Gothic Sculpture in Spain

1. Introduction 2. Early Gothic 3. Toledo 4. Navarre
5. Catalonia 6. Burgundian Influence 7. Hispano-Flemish Sculpture 8. Retables


The Gothic sculpture of Spain, at first a mere continuation of the late Romanesque, soon fell under the direct influence of artists arriving from France. Monumental and decorative sculpture was carved in stone, marble, and alabaster, and often painted. Architectural carving was designed to fit neatly into the structure, especially around doorways, where statues were set against the jambs, and where reliefs were used freely. The monumental tombs, with the recumbent effigies of the dead and the reliefs depicting the funeral or the ascent of the soul to heaven, are often the finest ornament of the chapels that contain them. As for the altar, its essential decorative element was the retable, and though most of these were painted, some were beautifully carved, especially during the later stages of the Gothic. The subjects are taken from the Gospels and concentrated around the figure of Christ, often enthroned. The twelve apostles, the Evangelists, angels, and archangels are other themes that constantly recur in portals and retables. Scenes from the lives of the saints, alternating with Biblical allusions, gave the Gothic genius for narrative an ample opportunity to unfold.

During the three centuries of its existence, the style gradually lost its initial rigidity, inherited from the Romanesque. An idealized naturalism, prompted by the religious feeling of the age as much as by aesthetic considerations, prevents a tendency to do justice to the model from degenerating into vulgar realism. The effect is further enhanced by a refined elegance, partly derived from the drapery and gestures of the period. To some extent the character of the sculpture is determined by the subordination of groups of figures to the geometry of the architecture. The polychromy does not entirely offset this, since it is far from being merely imitative.

During the last quarter of the fourteenth century, under the influence of the Franco-Burgundian school and, in particular, of Claus Sluter, Gothic naturalism became more pronounced. The style grew broader, richer, and somewhat more rhetorical. Draperies lost some of their original simplicity and began to fall in tight, rhythmic folds.

During the fifteenth century the plastic arts were in an unsettled state, and by the second half of the century Northern and Mudejar ornamentalism was beginning to undermine the purity of the naturalistic style. Nevertheless, we have some excellent examples of its formal austerity, touched now by the spirit of the Renaissance, among them the tomb of Martin Vázquez de Arce in Sigüenza.

Early Gothic

In the thirteenth century the ecclesiastical sculptors devoted their talents to carving church furniture, retables, and ivories. Most of the time they worked in wood. Once a piece had been carved, it was coated with gesso and painted in polychromy with great decorative skill. As a result, it is often difficult to separate this sort of carving from monumental sculpture. During this period forms were simple, very expressive, but almost always rigid. The passage of time brought an increasing interest in the representation of movement and a greater taste for lyricism, which was superimposed on the hieratic conventions of the Romanesque.

The basic themes are Christ on the Cross and Mary, the Virgin Mother, subjects endlessly repeated, with variations depending on the spirit of the school and the inspiration of the artist. Saints and Biblical figures are also represented, the elaborate compositions depicting the Descent from the Cross being of particular interest.

There is an unusual abundance of later work, that is to say, work from the second half of the thirteenth century, a period during which monumental sculpture was already advancing with confident steps along the pathways of the Gothic style.

The subtle stylization and avoidance of strict frontality that define Gothic art are also apparent in some of the sculpture of the late Romanesque, for example, the carvings by Master Mateo in the Pórtico de la Gloria in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

At the beginning of the second quarter of the thirteenth century, though unconnected with the above, there appeared the abundant sculpture of Burgos cathedral, highly varied within the terms of its unity of style and wholly Gothic. Some of this work dates from the first phase of construction, about 1230, some from the beginning of the second, around 1240, while a third group corresponds to another period of activity twenty years later. The carvings, doubtless the most ancient, that adorn the Sarmental Door in the south façade of the transept, are the work of two artists from Amiens. Their style is characterized by noble proportions, a classical clarity of form, and the clever organization of space. Lines and flourishes that might have ornamental value are kept to a minimum, while the masses are brought out forcefully, but without disturbing the serenity of the whole.

