The church of Santa María la Blanca, in the San Bartolomé neighbourhood, is a precious jewel of Sevillian Baroque. It is known that a mosque was built in this same place during the Islamic period and some authors have pointed out that this mosque could have been built on top of a previous Christian church from the Visigothic period. The columns that today frame the small side doorway of the church on Calle Archeros come from this primitive Visigothic temple, although this possibility has not been archaeologically verified.
What is known with certainty is that the mosque was transformed into a synagogue after the Christian conquest of the city. By order of Alfonso X, a Jewish quarter was established in this area of the city, which approximately occupied the area of the current neighborhoods of Santa Cruz and San Bartolomé. In Santa María Blanca one of the three or four main synagogues of the Jewish quarter would be found.
For a long time it was thought that the current temple was completely built in the 17th century, without conserving anything from the previous building. However, various archaeological and restoration work on the building in recent decades have refuted this claim. Apparently, although the baroque reform of which we have spoken completely masked any decorative aspect of the primitive temple, the truth is that the floor plan of the current church and that of the synagogue on which it stands coincide in essentials. And apparently a good part of the walls and arches of the current church also correspond to the primitive work, although their aesthetics were intensely altered by the Baroque reform. This is how the architect Óscar Gil Delgado explains it in “A unveiled synagogue in Seville: architectural study” (2011):
“These prescriptions clearly imply that the walls of the naves of the church were not demolished and that, for this reason, the Mudejar blind arches are found today in the coronation of said walls. No new arches were turned over the new "red jasper" columns, the arches of the central nave were simply lowered, the old columns, which had no stylistic relationship with the new work, were removed and the new ones were placed. Surely the arches of the nave are the same as those of the "Mudejar" synagogue, trimmed, rounded and covered with plaster mouldings, according to the new taste”.
The synagogue would be transformed into a Christian church at the end of the 14th century, after the violent assault on the Jewish quarter in 1391. It would be at this time that the Gothic doorway would be added, which is still accessed today. However, the church that has come down to us responds mostly to the project for its remodeling promoted by Canon Justino de Neve. The works began in 1662 under the direction of Pedro Sánchez Falconete, who undertook the complete remodeling of which resulted in the baroque temple that we can see today.
It is a church with three naves divided by ten Tuscan columns that support semicircular arches. It is accessed through a tower entrance that opens at the foot of the central nave and has a rectangular floor plan. This is altered by a protruding front, in which the main altar is located, and by three side chapels: the baptismal one at the foot of the temple, the sacramental one on the epistle side, and that of San Juan Nepomuceno on the of the gospel of the head.
The main façade of the church is occupied on its first level by a Gothic portal, with the classic characteristics that this type presents in Sevillian churches: archivolts and diamond-tipped decoration. On this body, you can read the Latin inscription "HAC EST DOMUS DEI ET PORTA COELI 1741" (This is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven). The year 1741 refers to the date of certain minor reforms undertaken in the church, when the façade was also embellished and the inscription was added.
On this first level, in a second body, there are two long windows topped by semicircular arches. Above them is a classic belfry with two levels and behind openings for the bells.
The church has a much simpler front facing Archeros street. It is a simple semicircular arch supported by two stone columns with Late Antique capitals, clearly carried and probably used successively in the preceding mosque and synagogue.
Inside, what most attracts our attention is its intense decorative program, in which every last corner is covered with a combination of plasterwork, painting and sculpture, until configuring a space that as a whole appears as the clearest definition of the famous "horror vacui" of the baroque.
Justino de Neve entrusted the pictorial decoration to Murillo himself and the elaboration of the plasterwork to the brothers Pedro and Borja Roldán. The work begins shortly after the Pontifical Brief of Alexander VII of 1661 was promulgated, in which the devotion and cult of the Immaculate Conception was reaffirmed.
