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 The Cathedral of Santander


The Cathedral Church of Santander was built atop the last vestige of tha ancient hill Somorrostro, which was chosen by the Romans for the original settlement of the city we now know as Santander. At the time it was built, the promontory, almost completely surrounded by the sea, commanded the entire bay. Its excepcional strategic situation helps explain the continued occupation of the site troughout the Middle Ages.

The concession in 1187 of a municipalcharter (fuero) to Santander, under the protection of the Abbot of its church, stimulated significant economic growth that led to the bulding of the present cathedral, as well as the construction of a town castle on the west flank of the hill, the consolidation of what would later be known as the Old Town, and the erection of new defensive walls around the town and its active port.

The building

The Cathedral of Santander, as it now stands, consists of two superimposed churches in Gothic style. The one that underlies the present parish Church of Christ wal built during the first third of the XIII Century; the upper church was constructed during the rest of that century and was partialy rebuilt and enlarged after the conflagration that swept the old city in 1941. The Gothic structural complex was completed with a XIV Century cloister.

Today's cathedral began life in the Middle Ages as the Abbey of St. Emetherius, later to become the Collegiate Church of Ss. Emetherius and Celedonius. It became the cathedral of the new diocese of Santander when that was estabilished in 1754.

People came to live around the Abbey troughout the Medieval period. The population nucleus they formed was the settlement called Sant Ander, that today is the capital of Cantabria.

The lower church and the excavations

The original plan for the edification of the church building was larger than the building that was eventually constructed. The plan included two superimposed churches, each with three naves, and more spans than were finally built.

The lower church (the present parish Church of Christ) is preserved in its integrity, and consists of three naves of four spans each, as well as three apses of somewhat later execution than the rest of the structure. The pillars and arches seem at first unexpectedly robust for the low vaults, but in fact they are not, since they must also support the weight of the Upper Church.

The topography of the site dictated a northern location for the main entry of this first church. The portal consists of two lateral doors flanking a large church window, all sheltered by a porch of the same date. The decorations on the capitals and keystones are mostly vegetal. There are nevertheless some iconographic decorations, and these are principally to be found in the chapels and the newly discovered Gate of Grace, associated with pilgrimages and Jubilees.

Archeological excavations were undertaken below the floor of the lower church in the years 1982 and 1983. Part of the 100 sq. meters excavated can be seen under a glass floor in the North nave. The archeologists found abundant vestiges of the original Roman settlement, including parts of important fortifications and the remains of the baths. The inlet (praefurnium) of their firebox was used in the Middle Ages as a tabernacle, where the skulls of the Martyrs Emetherius and Celedonius were carefully guarded. Right above this spot a series of early churches were built, before the present Cathedral. Their remains also appeared during the course of the excavations.

During the course of the excavations, besides the skulls and other "connected bones of the bodies of the Saints" (as a Medieval document has it), a large concentration of other human bones was found around the place where the Martyr's skulls lay. This phenomenon, common to other churches erected over the sepulchres of saints (for example, Saint Peter's in Rome, Saint James' in Compostela...), one that is even more manifest where, as in this case, the relics are the most important referent of group indentity, or a special focus of devotion for the congregation, shows us that faithful wished to await resurrection near the bodies of their venerant relics.

In 1533, faced with that advance of Protestantism, the tomb was subject to a "pious profanation", that aimed to recover the skulls of the Martyrs for veneration. Once found, they were encased in two reliquaries, silver effigies of the Saints. These have been preserved in the Lower Church, from whence they are borne in procession to the altar of the High Church on important feast days.

The High Chruch

The modern Cathedral of Santander corresponds to the higher church in the original plan, and for that reason its original floor plan coincicded exactly with that of the lower church. As befits an abbey, the principal church door opens from the South to the cloister. The bell tower, springing from the foot of the complex, suggest in its sturdy sobriety a military fortress.



The building has been enlarged on two occasions. The first, which took place in the XVII Century, involved the building of peripherical chapels, while the second and most important was done after the destruction caused by the fire that levelled the city in February, 1941.

When the new cathedral opened for services in 1953, it was almost twice the size of the original building, due to the addition of a transept, dome, new apse and ambulatory. The reconstruction respected and maintained the gothic style of the surviving part, corresponding to the naves, while minor classical element were introduced in the new sections, to differentiate them from the original fabric.



The simple decoration, whether vegetal or stoired, is limited to corbels, capitals, keystones, and a occasional frieze. For the most part, the new decorations replicate the old, burnt ones, but some new themes are added.

