto. [In order to banish the former epidemic from Spain a strong arm and a wise master were needed, who with authority and example would confound the ignorance of so many a pseudo-architect.] (Lllaguno y Amirola 1829a: 37)

On the first of November 1700 the last Habsburg monarch of Spain, Carlos II, died without issue. At the time his reign was seen, both from within and outside of Spain, as the calamitous consequence of the decadence of the House of Austria, physically as well as symbolically (Kamen 1980: 13). Spain’s new Bourbon monarch and court wanted to disassociate themselves from the legacy and regime of crisis that they had replaced. Fresh from Versailles, Felipe V imposed a centralised model of government on what had been a collection of semi-autonomous regions and similarly began consolidating artistic control and production in Madrid and its satellites of royal residences.

Spanish architects and their local baroque tastes — as exemplified in the works previously cited — were replaced at court by, at first, the French and followed later by the Italians, bringing with them a classicised, international and courtly baroque, as well as the tradition of an academy-based training for artists and architects (Tovar Martín 1989: 33–49). The new architectural language imported from over the Pyrenees and the Alps was adopted for royal buildings. It did not mix or borrow from local elements, never risking possible contamination with its autochthonous counterpart that ‘reeked of populism’ (Rodríguez de Ceballos 2003: 638). Despite the court’s rejection of the local style and its architects, those peripheral and regional institutions that had weathered the financial crisis of the seventeenth century and the dynastic change of the eighteenth — most resiliently of all, the Church — continued to develop and build in this mode, now fuelled by a relatively buoyant economy.

Since its foundation in 1744 the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando had effectively been an instrument with no real power; a tertulia of the artistic elite, it provided grounds for debate, training and a platform for the initial reform of the arts in Spain. Despite the fact that in Italy and France the influences of the Baroque and Rococo were gradually being eroded by the new sentiments of a revived Classicism, artists and architects trained in the Spanish academy system were discontented with the apparent failure of their aesthetic programme to make any headway against the juggernaut of the entrenched practices of the previous century (García Melero 1991: 286). Well into the eighteenth century, painters, carpenters, joiners and silversmiths were still involved in the design, configuration and construction of ecclesiastical architecture, especially interiors. Following the model established in the periods of economic crisis of the preceding century, commissioning patrons would convene competitions and choose the best design irrespective of training or formation. The fact that designers-cum-architects who had risen through the guild system with no theoretical training in architecture were being awarded the most lucrative and prestigious commissions outraged the members of the Academia, just as it had angered seventeenth-century architects like San Nicolás.

In a series of petitions to Carlos III, the Academia pressed the king that it be granted the complete and absolute control of all design projects and the design process, and also be the sole body responsible for the training and registering of architects in the Spanish realm. The stream of letters from the Academia to the king were full of attacks on the work of the ‘lesser artists’ — labelling their creations as ‘absurd’, ‘a blight’ on Spanish culture, a source of ‘national shame’, ‘a waste of money’ and ‘licentious’ (García Melero 1991: 336). The guild system was associated with the antiquated and moribund ways of the previous centuries, and their lack of ‘correct’ education had repeatedly been cited as being responsible for the degradation of the architecture of the nation. Throughout the last quarter of the eighteenth century a series of royal edicts enacting the recommendations of the Academia eventually handed complete control of royal, civic and ecclesiastical design to academy-trained practitioners.

The foundation of the Academia had also introduced to Spain a tradition of critical writing on the arts and architecture. Whereas in previous centuries, as exemplified in the turgid hyperbole of Torre Farfán, it had been the scale, magnificence or cost of an object that merited its inclusion in an architectural description, it now turned to a value-based assessment constructed around fixed criteria of aesthetics, praxis and precedent: a method that the authors considered authoritative, guided by scientific and philosophical reason.

Antonio Ponz (1725–92), the secretary of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes, wrote Viage de España (Madrid, 1772–94), an eighteen-volume description of the art and architecture of Spain. It stands out as the pioneering work of Spanish architectural and art historiography. Ponz journeyed around Spain, visiting each city and large town, documenting works, their authors, and their qualities, and, of particular interest to this study, passing judgment on their merit, at least as he perceived them. Ponz was one the greatest critics of the Baroque and made it his personal mission to see its permanent eradication physically, through destruction, and psychologically, through education and example.

