On account of this being the beginning of holy week there were restricted opening hours for the cathedral so as we were absolutely sure that it was open this lunchtime we made our way along two streets named after heroes of the Reconquest, Calle de Cardenal Mendoza and the Plaza del Obispo Don Bernardo and then to the main doors.
The seven hundred year period between 722 and 1492 has long been known to historians of Spain as the ‘Reconquista’ and the Spanish have subsequently organised their medieval history around the drama of this glorious event which over time has become a cherished feature of the self-image of the Spanish people and has become embellished into a sort of organised Catholic national crusade to remove the Muslims from Iberia.
In legend the focal point of the story of the Reconquista is the heroic tale of Rodrigo Díaz de Bivar or El Cid, the National hero of Spain and revered by many as being single handedly responsible for the victory of the Catholic Kingdoms over the North African Moors but whilst El Cid was undoubtedly a great warrior and soldier he was only one of many who contributed to the Crusade. There were other equally heroic figures and one of these was Don Martín Vázquez de Arce who is celebrated in Sigüenza cathedral.
Don Martín Vázquez de Arce was born three hundred years or so after El Cid somewhere in Castilla and began at a young age to serve the Mendoza family of Guadalajara, the city where his father worked as a secretary to the family and lived in the city of Henares. He was the epitome of the gallant and heroic knight, trained in the arts, literature and warfare. He served as a Page of the first Duke of the Infantry and accompanied the Spanish troops in various campaigns in the Vega of Granada.
He died a young man when in July 1486, only twenty-six years old he fell into an ambush by the Moors at Acequia Gorda and although according to a contemporary chronicler he fought bravely and killed many Arabs the Spanish knights were heavily outnumbered and he was eventually overcome and slain.
Six years later, in the year that Granada fell and the Reconquest was complete his body was recovered by his father and moved to Sigüenza where he was laid to rest in a private chapel and a wonderful monument made in the finest stonemasons workshop in Gudalajara, was placed over his grave in his memory.
For a small town the cathedral is an immense building, built to symbolise the power and authority of Bishop Don Bernardo who began construction in the twelfth century. It has three naves and a main chapel with an ambulatory and a dome and around the outer walls are a series of commemorative chapels which reads like a who’s who of the local campaigns of the Reconquista. These chapels include particularly San Pedro with a wrought iron grille by Juan Francés, the Anunciación, with Mudejar details, and the San Marcos chapel.
Eventually we came to the jewel of the Cathedral, the Chapel of St. Catherine which houses the sepulchre of Martín Vázquez de Arce where in what is regarded as one of the finest examples of Spanish funerary art is his alabaster statue with his tunic decorated with the red cross of Santiago as he lies gently on his side while reading. The authors of the Spanish Generation of 1898 (a group of patriotic artists and philosophers) drew national attention to the statue by naming him ‘el doncel de Sigüenza’ – the boy of Sigüenza.
This statue is so important and so valuable that it isn’t possible to just wander unaccompanied into the chapel and there was a forty minute wait and a €4 entry fee so as I could very clearly see the statue through the locked gates I wasn’t inclined to wait around. And neither was Kim especially as a family of gipsy beggars was following her around the pews with their hands outstretched and the eyes assessing pick-pocketing opportunities so we completed our visit and left the cathedral and Kim handed over our loose change to a stooped and whiskered old lady dressed in black at the door who she declared, in her opinion, to be a genuine hard-luck case.
More posts about El Cid and the Reconquista: