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Gold-covered main altarpiece
Gold-covered main altarpiece
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Seville Cathedral is the world's richest cathedral, filled with treasures and curiosities that we discovered with our helpful Seville guide, Ana Calderón. Also called Catedral de Santa Maria de la Sede, it is the biggest Catholic Gothic cathedral in the world. Workers spent more than one century building it (1401 - 1506).

1. Tons of gold

Wooden carvings of the life of Christ by Flemish artist, Peter | Pierre | Pyeter Dancart decorate the main altarpiece (retablo mayor) of the Main Chapel (Capilla Mayor). Gleaming gold covers 44 scenes and 200 figures on the 20-meter (66-foot)-high and 18-meter (59-foot)-wide high altar.

How much gold is in Seville Cathedral? No one knows exactly, but one reference estimates it to be more than 40,000 kilos (88,000 pounds) of solid gold.

What is known is the source of the gold. For 80 years, ships from Spain's colonies in the New World were only allowed to enter Seville's port if they paid the church 10% of their cargo of precious metals.

Crown of Virgen de los Reyes with gems and angel with pearl torso
Crown of Virgen de los Reyes with gems
and angel with pearl torso
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

2. One of the world's largest pearls

We marveled at more gold in the Treasury. Nearly 12,000 gemstones, including diamonds, rubies and emeralds, adorn the beautiful 22-carat gold crown of the Virgin of Kings (Virgen de los Reyes).

When we examined it closely, we noticed that an enormous pearl formed the torso of one of the four angels encircling the crown. The lustrous pearl is one of the largest in the world.

3. Silver treasures

Seville Cathedral also houses a fortune of silver, including silver altars and a tabernacle made from 19,000 kilos (41,800 pounds) of silver, according to our guide.

Silver reliquary with thorn from Christ's crown of thorns
Silver reliquary with thorn
from Christ's crown of thorns
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Inside the Treasury, we viewed an ornate silver reliquary displaying a surprisingly large thorn from Christ's crown of thorns.

The Cathedral of Seville has 80 chapels. In the Royal Chapel (Capilla Real), an elaborate silver sepulcher holds the body of King Ferdinand III (later canonized as San Fernando).

Every year, Seville celebrates its patron saint with a festival. On San Fernando Day, May 30, visitors can see his mummified body (still well-preserved, nearly eight centuries after his death) on display in the cathedral.

4. 800-year-old keys to Seville

When Ferdinand III reclaimed Seville from the Moors in 1248, the Muslim ruler gave him the keys to the city. We viewed the nearly eight-century-old keys in the Seville Cathedral Treasury.

Keys to Seville given to Ferdinand III in 1248
Keys to Seville given to Ferdinand III in 1248
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The cathedral also houses tombs of other notables, including Christopher Columbus and his son, Fernando. After he died, Christopher Columbus traveled almost as much as he did as an explorer.

Christopher Columbus tomb in Seville Cathedral
Christopher Columbus tomb in Seville Cathedral
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Although Columbus was first buried in Valladolid, Spain, where he passed away, his remains were moved to La Cartuja monastery in southern Spain and then to Santo Domingo in Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic).

5. 125 grams of Christopher Columbus

When the Spaniards lost the island to the French in 1795, they moved the body of Columbus to Cuba. In 1898, after Cuba became independent, a small part of his remains was sent to Seville Cathedral in a monument that won a Cuban competition to carry his coffin.

DNA testing confirmed that the 125 grams (4.4 ounces) of remains in the tomb belonged to Christopher Columbus. The rest of his body in Santo Domingo has not been exhumed or DNA-tested.

6. St. Anthony - lost and found

One of the 3,000 paintings in Seville Cathedral has also traveled to the New World and back. For years, Catholics have prayed to St. Anthony to find lost items.

