Cartagena Cathedral in Colombia

The Cathedral of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, officially the Basilica Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, is a Catholic cathedral church of Catholic worship under the invocation of Saint Catherine of Alexandria.

It is located in the historic center of the city of Cartagena de Indias (Bolivar Department), Plaza de la Proclamación, east corner of the Bolivar Park, and is the episcopal seat of the Archbishop of Cartagena de Indias, one of the oldest episcopal sites of the new world.

The cathedral is Herrerian style, characteristic of the reign of Felipe II, that corresponds with the third and last stage of the Spanish Renaissance architecture.

It was designed by the master builder Simón González, who designed it using some Andalusian basilicas and the Canary Islands as a model.

Although the current tower was designed by the French architect Gastón Lelarge, the result of a remodeling at the beginning of the 20th century.

The building is of basilical plant, divided by three ships, and counts on a series of chapels contiguous to the nave of the gospel.

Its construction began in 1577, replacing the humble cathedral “of straw and reeds”.

The temple can be considered as one of the oldest cathedrals of America, contemporary of those of Mexico.

In 1586, the temple still under construction, became affected by the attack of the pirate Francis Drake, that generated severe damages and delayed its completion, which happened in 1612.

In 1953, Pope Pius XII granted the liturgical title of Basilica Minor by brief of October 20 of that same year.

Later, for its historical significance, architectural and cultural value was declared National Monument of Colombia by decree 1911 of 2 November 1995.


The current cathedral concerns the third building built as a cathedral church in the city.

The first was led by the Dominican friar Tomás de Toro y Cabrero, the first bishop of Cartagena, who was appointed by Pope Paul III.

The construction of the temple began in 1535, only two years after the founding of the city, and ended in 1537.

It was a humble construction of “straw and reeds”, was located in the block behind the current cathedral, with front on the street of the Coliseum.

The life of this building was short, for in 1552 a fire consumed much of the city and in ruins the cathedral was converted.

In its replacement, between 1563 and 1568, the construction of the second cathedral temple was carried out, in wood and straw roofs, because they were difficult times and did not have many resources, but was more solid than the previous one.

Of this second temple a modest trace is conserved in the General Archive of Indias and a physical remnant of its espadaña.

Pedro Fernández de Busto, governor of the city, notably the promoter of the architectural works that were carried out at that time and who also undertook the task of carrying out important projects in the urban area, such as the drying and sanitation of the main entrance the city, which established the Plaza Real (today the Plaza de la Aduana); the initiation of the works of an aqueduct, which was never completed and would provide the city with running water; The construction of a hospital, and the construction of houses for the administration of justice, the jail, and the Cabildo.

The idea of granting Cartagena a dignified building that would serve as a cathedral church emerges and is also promoted by it.

In addition, the Dominican friar Dionisio de los Santos arrived in 1575 as a new bishop, who sent a letter to the king, dated May 25 of that year, describing something about the cult in the cathedral, among which he said: “No There are rations or half rations or grooms, but a clever sacristan and two young men of sacristy who serve the altar in a T-shirt and zaragüelles, that there is nothing more. And thus this Church is served as a sad parish of Spain,” whereby the sovereign gives an immediate order to rebuild it.

In that same year (1575) a public contest was called to select the design of the building, which was presented by the teachers Eugenio de la Vega, Hernando Esteban, Juanes Guerra and Simón González.

The project presented by the latter was chosen, He appointed a “superintendent” of the work, a practically supervisory position, with a salary of $ 50,000 maravedis per year, also indicating a newspaper of twenty-two reais for each day he worked in construction, allowing him simultaneously to exercise that office with his own activities Of his trade.

Hernando Esteban was commissioned by the Cabildo as the immediate director of the project, and Juanes Guerra worked on the project and occupied a prominent position.

The stonemason Martin de Marquina was in charge of supplying the stone, and likewise Pedro de Aguilar, Francisco Ruiz, Juan de Medina and Gaspar Juanes worked as officers in the work.

Thus began the construction of the third Cathedral by the year 1575, located far from the port for security reasons, in a corner that faces a narrow street later named “Santos de Piedra”, next to the current Park of Bolivar; But without facing it, following the model adopted by Nicolas de Ovando in Santo Domingo and the old and strong tradition of the church surrounded, over time, by the most outstanding buildings of the city, such as the headquarters of civil power and the houses of the most supportive characters.

