Feature: Girona Cathedral

Medieval Treasures Rediscovered: New Findings in Girona Cathedral

Emily Price and Anna Santolaria vitrallscanpinyonaire@gmail.com

Throughout the centuries, countless treasures of art and architecture have been lost to time. Yet it is not everyday that a treasure is found again, and something that was once forgotten is brought to light. On the 17th of October 2019, conservators working in Girona Cathedral in the chapel of Sant Martí and Sant Francesc discovered that behind the sixteenth-century altarpiece was a medieval window. It had remained hidden there for almost five hundred years. Untouched for centuries, the almost complete window provides important insight into the medieval stained glass of Catalonia, and vital information about the history of the building itself.

Girona Cathedral has a long history, and the idea of losing a window is easier to understand knowing that the building has been greatly altered over the centuries. Perched on top of a hill overlooking the River Onyar, there has been a church on the site since the ninth century. The Romanesque building, begun in 1015, was consecrated in 1038. Building work began again in the Gothic style in 1312, when Bishop Bernat de Vilamari used money bequeathed by Guillem Gaufred for the construction of the new apse of the Cathedral [1]. In 1606 work started on the Baroque façade, but would not be completed until 1984 [2]. Today the cathedral is a mix of styles, with a Romanesque cloister and tower, Gothic apse and nave, and Baroque façade and bell tower.

The first reference to stained glass windows in Girona dates from 1348, found in fabric accounts that refer to work carried out in the previous four years [3]. This work is thought to relate to the clerestory windows in the apse, a set of thirteen windows that are dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the patron saint of the cathedral. Another set of windows, dedicated to Christ, in the upper windows of the ambulatory have been attributed to Guillem de Letumgard and dated to 1357-58 [4]. No information is known about the lower windows in the ambulatory chapels, only that Letumgard produced the lost window nIV for the chapel of Santa Margarida. These medieval windows were, until very recently, considered the oldest windows in the Cathedral. The other window openings have been filled with glass from later periods, or the openings have been bricked up entirely in favour of lavish altarpieces in the chapels.

Fig. 1 ® Capítol Catedral de Girona. Image: Gustavo Torres and Gemma Marz.

Fig. 1 ® Capítol Catedral de Girona. Image: Gustavo Torres and Gemma Marz.

It was such an altarpiece that covered the forgotten window in the chapel of Sant Martí and Sant Francesc. Installed in 1562, the altarpiece spans almost the width of the chapel, and reaches to the vault. Other altarpieces in other chapels in the cathedral are lower, revealing the bricked-up window openings behind. In the chapel of Sant Martí and Sant Francesc the space between the altarpiece and the window is slim, and the window opening had at some period – presumably around the same time as the altarpiece – been bricked up, and rooms created behind it (fig. 1). The stained glass still held within the ferramenta was thus forgotten, as it was no longer visible from either the inside or outside, and was no longer necessary to the function of the chapel, being replaced by the altarpiece. It is not yet understood why the stained glass was left in place, and perhaps it never will be. But we should thank those responsible for the installation of the altarpiece, as even though they had to make some holes in the panels to support the structure, today their job offers us a key piece in understanding the transition between the Romanesque and the Gothic cathedral.

The stained glass was found in situ, covered in a thick layer of dust and debris accumulated over the last five centuries (fig. 2). Once removed and with the initial layer of dirt carefully cleaned, it became apparent that the window comprised of panels of different periods. The two bottom panels (1a and 1b), which are complete, the fragmentary panels above these (2a and 2b), and the two upper panels (5a and 5b), have been dated to the first third of the thirteenth century (fig. 3), c.1230. Although older geometric windows can be found in the Monastery of Santes Creus in Tarragona, this would make this the oldest figurative window in Catalonia [5]. The two complete panels show scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary; 1a depicts the Annunciation and the Visitation, and 1b depicts the Nativity. In the fragmentary panel 2a the remains of a scene including sheep and figures could suggest the subject was the Adoration of the Shepherds. In 2b the fragments of hooves suggest a scene such as the Flight into Egypt, or the Journey of the Magi. The upper panels, although now incorporating three replaced heads from unknown origin, are also from the same period, and they depict the Flagellation and the Crucifixion (fig.4). Considering the panels together, these scenes suggest that they all came from a single window, and that the subject may have been a cycle of the Life of Christ.

