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The Architecture in Toledo, Spain

Toledo, Spain is a historic city, one that dates back at least as far as Roman times, when records show it was an important urban center. It is also a city renowned for its ethic and religious diversity, a place where large communities of Christians, Jews and Muslims converged and intermingled to forge a great society. If you’re planning to take a trip to the beautiful city of Toledo, one aspect that is sure to strike you is the brilliance of its architecture, which reflects the various periods of its history and the cultures that converged there.

Examples of architecture from the Roman and Visigoth periods of Toledo’s history are limited. From the Roman era, there remain vestiges of the circus, the aqueduct and the sewer, and from the Visigoth period, there are ruins of the walls of King Wamba and a variety of artifacts preserved in the Santa Cruz Museum.

Following the Islamic conquest of Toledo in 712 AD, the Emirate of Cordoba built a number of Islamic monuments, including the piers of the now destroyed Bano de la Cava Bridge, the Puerta Vieja de Bisagra (the Old Bisagra Bridge), Las Tornerias Mosque, Bib Mardum Mosque (a private oratory completed in 999 AD), the hammans in the Calle de Angel, and the Calle Pozo Amargo, among other structures.

After the city was retaken in 1085 by the Christians under Alfonso VI, a number of Jewish religious monuments, such as the Santa Maria la Blanca Synagogue (1180) and El Transito Synagogue (1366), were constructed at the same time as churches, sometimes at the same location of earlier foundations. One of Toledo’s most important and prominent structures from this period is the Cathedral, formally known as the Catedral Primada Santa Maria de Toledo (the Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo). It was constructed beginning in 1226, with contributions made in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. It is built mostly in the Gothic style of architecture, but it also demonstrates characteristics from the Mudejar style, mainly in the cloister, and with the presence of multi-foiled arches in the triforium. Toledo also boasts a number of other structures from the medieval period, including the walls and fortified buildings of the city, such as San Servando Castle, bridges and houses.

The 15th and 16th century structures in Toledo, which collectively reflect the Spanish Golden Age, include the church of San Juan de los Reyes, the San Juan Bautista and Santa Cruz hospitals, and the Puerta Nueva de Bisagra (New Bisagra Bridge). Additionally, Toledo saw the emergence, beginning in the Middle Ages, of a Mudejar style of architecture, which blended the structural and decorative elements of Visigoth and Muslim art, adapting them into successive styles. Buildings that reflect these styles include the Santiago del Arrabal (13th century), the Taller del Moro and Puerta del Sol (14th century), the wainscot of Santa Cruz hospital and the chapter house of the Cathedral (15th and 16th centuries).

A view of Toledo, Spain

No architectural discussion of Toledo would be complete without mentioning the Alcazar, an impressive building located on Toledo’s highest point. During Roman times, it was initially used as a palace. The Christians rebuilt it during the reign of King Alfonso VI; and King Alfonso X, known as “the Wise,” continued with the construction, which is how it got its square floor plan and the protection towers at each of its corners. The Alcazar was twice the victim of fire, once in 1170 and again in 1867, but it has since been rebuilt and is now home to Toledo’s Army Museum.

The Hospital de Tavera

The Hospital de Tavera is constructed in the Florentine Renaissance style, except for the façade, of the church, which was rebuilt later in the 18th century, between 1760 and 1762, and is made from the very pricey material known as Genoese marble. The structure consists of a double courtyard, church and palace museum, part of which is the old hospital. The two courtyards are both elegantly proportioned and perfectly symmetrical, with Ionic Doric columns and a double arch that connects the courtyard to the church.

Hospital de Tavera in Toledo, Spain

The interior of the church is exceedingly beautiful. It features a single nave and transept dome covered with candles, much like the renowned basilica of El Escorial. Below this is the tomb of Cardinal Tavera, designed by Alonso Berruguete. The tomb is made of white marble and is accompanied by other funeral sculptures. The altarpiece of the church was designed by Toledo’s favorite son, El Greco, and carried out by his son Jorge Manuel. The sanctuary is made of gold and is the work of the artist Juan Pascual.

Museum of Hospital de Tavera

The museum located inside the Hospital de Tavera is made up of the extensive collections of the House of Medina. Inside you will find a large archive of historical documents, as well as many famous works by artists such as El Greco, Ribera, Tintoretto, Luca Giordano, Titian, Snyders and Jacopo Bassano, among others. One of the highlights of the museum is the Risen Christ, a beautifully detailed sculpture by El Greco.

The museum is open every day from 10:00 AM until 5:30 PM (Closed for lunch between 1:30 and 3:00 PM) and admission is € 4.50.

The Cathedral of Toledo

The Cathedral of Toledo, Spain

If you plan to visit the city of Toledo, Spain, the capital of the Autonomous Community of Castile-La Mancha, one of the sites you should definitely check out while you’re there is the Catedral Primada Santa Maria de Toledo (the Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo), commonly referred to as merely “the Cathedral.” Located on one of Toledo’s highest points, the Cathedral of Saint Mary is a church of Roman Catholic persuasion, belonging to the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Toledo. It is one of three 13th century High Gothic cathedrals in Spain and is considered, at least by those in authority, to be the most magnificent of the three.

Construction of the Cathedral began in 1226 under the rule of Ferdinand III, and the final Gothic contributions were made in the late 15th century when, in the year 1493, the vaults of the central nave were completed during the time of the Catholic Monarchs, the joint title used in history to describe Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. It was modeled after the Bourges Cathedral, a Roman Catholic cathedral, dedicated to Saint Stephen, located in Bourges, France, although its design, with five naves, resulted from the constructor’s desire to cover all of the sacred space of the former city mosque, which once stood at this location, with the cathedral, and to cover the former sahn (the mosque’s courtyard of Islamic architecture) with the cathedral’s cloister.

Although primarily constructed in the Gothic style of architecture, the Cathedral does combine some characteristics of the Mudejar style, mainly in the cloister, and with the presence of multi-foiled arches in the triforium. It is built almost exclusively with white limestone from the quarries of Olihuelas, near Toledo, and boasts a length of 390 feet (120 meters), a width of 194 feet (59 meters) and a maximum height of 146 feet (44.5 meters). Among its many impressive aspects, the spectacular incorporation of light and the structural achievements of the ambulatory vaults are commonly considered most remarkable.

As you make your way in to the Cathedral through one of its many portals, you are sure to notice the Main Chapel, a sanctuary covered with carved and chiseled mythological figures of all sizes. On the pulpit side are beautifully decorated sepulchers of Alfonso VII and Doña Berenguela, while on the lectern side are the tombs of Sancho III of Castile (Sancho the Desired) and Sancho IV (The Brave), with all the monarchs having been carved in wood by the artist Copin de Holanda and polychromed by Francisco de Amberes.

In addition to the main chapel there are also several other chapels located throughout the large Cathedral, including the Chapel of the Sepulchre, Chapel of Saint James, the Mozarabic Chapel and the Chapel of the New Monarchs, among others, each with their own unique and beautifully detailed features.

Finally, there are the breathtaking stained glass windows, which together represent a very beautiful and important collection of artworks. They were produced between the 14th and 17th centuries and are some of the best-preserved medieval stained glass windows in all of Spain. The oldest, and also the most appreciated for the beauty of their stained glass, are those of the Rose Window, over the Portal of the Clock, one of the many entrance points to the cathedral, and those on the north-facing wall of the main chapel.

Synagogue Santa María La Blanca

The Cathedral of Toledo, Spain

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 of the Synagogue Santa María La Blanca

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 of the Synagogue Santa María La Blanca

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.



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