In 1577, when the foundations were still being worked on, the Cabildo discussed the feasibility of changing its orientation and turning its axis ninety degrees, as proposed by regidor and captain Sebastián Pérez.

The lobbyists agreed with the proposal, They noticed that this would be better, but for this it was necessary to acquire properties and the Cabildo did not have extra funds to buy them.

Therefore, Captain Pérez offered to donate 200 pesos for this purpose, but that amount was not enough, Governor met with the neighbors (among whom a repartimiento had been made to finance the work), and since all voted to continue the work as it was initiated, the cabildo decided by this, in addition the Governor indicated that it was not possible to do a new repartimiento to acquire the houses, because the king only authorized it to do it only to pay the work.

Thus, the idea of turning the project was discarded and work continued as planned.

The work continued actively, because, a year later, “five arches to be made in the chapel are already to begin on the pillars that are made”.

Master Gonzalez, seeing the little strength and firmness of the stone, decided to add a further support for the ceiling and modified in full march the original design that was of six pairs of columns, which was of seven pairs.

During the course of the work some doubts were generated about the material of the arches and the height of the main nave in relation to the main chapel, but always the listener’s point of view was always heard and respected: the arches are built in stone, and the main nave of the same height that the greater chapel.

In 1579, more than half of the walls were at the level of the enrase and the remaining part was at a height of five walls.

In that same year, Fray Juan de Montalvo was appointed as the new bishop.

As early as 1585, ten years after the work began, the volume of the building was covered and, although the neighboring buildings and tower were missing, the building was practically finished.

Drake Attack

Nevertheless, the following year (1586), the English pirate Francis Drake, “Draque”, appears before the coasts of Cartagena with a fleet of up to 23 ships of war and more than 3,000 men, and attacks the city, in the which was the most important military action carried out in the sixteenth century against the ports of America.

Cartagena was taken and Draque devoted himself to plunder: he reduced to ashes just over half of the city and, in the face of the refusal of its inhabitants to pay for the juicy ransom he demanded, threatened to overthrow the cathedral, which at that moment was to be the most prized possession of the city.

He then made the first warning shot, which was enough to seriously affect its structure, as the bullet struck one of the columns, knocking it down and taking two more with it.

The four arches that supported the three columns and part of the ceiling. The most affected part was the ship of the Epistle.

Finally, the Carthaginians paid 110,000 silver ducats and El Draque agreed not to continue the destruction of the city, after having it in its possession for 6 weeks.

Fortuitously and coincidentally, on the way to Quito, the master Benito de Morales passed through the city, who, at the request of the governor, examined the cathedral and evaluated the damages suffered.

In this way he verified the good foundations of the walls and columns, gave indications for the reconstruction and recommended that the building be completed in such a way that the original project would not be changed.

Thus, slowly because of the lack of money that was taken by the English and that was destined to the project, repair and completion of the temple.

In addition, after the attack and looting of the city, Bishop Fray Juan de Montalvo died on September 10, 1586, with moral punishment after the demolition of his cathedral.

The works of repair and termination passed very slowly. In 1591, Bishop Fray Antonio de Hervías wrote a letter to the king, in which he said:

“This work is very long in the end with having been able to finish the damage that the Drake did in space of a year, and to walk in six years that the damage was done and now to be over and God knows when it is over, with a great loss of the edified that is destroyed everything with the waters and with much offense of those who enter the church raining all of it and do not take advantage of prayers or admonitions, take advantage of the money and spend on wages of butlers and on shelves and nothing is done.”

Notwithstanding the pessimism of the bishop (reflecting the frequent enmity between the military and ecclesiastical authorities of the colony), reconstruction was undertaken, albeit slowly; Despite the good wishes of the governor, had not advanced much, because funds were not available since the city was very badly economically after the Darake attack.

A collapse, culmination and decay

However, after so many problems and when the cathedral was almost finished, there is another unfortunate event: on the night of August 7, 1600, the roofs of the main nave and the nave of the Gospel collapsed, due to the effects of a natural phenomenon, such as an earthquake or a hurricane, but, according to the diagnosis of the moment, because the original roofs of the side aisles, with flat roofs, generated a great deal of weight for the structure, and it was then decided to replace them with roofs.

The council then filed a complaint against the teacher Simón González, who was considered responsible for the calamity, who later fled the charges.

The temple was provisionally covered with straw, which did not serve much when there was heavy rainfall, but it was still used for religious services.

