The Museums of Mallorca: Part I

When I asked ChatGPT to plan my holiday in Mallorca (pronounced muh-YOR-kuh) I didn’t know what to expect. But given that I told the chatbot to focus on the Mediterranean island’s history, culture, architecture, and art, I wasn’t entirely surprised with the results.

First on the list (even though it ended up being the last place I saw before I caught my quick flight back home to Barcelona) was the Museum of Mallorca. After all the other visits I’d made on the island, which were either full of tourists or fidgety kids on school tours, there was something eerie and peaceful about being the first person there when it opened and having the entire space to myself.

The museum is housed in a beautiful and historic former Palau Aiamans, which features a mix of architectural styles including Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque. Just as diverse is the museum’s art collection. It spans over a thousand years of fine and decorative art on the island, starting at the time of the Catalan conquest in 1229 and ending at the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939.

The first floor (which is where the palace bedrooms and reception rooms were located) begins with the Gothic movement, which emerged in Northern France during the mid-12th century before it eventually spread throughout Europe and became the dominant artistic style until the early 15th century. Gothic art in Spain initially arrived in Catalonia and Aragon, where it combined with local Romanesque traditions and flourished from the 13th to the 15th centuries. As the movement evolved, it developed regional characteristics and distinctions of its own.

Indeed, it was the brief but complex history of the island as an independent kingdom marked by violence and upheaval that produced some of its most original, beautiful, and remarkable heritage. During this period, traditional pieces were imported from the mainland, works in the Gothic style were purchased from French and Italian workshops, and the arts became an essential element for reflecting the cohesiveness of the kingdom while representing the new times.

Spanish Gothic art was characterised by its intricate ornamentation and increased emphasis on naturalism in painting and sculpture. This can be seen in the works of Pere Niçard, who was active in the 14th century. Although little is known about his life, he is considered one of the most significant artists of his time in the Balearic Islands. His work is characterised by a vivid colour palette, intricate detailing, and expressive figures that reveal a strong influence from the Sienese school of painting. Among his most notable works is the Saint Eulalia Altarpiece, which showcases his mastery of composition and storytelling.

Another key figure at this time was Rafael Mojer. Again, little is known about his life besides the fact that he contributed to the development of the island’s artistic scene during the early 15th century. His style combines elements of international Gothic with local influences. The result is a harmonious blend of delicate figures, rich colour palettes, and elegant compositions. One of his most important works is the Saint Jerome Altarpiece. It not only exemplifies his skilful handling of narrative and spatial organisation but also highlights the interconnectedness between Mallorca and mainland Spain, as well as the broader European artistic context during the late Gothic period.

At the start of the 16th century, tastes changed and the formal approaches of the Renaissance arrived in Mallorca. Artists from elsewhere were contracted and works were acquired to meet the demand of particular circles and clients, with the classical style being introduced in altarpieces and in the decorative features of architecture. The first sixty years of the century saw people’s preferences swing between the old and the new style, which came mainly from Italy and generally via Valencia, a city on which Mallorca was heavily dependent for trade.

Indeed, the arts in the first half of the 17th century were to a large extent indebted to Renaissance culture. This was partly due to the fact that the same artists were still producing works and partly because clients’ outlooks and tastes remained unchanged. That’s why grand residences were decorated with artworks of a religious nature inspired by Biblical and moral themes, to which an extensive new range of secular subjects was added.

At this time, painters and sculptors were regarded as craftsmen and were organised into guilds of medieval origin until well into the 17th century. It was then that they demanded their work be given a higher status. This culminated in the early 18th century when new ordinances declared that their activity was a liberal art and not a mechanical craft. And yet art on the island at the end of the Baroque period was still somewhat antiquated. Because the artists felt a lack of stimulation, many left to complete their training in Italy (especially Rome), with the first signs of classicism only emerging in the late 18th century.

My highlight of the museum came on the third floor (which used to be the palace attic) with its 19th and 20th century masterpieces. This era begins with an exploration of pictorial naturalism, an artistic movement born in France in the mid-19th century and that manifested itself in Mallorca mainly through realistic landscape paintings. And much the way light is the protagonist of the painting, light was also the protagonist of the open space upstairs. The main masters of this movement were Joan O’Neille (a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts who introduced this movement), Ricardo Anckermann, Antoni Ribas, and Antoni Fuster Forteza.

Finally, we come to the modernist movement. This began on the island in the 20th century with the arrival of some of the most representative artists who visited Mallorca, painted its famous places, and exhibited their works with great success in Barcelona. Their innovative styles influenced the locals, who adopted the new aesthetics in their own art. And even though landscape was still the preferred subject, it was now done with brilliant tonalities and the expressive force of light. This was further explored in the Noucentisme movement that began in Catalonia in 1906 and whose landscapes capture a sense of order, serenity, and balance – just the right way to end the visit with a sense of peace!

The museum also has an extensive collection of archaeological artifacts that showcase the history of the island from prehistoric times to the Roman period and beyond. For greater insight into these and other foundational elements of Mallorca, here are three sites worth visiting:

  • The Cathedral of Mallorca was built in the 13th century and is one of the largest in Europe, which explains why I was more awe-struck than I expected to be when I first saw it. Gothic in style, it features a large rose window that measures almost 14 metres in diameter and is aligned in such a way that on sunrise twice a year the light that passes through it projects a stunning reflection on the opposite wall. There’s also a museum, located in the Episcopal Palace, with a fascinating collection that includes notable pieces such as the altarpiece of Saint George and the tomb of King James II, who ruled over the island until his death in 1311.
The Cathedral of Mallorca
  • The Royal Palace of La Almudaina was originally built as an Arab fortress during the Muslim rule of the island (starting with the Moorish consequent in the early 10th century). This explains why it, like the Castle in Cape Town, is positioned on what used to be the seashore before extensive land reclamation pushed the water back. It’s now the official residence of the King and Queen during their stays in Mallorca, which is why getting to explore the regal rooms with their tapestries and art made me feel like I was on the set of The Crown.
The Royal Palace of La Almudaina
  • The Bellver Castle is a place I almost didn’t visit because, from the heart of town, it looked impossibly far away (in truth it was only 3km and up a small hill). It dates back to the early 14th century and is unique from other European castles due to its circular design. Over the years, it’s gone from being a royal residence to a military prison to a refuge during periods of conflict. Now it houses the Museum of the History of Palma (the capital city of Mallorca). Add to this the rich audio guide and the panoramic views and it was a fascinating journey back in time.
The Royal Palace of La Almudaina