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Spanish Architecture for the Spain Traveler – Easy-to-Use Guide

by | Last updated Mar 5, 2019 | Published on Mar 4, 2019 | Europe, Spain, Travel

You’re visiting Spain, and just in awe of all the Spanish architecture around every corner. Then after your umpteen cathedral (and trust me, there’s a lot of them) you start wondering how to keep it all straight. You’d like to be able to identify the styles of Spanish architecture, feeling it will enhance your travels when you make that connection of history and style. Well, you’ve come to the right place.

As an artist and designer living in Spain, one of my favorite things here is the Spanish architecture. Yet even with my classical art degree, I find I need a refresher every now and then of what those various styles are. Or better yet, a simple-to-use reference guide.

Oh, you’d like that too? Smart thinking. You may still get that curious dog-look on your face, but you’ll be able to understand what you’re in the presence of and what time period it came from. It’s time to step up your travel game, and know the styles of Spanish architecture.

The Grand Stage of Spanish Architecture

Above ImageThe Cathedral of San Salvador in Oviedo, a great example of various architecture styles, but especially of High Gothic architecture.

Spain is renowned worldwide for its architecture, so says UNESCO. It also rates second as having the highest amount of protected UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Italy being first. Styles of Spanish architecture can be generalized into categories in chronological order by period.

However, today I want to just focus on identifying the architectural styles of places of worship and city center sites, because of historical significance. I will breakdown the features to help you identify the style in the buildings and structures you may encounter on your travels. The cathedrals, churches and mosques in Spain are truly extraordinary. You will able to drill down in your own research to discover more about certain landmarks.

The Main Influence on Spanish Architecture

Above ImageA wonderful example of Mozarabic and Mudéjar architecture is the Denia Castle on the Costa Blanca. 

I am amazed at the intricacies and influences that occur in the villages and cities. To the heart of the matter – the architectural styles trickle down from its main influence of religion in that region and time. Spain is a mashup of many modern and ancient Mediterranean cultures, which you can see evidence of wherever you go. They are the remnants that still remain, of Romans, Visigoths and nomadic Celtic tribes of Northern Europe.

Italian design and art had a huge influence during the Medieval and Renaissance periods. There are also sub-classes termed as ‘neo-’ or revival, which come later. Another big question is, what’s up with the blue domed buildings that are particularly dominant throughout the Valencia Region? Quick answer: they are a remnant of the Moorish influence on Spanish architecture. The domes come in other colors too!

Prehistoric Architecture (4000 BC)

Above ImageThe Dolmen de Merilles in Asturias.

We have visited several megalithic sites, which is going way back in time, yet I felt they should be included in this list for their relevance. Some of the first people to settle on the peninsula date back before 4000 BC. They built burial chambers, called dolmens, out of stone. The Celtic tribes migrated from the north as did the Visigoths but in smaller numbers. Celts intermingled earlier with the native Iberians. The Visigoths were considered the running class during this time.

It it suggested that these were key points on pilgrimages and prayer sites. The largest of these can be found near the city of Antequera, near Málaga. Galicia is where you can find many examples of Celtic cultural influence were they built walled villages on mountains. And in neighboring Asturias are also dolmens and Celtic influences as well.

Quick Guide - Prehistoric Architecture

Common Elements:

  • Stone construction predominantly
  • Archaic in nature

Style Examples to Visit:

  • La Agotora in Ávila
  • Dolmen de Merilles in Asturias (although very much off-the-beaten path)

Pre-Romanesque Architecture (7th – 10th Century)

Above ImageThe church of Santa María del Naranco in Oviedo.

This style is in a class of its own, and definitely worth a mention. The only Pre-Romanesque architecture in Spain is found in Asturias. We visited some of the sites that are in and around Oviedo. This charming capital of Asturias is a treasure-chest of stunning architecture. If you find yourself there you should definitely visit the Santa Cristina de Lena, Santa María del Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo. To be noted, Pre-Romanesque Architecture as a style, has nothing to do with Romans.

