A bit of a historical lesson on Spanish Wrought Iron in Cathedrals of Barcelona
In the thirteenth century King Fernando III (El anto) introduced French Gothic by ordering the magnificent cathedrals of Burgos, Toledo, and Leon to be built. Catalonia, though remote from these centers, was not slow to adopt the new style and developed under native architects many features that differentiated it from the parent stock.
For instance, were the wide naves and widely spaced piers of Gerona, Manresa, and Barcelona cathedrals. Of these distinctive edifices Barcelona is richest in ironwork and this of a sufficiently original character to be considered entirely as a Spanish product.
As the new style of architecture demanded a much more plentiful use of iron accessories than Romanesque had, great impetus was given to the smith's art. The response was at first all in the field of genuine blacksmithing quite unaffected by Moorish methods which did not appear north of the Ebro until later.
By the fourteenth century the smiths' guilds had grown very important in Pamplona, Barcelona and other towns. The most important Gothic product was, as in Romanesque days, the Spanish Wrought Iron, but it was of an entirely new design in which scrolls played no part; for the reja (Spanish ironwork) decided that a number of spaced vertical bars, strengthened top and bottom and at some intermediate point by horizontals, would answer their purpose better than the all-over scroll pattern. That is, upright bars, by allowing no convenient horizontal footholds, would afford more protection to the sacred treasures in the chapel and at the same time render them more visible to worshippers.
The increased openness of the new design is instantly apparent; likewise its increased architectonic quality, for its assertive verticality made it a most harmonious accessory to the dominating lines of Gothic architecture. The bar type therefor became the accepted convention in Spain, and has developed to a point undreamed of in other countries.
The only thing of the kind in France is a simple and not very high grille in the church of St. Sernin in Toulouse; but this, according to Viollet-le-Duc, was made at least fifty years later than the earliest Barcelona example.
Besides the greater loftiness of the Barcelona work, there is a structural peculiarity important to note as opposed to the French example in Toulouse; namely, that in early Gothic Spain an overwhelming partiality was shown for the round instead of the square bar; and that when the square bar was later accepted, it was invariably placed on the diagonal
so that instead of one, two of its faces were visible.
Indeed, in even the earliest Spanish wrought iron many features may be met that already indicate the admirable originality and grandeur of those sixteenth century examples which have made the Spanish rejero (iron worker) so renowned. Than the Barcelona cloisters, now a charming public thoroughfare, no one spot in Spain offers a more favorable opportunity for studying the round-bar Spanish wrought iron.
A succession of twenty chapels borders three sides of the enclosure, each chapel screened off by a wrought iron. These
examples, though of varying heights, harmonize so well with each other and with their surroundings, that one might suspect their design of having been controlled by the architect of the cathedral.
However, at this period the blacksmith was so highly important that it is safe to say that he needed no such control. This ensemble of ironwork may be considered the finest of its period in Europe.
The bar type naturally precluded ornamentation from the body of the reja, and left it for the cresting, the gates, and the lock. In certain of the Barcelona group the actual gate or entrance to the chapel can hardly be detected; in others it is decidedly accentuated by means of Gothic arches ornamented by pinnacles.
Where the entire door is framed in Gothic forms, these are set well forward of the bars, or else applied in such a way as not to interfere with the general structure of the design, a rule violated with less pleasing results in later days.
Horizontals are sparingly used, and toward the top only, the lower ends of the bars being embedded in the stone base and not further braced by a cross member. On the horizontal iron bar at each interval where the vertical round iron bar is threaded through, may be seen a bulge; the early smith after making the hole with his crude tools never felt it necessary to remove this evidence of the operation, or else had no tools adequate. It is just such interesting touches that one misses in later and more sophisticated work.
In even the severest Barcelona Spanish Wrought Iron there is a decorative termination above, too rudimentary perhaps to be called a cresting since it consists of nothing more than finishing every third or fourth rod with a foliated picket.
In others, however, the termination is really imposing a row of tall liliaceous forms curled and twisted together. Beneath this may be seen sometimes a broad ornamental band, sometimes a row of cuspid arches set forward of the general plane.
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