In the arch that connects the Gothic temple of the Cathedral of Seville with its impressive main sacristy, a wide representation of the wines and meats that in the 16th century were served on the tables of the then capital of the world is reproduced in stone. Framed in cassettes, there are 68 life-size plates with the most common foods in the gastronomy of the metropolis. From the most humble, such as thistles, radishes or figs, to the most sophisticated, such as woodcock, peacock or even a squirrel that appears skinned, ready to cook, along with bunches of hazelnuts.
The art historian and professor at the University of Seville Juan Clemente Rodríguez has studied this set for a decade, one of the great works of the Spanish Renaissance, a high relief executed by unknown authors between 1533 and 1535, which has gone almost unnoticed, since that remains partly hidden by the hinged doors that give access to the sacristy. Rodríguez has published the results of his research in The universal treat. Art and food in Renaissance Seville (Chair). A work of more than 500 pages with 600 illustrations for which he has had the collaboration of botanists, zoologists, archaeologists, cooks, anthropologists, historians and architects.
The dishes are carefully sculpted, so naturalistically that, in the case of fruits and vegetables, they seem like a compendium of botany. The birds and quadrupeds are skinned, some stuffed, and appear on the plate, ready to be cooked along with cut lemons and oranges, knives and sauce boats. Fish also abound (snook, sole, sardines, barbels) and there is even a plate of oysters reproduced in detail and another of clams. “It is an open window to this great city of the Renaissance that allows us to undertake a long journey through the art, science, food, cuisine, culture and spirituality of an entire era. A catalog that summarizes the greatness of the city through its table and that includes foods introduced by Islamic civilization such as aubergine (also essential in Jewish cuisine), lemons or bitter oranges, which were used for sauces ”, Rodríguez analyzes , who has investigated the Seville cathedral since 1992 and is the author of two fundamental works on the largest Gothic temple in Christendom: The stonemasons of the cathedral of Seville. From Gothic to Renaissance (1998) and The Isbiliya minaret. La Giralda in its origins, 1184-1198 (1998).
Although in the 16th century the city was “the great distribution center between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic”, as the historian points out, among the 68 still lifes only one food that came from America is included: a plate of cut peppers that could well be jalapenos. “When the arc was executed, Columbus had already returned from his travels, but the products from America had not yet become popular,” he explains. The researcher is struck by an absence: “The olives and oil do not appear, perhaps because it is related to the Jews,” he questions.
The arch with the banquet was not designed for the faithful to contemplate, since it gave access to the sacristy designed by Diego de Riaño and built between 1532 and 1543, a century after the Cathedral of Seville. The only documentation that is conserved on the set is a capitular order of February 1533 that gives an account of the meeting that six canons had with the main master of the cathedral, Diego de Riaño, to carry out the commission, but who executed the play. Among the sponsors, two names stand out: Pedro Pinelo and Baltasar del Río, a humanist who became bishop of Scala (Naples), in whose library there were Latin classics that pay special attention to nature.
Eight different stonemason marks appear in the 68 cassettes; that of the central plate, which contains the bread (three muffins), could correspond to that of the master sculptor who directed the work. In the author’s opinion, these refined high reliefs with still lifes reproduced to the smallest detail could be the work of artists who worked in the city at that time, such as the French Nicolás de León and Guillén Ferrant or the Flemish Roque Balduque. The level of detail is such that the specialist believes that the artists sculpted them with real models. “They are stone still lifes in which the food is presented in different states, such as peaches that appear whole, cut and next to their seeds. It is impressive to see that they have sculpted an orange cut in half and if we put the two halves together, they would coincide ”, he says.
The author perceives an “almost scientific” interest in the reproduction of the dishes that include, like the Flemish still lifes, some live animals: little birds pecking at the fruit, a slug or a snake among the lemons. For Juan Clemente Rodríguez (Villablanca, Huelva, 53 years old) it is the most exhaustive information that has come down to us on the gastronomic culture of the Renaissance in Seville. “The book began as an artistic study of a sculptural group, but I soon understood that it was a door through which we could peer into the culture of that time. The Renaissance, even in the religious sphere, opened up a new look at the fact of nutrition. Abandoning the ascetic attitude of medieval thought, marked by the idea of the renunciation of worldly pleasures and the fear of the sin of gluttony, from renovating positions associated with Erasmian humanism, good food began to be understood as an earthly pleasure devoid of all malice. ”Says Rodríguez under the arch, in which Eucharistic elements such as the bottle of wine, the jug of water, the bread and the fish are not lacking.
The stone banquet is in the middle of the arch, which is asymmetrical (in skew) to offer a frontal view of the sacristy, and its history does not end up enclosed in the walls of the cathedral, but served as a model for other banquets that were They sculpted on the doorways of the churches of four convents that the Augustinian order built in Mexico in the third quarter of the 16th century.
“It is very interesting to see how in these works of the convents of Acolman, Yuririapúndaro, Metztitlán and Actopán the dishes go out to the street, on the doorways of the churches, and in them the foods of the old and the new world are mixed. Along with those inspired by the Sevillian arch appear pineapples, cocoa, peppers, beans or the turkey (the turkey of the Indies). As a result of that venture, we now have more than 150 dishes on both sides of the Atlantic, in what was the first global banquet. And from there and from its genuinely Eucharistic condition comes the title of the work: el universal invitation”, Reveals Rodríguez.