The Cathedral of Barcelona presents fewer such epiphanies. It is an altogether gloomier building than Santa Maria del Mar; despite its undeniable grandeur, it seems heavier, more blackened , more cluttered. But this clutter contains sublime things, the impacted accumulation of hundreds of years of artistic energy in the service of devotion: if you look past the heavy glitter and foliation of the gold leaf in its chapels, at the altarpieces they frame, it soon becomes clear that the Cathedral possesses the richest conspectus of High Gothic Catalan painting - apart from the collection of the Museum of Catalan Art up on Montjuic - in Barcelona. The building is the record of 1,500 years of continuous worship and construction, from the first Christian basilica (built on the heart of the Roman forum, probably in the fourth century, and dedicated to the cult of Saint Severus, a bishop martyred by the Romans in Trajan's time) through to the late nineteenth-century facade, designed by the architects Josep Oriol i Mestres and August Font in a spirit of highly pedantic, Viollet-de-Duc-style revival, based on drawings made in 1408 in Rouen by a French architect named Mestre Carlí (Charles Galtés). This facade, being essentially northern French rather than Catalan, is so predominantly vertical in its lines that it seems out of kilter with the rest of the Barri Gòtic. But it is certainly better than the absurd idea, mooted during the constitutionalist enthusiasms of 1820, of imposing on the Cathedral a neo-classical facade inscribed with texts from the Constitution and the Civil Code.
Christianity competed with the official religion of the Roman state for close to two hundred years, and the last wave of Roman persecution, launched by emperor Diocletian around 300 produced Barcelona's female patron saint and official martyr: the Christian virgin Saint Eulalia, done to death with fire, pincers, hooks, and a crucifix by a Roman procurator.
Her remains were buried and venerated on the site of Santa Maria del Mar until the late fourteenth century, when they were moved to another shrine where the Cathedral , dedicated to her cult, now stands. There is, nevertheless, some doubt about her existence; she may simply be a fictional clone of another Spanish saint, Eulalia of Mérida (naturally, some Catalan priests held that if there was any cloning done, it went the other way). And it is fairly certain that other things associated with her - the sites of her family house in Sarrià, her martyrdom on the Baixada de Santa Eulàlia and crucifixion on the Plaça del Pedró, and the story that her dry heart, as it was being carried from Santa Maria del Mar to the Cathedral shrine, miraculously became so heavy that its bearers were obliged to set it down and pray - are, to put it no more harshly, apocryphal. Nor do modern hagiographers accept the common seventeenth-century view that she was the daughter of two other martyrs, Saint Philet and Saint Leda. The trouble with early persecutions is that they overload the canon. Fortunately, not long after the time of Eulàlia's death (if she lived) an edict arrived from the emperor Constantine in A.D. 312 making Christianity the offical religion of the empire, thus drying up what might otherwise have become a surplus of Catalan martyrs. The politically correct may note that Barcelona was not content with making a woman its first major saint. Its second, Saint Cugat, came from Africa and was probably black.
One's favourite part of the Cathedral is its cloister, a cool reflective space with its goose pond and fountain, which is the most delicious public haven in the Barri Gòtic. The cloister is tied closely into the folk life and work life of Barcelona. The worn tomb slabs in its floor commemorate dead guild masters, as well as odd figures such as Monsignor Borra, the court jester of Alfons IV (the Magnanimous) . It has a fountain, with a battered stone figure of Saint George almost unrecognizable under a green mantle of algae and cresses; it was once the custom to put an empty eggshell on its water jet during the Feast of Corpus Christi so that it danced up and down, but the symbolism of l'ou com balla (as it has long been called) is now lost. The cloister's chapels are closed with fine screens and gates of forged iron that date back to thee fourteenth century. One of them is dedicated to the patron saint of electricians, and it seems that the cloister has also enjoyed the protection of whichever saint attends to plumbing: it has a working public urinal, which is almost a miracle, given the usual absence of such amenities in Spanish churches.
Barcelona did not become the capital of Catalunya, because there was no single control over the comarques until Guifré the Hairy came along and rolled them all together. Once he had done so, and moved to Barcelona, the little city promptly and automatically became the administrative capital. It has remained so ever since.
Guifré comes down to us swathed in apocryphal deeds. He is as much a legend in Barcelona as are Romulus and Remus in Rome, and the known facts of his life are a good deal fewer than the legends that encrust it. The most famous of these is his role in the invention of the Catalan flag - the four crimson stripes on a gold field. The story goes that Guifré, fighting for Loius the Pious in his siege of Barcelona, was badly wounded by the Saracens. As he lay in his tent after the victory, the king came to visit him and noticed Guifré's shield, cover in gold leaf but without a blazon. What device could the king give his warrior? Louis dipped his fingers in Guifré's blood and dragged them down the shield, a gesture celebrated endlessly by Catalanist poets and occasionally by history painters. Obviously this stirring story cannot be true, since Louis died before Guifré was born, and Barcelona was conquered long before that. However, in terms of heraldry, politics, and myth, the idea of Catalan independence begins with Guifré el Pelós.
He was a hero born of heroes, And indeed, he sometimes got confused with his father; the two are apt to merge, in art if not in history. If you walk down the Career dels Comtes along the flank of the Cathedral, you will come to the portal of Sant Iu (Saint Ives). High on the left, it has two late fourteenth-century carvings, each depicting a fight between an armed warrior and draw, or dragon. One is in "modern" armour, chain mail. He carries a sword, and his child is emblazoned with a cross. He is Saint george, the patron saint of Catalunya. But the other figure is archaic. He has no armour, only a pair of trews. His naked chest and legs are covered with a rippling pelt of hair. His weapon is not a sword, but a long wooden club. Who is this wild man, whose presence on the doorway invites the faithful to compare him with Saint George himself? None other than Hairy Willy, the primal count and political creator of Catalunya. Or perhaps (since the legends tended to shift, depending on who was telling them) it is Guifré's equally hairy father.
When the Cathedral was being built, its clergy wanted to illustrate a founding legend of their country: the supposed battle between Guifré's father (or Guifré himself, in some versions; the confusion is made worse by a tendency to call the father Guifré as well) and a dragon, which the Saracens had left in Catalunya. In this way Guifré's line takes on the heroic and saintly aura of Saint George.