Situated in the heart of the Old Havana and dominating the popular Cathedral Square is one of Havana’s most photographed historic landmarks: Havana Cathedral. The building was constructed between 1748 and 1777, and has enchanted the city ever since. The seminal Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier once described its appearance as ‘music set in stone,’ and if those stones could talk, they would certainly have plenty of stories to tell. Here are ten fun facts to fill you in on this magnificent place.
1) It was built on land that was once a swamp
The original name of the area where the cathedral was built was called ‘Plaza de La Ciénaga’, meaning ‘Swamp Plaza’. This eludes to the fact that this neighbourhood was once marshland until it was drained in the 17th century and reclaimed for construction. When building work started on Havana Cathedral in 1748 it was on the site of a previous church. By that time the area had come into use as a naval dockyard.
2) It was not initially intended to be a cathedral
When one thinks of a cathedral, majestic structures might spring to mind. First time visitors to Havana Cathedral are often surprised by how small it is, although this does seem to give it an understated charm. The reason for its restrained size is that it was not initially intended to be a cathedral. Construction began in 1748 by Jesuits who wanted to make a larger church than the previous one that had been on that site. In 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from Cuba as part of a worldwide suppression by King Charles III of Spain, but construction carried on and the church was completed in 1777. It wasn’t until 1787 that the church became a cathedral, with the establishment of the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Archdiocese of San Cristobal de la Habana.
3) It has two official names
Whilst it is usually shortened to Havana Cathedral (Catedral de la Habana), in fact it has two longer names. Sometimes you will see it written as the Cathedral of St. Christopher (Catedral de San Cristobal), as Christopher is the patron saint of Havana and to whom the cathedral is dedicated. Other times it is called Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception (La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada), as Mary is named as the patroness of the cathedral.
4) You can see marine fossils on the facade of the building
The cathedral was partly constructed from coral stone. At the time this was a commonly used building material across Cuba and the Caribbean, being available in abundance. It helps gives the cathedral its elegant look, something that has been well maintained by a recent restoration project. If you go up close to the stone you can see the shapes and patterns of various marine life that became fossilised many thousands of years ago.
5) The interior and exterior don’t match
Astute architectural enthusiasts may be surprised when stepping though the entrance of the cathedral. From the outside the cathedral is exemplary of the ‘Cuban Baroque’ style, with elaborate concave and convex curving patterns. But the interior is much more neoclassical in its style. The reason? In the early 1800s it underwent a makeover on the instruction of Bishop Espada. This included plastering over the original wood ceilings, and replacing the baroque altars with neoclassical versions.
6) It contains a 17th century wooden sculpture of St. Christopher
Inside the cathedral is a graceful sculpture to St. Christopher. The sculpture predates the cathedral’s construction, being made back in 1632 by Martín Andújar in Seville. It is the oldest artwork in the cathedral, which also contains a notable array of 19th century paintings and original frescoes.
7) You can climb up one of the bell towers
For a small fee and some physical exertion you can climb up the steps of one of the bell towers. Being a little cathedral, the vista is not as breathtaking as other spots, however it does provide a good vantage point of the historic square below, as well as a view of the Capitolio Building and a glimpse across the bay. Additionally, on the way up you can get up close with one of the old church bells that used to ring out across the city.
8) It has been visited by three Popes
Three Popes have been to Cuba - John Paul II 1998, Benedict XVI in 2012 and Pope Francis in 2015. All three visited Havana Cathedral during their visits, footage of which is available online. In 2005 Havana Cathedral held a special funeral mass after the passing of John Paul II.
9) For over a century it held some of the mortal remains of Christopher Columbus
Some of Christopher Columbus’ mortal remains were shipped to Havana in 1795 from Santo Domingo (what is now the capital of the Dominican Republic). They were interred in Havana Cathedral until 1898, when following the Cuban War of Independence they were shipped to Spain, where they have been held in Seville Cathedral ever since. But what about the rest of the bones?
In 1877 workers in the Santo Domingo cathedral where Columbus had previously been buried discovered a box of bone fragments carrying the label: ‘The illustrious and excellent man, Don Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea’. Since that day, some people began believing that the bones that had been shipped to Havana had been the wrong bones, and that Columbus had actually stayed in Santo Domingo. This theory had been taken so seriously that the Columbus Lighthouse was erected in 1992 in Santo Domingo, acting as both a museum and mausoleum to Columbus’ supposed remains.
In 2006 scientists tested the DNA of the bones in Seville Cathedral, and they matched with the DNA of the bones of Christopher Columbus’ brother. This means that the bones that passed through Havana Cathedral were indeed those of Christopher Columbus. However, the mortal remains in Seville are not complete, especially the right side of the body. Therefore it is still possible that the bones in Santo Domingo also belonged to him. Scientists have not been able to test these bones, though, because the Dominican government have forbidden it out of respect for the dead.
10) It is one of eleven Catholic cathedrals in Cuba
The prominence of the Catholic religion, especially during the Spanish colonial era, led to the construction of many churches and cathedrals across the island. If you are particularly interested in seeking out the other cathedrals, the other ten can be found in Bayamo, Camagüey, Ciego de Avila, Cienfuegos, Guantánamo, Holguín, Matanzas, Pinar del Río, Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba.
Three other cathedrals can also be found in Havana belonging to other Christian denominations. The Orthodox Cathedral of St. Nicholas of Myra (Greek Orthodox) and Our Lady of Kazan Orthodox Cathedral (Russian Orthodox) are both nearby in Old Havana, whilst Holy Trinity Cathedral (Episcopal) can be found in the district of Vedado, two blocks down from John Lennon Park.
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