Antequera – Historical Insight
Antequera’s long history began some 4,500 years ago with the settlement of the Megalithic people. This resulted in the creation of Antequera’s famous Dolmens (ancient tombs), of which there are three, on the outskirts of the town. They were built between 2500 and 1800 BC and are one of the most important dolmen groups in Europe. The difficulty of building these ancient mausoleums, using enormous stones quarried some distance away, implies a well structured society, with strong leadership and a deeprooted religious commitment, plus an admirable grasp of architecture for the period. One of the roof stones alone, in the Menga dolmen, the oldest, is calculated to weigh 200 tons. The Viera dolmen – named after two brothers, gardeners, who discovered it in 1905, and El Romal dolmen – also discovered by the Viera brothers in the same year – are slightly younger than Menga, and show signs of technical evolution. Amazingly, these important monuments are currently free of charge for tourists to visit.
Antequera has seen Roman ownership, and of course was latterly governed by the Moors, responsible for the creation of the Alcazaba which dominates the town from it’s position alongside the barrio (district) of San Juan. Antequera was one of the last towns to fall (the last was the city of Granada) to the Christian crusade. The museum, in the town centre, contains relics to these periods. Antequera’s ‘Golden Age’ was during the 16th – 18th centuries, when many of the significant buildings came to be.
The Arco de los Gigantes (arch of the giants), which is situated near the Royal Collegiate Church of Santa María la Mayor, was built in the late 16th century to replace a Moorish gate, as an artistic symbol of the Roman past of Antequera and the surrounding region, and was adorned with sculptures, plaques, and other Roman remains. The Romans formerly named the town (then a city) Antikaria, and there is now a 3 star hotel and one or two private businesses still carrying that name in their logos. The arch is a fine example of Renaissance thinking, although now all that remains of the ornamentation is a sculptured jar of lillies, a lion, and a tower, emblems of the then city. The Arch has a two meter thick wall, and is seven meters in height.
Some two hundred meters from Arco de los Gigantes stands the ornamental Royal Collegiate Church of Santa María la Mayor, overlooking important Roman ruins. The church construction began in the first half of the 16th century (1514), a prosperous period for Antequera, when the town began to expand beyond the former Moorish walls, and when many of the churches, convents, and palacios were constructed. Formerly a bustling, largely military town, Antequera evolved into a cultivated and cosmopolitan city attracting artists and craftsmen flocking to enjoy employment on the many works in progress. This flourishing economic period continued through the 17th and 18th centuries. The architect of the Royal Collegiate, Alonso Cano, is considered to have carried his design of this inspirational building to his design of Granada Cathedral. One of his inspirations was to move from the prevailing Gothic style to Renaissance, although Gothic influences are evident forming a combination of both approaches.
Alongside the Collegiate stands the Alcazaba, the Moorish fortress which was of great strategic and military importance. The Alcazaba is dated to the end of the Moorish period in the 13th century, when the Islamic world began to come under pressure from Christian Spain. Under Christian invasion the Alcazaba stood firm until September 16th 1410. A bitter five month long siege had been laid by Infante Don Ferdinand (whose name is now born by the main street in Antequera: Calle Don Infante), later known as Ferdinand of Antequera after his conquering of the city. In order to suceed in this great siege he had to raise an enormous army for the standards of the day of 15,000 men, as Moorish troops had come in reinforcement from Malaga and Granada to help defend Antequera. Both sides were aware of it’s strategic importance in the overall battle for the then Kingdom of Granada.
The Alcazaba looks down on Calle Don Infante, which today features many banks, shops, and cafés. At the south end of Infante lies the Plaza San Sebastián, with it’s central fountain and the famous Collegiate Church of San Sebastián. The collegiate institution was transferred here from the Collegiate in plaza Santa María in the late 17th century. Building on the church began in the mid 16th century, and it was not completed until the 18th century, resulting in a combination of artistic styles. The front of the church was built by architect Diego de Vergara in Renaissance style. The tower was later constructed by architect Andrés Burgueño following the Baroque-Mudejar style with skilful interlacing of brickwork overlaid with pilasters and cornices. The spire is glazed ceramic making for a unique and splendid tower crowned by a distinctive weathercock. Most of the interior was rebuilt in the 18th century in a mostly neo-classical style, notably in the dome and high chapel. Particular features of the interior are the high enclosed wood choir stalls, two baroque organs, fine sculptures and paintings. Calle Don Infante runs into Calle Estepa and onto Calle Almeda at the end of which lies a recently renovated triple arch (Estepa gate), the lovely rectangular sanded walkway, the Paseo Real, and adjacent, forming a distinct landmark, the Plaza del Torro (bullring) which was inaugurated in the mid 19th century. Built of brick and masonry, the building has an external diameter of 80 meters and the internal ring 56 meters. There is an interesting museum within the walls with costumes, stuffed bulls heads, and much bullfighting parafenalia. There is now a restaurant within the building (oxtail strongly features!).
