Outside of the Holy Year it is the only church apart from the sanctuary itself which is open to visitors on a regular basis.
This is one of the most important Renaissance churches in Spain, with soaring star shaped ceilings, held up by four extraordinary Ionic columns, each one more than 1.70 metres in diameter.
Although at first glance the church appears balanced and harmonious, a quick look at the corner by the main entrance door reveals the truth; this church was never finished and is actually only half the size it was originally intended to be.
The history of the church
The church of El Salvador was the second parish church of Caravaca de la Cruz, replacing a small place of worship dedicated to Santa María la Real which was located inside the castle walls at the top of the hill which stands behind the city. There had previously been another church bearing the same name on the site of the Iglesia de la Soledad (now home to the archaeological museum), and this is known to have already been completed when Caravaca was placed in the hands of the Order of Santiago in 1344.
The marriage of Isabella I of Castile to Ferdinand of Aragón, a union commonly referred to as “The Catholic Monarchs”, unified Spain for the first time and after the couple successfully ended the 500-year long Moorish occupation of large areas of modern-day Spain through a gradual “reconquist” of occupied lands, culminating in the recapture of Granada from the Nasrid ruler Muhammed XII in 1492, land was re-distributed causing large-scale population displacements. As part of this, the population in Caravaca increased by around 480% in a 30 year period at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries, as the area no longer lay on the dangerous frontier between the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada and the Kingdom of Murcia, which had been taken by the forces of Castile in 1243.
After a decade of attempts to repair the old church, owned by the Cofradia Hospitalaria de san Juan de Letran, the population influx finally dictated that a whole new building was required, and the plans to build the Iglesia de El Salvador were signed off in 1534, with construction beginning two years later.
It is thought to be probable that the architect Jerónimo Quijano was involved in the design, due to the similarities between this building and other places of worship such as the church of San Juan in Albacete, but no proof of his having been in Caravaca during construction has been unearthed. However, it is known that work was overseen by Martín de Homa in the first phase of construction before activity slowed down in the 1550s and 1560s, replacing the three naves, small vaulted chapel, and several smaller side chapels with a more ambitious construction. Between 1537 and 1539 work continued apace, constructing the four side chapels we see today, the altar, the sacristy and the main body of the church.
There was another big push on the structure between 1557 and 1567, but then funds ran low and the realization dawned that there was insufficient money available to complete the build as per the amplified plans.
Popular legend reports that the lack of money caused a significant disagreement between the Bishop of Cartagena and the Order of Santiago who controlled the area, the Knights refusing to part with any more money to complete the build. Determined to get their money, the Bishop and residents of the town appealed directly to the King, asking for permission to raise funds through leases, permission which they obtained and enacted. This enabled them to kick-start the project in 1575 under the supervision of Pedro de Antequera, who brought it almost to completion. But almost as soon as that stage was reached construction stopped again, until the Town Hall suddenly showed an interest in completing the interior and the ceiling in 1597, completing a closed structure on a much tighter budget, and on a slightly smaller scale. This can clearly be seen when looking at the corner where the exuberant arches finish, and a plain, simple wall completes the structure.
This also explains the austerity of the external finishing; the planned principal entrance was never constructed and the entrance we see today was not intended for the purpose which it now fulfils.
The main block of the construction we see today concluded in 1600, and the tower was finally completed in the mid-18th century.
Although it had not yet been completed the church was home to the relic of the cross from 1571, when it was brought from the Iglesia de La Soledad, until 1703, when the Basilica was completed.
It may not be a complete work, at least according to the original plans, but the church of El Salvador is a fine example of Renaissance architecture as it was interpreted in Murcia, and features four ionic columns of almost two metres in diameter to support the vaulted roof. There are seven side chapels, three in the “Epístola” nave and four in the “Evangelio” side, all of them originally funded by noble families of Caravaca, and the church has two sacristies, one on either side.
The baroque altarpiece is the work of José Sáez, and was originally housed in the former church of the Compañía de Jesús, and there are also numerous works of religious art.
What is now the main entrance to the church (originally it was built as a side door) is in the form of a triumphal arch, and is similar to other doorways found in Cehegín, Letur, Sax, Orihuela and Granada. In the niche above it is a baroque image of the Saviour between two ionic columns.
The exterior decoration includes numerous shells (the scallop shell is widely recognised as a symbol of pilgrimage) and representations of the crosses of Caravaca and Santiago, as well as the coats of Arms of the Order of Santiago and the Concejo (old Town Hall) of Caravaca.
Religious art in the Parroquia de El Salvador
Among the religious sculptures housed in the Iglesia del Salvador are “La Dolorosa”, which was created by the school of Murcia master sculptor Francisco Salzillo, “El Cristo del Prendimiento” and “San Pascual Bailón”, by Marcos Laborda, and “La Piedad” by Roque López, as well as other images representing San Jerónimo and Santa Isabel.
The gold leaf work includes the main cross (the “Cruz Mayor”) and the “Custodia del Corpus”, and the superb wrought iron work closing off some of the side chapels is by Ginés García, and dates from the early 17th century. Sadly, further pieces of wrought iron work disappeared during the disturbances prior to the Spanish Civil War.
In "normal" circumstances Mass is held in the Parroquia de El Salvador on weekdays at 19.00 and 20.00, on Saturdays at 19.00, and on Sundays and religious holidays at 12.00 and 19.00.
However, during Holy Jubilee Years additional morning services are held at 9.30.
The church is the main meeting point for pilgrims wishing to complete their pilgrimage together. This “estación jubilar” takes place at 11:30am prior to mass in the Basilica at 12 midday. Prior reservation should be made for groups wishing to attend, as this is particularly busy during Holy Year celebrations every seven years.