Controversy Surrounding the Proposed Western Doors of the Cathedral of Burgos

Many pilgrims to Compostela will likely have a very strong memory of the Cathedral of Burgos. Many start their way here -- and for those who began their journey from Saint Jean Pied de Port it is the first major gothic cathedral they will encounter on their way. Its delicate white spires greet the pilgrims and local alike as they walk around the narrow streets of the old town.

The camino was a veritable cultural highway during the middle ages and the cathedral of Santa Maria grew by its side, connecting the expanding kingdom of Spain with France and Germany. Construction began in 1221 promoted by the King, Saint Ferdinand III under the direction of French master builders. The Cathedral was consecrated in 1260 but construction on its many chapels, towers and other features continued well into the sixteenth century.

To celebrate the 800th anniversary of the construction, the then Archbishop and the cathedral chapter decided to commission three new monumental doors for the western façade to renowned painter and sculptor Antonio Lopez. The intention of the initiative was to commemorate the anniversary and at the same time return some of the iconographic message to the cathedral’s main portals. Antonio Lopez, a key player in the contemporary figurative and hyperrealistic current, seemed a great choice for a figurative religious subject. However, once the design was made public, the matter turned sour.

Rendering of the new doors. Archdiocese of Burgos.

The project envisioned the main door featuring a gigantic four metre tall self portrait of the artist as God the Father, the two smaller doors feature Our Lady and the Child Jesus, modelled by the artist’s wife and grandson. Public opposition to the project has been growing steadily even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular during the last few weeks when news transpired that project was continuing forward. ICOMOS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, has recently published a report opposing the intervention. A petition initiated by a local artist has already garnered over 30.000 signatures, and while the locals are the most outspoken, the fact is that the Cathedral of Burgos is part of all of humanity’s cultural heritage and many have signed from abroad.

Not wanting to dwell too much on the polemics that are engulfing the project, the news made me curious about what the story behind the current state of the present western portal. One is mesmerized by the intricate spires while climbing the steps that lead to the square at their foot, but once the gaze moves to doors themselves, something does not seem quite right. The three large portals are plain, flat and devoid of decoration, and an incongruous classical pediment tops the central door. One would expect the typical gothic arrangement of archivolts and jambs decorated with statues, columns and other carvings rich with symbolism, with larger scenes on the tympani.

The western facade. CC by Zarateman

Only a few sources from the eighteenth century show the original portals and describe their iconography. The middle tympanum presented the theme of the Coronation of Mary, supported by a trumeau carved with an image of Our Lady with the Child Jesus, while the other two featured the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. Files of Saints covered the jambs and entire lower section of the façade.

The original portal in a 1771 drawing by Romualdo Camino. National Library of Spain.

The South Portal of the Cathedral, called del Sarmental, attributed to the master of the Beau Dieu of Amiens was completed between 1230 and 1240 and presents a composition identical to those shown in historic images. CC by Borjaanimal.

Regrettably, this sculptural ensemble was demolished in 1790, presumably in order to reinforce the façade, and replaced with the lacklustre neoclassical design that we see today. Interestingly, just over a century later the architect in charge of the restoration works of the Cathedral, Vicente Lampérez, a follower of Viollet le Duc, proposed its reconstruction.

I believe that, beyond the artistic merit of Lopez’s doors on themselves, this idea proposed by Lampérez is far more interesting, even if materialized in a more contemporary artistic language, it would be coherent with the rest of the façade and doubtlessly provide a much richer iconographic program that the one proposed

Proposed reconstruction by Marcos Rico. 1987.

Further reading:

-La obra de la puerta de Santa María en la catedral de Burgos (1790-1791), by Ana Berta Nieto Plaza, 1999.

-Restauración monumental y opinión pública, by Eduardo Carrero Santamaria, 1997.
-El Renacimiento en la Catedral de Burgos: Su entrada noble y su irrupción lesiva, by Marcos Rico Santamaría, 1987.

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