Art and Architecture

Much of the joy of travel is the sense of discovery.

“Remember to look up to the stars, not down at your feet” Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)
It’s amazing to think that just taking a flight, boarding a ship, ferry, train or car journey, even for a short distance or short space of time, that we can travel to a different world – to a foreign landscape, a different lifestyle, interesting foods, new languages and culture.

When we travel we hope to discover new perspectives and understanding of the world in which we live and be enriched by the experience. Travel is often cited as “the best educational experience in the world” and in my mind this is true.

It is not just what we see that inspires, it is the emotional connection that we also experience – that special feeling we get when we hear and see, even smell something that is new and interesting to us.

It might be the landscape, or seeing a famous landmark or picking up on the ambience of a city and the people that we meet. There are many ways that we connect the visual world to our emotional world.

Here is Spain you will experience the Spanish way of life, where a ‘fiesta’ and ‘flamenco dancing’ are real, and music, food and wine embrace us with an exuberance and passion that is hard to resist. Spain is a great country to visit.

Many people come to Spain simply to holiday in one of the many resorts that are here, to enjoy the sunny climate, sports, nightlife, food and wine, while others come to Spain to learn Spanish and more about Spain and its culture. It is certainly possible to do both and there is nothing wrong in just spending time sitting around a swimming pool, having a cocktail, spending time shopping or sitting in a café and enjoying a beer (Cerveza) or some snacks (Tapas) around the bar. This can be just as enriching as seeing a museum or art gallery.

If you read the section on this website – Spain - An introduction and history, you will see that Spain has a long and often turbulent history, with the Iberian Peninsula conquered by the Greeks, then by the Phoenicians and later Visigoths, Romans and then Arab Muslim forces before becoming a Kingdom.

Spain became a Kingdom in the 1400’s with the Muslims and also Jews expelled from the country and Spain rather than being conquered, a united Spain itself became the conqueror, building up a vast Spanish Empire and spreading its influence, language, laws, religion and power to the ‘New World’ of the Americas, Caribbean and the Philippines.

The great voyages of discovery, conquistadores, Spanish Inquisition, Spanish Civil War, years under the rule of General Franco all became part of Spain’s living history.

The above few words skim over more than two thousand years of living history, but when you come to Spain, you will be able to see Roman ruins, ancient Moorish architecture and hundreds of Roman Catholic Christian Churches as well as thousands of typically Spanish style of buildings with their distinctive ceramic tile rooftops, verandas and other features.

The Power of Architecture -

When you think of buildings, no matter what their shape, size, purpose or design, they all have a visual impact in themselves and on their surrounds. Most of this impact will be from the external design of the building within the building’s context – the streetscape and location. There are also the internal spaces within the building and again these also have their own ‘visual impact’.

Design starts with imagination and is involved in both the ‘overall concept’ as well as the finer details of a building – even a door or door handle involves design.

While an architect or designer is mostly concerned with the visual aspects of a building’s design, designers and architects also look at the functionality of the design relative to its purpose. In turn, an engineer is concerned with the structural elements of a design, making sure that the design can be built safely and will be structurally sound.

Much of the engineer’s work involves calculations – the type, strength and application of differing construction materials, the size and depth of foundations, the weight, stress points and strength of supports, material spans, forces, weather considerations and many other factors that all determine the way where and how a building will be constructed.

Equally important to the architect and engineer are the builders – carpenters, plumbers, brickies, stonemasons, craftsmen, workers and other trades and fabricators. It is their skills that transform the work of the designers and engineers into a reality.

Then of course there is the owners of the building, who pay for the construction and will add their thoughts, ideas and direction as the building progresses from an idea to completion of the structure.

The building’s owner might be a prince or a pauper, a government, church, company, bank or other institution and a building may just be for shelter, or a grand statement to reflect the owner’s wealth, status or passion. If the building’s owner is a church, mosque or temple, it could also be built in honour of God, Allah and the heavens above.

Today most buildings are constructed within a few months or years.

Some buildings however take a lifetime and the best example of this is Antoni Gaudi’s ‘La Sagrada Familia’ church in Barcelona, where construction began in 1882 and is still under construction today – the completion date sometime between now and 2040 or thereabouts.

