Dibujo de la iglesia de San Juan de la Palma de Sevilla y del retablo cerámico de la Amargura

SAINT JOHN OF THE PALM CHURCH

The church of San Juan Bautista in Seville, generally known as San Juan de la Palma, is located at the beginning of the emblematic Calle Feria. It is one of the temples in the city that have a medieval origin and it is still possible to glimpse some of its Mudejar elements, although today it retains very little of its original appearance.

It is likely that it is located on the site of an old mosque and that during the first centuries of Christian domination the Islamic building continued to be used, adapted to the needs of the new cult. Although architecturally the church does not preserve any remains of that theoretical previous mosque, there are some indications that lead us to think that it actually existed.

The most notable is an inscription, in Arabic and Kufic script, dated around the year 1100, which was found in the church tower until the end of the 19th century and is now kept in the Archaeological Museum. It is a commemorative plaque that recalls the construction of the minaret of the mosque. Says so:

Basmala. Tasliyya. Ha ordenado la gran señora Umm Rasid Abu-l-Husayn Ubayd Allah, hijo de al-Mu´tamid `alá Allah, al-Mu`ayyad bi-nasri-llah, Abu-l-Qasim Muhammad b. ´Abbad (que Dios le ayude asistiéndole y apoyándole, e ilumine a ambos), la erección de este alminar en su mezquita (Dios le guarde), buscando una generosa recompensa. Se terminó, con la ayuda de Dios, bajo la dirección del visir y secretario Abu-l-Qasim b. Hayyay (Dios le favorezca) en el mes de sa`ban del 478. 

[OLIVA ALONSO, Diego; GÁLVEZ MÁRQUEZ, Eugenia; VALENCIA RODRÍGUEZ, Rafael. Fondos epigráficos del Museo Arqueológico de Sevilla. Al-Qantara. 1985, 6 (1-2), p. 451 pp. 462-463, nº 9, lám. V.]

In addition, in an archaeological excavation in the nearby Jerónimo Hernández street, some remains dated around the 11th century appeared and identified as part of a palace from the Taifa period, specifically it was proposed that it could be the mythical al-Mukarram, which is mentioned in the sources as one of the residences of King Al Mutamid.

So it is possible that the hypothetical mosque prior to San Juan de la Palma was linked to this palace and that this specific area was an environment of certain monumentality as a focus of power within the Muslim Isbiliya.

In any case, as we already said, nothing remains of that primitive mosque. The oldest remains that are preserved belong to the Mudejar church, which was built between the 14th and 15th centuries. Specifically, from that time the main portal is barely preserved, towards Calle Feria, the lower body of the tower and the vault of the sacramental chapel. The rest of the building corresponds to successive later modifications, especially in the Baroque period.

It has a floor plan of three naves, separated by five semicircular arches, which sit on brick pillars with a cruciform section. The roofs are made of wood, following the Mudejar model, with the exception of the head, which in addition to being somewhat elevated with respect to the rest of the temple, is covered with a Baroque dome on pendentives. Both the pilasters and the walls of the naves are covered by a base of tiles from Triana, now contemporary. It has three chapels that stand out from the rest of the building, two of which, annexed to each other forming the Sacramental Chapel, are located on the side of the Gospel nave, one of them preserving the original Mudejar vault, although quite modified. The other chapel is dedicated to San José and is located at the head of this same nave.

It has two covers. The main one, at the foot, overlooks Calle Feria and we know the date on which it was commissioned, 1420. It is a Gothic door, ogival and flared. It presents sculptural decoration on the running capitals of the baquetones, with the figures of two lions in the part of the imposts closest to the entrances. The figure of the lion appears repeated in the corbels that support the cornice of the facade. On each side of the entrance arch we find a multi-lobed niche with Mudejar reminiscences, both framed by Gothic canopies. In the center of the façade, above the key, a third niche, this time in the shape of a semicircular. All of them currently empty. On both sides of the entrance, the upper half of the façade is run by adjoining columns, profusely decorated and resting on the heads of animals, one on that of a lion and the other on that of a bull.

The side portal, towards San Juan de la Palma street, is much later, in a baroque style very close to neoclassicism. It has an upper body in the form of a belfry, which serves to house a ceramic panel in which a biblical quote to the figure of the head of the church can be read in Latin. Specific:

NON SURREXIT INTER NATOS MULIERUN MAIOR IOANNE BAPTISTA. MATH XI 11.

(No one greater than John the Baptist has arisen from among those born of women. Mt 11 11)

The church was burned in the events of July 1936, when it lost a large part of the decoration and the belongings that it was hoarding. The main altarpiece, for example, is a rococo work from the 18th century, but it was transferred and adapted here from the church of San Felipe de Carmona, already in 1959. Its central niche houses the image of the Virgen de la Amargura accompanied by San Juan Evangelista, both works by Benito de Hita and Castillo from the second half of the 18th century, although the face of the Virgin is older, probably from the beginning of the same century, and by an anonymous author.

