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Exhibition: Seu Vella. Splendour rediscovered

Lleida, 18 June 2003

Eight hundred years ago, on 22 July, 1203, a solemn ceremony was held to lay the cornerstone of what Josep Gudiol i Cunill described as the “richest and most lavish works in Catalonia”: the Seu Vella – Old Cathedral – of Lleida. Over this time span, one of the Crown of Aragon’s emblematic temples has lived out consecrations, ceremonies, expansions and improvements; but also orders of demolition, military siege, and the pillage and dispersion of its art. To celebrate the 800-year anniversary of the monument’s ground-breaking, the exhibition Seu Vella. Splendour rediscovered aims to reinstate the bygone grandeur that awed Romanesque visitors, through 91 major art works dispersed until now throughout various international museums and archives. The show invites visitors to rediscover the temple’s historic splendour. Among its many works of sculpture, painting, mural tablets, altarpiece fragments, manuscripts, gold work, clothing and other objects and documents, especially noteworthy is the tapestry The Prodigal Son (16th c.), on display for the first time after a meticulous restoration effort at the Institut Royal du Patrimoine Artístique of Brussels; the memorial mural tablet that commemorates the laying of the Cathedral’s first stone (1203), fragments of the grand altarpiece from countries such as France and the United States, and the recumbent effigies from the noble Montcada family tomb (14th c,), etc. The exhibition is being organised by the Ministry of Culture of the Generalitat of Catalonia and ”la Caixa” Foundation, coordinated by the Lleida Diocesan and County Museum with the collaboration of the University of Lleida and the Amics de la Seu Vella Association.

The exhibition Seu Vella. Splendour rediscovered can be visited in the old Cathedral from 20 June to 26 October, 2003. Its organisers are Joan J. Busqueta, Doctor of Medieval History and university lecturer at the University of Lleida, and Montserrat Macià, art historian and director of the Lleida Diocesan and County Museum, an organisation which has taken responsibility for the exhibition’s coordination. Architects Mamen Domingo and Ernest Ferré are behind the design of the exhibition, which constitutes an innovative proposal in the field of museography.

This exhibition is the culmination of 50 years’ work by historians, restorers and archaeologists to recover architecture, restore damaged works and locate (and later unite) fragments dispersed around the world, such as the Reprovació d’Adam i Eva (c. 1359-1382) by Bartomeu Robió, once part of the cathedral’s grand altarpiece, now residing at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. The 91 works on display – all of incalculable artistic and historical value – are grouped into three thematic areas. The first refers to the founding of the Old Cathedral and the construction project undertaken by master builder Pere de Coma, which lasted seventy-five years (13th c.). The second, based on the liturgy and culture of the cathedral, unites art works and items from the library and choir, some of which are being shown for the first time. Finally, the social impact of the Cathedral is sized up with an overview of the chapels and mausoleums of the city’s most noble lineages.

These three ambits are preceded by an introductory space where visitors are shown the cathedral when it was sealed off and converted to military use, and the scars left by time, with the dismemberment suffered by the doorway sculpture ensemble of the Apostles as an example. A few pieces from this group, presided by the Marededéu del Blau (15th c.) by Jordi Safont, welcome visitors, inviting them to rediscover the Old Cathedral’s erstwhile splendour.

Exhibition areas

Founding of the Old Cathedral. This area is located in the northern part of the transept, delimited by the door of Saint Berenguer and the new sacristy. This is where construction on the Cathedral began. Introduced by the Anunciata sculptural group, taken from the door of the same name, visitors discover documents and objects that detail the process of foundation (linked to the very conquest of the city after 1149 and the relocation of the Roda See) and construction, which began with Pere de Coma’s project. Likewise, a route is taken through the plastic qualities of architectural sculpture, especially that of the capitals. This area concludes before the commemorative cornerstone, laid in the north wall of the presbytery.

