Church of Santa Maria la Mayor

Ronda, Malaga, Spain

 Visited 26 September 2008

Let’s look at one last building, the old town’s Church of Santa Maria la Mayor. Its double galleried front (pictured above left) gives it one of the most unusual religious facades we saw in a building this old. Inside, it’s an explosion of gold and carved wood. The Moorish DNA is most obvious in the minaret base of its tower.

While unusual, the front somewhat matches the long city hall next to it – three stories with galleries on the upper two floors (see lower right inset in the top picture on this page). On both buildings these verandas provide safe views during festivals in the central plaza.

Like many Andalusian churches created just after the Reconquista, Santa Maria la Mayor was built on the foundation of the defeated Moors' mosque and dedicated to the Incarnation. Often visitors to such churches are reminded of the Incarnation by an elaborate relief of Archangel Gabriel informing the Virgin Mary with the dove of the Holy Spirit hovering above the entrance door. But not at Santa Maria la Mayor. Instead a bronze plaque (upper right in top photo) serves this function, placed far from the door perhaps as an afterthought in 1999. From Evangelist John’s first chapter (called, of course, The Last Gospel) the plaque’s Latin reminds pre-Vatican II Catholics, “Et verbum caro factus est.” The word was made flesh.


Santa Maria la Mayor (to the right in the picture above) is one of several monumental buildings in the old city (Cuidad) defining this lovely park dedicated to the early 20th century Duchess of Parcent. Its a fitting tribute to the woman who hired landscape architect Forestier to create the gardens at her home (Casa del Rey Moor).

The building edge at left is that of city hall and at center distance is the tower of the Convent of Santa Isabel. Isabel was a Portugal Queen who tried to give much of her husband’s wealth to the poor. When he died, she founded and lived in a Franciscan convent of St. Claire.

Moorish roots

Santa Maria’s Arab roots shine through this old minaret tower -- baptized with a Renaissance wedding cake shaped peak.

The Moors chose a site that may have been a Roman temple. After the 1485 Reconquista, Ferdinand and Isabel ordered a Gothic church to rise upon the mosque’s foundation. An earthquake a century later caused a rebuild and additions that lasted through the 18th century. The results are either hodgepodge or fusion incorporating elements of Mudejar, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque.

The only other trace of the Moors is in this arch, thought to be from the old Mihrab, the niche worshippers in a mosque use to face Mecca during prayers.


Inside Santa Maria has the feel of a small cathedral even though it was never the seat of a diocese. The Gothic structure occupies the mosque’s footprint; with its  extensions the floor plan has pretty much the long rectangular shape of a Roman basilica broken by the tall walls of the central choir. Note this side aisle with a Renaissance Corinthian pillar at right defining the central nave area and the stippled Baroque column at left at the entrance of the side altar.

Better wood carvers than mathematicians

In an Andalusia known for golden altars (fed by wealth from the emerging Spanish colonies), finding Santa Maria's elaborate woodcarvings was a treat. This is the rear choir screen centering on Our Lady of Peace surrounded by 14 Renaissance reliefs which seem to be loosely based upon the 15 mysteries of the Rosary. The Roman numerals below each scene are generally misleading.

For instance, the scene above is labeled “IX” but is of the 5th mystery of the Rosary. It represents Evangelist Luke’s story of the Disputation: The Finding in the Temple where the adolescent Christ is discovered instructing the wise men in the temple. (His parents lost him for 3 days, each assuming he was with the other. Still we think of them as model parents so standards must have been even lower in those days than they are now!) Note the building carved in relief at upper left appears to be the church of Santa Maria la Mayor itself.

The choir

On the other side of this screen is the main area of the choir, again carved in wood as is traditional. Twelve seats in the lower row are carved with Marian symbolism while the twenty-four seats of the upper row contain images of the apostles and other saints. At its center are displayed various floats used in religious processions.

Retables in wood and gold

Carved wood also serves as a backdrop for some of the side altars such as here at the far Gospel side altar with the Sacred Heart between those alpha apostles Peter and Paul (whom is hiding in his niche).

But Andalusian golden retables are not missing here: St. Joseph (that other parent) stands on the rearmost side altar on the Epistle Side.

Main Altar

And our last picture, here of the main altar which combines precious metal (the silver altar) underneath an elaborately wood carved canopy.  Here Archangel Gabriel and the dovish Holy Spirit are properly presented informing Mary of the Incarnation. Here if The Word is not made flesh, then it’s at least adequately represented in wood and precious metals.

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Ronda, Spain

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