Discover the Spanish art and also Spanish prehistoric culture
If you want to discover the Spanish art and culture, you have to start from prehistoric times. A multitude of different cultures have passed through Spain throughout its long history. From the first men of prehistory, to the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Jews, the Visigoths, the Muslims and the Christians … All these peoples have left their mark on the Spanish towns and have influenced the culture of its people.
Knowing the art and culture of Spain is to delve into its history and learn how it has become what it is today.
To tell you about the art and culture that survive in Spain, we are going to take a chronological tour of the different buildings and artistic samples that the different towns that have passed through Spain have left us
Prehistory in Spain
At the archaeological site of Atapuerca, in the province of Burgos, the oldest remains of a human being has been found in Europe. This place is not only the cradle of Spanish culture, but of all European people. Archaeologists found in this site fossils and remains of the first hominids such as Homo Antecessor (850,000 years), Homo Neanderthalensis (50,000 years) or Homo Sapiens.
For all these discoveries and their scientific research work, the World Heritage Committee named this site was named a World Heritage Site UNESCO in 2000. Since then, important findings have continued, such as the discovery of the fossil of a human tooth dating back more than 1,200,000 years, of what would be the oldest man in Europe.
Bison drawn in the replica of the Altamira Cave in the Altamira museum
In Atapuerca we can find the first human remains of the Iberian Peninsula. We find the first artistic expressions of the human being in Spain in some of the caves with cave paintings.
Among all of them, it is worth highlighting the Altamira Cave. It is in the municipality of Santillana del Mar (Cantabria) in northern Spain. We know the Altamira Cave is known as the Sistine Chapel of rock art. The IWorld Heritage Committee, like the Atapuerca site, named the Altamira Cave a World Heritage Site. The paintings in this cave were made between 30,000 BC. C. and 15,000 a. C.
Currently you cannot visit the original caves. Only a lucky few can see it through a raffle that is made with the tickets purchased to visit a replica of the Altamira Cave, inside the Altamira Museum. The corresponding authorities took this measure for the conservation of the original cave.
Traces of the Roman Empire in Spain
We advance many years in the history and after the passage of several peoples through Spain, such as the Celts, the Tartessians, the Phoenicians, the Iberians, the Greeks or the Carthaginians, the Romans arrived. The Roman Empire totally changed the culture of Spain and introduced many traditions and social organisation that survive to this day. The footprint of the Romans in Spain is very numerous and remarkable, in almost any point of the Spanish geography you can find remains of the passage of Roman culture. In this article we are going to stay with two representative samples that have become a symbol for both cities, the Roman Theatre of Mérida (Extremadura) and the Roman Aqueduct of Segovia (Castilla y León).
Roman Theatre of Mérida
If there is an example of the importance of the passage of Roman culture through Spain, it is its magnificent and ornate theatres. In the old Emerita Augusta, now Mérida, is one of the best preserved theatres in Spain. Its construction dates from the year 16 BC. With the fall of the Roman Empire, the Theatre of Mérida fell into oblivion and went underground. For many years, archaeologists only discovered seven pieces of stone corresponding to the upper part of the steps, which the inhabitants of Mérida knew as the Seven Chairs. It was not until 1910 that archaeologists discovered that under these stones there was a hidden treasure. After several years of excavations and remodeling, the theatre is beautiful in appearance and has returned to its original function.
Roman theatre in Mérida today
Every summer the International Classical Theatre Festival of Mérida takes place in the Roman theatre. Here the best actors on the Spanish scene have performed. Great news that after so many years, it continues to be used for what was originally built.
Roman Aqueduct of Segovia
Roman Aqueduct of Segovia
Another example of the passage of the Romans through Spain are the aqueducts that they used to supply water to the cities. One of the most spectacular is the one we find in the city of Segovia. The aqueduct, built in the early years of the 2nd century AD. it served to transport the water from the Fuenfría spring, located about 17 km. from the city.
The Visigoths in Spain
From the year 500 the Roman Empire went into decline and the Visigoth people entered Spain from France. They were in Spain from 507 to 711, establishing their capital in the city of Toledo (Castilla-La Mancha).
Toledo, Visigothic capital
The archaeologists found in the Church of the Savior remains of an old Visigoth church.
Although they did not spend many years in Spain, the Visigoth people also left their mark, very visible in the city of Toledo, the capital of the kingdom they established.
The Visigoths professed Arianism, but they converted to the growing Catholicism since Roman times, facilitating coexistence. Due to this, in the city of Toledo you can find remains of old Visigothic churches. For example, in the basement of the Church of the Saviour. The Visigoths also used the Alcazar of Toledo during their reign.
Muslims in Spain
After the Visigoths, Muslims came to Spain from North Africa. This town has also left an important mark on the Iberian Peninsula, especially in the southern half. They brought innovations in the cultivation of the countryside and the organisation of cities. These innovations have also greatly influenced Spanish culture. They were between the year 711 and 1492, renaming the Iberian Peninsula as Al-Andalus.
Mosque of Córdoba
Interior of the Mosque of Córdoba
The maximum splendor of Al-Andalus came during the Caliphate of Córdoba. It was between 756 and 1031, which established its capital in Córdoba (Andalusia). Here they built the fantastic Mosque of Córdoba, which lasts to this day and we can visit it.
This mosque was built in 784 and later during the Christian reconquest it was converted into a cathedral, while retaining its original structure. It is together with the Alhambra, the most emblematic example of Hispano-Muslim Umayyad art.