The register of Ponz’s writing changes dramatically when confronted with a work which he considers abhorrent. The normally precise and considered tone turns to rage. One of Ponz’s most acerbic attacks was on the reredos of the high altar — retablo mayor — of the Sagrario of Seville Cathedral.

Since the completion of the Sagrario in 1662 the church had been without a permanent retablo mayor. The consecration of the church had been celebrated with an ephemeral structure of painted timber, considered to have acted as a full-scale maquette for the permanent one to be built of marble. Plans for the marble project were abandoned the following year owing to the extremely high cost associated with stone work and as has been discussed, a recurrent shortage of funds (Recio Mir 2003: 64, 68). Nearly a decade later the Sagrario was still without a retablo, as evidenced in the engraving found in Torre Farfán’s Fiestas depicting the ephemeral altar designed by Pineda with paintings by Murillo. It was not until the beginning of the next century that the definitive project was to come to fruition.

In 1705 an open competition was held for the design of the retablo. Won by Jerónimo Balbás (c.1680–1748), it was completed in 1709, gilded in 1712 and finally consecrated after structural reinforcement of the crypt vaults above which it stood (Serrera 1990: 136; Caro Quesada 1988: 63). The brief for the design was that it be as magnificent and freely inspired as possible without any limitation of cost or imagination (‘para que se haga el retablo mayor del Sagrario con cuanta magnificencia y liberalidad pudiera ser […] que la obra del retablo sea muy costosa y sin limitación algúna’) (Serrera 1990: 64). Balbás obliged Cardinal Archbishop Manuel Arias y Porres (bp. 1702–17), sponsor of the project, and the Cathedral Chapter, their wish. The reported cost of the retablo was 1,227,390 reales and was lauded at the time as one of the greatest creations ever (Céan Bermúdez 1804: 182). The enormous sum spent on the project testifies to the improved financial liquidity of the Chapter in the eighteenth century compared with that of the seventeenth. The work won Balbás such acclaim that the Cathedral of Mexico City awarded him the contracts for the retablos of the Royal Chapel, the retrochoir and the lost baldachin of the High Altar, known as el Ciprés.

Ponz attacked the structure and its designer:

faltos de orden, y concierto. Se hizo al principio del siglo para ser infeliz norma, según los aplausos que mereció su artífice, de infinitas monstruosidades en esta línea, que desde entonces hasta ahora se han ido haciendo en esta Ciudad, y fuera de ella […] Los caprichos, extravagancias, y puerilidades […] se eche á delirar. [completely lacking order and harmony. It was realised at the beginning of the century, done to the unfortunate norm of the times, its author was showered with praise and likewise the other infinite monstrosities of a similar nature which until now have been built in this city [Seville] and its surrounds […] The capriccios, extravagances and puerilities […] are enough to drive one mad.] (Ponz 1786: 9–10)

Ponz then raised the issue of demolishing the retablo due to having heard that there were possible structural problems caused by its weight — though it is highly probable that it was in fact Ponz who gave new currency to this old concern. Ponz’s attack on the altars of Seville is particularly fierce, as he considered it tragic that such a noble city, once home to Spain’s greatest artists, was now the source of mockery and national shame due to its baroque altarpieces (Ponz 1786: 77). It is not only the altars which are the focus of Ponz’s vitriol; the organ cases of the Cathedral designed in 1724 by Luis de Vilches (c.1682–1743) also received heavy criticism:

Quando haya la suerte de parar la consideracion en semejantes disparates, podemos creer, que no solamente no se permitirá su execucion sino que los ya executados se entregarán á las llamas, purificando de este modo los lugares santos. [When will we have the good fortune of putting an end to the conception of such ridiculous things? Not only stopping their future realisation but also casting those already built into the flames, thus purifying these holy places.] (Ponz 1786: 43)

The tradition of Ponz was continued by Juan Agustín Ceán Bermúdez, who also contributed greatly to the advancement of architectural and art historiography, publishing the Diccionario histórico de los más ilustres profesores de las Bellas Artes en España in 1800, which, like Ponz’s publications, still serves as source material for contemporary scholarly research. Whilst Ceán Bermúdez shared Ponz’s sensibilities for the importance of historiography, investigation and criticism, he also inherited the biases against the works of the seventeenth century.