Quick Guide - Pre-Romanesque Architecture

Common Elements:

  • Massive thick stone masonry and walls
  • Symmetrical construction and large towers
  • Celtic inspired medallions and Roman elements
  • Visigothic columns and imagery (knights and animals)

Style Examples to Visit:

  • Santa Cristina de Lena in Oviedo
  • Santa María del Naranco in Oviedo
  • San Miguel de Lillo in Oviedo

Romanesque (10th – 12th Century)

Above ImageA view of the Cathedral of Ávila, which has both Romanesque and Gothic styles, and is the first Gothic style church of Spain.

This is a big category as you can see this influence everywhere. When the Romans conquered the peninsula they built a network of roads that connected the major cities. They were amazing designers and engineers, and many of these examples are still standing, especially the bridges and aqueducts.

The Pre-Romanesque style refers to Christian art made after the Classical Age, but before the Romanesque style. Asturian art is the most well known. The style is distinctive in design and structure. Arches and lattices are indicative of the style.

A bit later the Mozarabic influence developed. This is termed as First Romanesque and can be identified by horseshoe shaped arches and thick walls. Also, walls were thick and the use of sculptures was limited.

Quick Guide - Romanesque Architecture

Common Elements:

  • Symmetrical construction
  • Massive quality, thick walls, hefty and bulky
  • Round arches and functional columns
  • Groin vaults and sturdy piers in the interior
  • Large towers round towers

Style Examples to Visit:

  • The Cathedral of Jaca in Aragon
  • The Santa Maria Church Tower in Trujillo
  • The Cathedral of Ávila

Mozarabic & Mudéjar Architecture (12th – 16th Century)

Above ImageThe Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. 

Both of these styles can be categorized as Islamic or Moorish. Mudéjar emerged as a meeting point between Christianity and Islam. The horseshoe arch is the most common feature in these styles. It is believed that the Moors arch is an influence of the Visigoths, but may have come from Syria and Persia where it was used by the Byzantines. In the Moorish style, the curve of the arch is much more distinct and is accentuated with alternating colors.

The Moors that stayed in Spain, but did not convert to the Christian religion, developed the Mudejar style. The Mudejars lived mostly in Aragón and Valencia. They were artists who loved working with their hands and were known for their intricate and geometric stucco, wood and brick work.

Above ImageThe Tower of Giralda in Sevilla. 

Synagogues and mosques are good examples of this style. Later this style played a big role in the palaces and the most famous Muslim buildings. The Grand Mosque of Córdoba, the Giralda tower of Seville and the Alhambra Palace of Granada are the best sites to see this style in combination with a Christian influence. The Mozarabic and Mudéjar styles are incredible evidence of how cultures influence each other and are timeless and beautiful today in contrast with modern design.

When you attempt to identify ancient and medieval structures you’ll find a mashup of the Mudejar and Mozarabic style. Most medieval houses of worship and castles that are still standing are examples of this style. Try not be confused, but the upcoming Gothic and Renaissance styles took on their own distinctive styles influenced by the Mudéjar style.

Quick Guide - Mozarabic & Mudéjar Architecture

Common Elements:

  • Horseshoe arch with columns
  • Intricate and geometric stucco, wood and brick work
  • Islamic patterns and decorations
  • Octagonal towers with possible pitched spires
  • Possible use of glazed tile and brick

Mozarabic Style Examples to Visit:

  • The Monastery of San Miguel de Escalada east of León

Mudéjar Style Examples to Visit:

  • The Grand Mosque of Córdoba
  • The Giralda tower of Seville
  • The Alhambra Palace of Granada

Cistercian Architecture (12th Century)

Above ImageThe Monastery of Santa Maria de la Valldigna, which also has styles of Valencian Gothic.

You won’t likely see this style in the larger city centers, but it is necessary to mention it here. The Cistercian is a transition style between Romanesque and Gothic. Brought to Spain by a group of rebellious monks of the Benedictine Order of Cluny, who didn’t care for the lavish lifestyle of the Benedictine monks in France.