Alhambra of Granada
Patio de los Arrayanes in the Alhambra
The Alhambra in Granada was the last vestige that resisted the reconquest of Spain by the Christians. It is the jewel in the crown of Islamic art in Spain. The Alhambra is a set of old palaces, gardens and fortress where the emir and the court of the Nasrid Kingdom resided.
The World Heritage Committee named it a World Heritage Site in 2004. It was also poised to be one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Moors and Christians Festival in Alcoy
The struggle between Muslims and Christians has deeply penetrated the Spanish tradition. The Alicante city of Alcoy (Valencian Community) represents each year the battle that took place in this place between Muslims and Christians.
The townspeople dress in the clothes that Muslims and Christians wore, and represent the battle that took place in the city, won by the Christians with the help of Saint George according to legend. That is why the festival takes place during the festivities of Saint George (April 23).
Jewish community in Spain
There is evidence of Jews in Spain since the time of the Roman Empire. Their maximum expansion was during the Middle Ages, until the Spanish Inquisition expelled them, at the end of the Reconquest in 1492.
Jewish quarter of Toledo
There are Jewish quarters in several Spanish cities and towns. We are going to tell you a little more about the Jewish quarter of Toledo, where beautiful synagogues still survive.
Interior of the Santa María la Blanca Synagogue
One of the most beautiful synagogues that can be visited in the city of Toledo is the old Santa María la Blanca Synagogue. It was built as a synagogue in 1180 and later transformed into a church. Currently it belongs to the Catholic Church although it is not used for worship. It works as a museum or to carry out cultural activities. It has served as a model for important 19th century European and American synagogues.
Another sample of Sephardic art in Spain can be found in the Tránsito Synagogue, built during the 14th century. Many consider it the most beautiful and best preserved medieval synagogue in the world.
Christianity in Spain
Christianity was introduced to Spain during the time of Roman domination. According to legend, the Apostle Santiago introduced Christianity in the 1st century. However, the great expansion of Christianity in Spain was during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs. They forced to practice Christianity and punished anyone who professed another religion.
During all our time travelling outside of Spain we have realised that the Camino de Santiago is widely known outside our borders. Therefore, we can say that the Santiago’s Cathedral, the place where the road ends, is one of the most representative places of Christian culture in Spain.
Santiago’s Cathedral in the Obradoiro Square
This Cathedral is located in Santiago de Compostela (Galicia), northwest of Spain. It was built between 1075 and 1211. According to tradition, the tomb of the Apostle Santiago is located in this cathedral. He made this cathedral a place of pilgrimage from all corners of Europe during the Middle Ages. Thus, he established what is known as the Camino de Santiago. The Camino de Santiago is a religious route that communicated the Iberian Peninsula with the rest of the continent, facilitating cultural transfer between Europeans and Hispanics.
Holly Week in Seville
Another of the most important religious events of Christianity in Spain is Holy Week. There are cities where people live with special intensity, such as Toledo, Cuenca, Valladolid or Teruel. The most famous and internationally recognised processions are those that take place in Seville.
The Ministry of Information and Tourism declared Seville’s Holy Week of International Tourist Interest in 1980. Holy Week constitutes one of the great spring festivals in the city, along with the April Fair.
There are processions throughout the week with the penitents dressed as Nazarenes with their characteristic robes and conical headwears.
Artistic expression in Spain
Facade of the Prado Museum in Madrid
The passage of all these people and cultures throughout the history of Spain has contributed to a great artistic heritage. A great sample of the art of this country can be visited in the Prado Museum in Madrid.
In the Prado you will find paintings by Goya, Velázquez, El Greco, Tiziano, Rubens and El Bosco. It is especially rich in paintings by European authors from the 16th to 19th centuries. The evolution of culture can be appreciated in its paintings. in the Prado Museum you find everything from the eminently religious-themed paintings of the Middle Ages to battle passages such as “May 3 in Madrid” by Francisco de Goya.
The Sagrada Familia of Barcelona
The most recognised modernist architectural work in the world in Spain is the Sagrada Familia by the brilliant Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. Its construction began in 1886 and is not yet finished (its completion is expected in 2026).
It is Gaudí’s masterpiece, the greatest exponent of Catalan modernist architecture, and it has become one of the most visited monuments in Spain along with the Prado Museum and the Alhambra in Granada. It is also the most visited church in Europe after St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and will be the tallest church in Christianity when finished.
Sagrada Familia in Barcelona
The interior of the church looks like a forest, with the columns simulating the trunks and the arches their branches. In addition, the light that enters through its stained glass windows give the interior a magical atmosphere. It is a monument that you cannot miss on a visit to the city of Barcelona.
If we talk about art in Spain, we cannot fail to mention flamenco, a Spanish musical genre developed in Andalusia, Extremadura and the Region of Murcia. There are several theories about its origin, but it probably developed thanks to the miscegenation of Moorish, Sephardic and Castilian cultures that occurred in the southern regions of Spain.
In 2010 the Cultural Heritage Committee declared the art of flamenco as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Since then it has become very popular in Latin American countries and in Japan, where it is said that there are more flamenco academies than in Spain.
One of the best places to enjoy a flamenco tablao is in the Sacromonte neighbourhood in Granada, where there are small establishments inside caves that offer flamenco shows.
Author: Pedro Jesús Martínez Márquez