Fig. 2 ® Capítol Catedral de Girona. Image: Laia Roca.

Fig. 2 ® Capítol Catedral de Girona. Image: Laia Roca.

Fig. 3 ® Capítol Catedral de Girona. Image:Gemma Martz and Anna Santolaria.

Fig. 3 ® Capítol Catedral de Girona. Image:Gemma Martz and Anna Santolaria.

The rest of the window is later, painted in the International Gothic style (fig.5). These panels, 3b, 4a and 4b, have been dated to c.1380. A similar painting style can be seen in a replacement head in window NV panel c2, which has been attributed to Lluís Borrasà, who is known to have worked in the Cathedral in this period [6]. These panels depict the figures of St Martin and St Francis, the saints to whom the chapel was dedicated in 1313 and again in 1341 [7]. The figures are larger in scale than the other figurative panels, taking up two panels for each figure. The bottom half of St Martin has been lost, which would have been panel 3a, but the figure of St Francis is complete. The panels display a delicate painting style, incorporating the use of silver stain.

The window is thus a composite, made up of glass from two different periods, and unravelling the full history of this will require further study. As of now, the window raises more questions than it answers, yet some speculation, at least, is possible. The dating of the earlier panels to c.1230 places them from the time of the Romanesque cathedral, which suggests that they were not made for the Gothic chapel but were reused to form part of the composite window. The panels themselves have evidence of being altered to fit the Gothic window opening. The upper panels have been clearly cut down – with figures missing their heads and torsos – which suggests they were once full-sized panels repurposed to the new space.

Parts of the Romanesque building can still be seen today, integrated into the later cathedral work, perhaps supporting the hypothesis that stained glass could also have been moved to the new cathedral. Excavations show that the Romanesque building would have been about eleven metres wide, with a single nave and barrel vault, and a transept with a major apse accommodating five other altars [8]. The original location of the window is still to be determined, and more research on the dedication of the lost chapels, and the dimensions of their openings is required. When the later Gothic building work began in 1312, with the first chapel of the new apse known to have been built in 1330 on the north side, the earlier openings had to be closed [9]. The last chapel on the south side, before the nave and connecting the cathedral with the Episcopal Palace, is the chapel of Sant Martí and Sant Francesc, where the window was found. The historical building process between the new Gothic apse and the Romanesque nave remains unclear, but the discovery of the window and its study may shed more light on the history of the building.

When the chapel of Sant Martí and Sant Francesc was built the early panels would have been close to a century old. This indicates that the panels were still valued at the time, and the cathedral community made a conscious decision to incorporate the older glass into the new building. The process and decisions that led up to the window’s current composition is unclear, and much is down to speculation. The chapel was dedicated to Saint Martin and St Francis in the first half of the fourteenth century, and the later panels, dated to the latter part of the fourteenth century, depict these saints. There would, therefore, have been a number of decades between the time when the old glass was taken from the Romanesque building and when the new glass was made for the chapel. This gap between the dedication to the saints and the panels being made in c.1380 is more understandable when it is known that building work to the cathedral was still ongoing throughout the fourteenth century.

It is likely that the earlier glass was not installed into the Gothic building straight away, but was kept in storage until the later panels were made, and the whole window installed as a composite in the second half of the fourteenth century. There are certainly other indications of the reuse of earlier glass at the cathedral. During restoration work in 2016, three fragments of medieval glass were found behind the altarpiece of Saint Catherine. One of the pieces from this earlier discovery matches the clear green pieces on the border of the oldest panels, suggesting it too came from reused Romanesque glazing. If it was common to reuse the glass from the demolished building, then it would have been necessary to store it. The older panels may not have been used straight away, but kept until needed in a window. The tradition of creating composite windows dates back to the medieval period, and shows that old glass and damaged windows were still seen as valuable works of monumental art.

Fig. 4 ® Capítol Catedral de Girona. Image: Gemma Martz.

Fig. 4 ® Capítol Catedral de Girona. Image: Gemma Martz.

Fig. 5 ® Capítol Catedral de Girona. Image: Gemma Martz.