The Coroneria Door in the north wall of the transept is probably the work of Master Enrique (died 1277), architect, sculptor, designer, master builder of the Cathedral of León. The style is more Spanish than that of the sculpture around the Sarmental Door, that is to say, a shade less refined but more powerfully expressive. The upper parts of the exterior are also decorated with sculpture of exceptional quality, carved about 1260. Here the idealistic naturalism of the Gothic is more pronounced than in the work we have reviewed so far. The courtly spirit is now allied with religious feeling and a strange lyricism of form, which is handled with increasing freedom, as revealed in the gestures, the folds of the loose cloaks, and other details. The numerous heads that decorate the triforium inside the cathedral must have come from the same workshop.

More interesting carvings are to be found in the cloister, reached through a door which itself is handsomely carved. The columns and galleries of the cloister are adorned with groups of statues that illustrate the diversity of the Gothic sculpture of the period. The group representing Alfonso X and his wife, Doña Violante, is especially noteworthy. In these figures the idea of a portrait has been fully realized without detracting from the strictly plastic values.

In the Cathedral of León, the range of sculpture, from the second half of the thirteenth century, is even broader than at Burgos. The three doors of the west front with its portico, the transept doors, and the interior with its beautiful funerary monuments represent a cross-section of the plastic arts of the early Gothic. Clearly there were three principal sculptors, whose personalities are distinctly expressed. The foremost of the three, to whom the more important groups were entrusted, is none other than the man who carved the statues for the Coronería Door in Burgos cathedral. His stone image of the Virgin and Child, known as the White Virgin, is one of the finest sculptures ever made in Spain. The noble severity of his style stands opposed to the greater freedom and imagination of the second of the three sculptors of León, known only as the Master of the Last Judgment, whose narrative poetry is very personal and profoundly Spanish. The third master carved the apostles on the jambs of the south door and many statues in the main façade. The style of this artist is more restrained, closer to the manner of the French masters from Amiens who carved the Sarmental Door at Burgos.

During the thirteenth century, the introduction of the Gothic style by artists from the north of France was paralleled by an independent evolution toward the new forms. This was characterized by lingering traces of the Romanesque, particularly a certain archaism and a taste for the ornamental interpretation of structure and detail. One of the best demonstrations of the potentialities of this art is the tomb of the Infante Don Felipe (died 1274) and his wife, Leonor Rodríguez de Castro, in Villalcázar de Sirga. The faces of the tomb are carved with scenes of mourning, set between bands of heraldic ornament. The two recumbent figures, both of great beauty, reveal the sculptor's interest in the details of dress, though at no time does he lose sight of the general design. This work is attributed to the sculptor Antón Pérez de Carrión and is remarkable for its freshness and originality.

Gothic sculpture had a very important role to play, both in architecture and directly as imagery. The influence of the great stonecutting centers and workshops was gradually to transform the face of Spanish style. In most churches the doors were decorated with sculpture and, inside, the tombs and chapel walls were richly carved and embellished with reliefs and statues. Crucifixions, Descents from the Cross, enthroned effigies of the Virgin, and statues of saints, prophets, monarchs, and prelates introduced a human note into religious architecture. Burgos, León, Zamora, Salamanca, Soria, and Avila have preserved many examples of this art, in which the expressive and stylistic elements are in perfect balance. Increasing naturalism could not destroy this rigorous order. The tracery of the arches and the exquisite floral motifs are in intimate harmony with the reliefs and effigies, and the bare surface against which all are set off. Most of the work from central Spain betrays the influence of important centers like Burgos and León, but also reflects the life of the local workshops with their varying tastes and customs.

During the fourteenth century, Asturias and Galicia developed a very characteristic style, marked by a distinct preference for a geometric, almost schematic treatment of masses. Examples of this art are found in the tomb of Fernán Pérez de Andrade at Betanzos and in the Cathedral of Orense. The archaism is sometimes less of a stylistic tendency than a return to popular forms, as in the sculpture of the main door of the collegiate church of Toro. Other work displays greater refinement, for example, the intensely imaginative decoration of the Door of the Apostles in Avila cathedral.


