Santa Maria del Mar is a rare case of a Gothic church entirely built during a short period of time spanning 53 years. Moreover, the building has not experienced any significant architectural alteration after its construction, resulting in the uniformity and architectural purity for which the building is today acknowledged. The overall arrangement of the structure is very similar to that of Barcelona Cathedral, built during 13th and 14th c., and consists of a three nave structure built on a basilical plan.
In Barcelona Cathedral, the wish for a unitary and diaphanous inner space, reminiscent of that of Roman basilicas, laid to an innovative design. The central vaults were built with longer span in both the transverse and longitudinal directions (12 and 8 m), compared to other contemporary buildings, and were supported in surprisingly slender piers; the lateral vaults spanned as much as one half of the central ones and were built at a height close to that of the central ones; the external walls were built along the external perimeter of the buttresses and these were used as partition walls between lateral chapels. In the case of Barcelona Cathedral, this combination contributed successfully to create the impression of a unique and wide, even magnificent interior space in spite of the limited dimensions of the building. As mentioned, the lateral vaults are almost as high (but not so high) as the central ones; in fact, they are adequately positioned to receive the lateral thrust of the central vaults and carry it to the buttresses, so that structural flying arches are not needed.
Santa Maria del Mar is the only other Gothic construction having been built according to this structural arrangement. Other Gothic cathedrals have low aisles (as in French Gothic) or have them as high as the central nave (as in German late Gothic churches). Furthermore, the builders succeed in improving the possibilities of the concept in terms of structural economy, unity, diaphanousness and aesthetics, the latter soundly emanating from the geometrical proportions. This was attained by designing the central vaults as almost perfectly square in plan, by giving them some extra height (up to 32 m) and by supporting them on austere but extremely slender octagonal piers (Fig. 1, above). The resulting construction includes four large vaults, spanning 13.5 m in both directions, supported on 8 piers with circumscribed diameter of 1.6 m. As in Barcelona Cathedral, the span of the lateral vaults
is half of that of the central ones, while the buttresses are used to separate the lateral chapels. The building is completed with the choir and the façade, whose structure conforms to the uniform arrangement given to the perimeter of the naves. In particular, the façade is built with two large buttresses which are, in fact, needed to counteract the longitudinal thrust produced by the first square vault.
As opposite to Santa Maria del Mar, Mallorca Cathedral was built over a large period, spanning for 300 years (from 1306 to 1600), and was later subjected to significant repairs and reconstructions. To some extent, the structural design of Mallorca Cathedral seems inspired by Santa Maria del Mar and shares with it major features, such as the search for spaciousness, the high lateral naves (although not so high as to take the role of flying arches), the lateral chapels between buttresses and the extremely slender, solid octagonal piers. However, and because of the large dimensions intended to the nave, the builders also resourced to structural devices commonly used in large Gothic buildings, such as the double battery of true flying arches spanning over the aisles. In a way,
the builders managed to synthesize Northern and Southern Gothic architecture to produce a uniquely vast and diaphanous inner space.
The central nave spans 19.9 m and reaches 43.9 m at the vaults' keystone. The octagonal piers have a circumscribed diameter of 1.6 or 1.7 m and a height of 22.7 m to the springing of the lateral vaults.
Other shared features are the diaphragmatic transverse arches in the central naves and the dead weight laid over the transverse arches and central vault keystones. In Mallorca Cathedral, the latter become particularly conspicuous (Fig. 3). Both constructions were originally built with no pitched roof, rain water being channeled to the gargoyles by a tile pavement shaped over the vaults.
The filling over the vaults, however, is different in the two buildings. In Santa Maria del Mar, the central vault is partly filled with medieval concrete and then with a shallow layer of ceramic pottery (Fig. 4), while the central vaults are filled with medieval concrete up to the tile pavement. In Mallorca, a lightweight pottery fill was probably removed from the central vaults during 18th c., while the lateral vaults are still filled with pottery. It is remarkable that these differences are consistent with the distinct structural role of the lateral vaults in each case. In Santa Maria del Mar, the extra weight provided by the full concrete filling is needed
to adequately counteract the horizontal thrust of the central nave.
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