To put this in context, the Taj Mahal in India took 20 years to construct and the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai with its 160 floors took just 6 years to construct, while the Empire State Building in New York took just 1 year and 45 days to be built.

All constructions present their own challenges and while these challenges all differ, all buildings have three things in common – a floor, walls and a roof, but that is where the commonality ends.

To support a roof necessitates the use of a load bearing wall structure, with the roof’s weight and therefore force pushing downwards onto the walls, which also need to have downward and lateral (sideways) strength too, so that all forces are contained.

It was the ancient Greeks who invented the use of stone Columns (pillars) to support a roof structure or pediment in place of a solid wall. These columns enabled a roof to be supported while at the same time allowing people to pass between the columns. To add decorative elements to the column, the column might also have fluted sides, a decorative base (feet of the column) and different capitals (tops) with the three Greek column styles defined as - Doric, Ionic and Corinthian.

The distance between each column was also defined by the Greeks too, based on the proportions (size) of each column.

The Romans then added their own styles too – these being the Tuscan, Roman Doric and Composite Column and when a number of columns formed a line, they became known as a colonnade, with the Colosseum in Rome being a great example of the use of a colonnade.

The Column, in all its varying forms has become a defining feature of many buildings around the world and even today buildings with columns are often referred to as having a “Classic Greek” style.

In looking at a building and its scale, think of it in Fibonacci sequence terms, the number sequence developed by the Italian mathematician, Leonardo of Pisa and published in 1202. Designers seek to create a balanced size/scale relationship of the various parts that make up a building – size of doors, walls, windows, roof etc. If you look at a tree there is a size/scale relationship from a leaf to a twig, to a branch to a trunk of the tree. Scale and Proportion! Our own bodies also have this scale relationship – a finger nail to a finger, to a wrist, to an upper arm, to a body. If you find this interesting, learn some more about Fibonacci numbers and tables, and you will start to see it in all parts of nature and design. When we see an ugly looking building – in many cases this is a result of not following the principles of the Fibonacci sequence.

The other great advance in building design came with the development of the Arch, that was first developed by the Etruscans and then by the Romans, who used arches as a way of spanning over an opening and also saving on material. The arches can be seen in many Roman constructions including aqueducts and bridges.

The arch and also columns have both been used individually and also in combination and you can see arches and columns in many buildings around the world and particularly in Spain.

Most stone arches, depending on the span width are built over using a temporary timber framework support, with a typical stone arch having two sides which are built up in blocks called Voussoirs with a Keystone at the top of the arch connecting the two sides. Once constructed, the temporary framework is removed and the arch is complete, the downward forces directed to the supporting wall or columns below each side of the arch.

Each block of stone including the keystone is shaped to reflect the curvature of the archway and neatly connect one voussoir block to the next. While blocks may be stone, they might also be bricks, and in many cases the stones will be shaped by a stonemason in a workshop before being placed in position by either a stonemason or even quarryman (stone workers) who would usually work in a stone quarry cutting out blocks of stone to meet the needs of the stonemasons.

There are many Arch styles, the most common ones being a rounded semi-circle arch and a pointed arch that is often seen in church buildings, particularly Gothic churches. Here in Spain also look for the distinctive horseshoe shaped arch that is of Moorish design from the time when the Moors lived and worked here in Spain.

If you look at a cathedral or one of the hundreds if not thousands of churches here in Spain, you will see fine stone arches around stained glass windows and louvered windows. This fine stonework is called ‘tracery’ and often there will be arches on arches, even within arches with each stone shaped to fit precisely within a position around the window panes or doors. The intricacy and detail of the stonework is a reflection of the great skills of the stonemasons who worked in the construction.

The stone used in this tracery stonework and quoins (corner stones) is usually very high quality stone (usually a light grey sand in colour). This stone is hard but easier to shape and cut without fracturing, whereas the ‘broad wall stone’ used on walls can break or fracture more easily and will show more grain and colour – reds, oranges and browns, reflecting the iron or other minerals that have been formed in the stone thousands of years ago.

Glass has origins that date back thousands of years, but it was around the 12th century that it started to be used for windows, these windows almost all being small in size, as large panes of glass such as you see today had not been invented at that time.

