The Golden Age Of Spain


The Golden Age of Spain

Contributions to a Changing World

The Golden Age of Spain was an era of political consolidation due to the rise of the Habsburg dynasty. United through the marriage of King Fernando of Aragon and Queen Isabel of Castile, Spain emerged politically stable from a period of prolonged warfare. With the defeat of Al-andalus (Muslim Spain) and expulsion of Jews, the many Christian kingdoms came together to form a unified state.

The Spanish Empire arose in a period of social, religious, and intellectual change in which plants and animals were indexed, new understandings of human anatomy developed, and the Inquisition sought to promulgate Spain’s Catholic identity.

Some saw the empire as corrupt and cruel. They critiqued the Inquisition’s methods, Spain’s treatment of indigenous peoples and non-Catholic cultures, and the excesses committed against Protestants in post-Reformation religious wars. This negative portrayal of Spain, known as the ‘Black Legend,’ outlasted the empire; even today, many people do not recognize the importance of Spain to Renaissance Europe’s history.

This exhibit seeks to undo the marginalization of Spain from European history, not to glorify its actions, but rather uncover how the Spanish Empire helped shape the modern world.

Contributions to a Changing World

The Golden Age of Spain (1492–1700) was a period of flourishing artistic production. Renowned authors such as Miguel de Cervantes, Félix Lope de Vega, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Francisco Quevedo, Luis de Góngora, and others increased the prestige of Spanish as a literary language by utilizing innovative Renaissance genres, such as the sonnet, and revitalizing traditional Spanish genres, like the romance (a traditional poetic form). Golden Age Spanish painters included “El Greco” (Doménikos Theotokópoulos), Diego Velázquez, and Bartolomé Murillo. Architectural schemes such as the Plateresque style flourished.

Several key factors contributed to the cultural advances of the Golden Age. The political unification and relative stability of the Habsburg era and the invention of the printing press in 1450 allowed for the rapid spread of knowledge and increased production of texts. Renaissance literature and art began to emphasize the individual, in contrast to the Medieval focus on community, and articulations of individual liberty and human rights began to emerge that would eventually give rise to the Enlightenment.

Politics of the Golden Age: From Fragmentation to Empire

The monarchy played an integral role in Spain’s global expansion and influence. As the Habsburg successors to King Fernando and Queen Isabel, King Charles V and his son, King Philip II, continued the legacy of their predecessors through exhibitions of the country’s power and imperial might.

Within the Spanish territories themselves, the king established a strict hierarchy of nobility and wealth, with power embodied by the monarch. This power structure set the standard for how Spain presented itself to other nations. In the Americas, specifically New Spain (modern-day Mexico), Spain strove to create a quasi-Spanish society. Imposing a strict hierarchy via appointed officials and thousands of laws, the Crown continued its tight control and limited the holdings of individual wealth. In Europe, Spain practiced a more diplomatic imperialism, placing Spaniards in key governmental positions and leaving pre-existing government structures intact.

Reformations and the Inquisition

The Golden Age was a time of great change, both inside and outside of the Catholic Church. Spain and the Catholic Monarchs sought a unified state in which all practiced one, “true” religion: Catholicism. Thus, the Inquisition was instituted to enforce conversion and to seek out false converts. Jews and Muslims were specifically targeted. After the Protestant Reformation in 1517, the Inquisition also persecuted and executed Protestants in Spain and Spanish territories. Meanwhile, within the Catholic Church, the Counter-Reformation was taking place.

This movement to reform the Church from inside prompted the Council of Trent which, among other things, established cloister for nuns (strict enclosure within the convent), ended indulgences (payments to absolve sin), and banned clergy members from having lovers. “Heretics” were also target of the Inquisition post-Council. Although many people were investigated and not convicted, torture was not uncommon, and there was a widespread fear of the Inquisition in Spain and its territories.

Plants of the Golden Age

Because medical practice relied on herbal remedies, the Spanish eagerly sought out new medicinal plants in the Americas. The Spanish viewed indigenous American plants through the same stereotype—the “inferior native”—used to justify imperialism. For example, they perceived the tomato as poisonous since it belonged to the nightshade family. They worried that it could be used as an aphrodisiac, a practice associated with the sin of lust. Some plants, such as tobacco and cocoa, became luxury goods in Europe. Others, such as tomatoes and corn, took longer to gain acceptance, even though they have now become staple foods in many countries. Contact with new species of plants caused Europeans to re-examine their understanding of plant life and expand upon previous scientific classifications. Many native plants of the Americas, such as the willow tree (from which aspirin is derived), are key components of modern medicine.

Towards Modernity

In the three centuries since its Golden Age, Spain underwent monumental cultural shifts as it moved from an absolute monarchy to a republic, then to a dictatorship, and lastly to a constitutional monarchy and member of the European Union. Much like the American Revolutionary period, the Golden Age serves as a historical symbol of national character and as a tourist attraction. However, cruel policies and actions—like those that contributed to Spain’s Black Legend—created a backlash that pushed the full story of Spain into the shadows of history.

Spain’s influence during the Renaissance should not go unnoticed. Its scientific and artistic contributions laid a foundation for scholars to continue learning for centuries to come.

There are still strong ties in Spain to its Golden Age history, often referencing it as a time of defining identity. One example of this is the modern-day Spanish Coat of Arms, which is reminiscent of the imagery and themes found in the Catholic Monarchs’ Coat of Arms from 1492.

Humankind struggles to understand our place in a rapidly changing world, just as early modern Spaniards once did. Throughout the United States, Spain, and much of the world, conflict surrounding immigration, imperialism, and identity challenge our ability to live peacefully. Emerging from the shadows of history, the story of Spain’s Golden Age shows us that modern issues of identity, the ‘other,’ and religion’s place in society are not confined to the time period in which we live.


Abbey Witham (CSB+SJU Class of 2021)



Abbey Witham (CSB+SJU class of 2021); Dr. Emily Kufner; and the members of the CSB+SJU 16th and 17th-century Spanish Literature class, spring semester 2020.


Special thanks to Dr. Matthew Z. Heintzelman, who worked side by side with the CSB+SJU class and assisted them in their research; Wayne Torborg and Mary Hoppe, who provided the digital photos throughout the exhibition; and to John Meyerhofer and Margaret Bresnahan, who prepared the online version.

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