It is well known that Felipe II freed Granada from the dubious privilege of becoming an illustrious cemetery, by constructing his own family mausoleum in El Escorial and thus distancing the court from the city. However, the problem of king and city continued being that which had existed from the moment of conquest: the integration in the new monarchy of a society formed by a complex world of different religions, cultures and customs. A strange problem and one which his predecessors had tackled in a variety of different ways.
One proposal would be the development of an ambitious programme of constructions which would "christianize" the urban framework of the Muslim city. In this way, the city would become filled with churches, convents or civilian buildings which would perfectly reflect the more Western and Christian mentality of the new granadinos.
In Granada, these constructions would commence with the building of the Capilla Real and continue with the Guildhall, the Cathedral and much later, the side chapel all clear examples of this Christian use of urban space. However, the project remained a relatively risky operation.
To construct a chapel as sepulchre of the monarchs that had just conquered the city could be interpreted in a number of ways, above all if its construction took place close to the citys principal mosque and next to the Madraza, centre of Islamic law and study of the Koran.
Why choose Granada, the least Christian of all Castilian cities, as the sepulchre of the most Christian queen in Castile? The decision undoubtedly lay in the wishes of the Queen herself, who had originally chosen the Alhambra as her resting place. Moreover, her will also expressed her desire to be buried alongside the King.
Whatever the reason, work on the Capilla Real began in 1504 on a site whose symbolic and visual impact, like others in the sixteenth century, would convert it into an emblem of the monarchs political approach towards Granada. Curiously, the building was constructed in the Gothic style when the Renaissance had already been used with considerable success in Castile and by the very same monarchs.
Besides this, the building was born out of an extraordinary contradiction: the most privileged setting in the chapel should logically be that occupied by the magnificent sepulchres of the kings the work of Domenico Fancelli, but it was hardly logical that these should take pride of place over the high altar. To solve the problem, the space was distorted, placing the selpulchres in front of the altar, thus making accessible the underground crypt which has become the focal point of interest for the visitor. Another device which reduces the sensation of amplitude and grants a more closed­in space is the magnificent gilded grille built by Maestro Bartolomé. If the interior of the chapel is complex, its exterior is almost incomprehensible owing to the proximity of the Cathedral, to which it is attached. We should not overlook the fact that the original gateway of the Capilla Real currently leads into the interior of the Cathedral, connected visually with the main chapel and thus making it impossible to appreciate its original dimensions.
In fact, when visiting the Cathedral for the first time it is essential to contemplate it from afar; faced by its extraordinary Baroque altarpiece or by the theatrical curtain of its main facade. The visitor should walk around it towards the bell­tower, the Puerta de San Jerónimo and the Puerta del Perdón. Here we can discover, among other things, how the square in front of the facade drops to a lower level, revealing the importance of architecture as theatrical scenography in the seventeenth century. In this way, the Cathedral maintained its role in the citys permanent civic­religious spectacle. From the outside, we can merely piece together the various parts of the overall construction.
The cathedrals interior is likewise deceptively simple and although much research has been carried out with regards the beginning of its construction and the laying of foundations by Egas, the whole interior remains a mystery. It is clear that the most important work was carried out by Diego de Siloé, the great inspiration behind Renaissance art in Granada, along with Lorenzo Vázquez, although it is debatable to what extent his Gothic predecessor altered or determined the buildings subsequent development.
Once inside, the first thing that attracts our attention is the enormous size of the columns which make up the five naves. One theory goes that these were constructed in such a way as to cover a space which, having started life as a Gothic concept, would reflect the great surfaces of pilgrimage churches and thus justify the existence of the ambulatory that could have been used in processions.
Another more convincing hypothesis suggests that Siloés objective was not to take advantage of what Egas had done before him, but construct an entirely Renaissance space, a la Romana as it was known at the time. On the one hand, a five­naved basilica a simple rectangular box whose forms evoked the modest constructions of early Christianity, such as that found in the wooden built St. Peters basilica in the Vatican. On the other, a centralized circular space, a rotunda in the great Romana tradition especially used in commemorative buildings of a sepulchral character, from here the high altar would be created.
To sum up, along with the monarchs mausoleum, the emperor sought to construct another familial one more in keeping with the times, in which the main line of the monarchy could remain eternally linked in death. This would explain the mausoleums proximity to the ancient main gate of the Capilla Real and to the Puerta del Perdón which opens on to the other side. In this way, the transept becomes a type of commemorative passage­way from outside the Cathedral to the Capilla Real.