At the end of 1600, the governor wrote to the king informing him of the incident, in view of which he issued a royal cedula, dated in Valladolid on September 2 of the following year, requesting extensive reports of the causes that generated it, was fulfilled with the sending of a testimony of the process established against Simon Conzález.

Before these documents arrived at the Court, the king granted, by cedula of June 20, 1602, a donation of one thousand ducats for the refection of the cathedral.

This donation of the monarch, together with the money collected from the inhabitants, was insufficient for the completion of the reconstruction works, which passed very slowly.

But thanks to the efforts of the governor Diego Fernandez de Velasco; To the intervention of the bishop of the city, Fray Juan de Ladrada, and of the provisor, Bernardino de Almansa, who had many opportunities to pay the expenses of the work with their own money, guaranteed the completion of the temple in 1612, including elements such as doors and the choir grid, except for the tower that was not yet finished.

In 1653, the master Diego Serrano built the crypt under the main chapel, designed by the Brotherhood of Priests of San Pedro, to house the mortal remains of that brotherhood, as well as the bishops, governors, and illustrious persons.

Years later a dispute arose between the Brotherhood and the maestrescuela by the position of the crypt, which generated that brotherhood sent to the Council of the Indies in 1666, the plane of the greater chapel, being at the moment the only plane of the colonial time that exists of the temple.

During those years, without the precise date, the bishop of Cartagena, Antonio Sanz Lozano (who took office in 1661 and directed it until 1681), raised the tower of the cathedral, which was endowed with “very good bells”, according to the chronicler Zamora.

In 1697, Cartagena de Indias was taken again, this time by the filibusters (a type of pirates), with the help of a fleet of French corsairs. These filibusters enclose women and children in the cathedral.

At the end of the 18th century, they were brought by Bishop José Fernández Díaz de La Madrid, the artistic pulpit and the floor, both in Italian marble.

Later, in 1810, the independence of Colombia began, and with it a political instability, and the bishopric of Cartagena did not escape it, since the relations between Church and state were very tense.

Only in 1824 did the Holy See recognize independence. In addition, the country became involved in a series of civil wars throughout the nineteenth century, which generated a great deal of poverty, from which the city was not liberated either, which entered a period of deterioration.

Such deterioration is reflected in the cathedral, the humidity affected the walls and columns; The altars, of artistic carvings, were victims of the commencement.

Its outward appearance was pitiful, for the dirt reigned and the ornaments of the façade were in a bad state.

Despite these problems, the cathedral remained intact in appearance Colonial period until the beginning of the 20th century.


In 1886 the bishop Eugenio Biffi, began the construction of the Episcopal Palace in the grounds of the old cemetery of the city, contiguous to the cathedral.

Later his successor, Monsignor Pedro Adán Brioschi (named bishop in 1898 and later archbishop, after the diocese was elevated to archdiocese in 1900), continued the construction of the palace, to which, in 1908 he added a third floor, and his facade made her decorate with abundant stucco.

When the palace was finally finished, Bishop Brioschi turned his attention to the old cathedral, and that is when, with the best of intentions, the remodeling of the temple began, a catastrophe for Cartagena’s colonial art.

In the first half of the twentieth century he underwent a drastic intervention at the hands of the French architect Gaston Lelarge (the same one who designed the dome of the church of St. Peter Claver), who under the auspices of Monsignor Brioschi, totally distorted the original physiognomy of the temple.

The intention was that the cathedral was something like the Sistine Chapel, so the entire interior was covered with stucco and paintings; The latter were made by a painter of the third category, the Venezuelan Miguel Ortiz, who arrived in the city as a bullfighter and finished as a muralist.

The walls of the cathedral were full of scenes from the santoral, leaving the interior recharged, of little artistic value. It was “a sweeping bark of painted stucco, which drowned, like a tide of color, the sacred enclosure.”

Likewise, it gave marble appearance to the coral stone of Tierrabomba, removed the coffered ceiling of the central nave with a false vault of canyon and stuccos; And the simple stone tower disappeared to give way to a higher one made of concrete and reinforced concrete, which ends in a dome with a lantern.

The old tower had a bell-shaped body with half-point spans framed between pilasters, very similar in appearance to that of the Church of Santo Domingo.

In addition, the most authentic decorative and artistic elements of the temple disappeared forever, such as the decoration of the Chapel of the Tabernacle, which was all covered with carved and gilded wood, had a triple Churrigueresque altarpiece, also carved and gilded, of which Gaston Lelarge Affirmed of him that there was not in any temple of Colombia; The Chapter Room disappeared to give way to three chapels, 9 the choir was eliminated; And the old side altars were changed by others of marble, imported from Italy.