To create a large window could only be completed by connecting small window panes to each other, and this was accomplished by using lead, hence the name ‘leadlight’. You will also notice small metal rods placed horizontally across the window, these rods used to add strength to a large window so that it doesn’t collapse under its own weight.

To add interest to the glass it could be coloured using metallic elements such as nickel, cadmium, antimony, manganese, tin, even gold and other elements, these minerals creating different coloured glass colours. There are also painted images too fired for permanency and this mix of coloured glass and images with the light behind them can be truly beautiful.

Stained glass leadlight windows can be seen in churches, synagogues and mosques worldwide and here in Spain you will many great examples of its use in depicting religious scenes and symbols of religion.

Being a Catholic country, Spanish churches and Cathedrals can be found in all cities and towns and there are many spectacular examples of Stained Glass work depicting scenes from the Bible, Christ and the Apostles, Saints and other religious imagery.

Classical Church architecture has many unique features that are not found in other buildings. Most churches and cathedrals are designed in the shape of a Christian Cross, with the entrance and doorways called the Narthex and main body of the church called the Nave – mostly with a central aisle and Pews set in rows on each side. Larger churches may also have an aisle on both sides of the Nave too. The Cross sections of the cross are called the Transepts – the South Transept and the North Transept, connecting the Crossing at the centre with the Chancel being the name given to the top of the Cross section with a Vestry and Sanctuary to either side. Seating for a Choir will also be to one side, close to a Church Organ – this often being a Pipe Organ, the musical instrument almost solely related to Church music and Hymn singing.

There will also be the Altar and Pulpit for a Priest, Bishop or Cardinal to address the congregation, do a reading from the Bible, make a sermon or announce a hymn or other information with a font for baptism, conducting mass and conducting a communion service for the congregation.

There are many other terms not listed above, but even from this list you can see how a unique the language is in relation to churches, abbeys, cathedrals and other buildings built for religious purposes.

If you look at the exterior of a church or cathedral, you will also see steeples, lanterns, Bell towers and Belfry (where the bells are located), spires (the top of a steeple), pinnacles, gargoyles, dome and cupola shaped roof lines and what are called crockets -the small adornments on a pinnacle, that are designed for the heavens to smile down upon the work of the stonemasons.


There is definitely a cross over, merger or blurred line between what we class as architecture, artistry, design, sculpture, painting and other forms or artistic expression, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Spain.

Here in Spain there is a sense of history and pageantry but also a history of rule breaking epitomised by the works of artists such as Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Salvador Dali (1904-1989) and architect Antoni Gaudί (1852-1926) whose most defining work is the La Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona.

Artists, designers and architects have throughout history challenged convention but at the same time relied on having a patron or client who would commission them to undertake a project. Those ‘patrons’ also needed to be inspired and prepared to pay the costs and time involved in creating such work.

There is also a general public scepticism and even anger when radical projects are envisaged that challenge convention, but in coming to Spain, you should see the works of Picasso, Dali, Gaudί and other artists and also form your own opinion too. If travelling to Bilbao you will no doubt also see the amazing Guggenheim Bilbao Museum designed by the Toronto Canada born architect, Frank Gehry. The Guggenheim Bilbao is in my view a masterpiece of design and architecture.

The main religions of the world, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddism and Islam all date back thousands of years, whereas the creation of countries, with a few exceptions, only date back a few hundred years.

This meant that it was the monasteries, abbeys and centres of religion that were the centres of learning and wealth and this meant that they became the centres for art too.

The Religious leaders in many cases became the first ‘Patrons of the Arts’ with Artists commissioned in the Christian religion to paint depictions of the story in Christ, the crucifixion, Last Supper, 12 apostles, saints , as well as telling stories from the Bible.

Murals, stained glass windows, sculptures, tapestries, church ceilings as well as the craft skills involved in making furniture, altars, pews and religious objects, robes all reflect the development of a religious art culture.

In turn it was the wealthy European Kings, Queens, Princes, Princesses and Royal families, wealthy church leaders, aristocrats and merchants who would also commission portraits of themselves and their family members. Most notable in Spain was the Hapsburg family Dynasty who were great patrons of the Arts.