Keep in mind the Cistercian style can be mostly found in the construction of remote monasteries, abbeys and churches, and have the same elements of both the Romanesque and Gothic styles.

Quick Guide - Cistercian Architecture

Common Elements:

  • Same elements of both the Romanesque and Gothic style
  • Simple design, utilitarian in construction
  • Usually no carvings or sculpture
  • No high ornamentation

Style Examples to Visit:

  • The Monastery of Santa María de la Valldigna, located in the small Valencian town of Simat de la Valldigna

Gothic (12th – 14th Century)

Above ImageHigh Gothic features of the Cathedral of San Salvador in Oviedo.

Here in Spain the Gothic style is the most common and quick to identify. There are specifically eight different Spanish Gothic styles. The Mudéjar architects created this style using European techniques with the Mudéjar Style. Similar to the Romanesque style, the Gothic style spread by the Way of Saint James.

The Gothic Style became more trendy than Romanesque and become known as High Gothic. Along with the pivotal Reconquest campaign, Gothic is synonymous with the country’s progress, and it is everywhere. Gothic is as big as it is amazing! The Spanish Gothic Style has an incredible organic feel with a natural fluid design.

Quick Guide - Gothic Architecture

Common Elements:

  • Tall construction
  • Flying buttresses and gargoyles
  • Pointed arches
  • Beautiful stained glass windows with a natural look
  • Thin walls and vaulted ceilings
  • Clusters of thin columns

Early Gothic Style Examples to Visit:

  • The Cathedral of Avila

High Gothic Style Examples to Visit:

  • The Cathedral of San Salvador in Oviedo
  • The Cathedrals of Burgos, Toledo, and Leon

Renaissance Architecture (14th – 16th Century)

Above ImageThe Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, west of Madrid.

There are three periods in the development of Spanish Renaissance architecture. Many Gothic buildings were adapted to fit the new Renaissance style. This style is referred to as the Plateresque Style, a transition style. Plateresque decoration was a combination of Moorish, Gothic, and Renaissance designs.

During the development of this style the Gothic design disappeared. The Classical Renaissance style took over which came from the Italian Renaissance style with subtle differences. However, this style never really flourished. It evolved into The Late Period Style, which are similar and creative, but was simplified design and cleaner lines.

Quick Guide - Renaissance Architecture

Common Elements:

  • Extremely decorated facades
  • Classical antiquity and ancient Roman design
  • Gothic characteristics Classical Christian motifs
  • Decoration was symmetrical and carefully proportioned
  • Decoration in the high Renaissance form with many Christian statues

Renaissance Style Examples to Visit:

  • The Palace of Charles V, in Granada
  • The University of Salamanca
  • The Monastery San Lorenzo de El Escorial near Madrid

Plateresque Style Examples to Visit:

  • The Cathedral of Salamanca in Salamanca

Baroque Architecture (16th – 18th Century)

Above ImageThe impressive National Ceramics Museum in Valencia.

As did the Renaissance style, the Baroque design style came directly from Italy. Most of the government and community buildings in Madrid are in the Herreresque Classic Baroque Style.

A family of sculptors and architects, the Churriguera family, didn’t care for the classic Baroque style, so they modified it. They designed intricate, exaggerated, fancy style of surface decoration which became known as the Churrigueresque style. They transformed Salamanca into a Churrigueresque city in less than a century. The construction is almost the same as the Renaissance style, like arches and columns, but the main difference being that they became more complex. The facade and the altar are the most representative elements of this style. Most decorative elements were designed together as a dynamic piece of art.

The Late-Baroque style was an evolution of the design that borrowed elements of the French Rococo. The Spanish Rococo Style is still Baroque, but much more distinct in its origin’s influence.

