Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca

Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca
The synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca is a religious building erected in the city of Toledo, Spain in 1180 (according to the inscription on a beam). Its stylistic and cultural classification is not simple, because it was constructed in Christian territory, the Kingdom of Castile, by Islamic constructors, for Jewish use and owers. It is considered a symbol of the cooperation of the three cultures who populated the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages. The synagogue is a Mudejar construction, created by Moorish architects in Christian soil, for non-Islamic purposes. But it can also be considered one of the finest example of the Almohad architecture, because of the construction elements and style. The white, plain interior walls, the use of brick and of pillars instead of columns and the vegetal decoration of the capitals are characteristical of the Almohad architecture.

The tipology also presents nuances in its classification, because although it was constructed as a synagogue, its hypostyle room, and the lack of a women's gallery make it closer a the mosque typo. It became a church in the 15th century, but no major reforms were done for the change. It took then the name of Santa Maria la Blanca (Saint Mary, the White), and today it is known by this name.

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Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca

Historical note

Many historians agree that this synagogue -the Chief Synagogue- was built during the reign of Alfonso VIII, in the last quarter of the 12th century, at which period the Jews were enjoying unprecedented favour from the king. Many attribute that favour to the love affair between Raquel, the Hebrew beauty whose name «sounds like silver and tastes like honey» and the king who was proclaimed sovereign of Castile by Don Esteban Illan from the mudéjar tower of San Roman, the highest pinnacle of the city.

At all events, it was built near the Alcana, and more than once some unscrupulous merchant must have approached it so that meditation and repentance might wipe out any frauds he may have committed in his dealings.

To this synagogue the Jews resorted to perform their religious duties, to hear the reading of the Sacred Books and the Rabbi's monotone commentary on the texts of the Law. This continued during the 13th and 14th centuries, until we come to the date of 1405, and the strictly historical event we are about to describe.

At that time the Valencian Saint Vincent Ferrer was preaching in Toledo. He was a bitter enemy of Judaism, intolerant and vehement, a man of stirring and stormy oratory and matchless eloquence. Thus it was no wonder that he kindled the spirit of the multitudes of Christians, including thousands of converts from Judaism, who heard his vibrant sermons in the mudéjar church of Santiago del Arrabal. That church still preserves the pulpit he preached from; it is pure Arabic in style, with filigree carvings in white stone, and in it is a statue of the saint, holding up, it is believed, the selfsame cross that he bore when leading the impassioned multitude in a march up to the Chief Synagogue.

While the unconverted Jews listened in fervent silence to the reading of the Sacred Books, that multitude burst violently into the synagogue avid for slaughter. Swayed by age-old hatreds of race and religion, they threw their enemies down the rocky slope to the river bank, sowing anguish and bloodshed throughout the flourishing quarter of the Judería. It is stated that this event caused such a shock to King Henry III, nicknamed «the Invalid», that he died as a result of it soon afterwards, here in Toledo, on Christmas Day 1407; he is buried in the Chapel of the New Kings in the Cathedral.

After that, the building became a Catholic church under the title of Santa Maria la Blanca, as it is still known.

For about a century and a half it continued as a Christian chapel of ease, until in 1550 Cardinal Siliceo had three chapels built at its east end, in the part where the sanctuary for the Sacred Books must have been, and the pulpit from which they were read to the people with suitable commentaries.

The chapel was then made into a convent of refuge for fallen women, who entered a community to atone for their sins by meditation and penance. In this capacity it continued for a bare half-century, afterwards reverting to its previous status.

About 1790 it was taken over as an infantry barracks; ten years later it was transferred to the Royal Exchequer for a similar period.

Finally, about 1808, in the great patriotic revival of the Peninsular War or War of Independence, this profanation came to an end, since when nothing worthy of record has occurred to this National Monument.

Artistic survey

From outside, no building could be more modest; this accords well with the style of Arab houses which it shares, and in which sumptuous inward beauty is cloaked in a humble exterior. No-one could guess that behind a commonplace door, approached by five steps of badly-wrought granite, there was one of the most beautiful art treasures in the imperial city, or suspect what a thrill awaited the visitor within.