The earliest photography only dates back to 1839 and it took a number of years before photography was commercialised as a means of truly capturing an image or photograph of a person. Up until this time, the only way that a portrait could be created was through an artist drawing, sculpture or painting.

When you look at the early portraits of people created during Spain’s ‘Golden Era Century’ (the Siglo de Oro) and see the paintings by artists like Bartolomé Murillo (1618-1682), El Greco (1541-1614) and Diego Veláquez (1599-1660) you see the work of genius. There are many other lesser known artists from this time too and also many artists, such as José de Goya (1746-1828) who would follow in their footsteps.

No doubt here in Spain you will visit some of the big name Art Galleries and see some of these great portraits on the Gallery walls. What I think is most inspiring is recognizing the immense talents of the painters in capturing not just a likeness of a person, but also capturing their expression, attitude, character and even a story within the one painting.

These paintings are classed as “realism” – a term used to recognize the ‘reality’ of what was being painted. In most cases the person being painted would have been an important person, someone who was noteworthy in some way and considered ‘worthy’ of having their portrait painted.

Consider then the uproar when an artist painted just ‘Common Folk’ or scenes that were less than salubrious or even more daring, when they created distorted images of people and scenery!

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was born in Málaga, Spain and his early paintings were very traditional portraits, with portraits of his mother and other works.

In 1907 Picasso broke with tradition and painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Bridesmaids of Avignon) in which there were distorted images of five female prostitutes. This painting heralded in a new era and the start of what is termed, “Cubism” where angular geometric shapes were used to create an image.

This was a massive break with tradition and Cubism followed by Expressionism, Surrealism and Abstract Art, where painting projected images that sought to create an emotional response from the person looking at the painting. This was a massive change in the art world.

Picasso during his lifetime became a master of creative thought and expression as a painter, but also as a sculptor, ceramicist, stage designer and even a poet and playwright. While most of his life was spent in France, he is recognized as one of Spain’s and the world’s greatest artists. He died in 1973 and is buried in the grounds of the Château de Vauvenargues near Mougins in Southern France. He bought the Château in 1958 and lived there until 1962.

While Picasso became world famous, he was followed by other artists who also broke with tradition, creating their own view of the world and art that was equally challenging to the viewer. Salvador Dali (1904-1989) was born in Figueres, near Barcelona and became the best known Surrealist painter in the world, painting images from his imagination. He was very much a showman too, enjoying shocking people with some of his paintings and distinctive appearance – his twirled moustache being one of his most recognized features. Joan Mirό (1893-1983) was also another artist from Barcelona who became famous too for his surrealist paintings and other artistic work.

Spain is a great place to see great Art and Architecture with numbers of great museums and art galleries to see in the major cities, but also in smaller cities too.

If you read the travel information pages section on Peru, USA and other pages on the Caribbean, you will read more about the Spanish Empire and the Spanish Galleons that sailed from the Americas back to Spain laden with gold, silver and other treasures.

Spain gained immense wealth from its Empire conquests during the 16th and 17th centuries with Spanish Galleons laden with gold, silver and other treasures sailing back from the Americas to Spain.

This wealth enabled the Spanish Hapsburg Royal Family and other wealthy Spaniards to commission Spanish painters, sculptors, craftsmen and other artisans to work for them. It also enabled them to purchase the best work of the grand masters of paintings – from Flemish, Dutch, Italian and other European artists as well as antiquities from Egypt and other places.

Many of what were private collections are now held in Spain’s public Art Galleries, with Galleries like the Prado in Madrid, Museu Reina Sofia and Thyssen- Bornemisza in Madrid (all close to each other) holding vast collections of Art. These are just three of the biggest museums in Madrid and there are many more here in the Capital, but equally every major city has its museums and art galleries too.

Don’t try and see every museum or art gallery in Spain! If you have a special artist or interest, then do a google search and see if there is a Spanish gallery that showcases their work. More than likely you will find a gallery or museum that has that artist’s work.

Here on these pages, we have hopefully provided you with some additional inspiration that will make your travel in Spain even more interesting and enjoyable.

Happy travels!

Geoff Stuart

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