For almost 500 years, the arch that connects the largest Gothic cathedral in the world with its Renaissance sacristy has offered visitors a sumptuous, if little glimpsed – and even less studied – vision of religious bounty.
The 68 beautifully carved plates of food that adorn the archway in Seville’s cathedral offer rather more than bread and wine.
There are pigs’ trotters and wild strawberries, aubergines, clams and oysters. There are peaches, radishes, a skinned hare with a knife by its side, a squirrel served on a bed of hazelnuts and a plate of lemons across which a small snake slithers. There are also cakes and biscuits and, more exotically, a dish of peppers newly imported from Mexico, which had fallen to Hernán Cortés and his men just over a decade before the carvers set to work.
The plates, which are all too often obscured when the huge wooden doors of the sacristy are open, are the subject of a new book by a Spanish art historian who has spent the past 11 years trying to unpick the secrets and meanings of the cathedral’s stone buffet.
“People don’t really see the carvings because of the doors and because they’re too busy looking at the sacristy dome,” said Juan Clemente Rodríguez Estévez. “But the carvings have been there for 500 years and have never been properly studied. They’ve gone unnoticed apart from being seen as a bit of a novelty.”
The arch, which was carved between 1533 and 1535, provides what Rodríguez calls a “snapshot of a seminal moment”. Its still-life carvings, he suggests, are chapters in the social, religious, economic and cultural history of both Seville and Spain as a whole.
The Americas were a fresh and lucrative discovery, the end of the seven-century reconquista, which culminated in the expulsion of the Jews, was a mere four decades distant, and the Reformation was sweeping Europe.
Contemporary theologians and mystics focused on the importance of the eucharist, and sought to portray communion as “a great feast to which everyone was invited”, said Rodríguez, who teaches at the University of Seville.
His book, The Universal Banquet: Art and Food in Renaissance Seville, examines how food was used to strengthen Catholic identity, employed as an image of the abundant joys of the afterlife, and even deployed as a bridge between Europe and the Americas.
Pork, unsurprisingly, features three times among the 68 plates, but olive oil – a staple of Andalucía since Roman times – is curiously absent. Rodríguez’s theory is that it may have been left out on the orders of Baltasar del Río, a bishop who was instrumental in the arch’s creation. Despite making a name for himself in the church in both Rome and Seville, Del Río was from a family of conversos – Jewish converts to Catholicism – and his father was judged by the Inquisition at the end of the 15th century.
Mindful of his roots, the bishop may have chosen to exclude oil because it was used by Jews who, like Muslims – but unlike Catholics – did not fry their food in pig fat.
“Being a converso, Del Río would have had to be very careful about the foods that were represented in the arch. They all needed to be really Catholic,” said Rodríguez.
“But there are some foods that have a Jewish influence, such as the aubergines. Aubergines came to Europe through Islam, and came to be prized by Muslims and Jews alike. I think the presence of aubergines shows how normalised they had become by then.”
The bread at the centre of the arch could also be a reference to Del Río’s decision to found a brotherhood to help feed Seville’s poor.
“There was a terrible famine in 1521 and he ordered cheap wheat to be bought so that the poor would be provided with bread when wheat prices rose. If you look at the middle of the arch, you can see the loaves of bread.”
The peppers, which Rodríguez had taken for strawberries until one of the botanists he consulted set him straight, are the only crop from the Americas.
“There aren’t more foods from there because it was still early days,” he said. “At that time, corn was mainly used as animal feed, and the potato hadn’t arrived in Spain because the conquest of Peru took place in the 1530s, so the ships from Peru were only beginning to arrive.”
The traffic, however, was not all one way. As Rodríguez points out, the Augustinian friars who followed the Dominicans and the Franciscans to the Americas built three churches in Mexico in the 1560s whose doorways were decorated with plates of food. The aim was to celebrate the eucharist and to help explain the importance of communion to a conquered people who were not familiar with bread and wine.
Rodríguez is delighted with the fruit of more than a decade’s research, and keen to stress that he owes a huge debt to the botanists, zoologists and other experts he consulted on his physical and intellectual travels.
“I couldn’t have written the book if it wasn’t for the decades of work by researchers who have helped us understand food in a cultural context,” he said.
“All I would have seen was a load of plates. When I started looking at the arch, I saw a window on to the 16th century, but I wasn’t quite sure what was on the other side.”