Fig. 5 ® Capítol Catedral de Girona. Image: Gemma Martz.

Fig. 6 ® Capítol Catedral de Girona. Image: Gemma Martz.

Fig. 6 ® Capítol Catedral de Girona. Image: Gemma Martz.



However, the composite nature of the window is not harmonious. The subject matter of the later panels – images of Saint Martin and Saint Francis – can be explained by the chapel being dedicated to those saints. Yet the scenes in the earlier panels are from the New Testament, suggesting a Life of Christ cycle, which do not correspond to the other panels. It is interesting that these panels were chosen to be placed together as a composite, instead of an entirely new window created for the dedication of the chapel to the saints. This could indicate that the oldest window was installed in the Gothic window before the dedication of the chapel, perhaps containing the other scenes from the Life of Christ that may have accompanied the surviving panels in the complete window. However, this option seems unlikely considering that the reused glass would have only been installed for about four decades, and would probably still be in good condition.

The most credible option is that the older window was taken out while the building was being demolished, stored, and then the six panels resized and placed together with the images of Sant Martin and Saint Francis. It is not known whether there were other panels from the original window and if they were also reused elsewhere in the Cathedral. It is also speculation that the panels that have survived today are only from the same window. Each panel is similar in style, and composition, and seems to be by the same hand. However, while the subjects of the Flagellation and the Crucifixion clearly point to a window depicting the Life of Christ, the inclusion of the Visitation and the Assumption in one panel point more towards the Life of the Virgin. The Nativity could fit into either. This brings up the possibility that what has survived comes from more than one window, and that there could have been a cycle of windows, made by the same Master, in the earlier building. The incomplete panels are too fragmentary to shed more light on this. The windows from the fourteenth century in the ambulatory that are present today also include two sets of panels dedicated to Christ and the Virgin, the latter being the patron saint of the Cathedral.

The window has seemingly never been altered since the altarpiece covered it in the sixteenth century, and it still retains medieval lead. The lead matrix, painted surface and glass are all in good condition, owing to the window’s sheltered position inside, away from the elements and the hands of later glaziers and restorers. Few of the chapels in the cathedral retain medieval stained glass, and none has survived from the Romanesque building – until now – making the discovery that much more important. The window’s existence remained unknown for centuries, and its discovery was a happy accident just in time for Christmas 2019. Further study of it in the new year will hopefully bring to light more answers to help us understand and gain from this mystery.


1. Domenge i Mesquida, J., ‘La catedral. El lloc i els homes’ in La catedral de Girona. Girona: Fundació la Caixa (2003), pp. 55-70.

2. Nadal i Farreras, J., La catedral de Girona. Barcelona: Ed. Lunwerg (2007). p.22.

3. Ainaud i de Lasarte, J. Vila-Grau, J. Escudero i Ribot, A. Els Vitralls de la Catedral de Girona. Barcelona: Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi Catalunya,  Institut d’Estudis Catalans (1987), p. 17.

4. Ibid. p. 19.

5. Ainaud i de Lasarte, J. Vila-Grau, J. Virgili, M.J., Els Vitralls del Monestir de Santes Creus i la Catedral de Tarragona. Barcelona: Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi Catalunya,  Institut d’Estudis Catalans (1992).

6. Alcoy, R., ‘Evolució Estilística del Vitrall Medieval a Catalunya’ in Estudis entorn del Vitrall a Catalunya. Barcelona: Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi Catalunya,  Institut d’Estudis Catalans, (2014), p. 109.

7. Sureda i Junany, M., Guia catedral de Girona. Madrid: ed. Palacios y M.useos (2005), p.54.

8. Sureda i Jubany, M., Els precedents de la Catedral de Santa Maria de Girona. De la plaça religiosa del fòrum romà al conjunt arquitectònic de la seu romànica (ss. I aC – XIV dC). PhD Thesis. Universitat de Girona, (2008). Available at: https://www.tdx.cat/handle/10803/7853;jsessionid=A8E30CDE08B5863D468811E231DD5916 (Accessed: 2 January 2020).

9. Domenge i Mesquida, J., ‘La catedral. El lloc i els homes’ in La catedral de Girona. Girona: Fundació la Caixa, (2003), pp. 55-70.

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