In between the Plaza del Torro and Plaza San Sebastian stands the imposing hall and offices of the Ayuntamiento (the town council). It was originally a Convent, with a fine cloister and main staircase. The exterior is neo-baroque style, dating from the mid 20th century. The building underwent extensive renovation during the latter years of the 20th century and early 21st century. Today concerts can be enjoyed in the internal open courtyard.
All the churches, convents, and noble palacios in Antequera have their own character and distintive features.
The Church of El Carmen for instance, built in the late 16th century, and one of the most important monuments in Antequera, is distinct for it’s huge intricately carved wood alterpiece, an outstanding example of Antequeran baroque art. There are several independent side chapels, all intricately decorated including sculptures and paintings, and one in particular has a donated 15th century polychrome image of the Virgin of Succour.
The City Museum is housed in the Palace of Nájera, built in the 18th century in baroque style. It was extended in the first decade of 2000. It’s look out tower features imaginatively laid half brick, (also a feature of the internal balcony facades), attractive arching and roof cornicing. The museum within contains an open air courtyard (recently a forum for organised poetry readings and musical events), and three rooms containing some archaeological collections, amongst which are some Visigoth remains and items from the Roman period. In the Arco de los Gigantes room there are tablets, epigraphs and inscriptions discovered in Roman villas in Antequera and the surrounding area.The Ephebus Antechamber contains a white marble bust dating to the 1st century representing an important aristocrat of the time: Drusus. A bronze sculpture, The Antequera Ephebus, is likely the most important finding for the museum, often referred to as the finest 1st century Roman bronze and the most beautiful piece ever unearthed on the Iberian Peninsula.
The museum contains many other items of interest, including a carving of Saint Francis of Assisi produced by 17th century sculptor Pedro de Mena. There are collections of 17th century paintings, notably by Antonio Mohedano, and Atanasia Bocanegra, collections of precious metalwork, a series of artworks relating to the important Easter processions, and other items of religious devotion.
The 17th century Convent of Belén, in the street of the same name, is known for the stunning plasterwork decoration in the domed ceiling. The Convent of La Trinidad, also built in the 17th century in Herreran style, features a recently restored high altarpiece and the aisles an 18th century image of La Dolorosa.
The Church of los Remedios – 17th century – joins the Town Hall on the Calle Don Infante, and contains a magnificently intricate grand altarpiece. It also has a beautiful belfry, and a ground plan in the form of a Latin cross. Today flamenco renditions can be heard here on occasions, and it is a common venue for communions and weddings.
The plain exterior of the 16th century Church of San Juan, beneath the Alcazaba in the barrio (district) of it’s name, belies an interior which offers a fine combination of Renaissance ad Mudejar art, plus several interesting paintings and sculptures.
The cute looking Chapel-Tribune of the Virgen del Socorro, with it’s distinctive intricate brick laid facade and open fresco on it’s balcony, has a key role in Antequera’s Holy Week celebrations. It is situated in the Plaza del Portichuelo, close to the Alcazaba, and dates from the 18th century – an important monument for Antequera.
Most of the noble palacios were built between the 16th and 18th centuries, and include those of Los Pardo, Los Ramírez, Colchado, Pinofiel, Palace of Villadarias, with their wonderful internal courtyards. In the early 20th century the Cine Torcal (Art Deco style) and Caja de Ahorros de Antequera savings bank were constructed, both with a distinctive architectural character. The Cine Torcal is now a venue for classical music, theatre, and flamenco concerts.
This brief historical insight is precisely that. Just a brief glimpse into the cultural richness of Antequera. To appreciate in full the substance of this relatively unknown (by foreigners) and wonderful town, one has to visit. You will discover a place commonly deemed the ‘Jewel of Andalusia’.