The outer gate, always open during visiting hours, leads to a pleasant garden planted with irises and roses and shaded by scented acacias, with purple bells twining capriciously around their trunks, while a corner contains a babbling spring which gives delicious coolness in hours of hot sunshine. A row of spruces on either side line the Arab pathway of bricks set on edge which lead us to the building.

As soon as we are inside, we are met by a feast of snow-white beauty and glorious architecture of the second Moorish-Arabic period, erected by the Hebrew spirit.

It is worth meditating a moment on this association, which says much for the tolerance between the two peoples in those days so different from the present, when, despite the progress of civilization which should have brought men closer to one another, a death-struggle between Arabs and Jews is in existence.

Thirty-two columns -24 in the open and 8 attached to the walls, and suitably distributed in a rectangle of 72 feet by 55- form five naves rising in steps to the central one which is 52 feet in height.

The octagonal pillars are built of brick and sheathed in ataurique, an exceptionally strong stucco, which is also the material of the large and sumptuous Corinthian capitals that surmount them. These capitals, in which oriental pine-cones and filigree bows are charmingly combined, are all different from one another.

The capitals sustain large, perfect horse-shoe arches, thoroughly typical of the Arab style. On the spandrels formed by these arches, there are delightful rosettes or medallions of delicate, typically Moslem geometrical work, harmoniously combined with well-wrought loops in circular form which run beneath a simple frieze, with decorations at intervals, resembling a stylized palm, very pleasing to the eye. Higher up there is another and truly magnificent frieze. Its basic decoration is a sort of double polygon, framing very pretty traceries; from these, it is said, is derived the embroidery which enhances Spanish female beauty in the graceful mantilla, and assuredly the same must be true of the Jewish women.

Among the delicate ataurique work we can distinguish other decorative motifs such as the stylized fleur-de-lis and the seal of Solomon, the two interlaced triangles. Probably the first was intended to symbolize the purity of the Hebrew woman, especially after the obligatory monthly ablution, and the latter the primitive sign of the Jewish religion.

This marvellous frieze runs all the way along the north and south sides of the synagogue, in the central nave.

Above it there is another very narrow one, separated by a series of 22 small stalactites arches of five lobulations, resting on pairs of small columns, and the latter in turn on small bases carved with a spiral design. These arches are at present «blind», but it is to be supposed that they were originally open to let the light through.

The panelled ceiling is made of laich, which is very strong and will stand up to the inclemency of weather and to human neglect; it is the same material as was used for the main reredos in the Cathedral.

North and South Walls

If we examine the outside of these walls, it is clear that there were originally two entrance doors. The one on the south gave access to a narthex adjoining the minor nave. The door, now bricked-up, is composed of two striated Corinthian columns, with a small cornice on which the inscription can still be read: «Sancta Maria, succurre miseris». It opens onto the Callejón de los Jacintos. The other, in the north wall, now open again has no particular features.

East and West Walls

In the east wall, some chapels have been added; they will be discussed in a moment.

The west wall has nothing special about it: some commonplace windows admit light; some carved wooden support beams and the entrance door, under a double roof. The large leaves of this door are markedly Moorish in character, and may well be the original ones.

The outside of the east wall preserves almost intact the ornamental brickwork with large windows of many lobulations, now brick-ed-up, and two rectangular ones, also closed. The baths previously mentioned are only a few yards from this façade.

Such is the description, with as much detail as possible, of the synagogue in its purely Arabic part in its second period, that is, when the transition period to the Mauritanian Arabic was worked out upon the Byzantine theory, to lead to the Andalusian Arabic which can be seen in all its glory in the Synagogue of Samuel Levi (the Tránsito), the Salón de Mesa in the house of Esteban Illan (beneath the mudéjar tower of San Roman) and in the Chapel of San Eugenio and the Chapterhouse of the Cathedral.

It may be observed that the whole building does not contain a single Hebrew inscription, in contrast to the Tránsito where they are abundant. The reason is that the custom of putting inscriptions on the walls was introduced by the Jews in their synagogues about the year 1300, whereas this building was erected a century and a half earlier.

Conversion into a Catholic Church

The visitor will at once have been struck by some chapels at the east end, where there had probably been a closet for the keeping of the Sacred Books, and the platform from which the Rabbi read them to the people and commented on the Law.

