The Església de Santa Maria del Mar (the church of Saint Maria of the sea) is a 14th century church located in Barcelona´s Ribera (El Borne) district. Between 300 and 500 A.D. the site where the church is now located was a Roman cemetery, the remains of which were uncovered during restoration work in the 1960´s. In fact, Barcelona´s patron saint, Santa Eulàlia, was buried here after her martyrdom in 303 A.D, although her remains were transferred to Barcelona´s cathedral, Catedral de la Seu, in 1339.
The first mention of the church dates back to 998, although not much is known about the original structure, which was dedicated to Saint Mary of the Sea. What is known is that in 1324 the idea for a new and more extravagant church was proposed, which was to be built on the same site. The new church would fulfill a vow made centuries earlier by Jaume I to build a church to watch over all Catalan seafarers. The name is meant to symbolize the naval supremacy of Barcelona during that time, exemplified by the recent conquest of Sardinia, as well as its location on the sea.
Construction was begun in 1329 on the order of King Jaume II, who also oversaw construction of Barcelona´s cathedral, La Catedral de la Seu. All of the architectural guilds of the Ribera quarter were involved, and the walls, side chapels, and facades were all completed by 1350. In 1379 there was a fire that delayed construction, so the building was not officially completed until 1383.
The time frame was incredibly fast for its time, which gives the church an architectural unity not normally seen in buildings of that time period. Most medieval churches took centuries to build which meant that they incorporated a variety of different styles. The fact that the church of Santa Maria del Mar was built in just 53 years means its architectural style is more harmonious that most.
The main facade, which is on the west end, is best known for its rose window, which is a circular window often used in Gothic architecture. The original window destroyed in an earthquake in 1428 so a new one was built in 1459. Also notable are the figures on the doors of the main entrance. They are men carrying stones on their back, and were built in memory of the men who assisted in the construction of the church.
Upon entering the church, the first thing that strikes most visitors is the spaciousness and light of the church. It is a classic example of Catalan-gothic architecture, also known as “wide-gothic” in which architects concentrated making the building as wide as possible without the roof collapsing, in contrast to other gothic styles that focused on steep towers.
The number eight (or multiples thereof), which was the medieval numerological symbol for the Virgin Mary, was used in every aspect of the church. There are 16 octagonal pillars which rise 16 meters, then stretch another 16 meters before finally meeting at the apex which is 32 meters above ground. The lateral aisles measure 8 meters each, and their sum equals the width of the center aisle.
The inside is much more austere than other churches of that time. This is due partly due to a fire during the Spanish Civil War in 1936 which destroyed a large part of the interior. Many of the Baroque details were destroyed, but most people consider this a blessing in disguise because the long-term restoration work has concentrated on showing off the simplicity of the inside, with a focus on the stain glass. The end result is that the church is now considered even more beautiful that it was before the fire.
Both the exterior and interior of the church are quite stunning and are worth a visit. It is also known for its amazing acoustics so if visitors that have an opportunity to see concerts or choirs perform there should be sure not to miss out.
The church of Santa Maria del Mar has inspired many stories, including “The Cathedral of the Sea” written by first-time novelist Ildefonso Falcones.
The historical novel describes Barcelona at the height of the Inquisition with the construction of the church serving as a background to the story. It spent a year in the number one spot on Spain´s best-seller and is a great read for anyone who has visited or plans to visit the church.
The church is located in the Plaza de Santa Maria, on Passeig del Born (metro Jaume I). It is open daily from 9am to 1:30pm and 4:30pm to 8pm. Mass takes place weekdays at 9:30am and 7:15pm, Saturdays at 7:30pm, and Sundays and holy days at 11am, 12:20pm, and 7:30pm. Entrance is free.