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The New Cathedral of Salamanca: A 16th-century cathedral carved with contemporary symbols

David Goran

Situated on the banks of the River Tormes, the ancient Spanish city of Salamanca is one of the oldest university towns in Europe, with a rich collection of Renaissance, Roman, Gothic, and Baroque monuments. Among them are two impressive cathedrals, the Old Cathedral and the New Cathedral.

Facade of the Puerta de Ramos of the New Cathedral from the Plaza de Anaya. CC BY-SA 3.0

Facade of the Puerta de Ramos of the New Cathedral from the Plaza de Anaya. CC BY-SA 3.0

The Old Cathedral, constructed at the end of the 12th century, is in the Romanesque style with the outstanding Gallo Tower, and it is dedicated to Saint Mary of the Sea. It is closed to the public and only opened during very special occasions.

Tower and dome of the New Cathedral. By Jentges Wikimedia Commons

Tower and dome of the New Cathedral. By Jentges/Wikimedia Commons

After in the beginning of the 15th century, it was decided that Salamanca needed a bigger and more splendorous cathedral. The result was The New Cathedral, constructed between the 16th and 18th centuries in the Gothic and Baroque styles, commissioned by Ferdinand V of Castile of Spain, the Catholic King. It is one of the ultimate manifestations of Gothic architecture and one of the last examples constructed in Spain.

Constructed in Gothic and Baroque styles. By Nicolas Vollmer CC BY 2.0

Constructed in Gothic and Baroque styles. By Nicolas Vollmer/CC BY 2.0

The architects were Antón de Egas and Alonso Rodriges. By MARIA ROSA FERRE CC BY-SA 2.0

The architects were Antón de Egas and Alonso Rodriges. By MARIA ROSA FERRE/CC BY-SA 2.0

Its main entrance consists of three richly decorated arcs, each leading to the three naves (sections) of the church. The interior is notable for its fine vaulting, delicate cornices, and slender pillars. The cathedral’s vaulted stone ceilings contain graceful paintings and its sandstone walls are intricately carved.

Left-By Turol Jones CC BY 2.0 Right-Baroque pipe organ. By Jim Anzalone CC BY-SA 2.0

Left-Interior. By Turol Jones/CC BY 2.0 Right-Baroque pipe organ. By Jim Anzalone/CC BY-SA 2.0

Interior of the dome. 1-By Turol Jones CC BY 2.0 2-By Alejandro Flores CC BY 2.0

Interior of the dome. 1-By Turol Jones/CC BY 2.0 2-By Alejandro Flores/CC BY 2.0

What is interesting about this cathedral is that among the ornate carvings on the façade are those of a faun eating an ice cream, a lynx, a bull, a crayfish, and an astronaut (complete with boots, helmet, and breathing apparatus on his back with tubes attached to the front of his suit). Photographs of this astronaut figure have been circulating online via email, forums and blogs for years now, generating a considerable amount of debate.

Left-Death - detail of the interior of the New Cathedral of Salamanca. By Appolonia1 CC BY-SA 3.0 Right-Astronaut sculpture, added during renovations in 1992. By Marshall Henrie CC BY-SA 3.0

Left-Death – detail of the interior of the New Cathedral of Salamanca. By Appolonia1/CC BY-SA 3.0 Right-Astronaut sculpture, added during renovations in 1992. By Marshall Henrie/CC BY-SA 3.0

However, the origins of the carving are neither ancient nor mysterious. The contemporary symbols were added in 1992 during restoration work on the cathedral, when one of the artisans engaged in the project chose to carve strange figures into the stone, as a way of signing their works. The symbol was added by stonemason Miguel Romero under the supervision of Jeronimo Garcia, the person responsible for the restoration, who reportedly chose an astronaut as a fitting symbol of the twentieth century.

Left-Tower of the New Cathedral of Salamanca. By Appolonia1 CC BY-SA 3.0 Right- A faun eating an ice cream, added during renovations. By Appolonia1 CC BY-SA 3.0

Left-Tower of the New Cathedral of Salamanca. By Appolonia1/CC BY-SA 3.0 Right- A faun eating an ice cream, added during renovations. By Appolonia1/CC BY-SA 3.0

Cathedrals required constant maintenance and restorations, and even today, new construction goes on.