Cathedral liturgy and culture. Set within the apsidal basin, presbytery and nave, this part of the exhibition imparts knowledge on the main worship areas in the cathedral, and on its role as the repository of culture. Here the intention is to recover the space of the old Santa Anna chapel using a bit of an altarpiece devoted to the saint by Jordi Safont; the former sacristy through samples of attire and gold work; the original library and scriptorium via varied manuscripts; the choir with its stalls (unfortunately only a small fragment is left); the location of the pulpit as told in the manuscript of Marco Próculo (18th c.), and especially the alabaster altarpiece, one of the finest examples of Gothic sculpture. In this regard, the presence at the exhibition of all the known fragments of this altarpiece, especially that devoted to the Reprovació d’Adam i Eva scene, now in the care of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, and the Magi that formed part of an Epiphany, from the Goya Museum in Castres, is a landmark achievement; a unique opportunity – the first in nearly 300 years – to see in one place these objects now dispersed around the world. On another note, the documentation and research efforts made by the Lleida Diocesan and County Museum for this exhibition have brought to light a new portion of this altarpiece (its location is unknown as of present but is most probably part of a private collection), further proof of the dismemberment suffered by the majestic ensemble. Also on display is the large Flemish tapestry The Prodigal Son, restored in Brussels specifically for the occasion, and accompanied by another tapestry called Queen Dido, which is also from the Old Cathedral, although its origin was unknown up to now. This area concludes with a space devoted to different sculpture typologies of the Mother of God, patron saint of the Cathedral: with Fillols (alabaster), Bellpuig (stone) and Santa Maria l’Antiga (wood).

Foundations, chapels and the spaces of death. This area takes a course through various chapels of the Cathedral’s southern wing: that of the Montcada family, or Saint Peter’s; the Coloms’, or Immaculate Conception; that of Saint Lucia, Saint Thomas and the Requesens family, or Epiphany (site of the paintings of medieval Lleida’s most prominent dynasty of artisans, closely bound to the Cathedral: the Ferrers). These spaces take visitors up close to the mausoleums of the powerful lineages so intrinsically related to city and church, through different fragments of recumbent effigies, funerary reliefs, sarcophagus frontispieces, and more. Funerary architecture and sculpture – the propagandistic expressions of these powerful families – are emphasised. At the same time, a look is taken into chapel liturgy, using the Saint Lucia chapel as a set. It features two altarpiece fragments by Jaume Ferrer I, founder of the dynasty of painters. The essence of this space is to make it possible to highlight the daily activity of recovery and restoration of such works, forming a spatial testimonial to the monument’s undoing, and the recovery, cataloguing and restoration tasks carried out since.

The exhibition comes to a close at the exit from the Requesens Chapel, with a final area containing a few samples of the Cathedral’s later artistic expressions, especially the paintings on wood by Pere Nunyes (16th c.).

800 years of history

On 22 July, 1203, in the midst of a solemn ceremony, the cornerstone was laid for the Lleida region’s most emblematic building: la Seu Vella; first a concept, then a reality that Pere de Coma, the cathedral’s first master builder, had been working on for some time. A colossal, majestic temple erected on the city’s highest vantage point, its construction was mostly completed in under eighty years. According to a commemorative stone, now lost, set at the foot of the nave, seventy-five years later Bishop Guillem de Montcada performed the consecration of the Romanesque temple, one of the handful of great monuments from 13th century Catalonia.

Still, works on the Cathedral would continue throughout the 14th century, with the conclusion of its daunting cloister; and in the 15th, which witnessed completion of the new entryway, the Door of the Apostles, and the bell tower, thus outlining and crowning the unmistakable skyline of the Cathedral’s hill. Likewise, in the 14th century, the Romanesque structure was modified to make way for private chapels of Lleida’s most prominent families. Further works were carried out to embellish the temple with massive sculptural projects, such as the grand alabaster altarpiece by Bartomeu de Robió. Except for a few sporadic projects, Cathedral life continued throughout the 16th and 17th centuries with maintenance and renovation works.

Tragically, the Cathedral’s evolution was stymied in 1707, when the Seu Vella was commandeered by Phillip V for a military stronghold, putting its geostrategic hilltop location to defensive uses. The Cathedral was stripped of all its artistic splendour; of the majesty that evokes the amazingly dynamic spirit of the society that developed it, the result of an enduring process that began in the mid 12th century following the Christian conquest of Madina Larida, the Islamic city of Lleida, which over the next five centuries would turn it into an artistic centre of the highest rank, for its construction and sculptural excellence as well as the quality of the liturgical works and furniture. Unfortunately, only a fraction of these treasures have been preserved up to the present.

Seu vella. Splendour rediscovered
From 20 June to 26 October, 2003

Opening: Thursday, 19 June, at 7:30 pm
Place: Seu Vella

From June to September: Tuesday to Sunday and holidays, from 10:00 am to 1:30 pm and from 4:00 pm to 7:30 pm.
October: From Tuesday to Sunday and holidays: from 10:00 am to 1:30 pm and 3 pm to 5:30 pm (priority given to school groups)
Closed all non-holiday Mondays

Admission: 2.40 € (discount, 1.80 €)
Free for: children under 7 and senior citizens over 65, school groups with teachers and Super3 Cardholders
Free admission for all visitors every Tuesday

Guided tours
Information and reservations: 973 23 06 53


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