The first mention of a church of Santa Maria by the sea dates from 998. The construction of the present building was promoted by the canon Bernat Llull, who was appointed Archdean of Santa Maria in 1324. Construction work started on 25 March 1329, when the foundation stone was laid by king Alfonso IV of Aragon (III of Catalonia), as commemorated by a tablet in Latin and Catalan on the façade that faces the Fossar de les Moreres. The architects in charge were Berenguer de Montagut (designer of the building) and Ramon Despuig, and during the construction all the guilds of the Ribera quarter were involved. The walls, the side chapels and the façades were finished by 1350. In 1379 there was a fire that damaged important parts of the works. Finally, on 3 November 1383 the last stone was laid and on 15 August 1384 the church was consecrated. In 1428 an earthquake caused several casualties and destroyed the rose window in the west end. The new window, in the Flamboyant style, was finished by 1459 and one year later the glass was added. The images and the Baroque altar were destroyed in a fire in 1936. The chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, adjacent to the apse, was added in the 19th century.
In contrast with the exterior, the interior gives an impression of light and spaciousness. It is of the basilica type, with its three aisles forming a single space with no transepts and no architectural boundary between nave and presbytery. The simple ribbed vault is supported on slender octagonal columns, and abundant daylight streams in through the tall clerestorey windows.
The interior is almost devoid of imagery of the sort to be found in Barcelona’s other large Gothic churches, the cathedral and Santa Maria del Pi, after the fire which occurred in 1936 during anticlerical disturbances. Amongst the most notable of the works destroyed at that time was the Baroque retable by Deodat Casanoves and Salvador Gurri.
Some interesting stained-glass windows have survived from various periods.
The west end with its rose window, showing the proportions of the three aisles
The spacing of the columns is the widest of any Gothic church in Europe—about forty-three feet apart, center to center.
The church has a serious claim to have the slenderest stone built columns in the world.