Surrounded by the scent of salt water and echoing with the cries of seagulls, this building has the sea close at hand and you soon know it. Its official title is rather pompous sounding for a church that has never been finished: the Holy Basilica Cathedral Church of the Incarnation. Despite its Renaissance style, it was built in the medieval tradition of grandiose temples raised to the glory of God.
Given the ambition and complexity of the project, the building’s funding was planned with the same attention to detail as the architectural designs. However, with a two-century long venture -as was the case with Malaga Cathedral-, even such careful organization can be inadequate.
After the medieval period, with its theocentric outlook, came the anthropocentric worldview of the Renaissance. So began the end of blind faith, making it harder to find faithful willing to reach into their pockets to fund such splendid constructions. Salaries, too, rose beyond all expectation.
Such economic problems affected many European cathedral projects, and not just Malaga, which was begun in 1528 and not completed until 1782. After many interruptions and despite the involvement of some of the best architects of each period, progress was so slow that it was decided to leave the building unfinished. One of the most visibly incomplete details is the south tower, intended to rise to 87 metres just like its twin. This architectural irregularity gave rise to a nickname for the building: la manquita, or “half done”. The reason for the sanctuary’s lack of symmetry was traditionally said to be that the money earmarked to finish the building was channelled towards helping the USA in the War of Independence, part of the Spanish strategy of undermining the British Empire. This story is supported by a plaque in one of the cathedral courtyards, thanking the people of Malaga for their generosity. Recent research, however, has found that actually the money was diverted to pay for work on the road to Antequera.
In fact there are many tales about this grand building, some of which belong more to the territory of legend than of history. For example, it is said that the unusual oval-shaped picture hanging in the nave is supposed to have been painted on elephant skin. Another legend, collected by the historian José Manuel Frías, tells of the uncanny experience of a chorister from Seville who was practicing his singing for the inauguration of the cathedral in the late 18th century. To his consternation, he looked up and saw the building surrounded by a halo of small, moving lights, which he and other witnesses interpreted as a divine signal.
Malaga Cathedral is an amalgam of architectural styles, something not unusual in this country with its layers of cultural sediment. After some early traces of Gothic, the building is dominated by a Renaissance style, but with Baroque facades added in its later stages. Here in early modern Andalusia, the old places of worship of Al Andalus were transformed into temples of the victorious faith. So Malaga Cathedral was raised on the site of the Aljama Mosque, a building that was sacralised in the presence of the Catholic Monarchs. The former mosque was used for Christian worship for 40 years, remaining intact until work started on the new church. All that remains of its Islamic past is a few arches and the Courtyard of the Orange Trees, whose beauty was praised in 1360 by the great traveller Ibn Battuta.
Throughout its history, the building has had more than its fair share of maintenance problems, often due to the fact that the cathedral was never properly finished, as well as the problem of continuous underfunding. In 1946, the dome of the north tower was in such poor state that it was leaking water. The company that undertook the repair work could not find workers prepared to participate on such a dangerous project. In the end it was a retired boxing champion, Gabriel Marcelino Pozo, who risked his life, suspended from a ledge by a rope. His work saved the tower from ending up like its incomplete sibling.
Last year a plan was approved and signed by the diocese, the Andalusian Government and the provincial council to finalize the cathedral, providing funds of around 7 million Euros can be raised. The aim is not only to complete the south tower but also unfinished work on the vaults and balustrades and to restore damaged reliefs. Completing the work would consolidate the building as one of the finest examples of Andalusian Renaissance. No doubt, however, the cathedral will still be affectionately referred to as la manquita, a name that neatly reminds us of the imperfection with which our dreams are transformed into reality.