In his book Descripción artística de la Catedral de Sevilla (Seville, 1804), Ceán Bermúdez dedicated two whole chapters to the critique of the Baroque and such works as found in the Cathedral of Seville and the Sagrario. The first of these chapters relates to the construction of the Sagrario. Titled ‘Arquitectura Greco-Romana en su Decadencia’ [Greco-Roman Architecture in its Decadence], he ridicules the interior work realised by the Borjas and reprimands the praise that Torre Farfán (1663: 26; 1671: 213–14) accords to it. Of particular concern to the author is the risk that young architects might be misled by Torre Farfán’s texts, considering the work to be of note, when in fact Ceán Bermúdez deems it to be prejudicial to the progress of Art and so ridiculous that it should never ever be viewed. The second of the chapters, ‘Arquitectura Greco-Romana Decaida y Desfigurada’ [Greco-Roman Architecture, Fallen and Disfigured], squarely places the initial blame of the ‘monstrous disfigurement’ on the shoulders of seventeenth-century painters but then passes his final damnation on those of the other guilds in the eighteenth century, which he deemed even ‘more ignorant’. He constructs his case as follows:

Desde que los pintores empezaron en el siglo XVII á separarse de las leyes de la arquitectura, comenzó este arte á correr á su ruina, y no paró hasta que la sepultaron en el XVIII los albañiles, los retableros y los tallistas, levantando en su lugar otro, nuevo arte, ó conjunto de despropósitos, parto de una fantasia desordenada, de una independencia absoluta de los preceptos de la arquitectura, y de una total libertad para girar á su arbitrio por donde los conducía su misma fantasia desarreglada. [Ever since painters in the seventeenth century started to break away from the laws of architecture, this art [architecture] began to run its course of ruin and did not stop until it was buried in the eighteenth by builders, altar designers and wood workers. They raised in its place another new art, or should I say suite of idiocies, born of an uncontrollable fantasy, of an absolute independence of the precepts of architecture and of total freedom to be able to run wild at their whim wherever that very unstructured fantasy took them.] (Ceán Bermúdez 1804: 178)

He then closes his argument on a position of irrefutable moral and political grounds:

No de otro modo que quando se principia á obrar en lo moral y en lo político con defectos ligeros, pasando después á mayores delitos, se acaba creyendo que no hay obligacion de observar lo que la razón y la justicia exigen á los que viven en sociedad y en religión. [There is no other way of seeing it. When you begin to work with that which has slight moral and political defects, it soon passes to graver crimes, and finishes with the belief that there is no obligation to follow that which reason and justice demands of those who live within a society and a religion.] (Ceán Bermúdez 1804: 179)

Ponz, Ceán Bermúdez and the string of other architectural and art historians that followed, connected morality and political obedience to the politico-aesthetic programme of the Academia and the monarchy (Crespo Delgado 2012: 315). The writings of José Caveda y Nava (1796–1882) clearly illustrate this position, in which the crisis of architecture in the seventeenth century is implicitly linked with the decadence of the Habsburg dynasty, and its ‘restoration’ with the reforms of the Bourbons. His text on architectural history, Ensayo Histórico de Arquitectura, contains a chapter titled ‘De la Segunda Restauración de la Arquitectura Greco-Romano’ [On the Second Restoration of Greco-Roman Architecture]. In it he labels seventeenth-century Spanish architecture as ‘Borrominesca’ and states that it was ‘product of a particular epoch and its orientations’ that ‘came to a conclusion like the society that had adopted it’. He lauds Felipe V for restoring ‘the Arts’ in Spain, and the legacy of his grandfather Louis XIV, for harnessing the Arts to increase the splendour of France. This is contrasted with the Arts in Spain and the last Hapsburg king Carlos II, described conjointly as ‘decadent’, ‘exhausted’ and ‘chronically ill’ (Caveda y Nava 1848: 480, 499). He continues with the politico-aesthetic programme of the Bourbon restoration, stating that ‘Felipe V could see for himself, the distance that spanned between the Italian and French schools and that which had been followed exclusively by Spain’.

