Synagogue Santa María La Blanca, Toledo, Spain

Category: Toledo

The Synagogue Santa Maria La Blanca, which translates literally to the Synagogue Saint Mary the White, is a museum and former synagogue in the beautiful city of Toledo, Spain.  It was originally known as the Ibn Shushan Synagogue, and today it is commonly referred to as the “Congregational Synagogue of Toledo.”  Erected in 1180, it is widely considered the oldest remaining synagogue building in Europe (this is disputed by some experts).  It is now owned and well-preserved by the Catholic Church.

During the Middle Ages, the city of Toledo became well-known as a melting pot of various cultures and ethnicities; a symbol of diversity for its large populations of Christians, Muslims and Jews, all living among each other in relative harmony.  Nowhere is this cooperation more evident than in the details surrounding the construction of the Synagogue Santa Maria La Blanca—a structure that is very unique in that it was built under the Christian Kingdom of Castile by Islamic architects for Jewish use.

In either 1405 or 1411, the Synagogue Santa María La Blanca was transformed into a church, but no major structural reforms were implemented to the building during that change.  The changeover is, however, when the synagogue took on the name Santa Maria la Blanca, named in honor of Saint Mary, the White.

Architecture and Design

The Moorish architects who designed and built the Synagogue Santa María La Blanca employed the Mudejar style of architecture—a style very popular in Spain during this time period.  Some experts also consider it one of the finest examples of Almohad architecture in Spain, mainly due to its construction elements and style:  the simple white walls and the use of brick and pillars rather than columns are characteristic of the Almohad style.

The construction of the Synagogue Santa María La Blanca is very interesting, even a bit confusing, in that its hypostyle room and the lack of a woman’s gallery makes it look closer to a mosque than a synagogue, a nuance which most attribute to the Moorish architects who designed it.  The design is also very unusual in both its floor plan and elevation. The floor plan consists of an irregular quadrilateral divided into five aisles, with the central nave aisle a bit larger than the remaining four.  The interior of the structure features a series of arcades balanced on a system of twenty-four octagonal piers and eight engaged piers.  These eight-sided supports line the axis aisle of the synagogue and support the huge arcade of horseshoe-shaped arches above.  The arches are perched on elaborately detailed capitals, with expertly carved pinecones and other natural images.  The capitals are built in the Mudejar style of the day, but are derived from the classical Corinthian style, with elements of the Byzantine.

Location

The Synagogue Santa Maria La Blanca is located in the outlying areas of Toledo, nestled between the Church of San Juan de los Reyes and the Synagogue of El Transito (Transition Synagogue).  It is one of only a few remaining Spanish synagogues that existed before the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, sharing that distinction with a handful of other synagogues located in cities such as Híjar, Córdoba and Tomar, Spain.