Just like the people today who go down into the underground station, sure in the knowledge of finding an escalator and the imminent arrival of transport to another place, in the 14th century you would go up the steps and into the church of Santa Maria del Mar.

This is the most beautiful church in Barcelona – as enormous, arrogant and splendid as a cathedral, made from host of signs and symbols that whisper to the four corners; made according to precise mathematical formulae, calculations as solid as the stones that holds it up next to the sea, firmly anchoring it in the sand. The Cathedral of the Sea.

Interior of the central nave of Santa Maria del Mar. Photo: Josep Renalies CC BY-SA 3.0

The temple is a true marvel, as wide as a mouth open in admiration. Above all it is functional, designed to hold large congregations, in the same way a well is designed to hold water or a shipyard to build the tall ships and galleys that will set sail on the high seas. Or, even better, we should see this maritime church as a bridge to cross, a sumptuous passage which rises in the middle of the city like a miracle; a station between heaven and earth, between time passing and the eternity that remains. Santa Maria del Mar is also like a sea port, even though Barcelona, at that time, had been left without a port and managed to continue its feverish trading activity thanks to the numerous boatmen loading and unloading the goods from the beach to the ships in their small craft.  The port of Barcelona is no longer there but it is as if it were. Everything was provisional in the medieval city and the temple was like a port offering protection from the inclemency of the weather, the privileged spot from which to set out on the ascendant journey of religion, in accordance with the new architectural style that we now call Gothic. Perhaps that explains why the master builder was Berenguer de Montagut – a famous civil engineer and an authority on the bridges and the rec comtal irrigation channel of Barcelona; a rationalist builder specialising in utilitarian works such as the new cathedral of Manresa or the cloisters of the cathedral at Vic. During the Middle Ages the church of Santa Maria del Mar projected by Montagut was a port in the same way as the port was Barcelona and Barcelona was Santa Maria del Mar.

Façade of Santa Maria del Mar. Photo: PMR Maeyaert CC BY-SA 3.0 ES

There is no other church in Barcelona like it – not even Gaudí’s interminable Sagrada Familia which you cannot tell whether is being built or taken down.  Santa Maria del Mar was a cathedral before cathedrals existed and was erected in just 55 years from 1329 to 1384, in the Ribera neighbourhood at Vilanova del Mar, outside the city wall. It managed to bring together the harmony of a host of different intentions, efforts and desires of the capital city of Catalonia, as an ornament of the rich – the owners of the palaces in the Carrer Montcada and the people of the grand houses in Carrer Mercaders, but above all of the little people rushing around the spider’s web of ordinary, narrow streets; the people meeting in the Born neighbourhood, in the squares of the Encants and the Llotja, or in the porches. These were the women and men who were baptised, married and buried at Santa Maria del Mar. They were the women and men who filled the church during mass, mainly people of the sea: sailors, fishermen, dragnetters, skippers, port labourers, artisans of fish conserves, plus numerous new and second-generation immigrants, mainly from rural Catalonia.  Add to these the workers from the warehouses, the corn exchange, stables, workshops, bakers, butchers, fishmongers, and the money changers. And the people who stored the wheat delivered by sea to the New Porch, transported ropes and fishing lines, nets, baskets, boxes, basins and pitchers. All around was the incessant movement of grain, wine, oil, milk, cheese, vegetables, fruit, fish and livestock. Locks, arms, saffron, coral, alum, wax, copper and slaves. Also luxuries from afar such as silk, pepper, cinnamon, lacquer and incense. And even trafficking of illicit coses vedades hotly pursued by the king’s bailiffs. It was from the wealth and the labour of every part of the city that moved that the supports which would hold up Santa Maria del Mar began to rise, precisely towards heaven.

If we are to believe the words of Francesc Eiximenis, the sea offers wealth, but also happiness, prudence, knowledge and diversity, the main urban qualities that find shelter in the church of the people of the sea.

Receipt for 80 sous for work carried out by one of the guild members during the construction of Santa Maria del Mar, dated 6 October 1347. Original manuscript currently under auction at Soler y Llach, Barcelona.

In the 14th century you entered Santa Maria del Mar to receive all of those things. The calm of the gateway to heaven, the uncertain journey of the soul, the possibility of another mysterious dimension, all dearly wished for. You could leave behind the bustle of daily life and, once inside, stand upright to feel taller and closer to the protection of the All-powerful, the divine comfort, which is the only thing that is sure and infinite.

Like a broad horizon, like a seascape unfolding suddenly in front of longing eyes, spacious and diaphanous, the spectacular interior of Santa Maria del Mar spreads wide open. This colossal church whose three exceptionally high naves seem like one because of an optical illusion, with its open chapels between the buttresses that run its full length, is the perfect structure of the master de Montagut – an unexpected yet brilliant solution which pleases both those architects in favour of a single nave and those who favour three. The music of the mass led the medieval congregation to raise their fearful eyes in search of some intercession by Our Lady Maria. On one of the keystones of the vault of the central nave and also on the glass of the great rose window she appears crowned by God himself, in such magnificent colours and with an invisible majesty that is only revealed at that particular spot. The beauty is audible. Monodies of Gregorian chant take a hold on the faithful like a spell, but not as much as the polyphony of Magister Perotinus, Pérotin. It is the most powerful music of all, and takes greatest advantage of the giant echo chamber that Santa Maria del Mar also is. The whole place is built so that the precious stones – probably painted orange with dark green contrast – can also sing, so that they can break out and proclaim who really is the way, the truth and the life, and so that the experience of God is even more resounding through proportion and balance, not only rising up to heaven but spreading throughout the whole temple like a great tide, like a powerful wave of purifying water.