Repaired Murillo painting of The Vision of St. Anthony
Repaired Murillo painting of The Vision of St. Anthony
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

What fewer people know is that part of a valuable 1656 Murillo painting, The Vision of St. Anthony, was also lost and found.

In the Baptistry Chapel, Ana Calderón advised us to stand back from the painting to see a dark circular mark around St. Anthony. It is the repaired area of the painting where a thief cut out the saint in the late 19th century.

When he tried to sell it at a New York City auction in 1875, a gallery owner recognized it as the stolen part of Murillo's original painting. He bought it and gave the painting fragment to the Spanish Consulate, which returned it to Seville.

7. Faces of Murillo's wife and children

Another surprise awaited in the Chapter House (Sala Capitular). This Seville Cathedral meeting room has great acoustics, thanks to its high oval ceiling and cupola.

The highlight of the room is the 1678 Murillo painting, The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. "Murillo's wife was the model for her face," said Ana. "The angels have the faces of his children."

13th-century Virgen de Antigua fresco in mosque mihrab
13th-century Virgen de Antigua fresco
in mosque mihrab
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

8. Mosque remnants in a Catholic cathedral

Seville Cathedral also has two Goya paintings, as well as a 13th-century fresco in a very unusual location for a cathedral — a mihrab in the Antigua Chapel. This arched niche indicates the direction of Mecca in a mosque, so Muslims face it when praying.

We asked Ana why a Christian image of the Virgen de Antigua was located inside a mihrab. "When Ferdinand III arrived in Seville in 1248, he didn't have enough money to build a cathedral," she explained.

"Although Almohad Mosque was constructed between 1184 and 1198, it was still in good condition, so he built a church inside. Christians attended mass in the mosque for 150 years."

After earthquakes damaged much of the mosque in 1356 and 1362, church officials decided to build a new cathedral in the space originally occupied by the mosque.

Courtyard of Orange Trees
Courtyard of Orange Trees
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

All that remains of the Almohad Mosque today is the mihrab, the Patio de los Naranjos (Courtyard of Orange Trees), where Muslims washed their hands and feet in the fountain before five-times-daily prayers in the mosque, the arched Puerta del Perdón (Door of Forgiveness) leading to the orange tree-filled courtyard, and the Giralda, the former mosque's minaret.

9. Donkey path inside the bell tower

Builders spared the minaret when they demolished the mosque to construct the new cathedral. From 1565 to 1568, they converted it into a bell tower by adding a Renaissance-style belfry with 24 bells. The Giralda is now the symbol of Seville.

Giralda bell tower
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The ringing of the bells resonated in our ears every 15 minutes as we climbed to the top of the 105-meter (345-foot)-high bell tower. Instead of steps, we were surprised to see 35 gently sloping ramps, followed by 17 steps to the top of the 13.6-meter (45-foot)-wide tower. (Don't join the crowds climbing up to the top if you have heart problems or claustrophobia.)

Why does the bell tower have ramps instead of only steps? When it was minaret, the elderly muezzin rode a donkey to the top to summon the faithful to prayers five times a day.

10. Best views of Seville

We had to wait for our turns to look through each window, but the panoramic views were worth it. They encompassed the cathedral, the Alcázar, the Barrio de Santa Cruz (Jewish Quarter) and the Triana neighborhood, as well as the Guadalquivir River, which flows through the city.

These are only ten of the surprises hidden inside Seville Cathedral. You can find many more. For starters, look for the wooden Egyptian crocodile! Hint: You'll find it by Puerta del Lagarto (Door of the Lizard), one of the 15 doors in Seville Cathedral.


Tourist Office of Spain

More things to see & do in Spain:

Alicante - Santa Barbara Castle, City Hall Dali and Esplanada Tour

Almeria Alcazaba, Cathedral and Central Market Shore Excursion Tour

Barcelona Self-Guided Walking Tour of Gaudi, La Rambla and Boqueria

Barcelona Tourist Board Office Gothic Quarter Guided Walking Tour