In the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the Cathedral of Toledo was embellished with numerous pieces of sculpture. Among the more ancient of these, the best are the royal effigies in the presbytery, which date from the years between 1289 and 1308. The profuse and decidedly realistic reliefs of the Clock Door were carved toward the end of the thirteenth century. The decoration of the three doors of the west front belongs to the first half of the fourteenth century. That in the center is called the "Puerta del Perdón" and the tympanum shows St Ildefonsus receiving the chasuble. The side doors were carved in the workshop of the master responsible for the reliefs of the Puerta del Perdón. The sculpture is the finest in Toledo and reveals a subtle balance between the Gothic of Reims and Italian formalism, both in spirit and in the simplicity of the masses, though this does not preclude a fitting sense of narrative.

The art of the fifteenth century is distinctly more courtly and graceful and places as much stress on capturing what is seen as on fidelity of conception. It is also well represented in Toledo cathedral, particularly in the admirable tombs of Archbishop Juan de Cerezuela (died 1442) and Pedro de Luna (died 1414). This art, influenced by the Burgundian school, eventually spread to the north. Evidence of this is to be found in the tomb of the knight Gomez Carrillo de Acuna in Sigüenza cathedral, and in other monuments of a similar character.


In Navarre, the fourteenth century saw the development of a sculptural style of great interest and purity, which, though clearly influenced by Burgos and León, shows signs of direct contact with France. Perhaps the most ancient carvings in this style are those in the porch of Santa Maria la Real de Olite, which date from about 1300. The Cathedral of Pamplona possesses the most important body of sculpture of this kind. Work of great refinement, in which the French influence is clearly expressed, it includes the statues and reliefs of the doorway leading from the refectory to the cloister, carved sometime before 1330, and culminates in the door of the chapter house, called La Preciosa. Pamplona cathedral also treasures numerous early fifteenth-century carvings that reflect an advance toward the greater naturalism of Burgundian art. The foremost of these are the work of French sculptors. This is true of the admirable epiphany group in the cloister, carved by Jacques Perut near the close of the fourteenth century. Among the various important fifteenth-century funerary monuments is the splendid tomb of King Charles the Noble and his wife, which was executed in 1416 by Janin Lomme of Tournai.

One of the major achievements of fourteenth-century sculpture in Navarre is the west front of the church of the Holy Sepulcher at Estella. Here the decoration is stylistically related to that of Santa Maria de Olite, as far as the treatment of the jambs is concerned, though the carvings of the tympanum and lintel are derived from the Preciosa door of Pamplona cathedral.

The Basque provinces have several admirable fourteenth-century porches. The most ancient of these, part of the church of San Pedro de Vitoria, is decorated with vigorously carved statuary, dating from about 13oo, that still retains something of the spirit of Amiens.


In Catalonia, Gothic sculpture begins with Master Bartomeu, author of the marble statue of the Virgin on the center pier of the main porch of Tarragona cathedral (c. 1277). This extraordinarily delicate figure is carved in a style that can best be described as idealized archaism. During the early part of the fourteenth century, another sculptor with a distinctive personality, Pedro Bonull, was active in the same region. In 1314. he carved the tomb of James II and Blanche of Anjou in the monastery of Santas Creus.

In Lérida, French and Italian influence overlapped, though in the magnificent wooden sculpture from Tredós (Barcelona Museum) and in the figure of St. Paul of Narbonne at Anglesola the Italian style is uppermost. The splendid tombs of the counts of Urgel, on the other hand, like the tomb of Armengol VII, built by Armengol X (died 1314) shortly before his own death, are obviously closer to the French (The Cloisters, New York).

We know the names and some of the work of an interesting group of Catalan sculptors active during the fourteenth century and the first half of the fifteenth. Jaume Cascalls completed the retable of Cornellá de Conflent in 1345 and, from 1360, served as master sculptor at the Cathedral of Lérida. Pedro Moragues, born about 1330, lived in Saragossa, where he carved the admirable tomb of Archbishop Lope Fernández de Luna (1381-82) which adorns St. Michael's Chapel in the cathedral. Guillermo Morey is the author of noble monuments to Count Ramón Berenguer II and his wife, Ermesindis, who were buried in Gerona cathedral. Another member of the group, Pedro Ça Anglada, was employed on the stonework of the choir in Barcelona cathedral and is responsible for the beautiful figure of an angel over the door of the town hall, executed in 1406.

