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December 19, 2018

Spain: Zaragoza, The Co-Cathedrals

La Lonja and la Catedral-Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar

A cathedral is by definition a Christian church holding a cathedra. Cathedra, the Latin word for seat, is, in the context of a church, a bishop’s throne. The cathedral is in effect a bishop’s throne room.

Bishops preside over distinct ecclesiastical districts called dioceses. The bishop’s “seat” is often but not necessarily the grandest and largest church in the diocese. There are plenty of places where it is easy to think that a large flamboyant basilica is the cathedral when in fact the actual cathedral is a more humble church nearby.

In Zaragoza Spain the situation is even more confusing. Zaragoza has co-cathedrals. The massive Catedral-Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar (English: Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar) sits on the Plaza del Pilar near the older Cathedral of the Savior (Spanish: Catedral del Salvador or La Seo de Zaragoza). This co-cathedral arrangement is not unheard of. As of March 2014, the Catholic Church had 303 co-cathedrals, most of which are in Europe.

The Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar view from the Ebro River.

Our Lady of the Pillar’s tile domes

I don’t recall seeing a place where the juxtaposition of two cathedrals was as obvious as it is in Zaragoza. The two churches are very different, and very close to each other.

The older cathedral, La Seo, sits at the site of the Roman forum. The forum’s ruins are underground and can be visited by entering the museum near the church’s façade. In addition to civic and commercial center of the city, the Roman forum contained the main temple.

After the departure of the Romans, the Moors built a built the main mosque of Saraqusta al Baida at the temple’s site. When the Reconquista reached Zaragoza in 1118, Alfonso I did not immediately demolish the mosque. Instead he gave the Muslims one year to move out of the town, which seems relatively civil under the circumstances. On October 4, 1121, the mosque was consecrated as a church with the name San Salvador and the renovations to convert the mosque to a Christian church were begun.

La Seo’s Baroque tower

Access to the subterranean Roman ruins is immediately in front of La Seo.

Building on the foundations of Saraqusta al Baida the construction of a Romanesque cathedral was begun in 1140. With the rise of Zaragoza’s stature came a remodel in the 14th Century. This time the construction style was Gothic-Mudéjar, reflecting both the prevailing European architectural trend and the Moorish influences that remained in the region. In the 15th Century the church’s dome fell, prompting a reconstruction in the Renaissance style. Capping off the mish-mash of styles was a baroque tower built at the turn of the 18th Century.

Today the church retains vestiges of its diverse architectural roots. The combination of styles is striking and a bit confusing.

Catedral-Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar sits in the foreground on the Plaza del Pilar. In the distance is the Cathedral of the Savior.

The origins of Zaragoza’s larger cathedral, Our Lady of the Pillar, also go back to Roman times. Legend has it that on 2 January 40 AD Mary the mother of Jesus, who was still alive at the time, appeared as an apparition to Saint James while he was deep in prayer. Mary, it is said, gave James a pillar of jasper and instructed him to build a church in her honor. About a year after the apparition, James is believed to have had a small chapel built in Mary’s honor at the site of Our Lady of the Pillar. It is believed the first church ever dedicated to Mary.

Though the first chapel was eventually destroyed along with other Christian shrines the statue and the pillar were saved.

Much like La Seo, a Romanesque church was constructed following the Reconquista. And also like La Seo there was a Gothic-Mudéjar remodel in the 15th Century after a fire damaged the Romanesque church. Unlike La Seo the baroque reconstruction went beyond the tower and was far more dramatic. With the King of Spain, Charles II, as a benefactor, construction of the present-day voluminous church was started in 1681.

Our Lady of the Pillar’s cluster of towers.

Completed in 1686 Our Lady of the Pillar is 130 meters long by 67 meters wide. It is the tenth largest church building in the world. The interior space is impressively cavernous. Our Lady of the Pillar dwarfs nearby La Seo: The two churches don’t “look” like they should be co-cathedrals.

There are a number of things to see inside of Our Lady of the Pillar.

On the ceiling in a dome is “The Queen of Martyrs”, a fresco by Francisco Goya who hails from the region.

During the Spanish Civil War three bombs were dropped on the church by the Republicans but none of them exploded; two of them are still embedded in the structure and can be seen from the inside of the Basilica.

There is of course the Statue of Our Lady of the Pillar, a relic that still attracts streams of pilgrims, despite the distinct possibility that the original may have been destroyed when the church burnt in 1434.

Our Lady of the Pillar at night

When ever possible I like to see the view from the top of large churches. At Our Lady of the Pillar access is easy. Rather than sweating up a couple of hundred steps, visitors can ride an elevator to the top for a fee. It’s convenient though it doesn’t help to burn off the calories from the last night’s tapas.

With two for the price of one there’s bang for the cathedral seeing buck in Zaragoza. But we left with one question unanswered. How do you have one “seat” of a bishop divided between two buildings? I know that the seat of a bishop refers generally to the ecclesial jurisdiction or see. But there usually is a bishop’s throne, a cathedra, located in a cathedral. In Zaragoza I never did figure out whether there is one physical chair or two.


This visit to Zaragoza was from November of 2017.

In 1986 UNESCO inscribed La Seo as part of the “Mudejar Architecture of Aragon” World Heritage listing.

La Seo’s tower

Remains of a Roman wall are at the far end of the plaza.

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