Also lost forever other decorative elements, just as authentic and if you want even folklore, but of great merit, as those who gave the name to the neighboring street: that of “Los Santos de Piedra.”

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, that is to say, by the time of the completion of the temple, some humble craftsman had adorned the main front with four statues of saints, representing St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Gregory and St. Sebastian, but for Mons “Brioschi was” very coarse … a memory of the primitive art of four centuries.”

He himself took care of replacing them, for which he wanted to bring from Milan some artistic, very old, removed from the cathedral of that city, but the government Italian forbade its export.

He then commissioned the Italian sculptor Mignone in marble from the saints Rosa de Lima, patroness of South America; Catherine of Alexandria, patroness of the diocese and titular of the cathedral; Sebastián, patron of Cartagena, and Luis Beltrán, patron of New Granada, and that at the moment they are located in the niches of the main cover.

The greater altarpiece has uncertain origin, it is not known nor when, nor who did it, is believed to date from the eighteenth century.

This altarpiece was also a victim of the passage of time and of the commencement, for which it underwent a restoration, but apparently unfinished.

In 1943, during the episcopate of Bishop Jose Ignacio López Umaña (successor of Brioschi), the religious Juan Semanati sought to replace it with pieces of marble, opportunely there were those who objected to such measure; Some people led by the president of the Academy of History, Gabriel Porras Troconis, interceded before the archbishop and the altar was saved.

In 1973, Archbishop Ruben Isaza Restrepo removed the premises attached to the church and stripped the walls by removing their stucco on the facades and inner walls, also removes the false vault from the central nave and leaves the structure of the ceiling of pair and knuckle to the view.

Of the intervention of Monsignor Brioschi only the viacrucis and the tower remain. To the latter, in 1991 they performed repair work.

Urban context

The cathedral is located in the historic center of the city, next to the Bolivar Park (but not facing it), at the corner between Santos de Piedra Street and Proclamation Square.

This historic center, is a walled enclosure, with narrow streets, apples with irregular shapes, buildings of colonial origin (although it has others built in the 20th century), which in most cases do not exceed 3 or 4 floors, which allows the cathedral (especially its tower) to be one of the dominant structures in the urban landscape, an easily identifiable landmark.

In addition, this historic center, also known as the “walled city”, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a strong tourist center of Colombia.

The streets surrounding the park and the square have a mixed floor, where housing, commerce and services converge.

The main public spaces near the temple are those already mentioned: Bolivar Park and Plaza de la Proclamación.

This park is an emblematic site of the city, loaded with historical and cultural symbolism.

It was known as “Plaza Mayor”, 10th place where the great military acts of the time were realized, but in 1610 the “Holy Tribunal of the Inquisition” settled in the city and took the name of “Plaza de la Inquisición”.

The 11 of November of 1896 was inaugurated with the name of Park of Bolivar, in honor to the liberator Simon Bolivar, but it was not but 4 years after that the equestrian statue of the liberator was placed in its center.

The Plaza de la Proclamación is another emblematic site, a space of smaller proportions bordering the Park of Bolivar.

Previously, when the construction of the cathedral was completed, the Carthaginians began to call it the Cathedral Square, 12 afterwards it was renamed “Plaza del Cabildo”, then it was called “Plaza del Palacio”, then renamed with the current name Commemorate November 11, 1811, a historic day in which the people gathered there to support the signatories of the Act of Independence.

This plaza is limited by the lateral facade of the cathedral and the main facade of the Government Palace, where the city council worked and today is the headquarters of the Government of the Department of Bolivar.

In reality it is more of a street a little wider than a square, so in some maps it leaves as a street of the government.

Around these public spaces, outside the Palaces of the Inquisition and Government, the building of the Bank of the Republic and the Museum of Gold.

Adjacent to the cathedral in the back is the Archbishop’s Palace, built in 1896 by order of the Bishop Eugenio Biffi, in the grounds of the old cemetery of the city, later the successor Monsignor Pedro Adán Brioschi ordered to add a third floor to the palace.

