The “Gothic” Statues Of Plaza Oriente

In front of Madrid´s royal palace are two parallel rows of toga-attired statues adorning the Plaza de Oriente and to whom are they dedicated?

They are known as the Gothic Kings.

The statues are part of a series dedicated to all the monarchs of pre-unified Spain when the peninsular was divided into many different kingdoms, starting in 409 AD and up to the time of the final fall of the last Moorish Caliphate of Granada in Spain in 1492 AD.

BUT to understand who the Gothic Kings of Spain are and where they come from we have to go back into the annals of history, beginning with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

By 409 AD the Visigoths, Germanic tribes from northern Europe, had swept through Europe, sacking Rome and filling the vacuum of ‘Hispania’ left by the Romans.  This ‘Kingdom of the Visigoths’ ran from the 5th to the 8th century and extended over all of the Iberian Peninsula.

The Visigoths were converted to Christianity in 589 AD which gave birth to the Catholic Kings of Spain who endured throughout the period of occupation by the Moors.

This Moorish occupation of Spain lasted for over 700 years from 711 AD to 1492 AD, although never conquering the catholic Kingdoms of northern Spain.  For the first 375 years, the Moors occupied approximately two thirds of Spain, the next 160 years saw that occupation reduced to half and for the final 246 years only the few southern Provinces of Al-Andalucía remained.

The gradual reconquest of Spain by the catholic Kings was spread over several centuries with legendary hero ‘El Cid’ (famously played by Charlton Heston in the film of the same name) aiding in the final expulsion of the Moors in the defeat of Granada in 1492.

It was the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castilla in 1469 that marked the unification of Spain and a single monarchy of the line of Spanish Kings to this day.

SO therein lies the story of the why and who are the statues of the ‘Gothic’ Kings of Spain, but who built them and why in the Plaza de Oriente?

We start with the Royal Palace of Madrid (Palacio Real de Madrid), the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family.

The palace is located on the site of a 9th-century Alcázar, a Muslim-era fortress built in the town of Magerit, as Madrid was then known.  King Felipe V ordered a new palace be built on the same site with construction spanning the years 1738 to 1755.  King Carlos III first occupied the new palace in 1764.

The design of the Palace was to include adorning the roof parapet with rows of ‘Gothic’ Kings.  A total of 96 were ordered, carved and sculpted out of limestone between 1750-1753.  However, the architect had fears and reservations that the weight of all the statutes could compromise the Palace structure.    Although a few statutes were placed on the roof, the reservations were emphasised by the later Queen Isabella II and the bulk of the statues were put into storage for later use.

Juan Bautista Saschetti, who designed the Royal Palace, had plans to build a large square and gardens to the east front of the Palace to enhance and open up the views– the future Plaza de Oriente.

Construction, however, did not begin until 1808 where it was left to Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother and King of Spain from 1808 to 1813. He ordered the demolition of approximately 60 medieval structures including a church and monastery and Royal library.   Joseph was deposed before construction was completed and it was later finished by Queen Isabella II  in 1844, who brought the statues out of storage.

The gardens of the Plaza de Oriente include a sculptural collection of twenty Spanish kings, corresponding to five Visigoths and fifteen monarchs of the first Christian kingdoms of the Reconquest. These statues are distributed in two rows, which cross the site in an east-west direction, on both sides of the central gardens.

The remaining statutes were distributed throughout the City including the Sabatini gardens next to the Royal Palace and the Retiro Park (Parque del Retiro). Several other statutes were distributed among various cities in Spain.

In a city that never sleeps where hustle and bustle is an integral part of everyday life, Plaza de Oriente is a haven of peace and tranquillity. The landscaped gardens are enclosed in a kind of semi-circular design. It’s a leafy area with plants and trees beside broad walkways and, together with the lines of Gothic Kings has, taking centre stage, a huge statue of Felipe IV astride a horse that was modelled from an art piece by Velázquez. It stands on a large pedestal and is indeed a striking sculpture.

Barry Haslam-Walker FRICS

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