These chapels hide the Moorish work on the ceiling of that side, and also the hollows of the mudéjar horseshoe arches in the side walls, through which light must have been admitted to this essential part of the synagogue.

As was said before, the synagogue was taken over in 1405 by St Vincent Ferrer at the head of a multitude from the Arrabal or suburb within the walls; from that moment, Jewish worship in the synagogue ceased and was never renewed.

In 1550, and after the necessary preliminary repairs after a century and a half of almost total abandon, Cardinal Juan Martinez Siliceo ordered the construction of the three chapels in question, and after some nearby houses had been added to the building, he founded a religious community with the title of «Refuge of Penance», which received fallen women who wished to expiate their sins by prayer and penance. To this community there was later added another which existed in the parish of Santiago del Arrabal entitled the community of Jesus and Mary, and the two together practised penance under the common invocation of Nuestra Señora de la Piedad. The community, however, lasted for only about 50 years, till the year 1600.

Thus the building again reverted to being the chapel of Santa Maria la Blanca for about two centuries. In 1791 it was profaned by being taken over as an infantry barracks, and in 1798 it became a military storehouse. These vicissitudes caused considerable damage, but it was finally repaired and declared a National Monument in 1875.

It is worth describing the above-mentioned chapels at the east end. They are evidently examples of the plateresque style and finely wrought; so much so that despite the difference between this style and the Arabic, there is no real clash between them, but rather, they complement one another in a remarkable piece of artistic «tolerance», a phenomenon not commonly found in the field of human social relationships.

It is clear that the chapels, and the reredos still existing in the central one, were built in the middle of the 15th century, when the Renaissance was at its peak, and two famous artists, Borgoña and Berruguete, left some of their finest work in the choir of the Cathedral. To Berruguete or one of his chief pupils this reredos is attributed.

The central chapel, which served as a chancel, has a handsome and elegant dome. It rests on four squinches in the form of gilded scallop shells, in between which there are other pretty gilded shells and well wrought coats of arms of the Cardinal who founded the chapel. The coat of arms consists of the ciphered name of Jesus in the centre, surrounded by flames apparently coming out of the letters, and depicted as engraved on a flint pedestal allusive to the Cardinal's surname (Siliceo, silecem, flint) and to the fact that fire is struck from flint by steel.

These coats of arms are surmounted by the cardinal's hat and supported by children. The ring on which the dome rests is adorned with pretty flowers in stucco.

The reredos consists of two sections framed within double columns running up to the cornice. The plinth bears two reliefs: the left-hand one represents the Magdalene, and the right-hand one a Sibyl with the inscription; SIYORD-ANEM-TRAN; her right hand rests on a book bearing the words: ECCE MULIER QUE AMAVIT DEUM.

On the Gospel side there are two medallions or squares; the lower one represents the Annunciation, and the upper the Adoration of the Magi. On the Epistle side there are two more: the Nativity and the Flight into Egypt. The central part has only two empty spaces, one of which contained Nuestra Señora de la Blanca. This beautiful reredos is surmounted by a circular medallion representing the sacred body of the dead Jesus in the arms of the Eternal Father. It is surrounded by angels with the instruments of the Passion: the lance of Longinus, the sponge soaked in vinigar, the ladder, etc. At the apex of all, there are two children holding a tablet with the legend: «O death, how bitter is thy memory!» At either side are two children with the Cardinal's arms.

This reredos is well worth close attention; the work is truly worthy of a goldsmith, and betrays the hand of an exceptional artist. Not for nothing is it attributed to the great Berruguete.

The side chapels are smaller, but also worth close inspection; their ceilings are in the form of handsome scallop shells.

A number of Arab paving tiles are distributed in the floor.

We will now bid farewell to this synagogue in which history and art, matter and spirit, have together produced a symphony in white, a sovereign beauty which leaves an unforgettable impression on the beholder's mind. And once more, amid the roses and lilies, and beneath the shade of the acacias dominated by a lofty cypress, we slowly make our way to the gate, and then, leaving the Plaza de la Judería on our left, and on our right the «Tarpeian Rock» above the river, we proceed to the other synagogue, namely that of Samuel Levi, today known as the Synagogue of the Tránsito.