In a recent commentary on Ponz and the Spanish Enlightenment the historian Daniel Crespo Delgado noted that whilst the eighteenth century had come to acknowledge the cultural and economic discrepancies that existed between Spain and an industrialising northern Europe, the act of reflecting on the ‘decadence’ — namely, the seventeenth century — became almost an obsession for the historians of the time (Crespo Delgado 2012: 49). What went wrong in the seventeenth century in Castile that warranted these negative reflections on its architecture? As recent scholarship has demonstrated and as has been argued here, the question itself was long framed through what has now been acknowledged as the wrong lens. For the architectural historiographers of the eighteenth century, the explanation for Spain’s perceived decline lay in the production of the seventeenth century. In their minds, builders of that century abandoned the reason and rule of the Vitruvian model (García Melero 1998: 52), drunk on the permissiveness that arose from a culture of excess, luxury and wealth (Llaguno Amirola 1829a: 82).

Much of this reflection centred on the idea of ‘reason’ and its role as the founding basis for the progress of society, economy and the arts; as Ponz stated, ‘Genius is cultivated by reason’ (Ponz 1774: iv). Without reason there was chaos and crisis and nowhere did these seem more patent than in the material culture of the seventeenth century. Whereas Palomino, some fifty years earlier, had lauded artists for their ‘grande ingenio, y capricho en la invención’ [great ingenuity and creative invention] (Palomino 1724: 493), these very same qualities were to become depicted in the historiography of the late-eighteenth century as the traits of ignorance that violated the ‘maxims of reason’ (Jovellanos 1790: 34). Retablos such as that of the Sagrario were present in every church and cathedral throughout the country and confronted their critics on a daily basis. For them, these works served as a monstrous testament to the consequences of lapses of reason in politics, society and culture. These ‘suites of idiocies’ and ‘uncontrollable fantasies’ were to be demolished, where possible, and replaced with examples that embodied the qualities of a society on the path to restoration. Whereas the much despised organ cases in Seville Cathedral survived the reforming pyres, the retablo mayor of the Sagrario was demolished at the behest of Ceán Bermúdez in 1824, once again on the grounds of structural instability. The gaping void it left in the chancel was filled by a modest new design considered more decorous. Given the effort and cost in the construction of the original, and the fervour and persistence of its critique, it is ironical that in 1840 another baroque retablo, salvaged from a disbanded monastery, was re-installed in its place.


During the economic, social and political crises that affected seventeenth century Spain, a new form of architectural practice emerged. This is exemplified in the transition that occurred during the prolonged construction of the Sagrario of Seville Cathedral. This praxis was brought to an end in the middle of the eighteenth century. The academisation of architecture and architectural education and the subsequent legislation of them — commencing in 1757 and culminating nationally in the Real Orden of 1787 — meant that architecture had finally been ‘restored’ from what had been perceived as the monstrous decadence brought about by painters, sculptors and silversmiths (Mengs 1780: 180). This corruption was seen to have been a product of the decadence of the Habsburg dynasty and the political, spiritual and economic crisis that accompanied its final years. It is this legacy, one written and coloured by these negative topoi, that has in many regards formed our opinion of Spanish architecture in crisis. For generations, it has been taken for fact that after the completion of El Escorial, Spanish architecture ‘died’ (Villanueva 1776: 155).

In the face of volatile income streams, high inflation, devaluation in currency and social and spiritual uncertainty, the architecture of the period was remarkable in its affront to these challenges. This paper has demonstrated that although the economic instability that occurred within Castile during the seventeenth century affected and transformed the manner in which architecture was commissioned, conceived and constructed, it did not signify an end, but rather a reconception of how to maximise limited resources with limitless inventiveness.