Barcelona’s Basilicas and Catalonia’s Catholicism

Basilicas are over-represented in Barcelona. For a city with a population of 1.6 million, there are 10 basilicas (there are 120 basilicas in the whole of Spain, bested only by Poland, France and Italy). Basilicas are Catholic churches that are considered more special in the ecclesiastical universe because of historical, cultural, architectural, artistic or more significantly religious significance (check out some Basilicas in Gdansk, Jerusalem, and Vilnius).

And as you would expect, countries with a longer unbroken history of Christianity will have a lot more basilicas than otherwise, and it certainly bears out in this top four list. Modern day Italy is the home of the Latin Church (Rome, single-handedly has 66 basilicas), France has long been considered the “eldest daughter of the church“, Poland was considered bulwarks of Latin Catholicism because of its location at the frontier of Christendom compared to the Ottoman Empire and as for Spain, this country was the homebase of the Reconquista an a spreader of Christianity to some of the largest catholic populations in the world (Latin America and Philippines for example). In contrast, officially atheist China has one Basilica, majority Buddhist Sri Lanka and religious complex Ivory Coast also has one.

But what has this general idea of Basilicas got to do with Barcelona? Plenty, since Basilicas in cities like Barcelona tell the story of both religion and politics in the city.

Christianity in Barcelona and Catalonia is traditionally thought to have arrived in the area from a preacher called San Eteri although the first verifiable facts come much later in 343 when a bishop from Barcelona (Pretextat) was noted to have attended the Council of Serdicia in an attempt to resolve what is called the Arian controversy (basically, was Jesus God or man?)

Christianity in Barcelona grew even after the Roman Empire collapsed when it was under the Visigothic Empire. It was at this time, that a small church was established in the area which today lies the Cathedral of Barcelona

History is written generally about leaders and told through the eyes of the victors, and so the history of Christianity in Barcelona seems to have been interrupted during the period of Al-Andalus, for 80 years when it was under the control of the Umayyad Caliphate (the ruling Visigoths were in political disarray and were ripe for the taking from a rapidly rising Umayyad Caliphate in North Africa), the justification for it being that there was no bishop during this period (called a sede vacante in christian terms).

Some modern historians however argue that there was generally very good religious interaction between the Jews, Muslims and Christians during these 80 years plus, this point though is considered controversial.

Regardless however, a bishop was only reinstalled much later (almost a 150 years to be precise) when Catalonia switched hands to the Franks, under a process called the Marca Hispanica – a military move by the Frankish Carolingians (located roughly where modern day France is) to create a buffer zone between themselves and Al Andalus. It was during this Frankish period that the earliest forms of the Basilica Santa Maria del Pi (Mary of the Pines) and Santa Maria del Mar (Mary of the Sea) took shape.

Basilica of Santa Maria del Pi

Christianity in Barcelona, like Christianity of its time, reached the peak of its temporal political power – when religious leaders had political, military and religious control during the Renaissance. The church in Barcelona has really known growth upon growth and the development of these two basilicas from humble churches into unique structures of Gothic grandness – Catalan Gothic to be exact, mirror the development of Catholicism in Barcelona and Catalonia at the time.

Both of these basilicas are open to public viewing (for a fee, although if you time things correctly, there are also free touring times). As and aside, you can get a great view of the city from the top of the Santa Maria del Mar.

The opulence with which the Bishops of Barcelona in the 16th century lived would put modern rich people to shame, these men of the clothe had palaces to themselves that came with the office, their word was effectively law, they could do whatever they want. It was during this time that Barcelona became what is considered a cardinalate see. Cardinals are advisors to the Pope, and form a community called the College of Cardinals. Their main role is to elect the Pope, who has historically always been selected from one of their group.  A cardinalate see is not an official term but a term that observers give to describe a position that traditionally confers the cardinal position on an individual. This is something that only the current Pope has begun to dismantle, Barcelona has, however, been a cardinalate see since the 15th century and for now at least remains one.

Becoming a cardinal meant the chance to become Pope and two of the Renaissance-era Popes of the period came from Catalonia, Callixtus III and Alexander VI. Popes of the Renaissance era, were however, different from Popes of today (say what you will about the Catholic Church, since the 20th cenutry, the Catholic Church has been relatively blessed to have holy-though-flawed-men serve as Popes). These were political animals above kings, you could say they were the successors of the Holy Roman Emperor.

No wonder, the super rich and powerful wanted to place their children and relations in these religious positions, it was a period of clerical careerism. If you were young and ambitious you wanted to be a cardinal – skip the whole priest and religious part. This was a time, mind you, when disciplines like chastity and purity were not taken too seriously, when horrible individuals ruled as Popes.

This was a period that gave the world The Borgias and the Medicis as popes. People like Leo X, who was considered the epitome or immoral men to hold the office of Pope was alleged to have said, “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.”

It was ironically, this period of indulgence, that gave the world some of the most impressive Christian architecture and art. All the most impressive then, that this period of renaissance popes lived so much in the material world that they effectively changed nothing of note in the actual beliefs of the church.

The faith of the people was a lot more respectable and dignified with many individuals living out everyday piety. Individuals like the architect Antoni Gaudi were so shaped by their sincerity of their faith that the skyline of Barcelona will forever be changed by Gaudi through the conceptualisation and eventual completion of the Sagrada Familia.

The growth of the church in Barcelona continued with grander and grander structures most famously the Sagrada Familia, by the famous architect Antoni Gaudi, that is still under construction after more than a century. It is, to be fair, one of the greatest feats of human design possible and certainly performs the function of a church – to introduce a sense of the almighty to the worshiper.

Things changed state of affairs continued in Barcelona with gradually more secularisation and a loosening of power from the bishops until the civil war of the 1930s. The Spanish Revolution of 1936 attempted to introduce widespread anarchist and libertarian socialist principles to northeast Spanish provinces and was centred on Barcelona. The church with its  presence harkening to a hierarchical system has to be destroyed.

It was at this time that anarchists gutted churches, attempted to destroy the basilicas. Yet somehow these basilicas all survived. The Basilica Santa Maria del Mar was on fire for 11 days but remained standing, the Basilica Santa Maria del Pi and the Cathedral were gutted but still standing and the construction site that was Sagrada Familia merely had construction interrupted but was not brought to the ground.

The civil war ended with the victory of Fascist dictator Francisco Franco who reversed the secularisation and presented his leadership as a new crusade and a new reconquista of Spain for Catholicism his support of the church meant that church officials supported Franco, Franco’s Spain at the same time suppressed Catalonian culture, which therefore pitted two identities with each other – being Catholic and being Catalonian.  You’d think that’ll be where the story ends (for now), but you would be wrong. Although the Church was seen in Catalonia as an oppressive force in the 1940s, it cautiously flipped by the 1950s and became the beating heart of a Catalan Catholic tradition and by the late 1960s had become a rallying point against Franco.

The chickens have come home to roost however, as this same Catalan Nationalism that was fomented by the Church under Franco is now at the heart of the Catalan independence movement that is splitting opinion the Catalan Church (here, here and here).

Heavy stuff.

ON THE MAP (Barcelona Cathedral)

ON THE MAP (Basilica Santa Maria del Pi)

ON THE MAP (Basilica Santa Maria del Mar)

ON THE MAP (Sagrada Familia)


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