The finest of the Catalan sculptors of the fifteenth century, however, was Pedro Johan, who carved the outer door of the Palace of the Deputies in Barcelona. Between 1426 and 1433, the same artist executed the alabaster reliefs of the retable of Tarragona cathedral, which is noted for its pictorial and narrative qualities.

Burgundian Influence

In Gerona, Burgundian Gothic is splendidly represented by the magnificent tomb of Bishop Bernardo de Pau (died 1457). In Majorca, the sculpture of the Portal del Mirador in Palma cathedral, begun in 1389 by Pedro Morey, is also worthy of attention. Some of the most distinguished Majorcan work of the fifteenth century was done by the sculptor and architect Guillermo Sagrera, who built the "Lonja" of Palma. In one of the doorways of this edifice stands the splendid figure of an archangel, revealing an extraordinary mastery of technique and a concept of form that owes something to the German as well as the Burgundian spirit.

Hispano-Flemish Sculpture

The Burgundian tendencies, so conspicuous in the Spanish sculpture of about 1400, were displaced some sixty years later by the powerful Northern influences responsible for the origin of the Hispano-Flemish style. The chief characteristics of the latter, which became centered in Toledo and Burgos, are an increasing naturalism, combined with a strangely mannered conception of form, and a taste for ornament that finds expression in an emphasis on detail and in a persistent endeavor to reproduce in stone embroideries, jewelry, and the texture of fabrics. Prominent German and Flemish artists contributed to its rapid expansion, one of its first manifestations being the Door of the Lions ín Toledo cathedral, chiefly the work of Juan Alemán.

The development of Hispano-Flemish sculpture was strongly influenced by the work of two brothers, Egas and Hanequín Cueman of Brussels, both of whom were in Toledo in 1458. The tombs in the monastery of Guadalupe, carved by Egas Cueman, reveal a novel conception of space and mass.

Toledan Hispano-Flemish spread rapidly through central Spain and on into the northwest. It is characterized as much by the marked ornamentalism of its forms as by the simplicity of its masses and its human sentiment. The principal Spanish exponent of this style was the sculptor Sebastián de Almonacid, whose name first appears in 1486. He is the author of the double tomb of the Constable Alvaro de Luna and his wife in Toledo cathedral, and is thought to have carved the tomb of Martin Vázquez de Arce in Sigüenza cathedral. The idealized realism of the effigy is one of the supreme achievements of Spanish plastic art.

From about 1470 Gil de Siloé, a notable sculptor, probably of Flemish origim, was the central figure of the Burgos school. He is known for his elaborate detail, bringing to his carving the delicacy of a goldsmith. The handsome effects he was able to obtain would be almost barbaric were it not for the heightened naturalism of his figures and his refined conception of space. His more important works include the funerary statues of King John II and his wife, Isabella of Portugal, in the Carthusian monastery of Miraflores, executed in 1486, the great retable in the same monastery, carved between 1496 and 1499, and the tombs of the Infante Alfonso and Juan de Padilla.

Lorenzo Mercadante of Brittany, who appeared in Seville in 1451, is an important figure in the area of pure sculpture. He executed a number of free-standing statues for the two doors of the cathedral known as the Puerta del Nacimiento and the Puerta del Bautismo, working in terra cotta, a material he handled with remarkable virtuosity, allied with great depth of feeling and tender humanity. His art exerted a natural influence on the religious sculptors of Andalusia, especially on Pedro Millán, who worked in Seville between 1487 and 1507.


In Spain, the Gothic period closes with a series of enormous sculptured retables, or shelves above the altar, a direct consequence of the work of Siloé and the Colonias. Uniformity is avoided by varying the rhythm of the compositions, grouping them differently, and contrasting them with the canopies over the scenes and figures. One of the best retables is that in Toledo cathedral. This was begun in 1502 by Diego Copín de Holanda, and finished by Sebastián de Almonacid.

In Castile, we should also mention the alabaster retables of the monastery of Paular (Madrid). The great retable of the Cathedral of Seville, in Andalusia, has thirty-five compartments filled with sculptures and reliefs. Work was done on this retable between 1482 and 1526. This huge undertaking, like others of the same kind, must have required collaboration among a number of workshops.