Santa Maria del Mar exalts the Mother of God of the waters in the same way that other temples exalt the Mother of God of the earth – Mother Earth. The female divinity of water in past pagan beliefs, conveniently Christianised and invigorated, offers Barcelona a religion that is more friendly and cordial, more maternal, more urban and complex, more charitable and more individual, like that understood by Saint Bernat de Claravall, also known as the Knight of Maria, the founder of the Cistercian order of monks, Doctor Mellifluous, or he with the honeyed voice. This was the great predecessor and promoter of primitive Gothic art. Since he died in 1153, he obviously could not have seen the Cathedral of the Sea, but the temple nevertheless respires his conceptual and eminently practical spirit, his love of functionalism, architectural rationalism and the simplicity of its construction. Perhaps because of his markedly rationalist character he was greatly admired by Le Corbusier. Santa Maria del Mar is an arrogant work in its asceticism and plainness, in its categorical paucity, with the enormous space given over to worship and, compared with the other great Christian churches, built on a relative shoestring. The great space of three naves which appear to be one is only held up by eight octagonal pillars with a radius of one metre sixty, making them slim but strong as they rise 26 metres off the ground … just eight of them set 15 metres apart as if by art of magic. With the ritual ambulatory and no crossing, the interior structure of the temple is a miracle of construction technique, privileging lightness and efficiency to give central importance to the rotundity of the naked space, to the immensity of the volume, evoking the greatness of creation. It is able to move you with its pure beauty, and with the simple harmony it emanates, thanks to a balance of proportions which are both symbolic and practical.

Tranverse section of a cathedral in the “Ad Quadratum” style. Author: José-Manuel Benito. Public document.

In fact, the proportions are those that appear in ancient architecture known as Ad Quadratum, a building method that takes the geometry of the square as the basic unit and fundamental module for establishing the particular logic, needs and ideology that, as we will see, underlines even more the importance of Santa Maria del Mar as one of the most outstanding examples of European medieval art. The square established the proportions of the temple both as a whole and in terms of its individual parts. Berenguer de Montagut decided that the height of the Cathedral of the Sea should be exactly 33 metres from the base of the nave to the keystone of the vault, and the lateral naves and chapels should also be the same height. So the entire plan of Santa Maria del Mar is set out as an enormous imaginary square measuring 33 by 33 metres, or, what amount to the same thing, one which fits into a perfect circumference with a diameter of 33√2. It is a deliberate representation of the cosmos. But if you take into account that the basis for the geometrical calculations of the master builder was a 33-centimetre foot, which was the normal size here in the 13th century, you can see that through the eyes of the Middle Ages, Santa Maria del Mar is an surprising  temple of a hundred feet, identical in its incredible design to the hekadompedon of the Greek temples. Even though the word which best represents society at the time the Cathedral of the Sea was built is ‘risk’, alongside the risk of innovation, this temple has shown the survival over the years that is typical of the Greek and Roman tradition. Ad Quadratum architecture, which combines the circle and the square, shows that medieval Barcelona has been preserved, probably by inertia, by simple customs but also by design, by professionalism, the general architectural lines as understood by Vitruvius, the sense of harmony, regularity and proportion. And, of course, by the human dimension – the relationship of the measurements of the buildings to the model of the human body and its parts. From this perspective, the truth is that there is no esoteric or magic significance in the numbers involved in Santa Maria del Mar. There are no scatalogical or mysterious messages. The number 10 is a perfect number simply because we have 10 fingers on the hands which do the work, the fingers that build the buildings. The Cathedral of the Sea is a grid of square modules, set out in lines of 10 by 10, linking it to Roman architecture. This is an architecture that will remain, it will continue in the baggage of knowledge of the masters of medieval works, completely stripped of the symbolism that Vitruvius gave them. Southern Gothic architecture, the architecture of Santa Maria del Mar, so unlike that of northern Europe, has walls that do not lose consistency or focus all the attention on the windows and the exterior light; one that prefers buttresses to flying buttresses, and does not undervalue the horizontality of its buildings in favour of an austere verticality. It is, in fact, an architecture which continues to be convinced by the by the efficiency of the Roman tradition. It was in this permanent foundering that medieval society navigated its way between the risk of maintaining the inertia of tradition and the risk of change and innovation.

Interior of Santa Maria del Mar, looking towards the pews and the rose window. Photo: Lohen11 CC BY-SA 3.0

Looking at the extreme height of the towers, true skyscrapers of their time, you can see the artistic representation of the audacity of urban dynamism in 14th century Barcelona. Risk is undoubtedly a word that has come from the sea, from maritime expeditions, unorthodox merchants’ voyages in search of new routes, new fortunes, new ideas. Scholars think that the word could come from the Arabic and Persian; it is the risk of the most unsettled trading economy, the nerve of a society that refuses to give in, that wants to grow thanks to competition in the world of business, that will not resign itself to death when the war comes, or when the rose window is destroyed by earthquake, or even when the scourge of the most terrible tragedy that medieval society had to bear appears – the Black Death. The risk of building and maintaining Santa Maria del Mar was the same as the risk of living, the same as the terrifying risk of getting caught by the most deadly epidemic. From the fear of the risk of dying, on the western side of the church, there is a sign, one of the few anthropomorphic decorations in the whole building. On one of the marble capitels you can still see today the macabre words Encontre dels tres vius i dels tres morts – meeting of three live and three dead men – a literary reminder of the teachings on the fleetingness of life and the vanity of worldly glory. It reminds the visitors, the passers by, that they need to prepare for death. Of course, as well as being a sacred place for a religious burial, Santa Maria del Mar is also a monument, or what amounts to the same thing, a memory, a lesson and a comfort. A hope. Could it be that the Cathedral of the Sea, with all its arrogant presence, does not show the victory of the spirit over the material?