On both sides there are two images of the Child Jesus and Saint John the Baptist, also as a child. Both are high quality images, especially the first, a 1644 work by Francisco Dionisio Ribas, while the second is attributed to his workshop. In the atrium of the altarpiece there is again an image of the Baptist, from the 18th century, this time already represented in adulthood and with his classical attributes.

The church has an important number of valuable artistic works, especially baroque, both sculptural and pictorial. Among them, we can highlight a beautiful anonymous Immaculate Conception from the 18th century, which presides over an altarpiece in the Sacramental Chapel. It has the peculiarity of being originally a high relief, being later modified as a round sculpture.

Another image that we could highlight is that of Nuestro Padre Jesús del Silencio, who presides over the main altar of the same chapel. It is a work attributed to Pedro Roldán from the late seventeenth century and is co-owner of the Brotherhood of Bitterness.

This Brotherhood is one of the most emblematic of Seville and has its headquarters in this church since 1724, being founded in 1696 in San Julián. Some of the ceramic altarpieces that decorate the exterior of San Juan de la Palma make reference to it. Specifically, the one located on Calle Feria, dedicated to Our Father Jesús del Silencio, is the work of Alfonso Orce Villar and was placed in 1996 in commemoration of the third centenary of the presence of the brotherhood in the temple. In the direction of Calle Regina there is another beautiful ceramic altarpiece, under a strong roof tile. In this case, the Virgin of Bitterness appears accompanied by Saint John, a work by Manuel de la Lastra y Liendo from 1918.

To finish this brief review, it seems essential to us to refer to the name by which the temple is generally called. If the church is dedicated to San Juan Bautista, why does everyone know it as San Juan de la Palma. The answer is given by Diego Ortiz de Zúñiga, a seventeenth-century Sevillian historian, who in his Annals on the City tells us that this name comes from a palm tree that was next to it.

Our author goes deeper and includes the narration of a miracle, which happened around this palm, which would support its inclusion in the name of the church. The historical setting for the event would be that of the times of the Counter-Reformation, when both the Catholic hierarchy and the Monarchy were very determined to stifle any focus of Protestantism, heresy or deviation from the official canon.

Apparently, in this environment of religious persecution, a person of different ideas dared to proclaim in front of the aforementioned palm that Mary had not remained a virgin after giving birth, thus contravening the official dogma of the Church. It turns out that this palm tree next to the church was at the time in the middle of the cemetery that surrounded the temple at that time.

Although the protagonist of the story believed himself absolutely alone in that cemetery when he gave his opinion about the Virgin, the next day an old man appeared before the authorities of the Inquisition to denounce him.

The agents of the Court later went to the address that the complainant had given as his address, but only found a young man living there. From the descriptions, the boy realized that the accuser was his grandfather, despite the fact that he had died years ago, finding his remains buried at the foot of the San Juan palm tree.

The conclusion they drew was that this man rose from the dead and went to report to the Inquisition the affront that had occurred on the honor of the Virgin Mary. Faced with the evidence of the miracle, the accused had no choice but to acknowledge the facts, which did not save him from being convicted and executed as a heretic.

Ortiz de Zúñiga himself narrates it like this:

En el cimenterio desta Iglesia, á donde al presente esta la Cruz, antiguamente estaba una palma, al pie de la qual están enterradas muchas personas que en años de pestes se han sepultado allí, donde pasó el milagro siguiente: En años pasados quando hubo en Sevilla muchos hereges, predicó en esta Iglesia un Frayle de la Orden de San Francisco , ei qual dixo que nadie delinquiese contra la Fe, porque las paredes tenían ojos y oidos i la noche siguiente en punto de las doce un Herege que oyó este sermon , haciendo burla de lo que el Predicador había dicho , se llegó á la palma y le dixo: Palma, la Madre de Dios no quedó virgen despues del parto. Otro día por la mañana fué á la Inquisición un hombre anciano, y denuncio contra este Herege, el qual Herege prendieron los Señores Inquisidores, y le tomáron su confesion, y negó: envío la Inquisición en casa del denunciador para que se ratificase, y yendo á buscarlo á su casa dixo un nieto del denunciador, que ese hombre que buscaban había ochenta años que era muerto, y que estaba sepultado al pie de la palma del cementerio de San Juan  con lo qual volvieron á la Inquisición, y dixeron ai Herege lo que pasaba, el qual dixo que era verdad, y que Dios habia permitido que aquel muerto se levantase porque castigaran su pecado, y los Señores lo penitenciáron; Este milagro está escrito en la Santa Inquisición de esta Ciudad.

 

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