The sculptural decoration of the portal forms an iconographic program around the idea of baptism as an initiation rite to Christianity, in analogy with the act of entering the cathedral, leaving out the world of sin.
Responding to this general idea, the saints that appear on the jambs are from Seville or linked to Seville, considered precursors of Christianity in the city, pioneers of baptism as a way of initiation to the "true faith". They are placed in pairs following a somewhat complex order of precedence. The most important couple is made up of the saints Justa and Rufina, located on both sides, occupying the niches in the foreground, those closest to the viewer. Both were the first Sevillian saints, since their history is set in a time as remote as the 3rd century. In addition, they died martyred for not renouncing their faith.
The following in terms of relevance would be San Leandro and San Isidoro, who are placed in the spaces closest to the door. Both saints were bishops of the city between the 6th and 7th centuries, and they are probably the most outstanding figures of Hispanic Catholicism during the Visigoth kingdom. In third place are Saint Fulgencio and Saint Florentina, in the intermediate jambs, almost in profile and less visible from a frontal point of view. Their link with Seville was less than in the previous cases, although they appear on the cover following the iconographic trend of representing them together with Leandro and Isidoro, since they were all brothers, known as the Four Saints of Cartagena.
In accordance with the historical moment in which it was made, the sculptures that decorate the door are made in a final Gothic style in which the first glimpses of Renaissance art are beginning to be seen in the city. The two figures of prophets that appear at the beginning of the archivolt are the work of Pedro Millán, the first sculptor born in Seville that we know of. Both old men are holding some cartouches with their names on them, and they appear seated on the ground, showing the late Gothic features of Flemish influence characteristic of their author, such as the restrained expressions on their faces or the plasticity and profusion of folds in the clothing.
Although chronologically earlier, the six saints on the side jambs are stylistically closer to the Renaissance style. They were made in fired clay by the French-born sculptor Lorenzo Mercadante de Bretaña. The choice of this material was due to the fact that from very early on it was possible to verify how inappropriate the stone used for sculptural decoration was. Most of the cathedral is made of stone from the San Cristóbal hill in Puerto de Santa María. It is characterized by being quite porous and having little plasticity, which makes detailed work very difficult. It is for this reason that it was decided to use fired clay to complete the decoration of the portal.
In this way, Mercadante de Bretaña opted for this material, which will also be used in the sculptural decoration of the covers of San Miguel, Campanillas, Palos and El Perdón. The data that we have about the author is very limited and the most important works that we know of him are those related to the cathedral: the decoration of these two western portals and the previous creation of the magnificent sepulcher of Cardinal Cervantes, which is located in the chapel of San Hermenegildo.
In Mercadante's work one can see the first traits of Renaissance sculpture in Seville, such as greater naturalism, more concerned with the harmony of proportions. This can be seen in the figures of the saints Justa and Rufina, whose clothes have a fairly realistic treatment, creating forceful volumes, which distance them from the more decorative role that sculpture had during the Gothic, to bring them closer to a certain extent to monumentality. of classical statuary.
However, the Gothic features are still very present, as we can see in the rigidity of the positions or in the features of the face, with the characteristic contained and somewhat inexpressive smile, so common in the Gothic. In addition, his clothes have little to do with those of two ancient characters. They are more like the habits of contemporary nuns than those of any female character from Roman times. Apart from the Sevillian context, the only attributes that allow us to identify the figures as Justa and Rufina are the clay pots that appear at their feet.
But apart from their artistic value, the saints on the Baptism portal have the added value of being the first representations of Justa and Rufina that have been preserved in Seville. Both would later be profusely represented, not only in the cathedral and in churches in Seville, but also as part of the private collections of many Sevillians. And it is that the saints enjoyed a great devotion in the city from very early times, linked to the fact that they were Sevillian and also potters, a craft activity with an enormous presence in the city throughout its history.
According to tradition, based mainly on the story of Saint Isidoro, Justa and Rufina ran a stall for the sale of their clay containers at the end of the 3rd century, which is generally located in Triana, a neighborhood from which it is believed that they were natives. . It was a time when there were still very few Christians in Seville and the majority beliefs among the population were pagan, typical of Rome. Related to one of these cults, a procession was held with an image of Salammbo, to which the saints refused to worship or give donations, alleging that they were Christians and that they believed in one God. There was a struggle with the celebrants of the procession, who attacked the pottery stall and the saints, in response, knocked down the idol of Salammbo, which fell to the ground breaking and showing that it was also made of clay.
As a result of this they are imprisoned and subjected to all kinds of torture with the aim of making them abjure their faith, until finally both die martyred without renouncing Christ, despite the long list of hardships that according to the stories they had to go through.
The story of Justa and Rufina, with a clear edifying objective that is typical of the stories of martyrs, always permeated Sevillians, to the point that both are intimately linked to the main icon of the city, the Giralda. And it is that the most common way of representing them, in addition to the vessels and the palms of martyrdom, is on both sides of the tower of the cathedral of Seville, since from very early on the belief spread that the Giralda was kept standing thanks to the divine intervention of the potter sisters, who held it every time the city was shaken by an earthquake.
So the link between the saints and the Seville cathedral could not be closer and it is logical that we find its oldest representation in it. Obviously, the two sculptures of Mercadante de Bretaña are not the only representations of them that we find in the cathedral. To cite just a few examples, we can mention the painting by Hernando de Esturmio on the bench of the altarpiece in the chapel of the Evangelists, in which the author hints at his Dutch origin both in the features of the saints and in the characteristics of the landscape. It has the particularity that it was made before the Renaissance sections of the tower were built, so it is a beautiful testimony of how the Giralda was during the first centuries of Christian domination.
Much later, from 1817, is the canvas made by Goya for the Sacristy of the Chalices. It shows the saints wearing clothes that denote their popular origin and alters the traditional iconography, since it does not only represent the Giralda, but a diffuse profile of the entire cathedral that appears behind the sisters. It has the touching detail of a lion that licks Rufina's foot with the attitude of a puppy, recalling the episode in which she was confronted by a lion in the city's amphitheater and he only licked her clothes, according to traditional narration. . It seems that Goya used all means to satisfy the Cathedral Chapter with his work and visited the city several times to document himself. Perhaps that is why the faces of both figures show a clear influence of Murillo. is that, although it is not in the cathedral but in the Museum of Fine Arts, it is worth mentioning the Justa and Rufina made by Murillo around 1666. Probably the most famous and beautiful representation that has ever been made of this subject, a true masterpiece within the brilliant production of the author.
So the artistic theme of Justa and Rufina, which opens on the cover of the Baptism, will not only be widely distributed, but also of exceptional quality in the city. Seville has seen its patron saints represented by artists of the stature of Goya, Murillo or Velázquez himself, of whom an exquisite Santa Rufina is preserved in the Hospital de los Venerables, in the heart of the Santa Cruz neighbourhood.