In this way, the iconographic program is as a whole an exaltation of the Eucharist and the Immaculate Virgin, as can be seen as soon as you enter the arch that supports the choir, where it reads Without original sin in the first moment of its being. . Murillo intervened with the realization of five canvases, of which only the oldest, "La Santa Cena", is preserved in the church. The others came to complete the iconographic program we have been talking about, with the "Immaculate Conception", "The Triumph of Faith" and two canvases that narrated the history of the foundation in Rome of the basilica of Santa María de las Nieves, a dedication to which is also dedicated to our church.
Today magnificent copies of the originals can be seen in situ, which unfortunately were the object of the savage looting suffered by the city with the arrival of Napoleonic troops in 1810. Among the stolen works were the four that he stole from Santa María la Blanca . Most of what was looted never returned to the city and is now scattered in museums around the world.
The main altarpiece of the church is Baroque and dates back to around 1690. Its main architectural element is two large Solomonic columns, so characteristic of the Sevillian altarpieces of the 17th century. In the central niche is the titular image of the temple, Nuestra Señora de las Nieves, a dress image made by Juan de Astorga at the beginning of the 19th century.
At the lateral ends, the eighteenth-century carvings of Saints Justa and Rufina, patron saints of the city, are located on corbels. In the center of the attic there is another niche that currently houses a rich golden cross, at the foot of which you can see a representation of the Giralda.
At the head of the right hand side we find a Baroque altarpiece from the mid-18th century presided over by the image of "San Pedro en la Cátedra". We see the saint with all the attributes that identify him as the first pontiff of the Church, framed by two child angels holding two of his attributes: the patriarchal cross of the popes and the keys of the Church.
On the wall on this same right side there is a neoclassical altarpiece from the 19th century, presided over by an imposing ensemble of the Trinity. It is the work of the Valencian-born sculptor Blas Molner. On the bench is an interesting small-format Pietà dating from the 18th century.
Also on the right is the sacramental chapel, presided over by an 18th century altarpiece that generally has an image of Saint Joseph from the 17th century in its central niche. On both sides and on a smaller scale, we find the images of Santa Ana and San Joaquin. The altarpiece bench houses a touching "Nativity Scene" made in terracotta, attributed to Cristóbal Ramos.
In the same chapel there is an altarpiece made up of pieces from a previous retable that had been readapted. It houses the images that originally belonged to the old brotherhood of the Sacred Lavatory, which disappeared in 1672 when it merged with the Sacramental of this church. In the center, the Cristo del Mandato, a work in pulp wood, made by Diego García de Santa Ana at the end of the 16th century. On both sides, Nuestra Señora del Pópulo and San Juan, both anonymous images from the 17th century.
In the center of the wall of the left nave (or of the Gospel) we find a valuable original altarpiece from the 16th century, although quite reformed in the 18th century. It frames a large canvas with the representation of "La Piedad", although it has also been identified at times as a "Descent". It is one of the most outstanding artistic pieces in the church, the last known work of Luis de Vargas, one of the most outstanding painters of the Renaissance in Seville. It is dated 1564 and the altarpiece is framed by paintings of San Juan Bautista and San Francisco, also works by Luis de Vargas. At the foot of the altarpiece you can see the tombstone of the family that financed it.
On the same wall is the only work by Murillo that has been preserved in the church: "La Santa Cena", dated 1650. It is possible that the French did not take it away because the truth is that the work is quite far from the traditional painter's style. Here Murillo uses a powerful chiaroscuro, which makes the canvas a tenebrist painting, with the light of the candles as the only illumination on the faces.
On the same wall we find another altarpiece with a modern Sacred Heart and at the bottom of this Gospel nave there is a small chapel behind a grill. In it there is a Baroque altarpiece from the 17th century, with a central image of San Juan Nepomuceno from the same period. On the walls of the chapel there is an interesting "Ecce Homo" from the 16th century, made by an anonymous follower of Luis de Morales. In front of him, an "Annunciation" by Domingo Martínez from the first third of the 18th century.