The Cathedral of Santa María, popularly known as the ‘Old Cathedral’, is one of the jewels of the historic-artistic heritage of Vitoria-Gasteiz, Álava and Euskadi due to its intrinsic value as a monument, being a source of valuable information regarding the birth and evolution of the city over the last 700 years, and for its original and award-winning visiting programme.
It is located on the highest part of the hill on which the primitive city was established, founded in 1181 by the King Sancho VI of Navarre, ‘Sancho the Wise’, over the old village of Gasteiz, and named Nova Victoria, giving rise to the current city. It acquired the status of Cathedral in 1862 with the birth of the diocese of Vitoria.
This 12th century neo-Gothic style cathedral, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of Mary, is known by the Vitorians as the ‘Old Cathedral’ to distinguish it from the ‘New Cathedral’.
The Gothic-style temple is built on an unfinished fortress church that formed part of the medieval defence system conceived by the Castilian king Alfonso VIII at the beginning of the 13th century in order to protect an enclave that was gaining strength due to the growth of its population and its strategic location.
Alfonso VIII proceeded to improve the northern enclosure of the town perimeter, putting a surprisingly ambitious plan into motion: the construction of a great church that would serve a dual purpose: improve the city’s defence system and create a temple which, by its sheer size, would satisfy this ambitious town-planning project.
The new church, characterized by extremely thick walls, basically fulfilled defence purposes by creating a great wall that enclosed the northern end of the city. Amazingly enough the outer face of this primitive construction is preserved almost in its entirety, up to a height of 20 meters in some cases.
The work begun by Alfonso VIII underwent a radical change of face during the reign of Alfonso X (1252-1284). This second project, already Gothic, would be executed over the previous one in two main phases and during a long period that ran from the third quarter of the 13th century until the end of the following century.
These two main phases are responsible for the current appearance of the inside of the temple.
In 1498 Santa Maria, up until then a simple parish, became a Collegiate Church through an operation carried out by the Vitorian oligarchy to enhance the prestige to their city. This historical event explains and justifies the process of aggrandizement and beautification that took place at the end of the 15th century and throughout the following century.
The construction work, mainly during the 16th century, was frenzied: building the tower, the choir, the chapels of San Juan, the Immaculate Conception, Altar of the Christ, San Roque, San Marcos, the Kings, San Bartolomé, San Jose, San Prudencio, Piedad, magnificent tombs such as those of Ortiz de Caicedo, Don Cristóbal Martínez de Alegría, etc.
The changes continued, now at a slower pace, during the following centuries giving rise to the building that we know today.
The beautification process undertaken during the late 15th and 16th century is largely responsible for the structural problems that afflicted the temple. In the 1960s a restoration project tried to tackle these problems but rather than achieve the goal it merely worsened them.
In the early 1990s symptoms were evident in the form of falling rubble, the cracks in the vaults of the main nave and the transept, and the deterioration of large areas of its stone works due to insufficient maintenance and conservation having been carried out since the previous restoration attempt.
Experts studied its condition and concluded that Santa Maria was undergoing a slow evolving process of partial ruin and consequently it posed a certain risk to public safety. As a result, in 1994 the institutions proceeded to close the cathedral to the public and proposed complete restoration.
In 2000 the Cathedral of Santa María Foundation, led by the Provincial Council of Álava together with the Vitoria-Gasteiz City Council and the Vitoria Bishopric, embarked upon an ambitious restoration project designed to remedy centuries-old problems with the foundations and associated deformation. This work continues today.
Included from the very outset of this restoration process was the novel idea of providing public access through a unique visiting programme, under the title of ‘Open for restoration’, which has since received national and international recognition - Europa Nostra Award in 2002 - as well as captivating and inspiring writers such as Paulo Coelho and Ken Follet.
Open for restoration
This is the name that sums up the spirit of guided tours around the Cathedral of Santa Maria, given that the tour of the temple becomes a visit of the work site, with helmet included and with the corresponding safety measures, which does not ruin any surprises as it is an open, living project that changes from day by day.
The ‘Old Cathedral’ is now more than just a temple, having become a thematic space in terms of history, architecture, archaeology, culture and art, with the added attraction that the contents change as the research work progresses. In this building it is possible to follow the restoration works of a temple weakened by centuries of problems with the foundations and deformation.
Visitors can witness this whole process thanks to a unique programme based on focus and content. Not only can they view the works in progress but also take part in a distinct emotional and intellectual experience, where an historical building, in addition to its other values, may also be perceived as a living document that can be read and understood.
These visits are characterized by the personalized attention that is given, the soundness of the historical explanations, the detailed descriptions of the problems and the restorative solutions.
The tour allows visitors to appreciate the building in its entirety, from the foundations to the tower. The visit also includes a walk around the outside of the walls and the triforium in order to finally appreciate the restoration of the portico of the Cathedral and enjoy the extraordinary quality of stone carving on the tympana of one of the finest 14th century façades in the whole Peninsula.
There are two types of visits available, Cathedral and Cathedral+Tower, lasting 60 and 75 minutes, respectively.
Plaza Santa María, s/n. - 01001 Vitoria-Gasteiz