Quick Guide - Baroque Architecture

Common Elements:

  • Mostly on the facade with a sense of movement and drama
  • Elaborate sculptural ornaments
  • Extreme, expressive and florid decorative detailing
  • Lavish use of stone, brick and sometimes metal

Baroque Style Examples to Visit:

  • The Western Facade of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
  • The facades of the University of Valladolid
  • The Hospicio de San Fernando in Madrid

Spanish Rococo Style Examples to Visit:

  • The Cathedral of Almudena, next to the Royal Palace of Madrid
  • The National Museum of Ceramics in Valencia

Neoclassical Architecture (18th – 20th Century)

Above ImageThe Plaza de Toros (bull ring) in Valencia.

Neoclassical design in architecture is very technical and intellectual. This style is not really all that fun, but great to be able to identify it, especially since you’ll most likely visit museums and other community buildings when traveling. The style migrated from Italy as the modern go-to design style.

If you can’t visibly see the other styles when you’re traveling and visiting modern sites, they are likely to be Neoclassical. However, in Valencia they broke some of the rules with this style. You can also easily find Neoclassical architecture with in the City Hall, Post Office, and the Palace-Monastery of the Templar, which are examples of this style with more of a creative touch.

Quick Guide - Neoclassical Architecture

Common Elements:

  • Emphasis on symmetry and simplicity
  • Design elements are functional and efficient
  • Academic in style typical of Greek and Roman temples

Style Examples to Visit:

  • The Prado Museum in Madrid
  • Valencia’s Plaza de Toros

Eclecticism & Modernism Architecture (19th – 21st Century)

Above ImageThe Communications Palace (or Palacio de Cibeles) in Madrid.

What occurred in architecture after the 18th century were neo and revival versions of these styles. As the industrial Revolution began new materials were being used such as glass and ironwork. Most architects would choose their style depending on its purpose.

This led to Eclecticism and Modernism Styles. A good example of the Eclecticism style to visit is the Communications Palace of Madrid. The Eclecticism style is hard to identify because it is the ultimate combination of all the other styles! The most important thing to keep in mind when you encounter this style is how the architect used the influence of the other styles to create something original. The architect Gaudi was able to create some amazing and famous designs in Barcelona, which is an example of the Eclecticism style.

And Modernism style… Well, that could be an entirely separate post. I won’t go into that as much here, but essentially Modernism seeks to go outside the rules. It has different extremes and can go from minimalism to ornate with various mediums and colors. Spain has wholeheartedly embraced Modernism architecture and is home to many leading architects who specialize in this style, such as Santiago Calatrava who is the architect of Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences.

Quick Guide - Eclecticism & Modernism Architecture

Eclecticism Common Elements:

  • Elements of all the other styles and designs

Eclecticism Style Examples to Visit:

  • The Communications Palace in Madrid (Palacio de Cibeles)
  • The Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona (which is not even done yet)

Modernism Common Elements: 

  • Nothing traditional or classic; of a contemporary nature
  • Can either be very minimalistic, or very bright and involve various mediums
  • A lot of industrial elements and/or natural elements

Modernism Style Examples to Visit:

  • The City of Arts & Sciences in Valencia
  • The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

As You Discover Spanish Architecture

Above ImageThe City of Arts & Sciences in Valencia.

So, what I have covered is the general features that will help you identify the architectural styles as you travel through Spain. And since Italian design and art has had a big impact and influence in Spain, you could use this as an Italian reference as well.

As an encouraging word – have patience! Spain has an array of architectural styles and influences that are distinctly noticeable. Wherever you go in Spain, and in your experience traveling from city to city, village to village, you will see history unfold.

Literally, you can see ancient to modern culture express itself in every detail. Design in the architecture and the sensibilities for all that encompass it, is there for you. We look forward to hearing about what you will discover and the experiences you’ll have.

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Written by Eric J. Trujillo

Written by Eric J. Trujillo

Art Director & Film Producer

As a visual communicator and artist, I love bringing stories to life. Visit StudioTrujillo.com and AutonomousRhinoceros.com to see what else I’m up to.

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