Characteristics of the work

The project of Simón González

Although the original plan of 1575 of the Simón González project is unknown, the Spanish academic Enrique Marco Dorta, in his book of 1951, “Cartagena de Indias: the City and its Monuments”, made a hypothetical reconstruction of the primitive project, based on documents of the time, as a general plan of the city dated 1597, possibly made by Gonzalez himself and in which the cathedral is perfectly drawn, and another plan sent by the Brotherhood of Priests of San Pedro to the Council of the Indies, in 1666, which contains the main chapel.

The original Gonzalez master plan had to be that of a basilical type temple, with three naves delimited by six pairs of columns, with space at the sides of both side aisles to raise private chapels, which would be accessed from the lateral nave through an arch.

The main chapel, which would protrude from the front; At the foot of the church and next to the Gospel would be the tower, with the stairs inside it; Contiguous to this would be the chapel of the baptistery and, on the same side, near the presbytery, there would be another dependence, which would act as sacristy.

On its elevation, it can be commented that the columns were cylindrical, uniform without anecdote, formed by stonecutted strands on which would support arches of semicircular, also in stone, on which would rise a wall of masonry that would reach the height of the central nave.

On the roof of the ships it is said that the one in the central nave had armor made of cedar wood with musk.

The original project, as indicated, contemplated for the lateral aisles flat roofs on roofs, which collapsed apparently because they generated a lot of weight for the structure.

Likewise, the main chapel would plan a roof through a spherical vault, with lunettes in which it would put circular skylights, similar, presumably, to those that illuminate the central nave.

The building project

The built project does not differ much from the one mentioned above, so it can be determined that, despite the different changes that the work suffered, the original project was respected, at least in its essential part.

It is made up of three naves (the main or central and the lateral ones), of which the central one is considerably wider and of greater height, which allows him to have in the high circular skylights that illuminate.

The lateral chapels arise like simple finials of the same ships, which are covered with arista vaults; The main chapel, whose volumetry is distinguished in the exterior, is of ochavada plan and is covered by a vault squinted with lunetos in which are circular skylights similar to those that illuminate the central nave.

The columns are of smooth and cylindrical shaft, topped by Tuscan capitals, are conformed by stone drums, which are supported on cubic pedestals.

It was necessary to add a support more to each side, reason why the temple counts on seven pairs of columns.

The toral arch and those in the foreground are supported by a pilaster with four semi-attached columns that rise up to the height of the other columns, where the pilaster alone continues until obtaining the highest height required to receive the toral arch.

All arches are half-point and square section. The roof of the ships is composed of wood and clay tile, the deck of the central nave is two waters with structure of pair and knuckle, and the sides to a water.

On the side of the Gospel and at the foot of the temple is the tower, square plan and has a central staircase.

The old chapel of the tabernacle, located next to the tower, has a rectangular floor plan and has an arched vault in the presbytery and a canyon in the rest of it.

It was covered by what the writer and poet Bossa Herazo has described as “the most magnificent carved wooden work of Cartagena, of the purest churrigueresque style”.

A kind of vestibule or vestibule gives access to the chapel of the tabernacle and to the old chapter room, in turn, is connected with the nave on the side of the Gospel.

The old chapter room is currently divided into three chapels, which communicate directly with the nave on the side of the Gospel.

Later to the old chapter room is the sacristy, that communicates with the greater chapel by means of a small vain.

In the exterior, the temple has, on the volume of the main chapel, towers like garitas that stand out in height and are covered with conical spiers of brick that in their interior they house spiral stairs, that allow the communication with the cover already The old roofs.

In the front facade is the main facade, formed by two bodies, the lower one is constituted by free double columns, Corinthian style, which in turn are framed by buttresses that receive the thrust of the arches and extend in the second body forming the bases of pyramids finished in balls.

In the intercolumnios niches appear niches that originally lodged the stone statues of San Pedro, San Pablo, San Gregorio and San Sebastián, and that gave the name to the street that passes to the front to the Cathedral: “Street of the Saints of Stone”, and which today houses the marble statues of saints Rosa de Lima, Catalina de Alejandría, Sebastián, and Luis Bertrán.

In the second body of the cover, which is separated from the first by an entablature, is a window framed on the lateral sides by double columns of smooth shaft and Corinthian capital.

Finally, this body ends in a triangular pediment.

In the lateral façade that faces the Proclamation Square, there is almost in the mita of this, a door that communicates with the nave of the epistle.

On this façade, almost on the corner reaching the street of stone saints, is at the top, a sundial made also in stone.

The entire surface area, interior and exterior, was covered and enjalbegada to cover and protect the masonry of coral stone, brick and mortar lime and sand.