Toledo! A gem in the crown of Spain. A place of Moorish, Jewish and Christian influences which finds it way in art, architecture and even food!
A beautiful city along the Tajo (Tagus) river in Spain, Toledo has been the home to multiple cultures, from Roman to Visigoth to Berber, Arabic, Spanish, Jewish, Moors – just to name a few cultures who called Toledo home over the centuries.
My primary attraction to Toledo was two-fold – the Cathedral has its own art museum (yeah, some great stuff there), and Toledo is a premier location for mudéjar architecture and art. And it is just an hour and a half drive from Madrid. What's not to love!
So What is Mudéjar?
Mudéjar architecture is a fusion, a symbiosis of both Christian and Muslim techniques and ways of constructing buildings. It emerged in the 12th century as its own unique style in Spain. It is noted by the use of brick as a primary building material borrowed from Romanesque construction with the elements of Islamic art and architecture.
It’s a case of you know it when you see it, as it is dominated by repetitive geometric patterns and distinctively Arabic architectural elements such as the Arabic arch.
Two buildings of special note to visit while in Toledo which illustrate the mudéjar style were both synagogues, the Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca, orginally known as the Ibn Shushan Synagogue, and the Synagogue of El Transito, once known as the Synagogue of Samuel ha-Levi.
Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca
The Synagogue of Santa Maria La Blanca is reputed to be the oldest standing synagogue in Europe, although that has been disputed. Built in the 12th century, around 1180 C. E., it became the possession of the Catholic Church around 1405 C.E. and the synagogue was renamed Santa Maria La Blanca, the name it carries today. It is still owned and maintained by the Catholic Church even though it is not used for religious services.
The building has remained very much like it was when built, and even when it became a Catholic church, it didn't undergo any major renovations. The character of the architecture was preserved, and the building is absolutely beautiful. The exterior is very much Romanesque in style, but enter through the doors and it is what you see here, spectacular light spilling through the high windows bathing the white washed surfaces and the stonework with beautiful light.
It does not have a woman’s gallery, unlike the Synagogue of El Transito down the street. The lack of a woman’s gallery is closer in design to a mosque. The architecture is clearly Mudéjar, created by Moorish architects, but it also is one of the finest examples of Almohad architecture because of its incorporation of horseshoe arches.
Sinagoga del Tránsito
Originally sponsored by Don Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia, the treasurer of the King, he had the synagogue built against all the laws of the day – it was taller and bigger than the churches, it was highly decorated versus being plain. It is replete with Hebrew inscriptions in praise of the King and Samuel ha-Levi, as well as quotes from the Psalms.
There is a separate woman’s gallery which overlooks the main worship space. The main worship space holds the beautiful tabernacle which would have held the Torah scrolls used in worship to read the Scriptures.
The decorative motifs found in the worship space clearly denote it’s Mudéjar construction and decoration. The geometric patterns and the horseshoe shaped windows clearly point to Moorish influences in it’s design.
It presently is the location of the Jewish Sephardic Museum, which was created in 1964 and is a place celebrating Jewish culture and worship of the 12th century. It is a wonderful museum, and I really enjoyed going through the various rooms and displays, and it allows you to look into the vibrant Jewish culture in Spain.
You can learn more about the synagogue and museum through the official website: https://www.mecd.gob.es/msefardi/en/home.html
Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo
Other places worth checking out include the world-famous Cathedral of Toledo, it’s full name being the Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo. Built in the 13th century, it is perhaps the best and most well known example of Gothic style architecture in Spain.
Built on the site of an older church edifice dating from 587 C.E. and an later mosque built after the Muslim invasion of Spain, the present cathedral was begun in 1227 C.E and it represents a Spanish interpretation of Gothic style that was prevalent in Europe during this time. There are a few examples of Mudejar architecture in the cathedral, such as the triforia found in the sanctuary, but for the most part is Gothic. As is the main altar piece, which is gold covered wood depicting the life and ministry of Christ.
Perhaps the most interesting area of the Cathedral is El Transparente, a baroque altarpiece lit from a large skylight from above. The altar is several stories tall and is an incredible example of baroque artwork. The skylight, which lights El Transparente is spectacular as well, decorated with frescoes by Narciso Tome and his four sons.
And the Cathedral is known for it's Art Museum which is found in the Cathedral's Sacristy. Replete with paintings by El Greco, Goya, Caravaggio and Titian among others, it is sure to please.
For me, I love Spanish art, so I was excited to see some paintings by El Greco. I love the boldness and the bright colors of El Greco, so it was a pleasure to see his "The Disrobing of Christ."
Christ is in red and he clearly stands out from among the crowd. What I also find interesting is the more muted colors of others in the painting. This is a fine example of the style of El Greco.
It was also a pleasure to see Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, i.e., Goya. I really enjoyed his "The Arrest of Christ." The use of light here is just beautiful and I stood before this painting for what seemed like forever as I marveled at his use of light to make the painting what it is!
There is a lot photographers can learn from painters, and this painting is perhaps one of the best examples of how a painter uses light to emphasize the story of the painting. I discuss how I learned more about my own photography style from studying the masters in an article I wrote called Learning Photography by Studying Paintings.
There are many more places to visit in Toledo and many locations that lend themselves to photography. We were only there for a day, so I was selective in where to visit, and limited myself to these three locations. The country side is beautiful, and offer a lot of photographic opportunities beyond what I have discussed here. So if you visit, go out and explore if you have time, you will not be disappointed!