There is one notewothy concentration where are found the oldest royal coats of arms bearing castles and lions known from any part of Spain.

The interior

The terrible fire of 1941 blazed through the whole interior of the High Church. Consequently, all but one of its altarpieces have had to be replaced, either with retables from different churches, or with newly made ones.

The first chapel seen on the right on entering the church was built in 1624 by Fernando Herrera Calderón. The next one, dedicated to the "Bien Aparecida" Virgin, was constructed by Don Juan Alvarado, about 1604. The last in this nave is dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. It was built in 1622 by Sebastian de la Puebla.

At the beginning of the ambulatory, next to the door of the sacristy, there is a marble basin bearing a poetic inscription in Arabic. According to tradition, it was brought to the church by Cantabrian sailors who took part in the reconquest of Seville.

Up above it is a gallery decorated with a fresco by the painter Jose Cataluña. It represents the construction of the old church by King Fernando III, el Santo, whose son, the Infante Don Sancho, brother of Alfonso X, became its Abbot.

The newly constructed Chanpel or Presbitery contains the Cathedral's principal liturgical objects. Here is the freestanding altar, whose Reliquary contains the old Medieval inscription Multa corpora sanctorum hic sepulta sunt ("Here lie buried the bodies of
many Saints"). This inscription is the basis for the name of the old "Collegiate Chapel of the Holy Bodies". A second element is the Bishop's Chair or Cathedra, from wich the church gets its designation "Cathedral".

The third is the Choir of the Canons of the Cathedral Chapter, which was originally in the Royal Monastery of St. Jerome in Madrid. Last, the altarpiece, which was brought from Tamariz de Campos during the last reconstruction, is Baroque with added modern sculptures by Alangua of the Asumption, and Saints Emetherius and Celedonius, patrons of the church. In the ambulatory, there are two altars, onde dedicated to Fernando III, the founder, the other to the Apostle St. Matthias, to whom the town made a solemn vow of gratitude for this intervention during the terrible episode of Black Plague that ended in 1503. Around the outside of the dome stand monumental stone statues of the four Evangelists, done by Villalobos.

Approaching the North nave, at the position of the transept, we find the tomb of the illustrious Santanderine writer, Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo, work of the sculptor Victorio Macho.

Turning towards the foot of the church, the next chapel, formerly called the Rosary Chapel, was finished by the Inspector of the Royal Fleet, Fernando de la Riva Herrera, in 1628. On the altar is a splendid monstrance in gided silver, work of Maese Calvo of Burgos. On the north wall is the praying statue of Bishop Sánchez de Castro, buried there. At present, this is the chapel where the Sacrament is kept.

Farther along, ther are two chapels that occupe the space where the old Abbatial palaces once stood. At the feet of the church are found: first, the penitential chapel, formerly dedicated to St. Matthias; in the central nave, there is an old baptismal font from the hamlet of Colsa, in the Cabuérniga valley; and, finally, at the left of the church door, a chapel founded by Antonio de Azoños Escobedo in 1671, whose Baroque altarpiece constains a good copy of Raphael's Visitation.

All the church windows have modern stained glass works of quality, depicting several Saints related to the Cathedral's history.

The cloister

The old cloister, which formerly surrounded a secluded garden adorned with orange trees, is done in the sober and functional Gothic style which characterizes the rest of the monument. It occupies the early Medieval quarter called the Barrio of the "Ciminterio", whose houses were levelled at the beginning of the XIV Century to make way for the construction of the Cloister, pressed forward by the Abbot Nuño Pérez de Monroy, Chancellor of Queen María.

Construction began with the North gallery, which shelters the church door, while the last part completed was the southern gallery, which until a century ago, stood atop a cliff overlookng the sea. These passageways are separated from the gardens bys a low wall topped by church windows separated by graceful mullions, rewinforced at a later date with sturdy segmental arches. Chapels open off the galleries at regular intervals. The two main chapels are: that of Saint Peter, on the far southeast, where the general councils of the town met, and on the west, that of Santiago (Saint James the Greater), built by an important family of royal shipfitters, the Escalantes, in the XIV Century; on the wall of this gallery was the door to the Hospital of the Holy Ghost, which was already there in the XIV Century.

Today the cloister constains a good number of tomb sculptures of Abbots and knights, that originally came from the two churches of the Cathedral as well as other churches in the town, and a number of keystones and carved capitals wich were discovered during the reconstruction.


©2007 Diócesis de Santander
Pza. Eguino y Trecu, 1 - 39002 Santander
Tfno: 942 365657

The building
The lower Church & excavations
The high Church
The interior
The cloister