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Synagogue of El Transito - Sephardi Museum


Synagogue of El Transito
The Synagogue of El Transito is the oldest synagogue in Toledo, Spain, founded by Samuel Halevi in 1356. It features Nasrid-style polychrome stucco-work, Hebrew inscriptions of the names of God, multifoil arches and Mudéjar panelled ceiling. After the expulsion of the city's Jews under the Alhambra decree in 1492, it was converted into a church. It now forms part of the Sephardi Museum, exploring the Jewish culture of Mediaeval Toledo.
This Synagogue was the private family synagogue of the King's wealthy treasurer, Don Samuel HaLevi Abulafia. When he built it around year 1400, he defied all the laws about synagogues being smaller and lower than churches, and plain of decoration.

Synagogue of El Transito Map

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Synagogue of El Transito

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The wealthy Jew Samuel Levi, treasurer and personal friend of King Peter the First of Castile, known as Peter the Cruel, wished to imitate David, founder of the Temple at Jerusalem, and erected this superb building at his own expense. He desired a palace worthy of the God of Israel, and paid no regard to difficulty or cost in building this synagogue, which he might well have wished to call by the name of «temple», had not that title been reserved solely for the Temple of Jerusalem which was completed by Solomon.

A few paces from the synagogue is the building known as the «House of El Greco». Today they are separated by a narrow lane, paved in bricks set on edge in the Arab style; but in the 14th century there was close connexion between the religious edifice and Samuel Levi's palace. The latter covered much of the site occupied by the houses behind the one which was the home, two centuries later, of the great Cretan painter, and took in the latter and most of the promenade on the cliff overlooking the gorge in which the Tagus runs.

This «paseo», whose trees and flowers sweeten the air around the handsome synagogue and provide pleasant shade in summer for residents and visitors, also bears the name of the «Tránsito». The synagogue was certainly built in the reign of Peter I, about the year 1366.

Exterior of the synagogue

The basis of the structure is brickwork, as usual in Arabic edifices. In the outer walls, it is easy to observe the way that broad bands of rubble masonry alternate with narrow courses of brickwork, a peculiar feature of Moslem architecture, which was adopted in both civil and religious buildings of the period.

In the western side, which faces onto the Calle de Comuneros de Castilla, three rows of window-openings can be seen. The upper row consists of eight (the two at either end being bricked-in), having mudéjar lobulated arches with handsome lattices which can be appreciated better when seen against the light from inside. Below, three even better windows in the same style are also provided with beautiful lattices; and still lower down, broad quadrangular windows flood the interior with golden light at sunset.

The entrance is in the south façade, and here we can see pure brick, fine yet robust, which has stood up to the ravages of the weather and to man's neglect for six centuries.

This wall displays several rnullioned windows and cornices typical of Arab architecture, and is surmounted by the Cross of Calatrava. The bells have slumbered in silence since they ceased to call the faithful to prayer.

In modern times, a porter's lodge has been built in this façade, a feature which certainly adds nothing to its beauty, while noticeably reducing the width of the vestibule or entrance.

Interior of the synagogue

As was said before, Samuel Levi wished to adopt the words of David which head this account. His object was to construct, for his own use and that of other wealthy Jews, a temple fit to compare with the one in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. It should communicate with his own palace, and should be worthy of the Majesty of the God of Israel. While the fantastic richness and luxury of his palace called forth admiration, astonishment, and even envy and dissimulated censure, it was not fitting: that the Lord should be adored in a humbler abode...

Thus it was that money without stint, time without limitation, unflagging faith and unvacillating art, gradually proceeded to construct this architectural marvel, which fills the beholder with astounded delight as soon as he has crossed its threshold.

Right well did the Rabbi Meyr Abdelí succeed in carrying out the Hebrew potentate's desires: the power of money and of art hand in hand in creating an edifice which after-ages were to wonder at. Not in vain can we read, among the praises of Peter I of Castile, of Samuel Levi, and above all, those of Israel's Lord Himself, which are carved on panels and in friezes, frequent eulogies of the artificer who achieved this splendour: Mayr Abdelí.

But here there is no forest of columns with lovely capitals, upholding fine Arab arches, and all in gleaming white, as in the Chief Synagogue, today known as Santa Maria la Blanca. This synagogue is completely different. What we see here is an unobstructed rectangle of 78 feet by 32, surrounded by four walls literally covered with unbelievable filigree work, like some bridal embroidery done by the fingers of fairies. Only such work as embroidery can be compared with the designs left on the white page of the stucco by the magical hands of the mudéjar artists. When we leave the building, gratitude should call forth in our hearts a tribute of posthumous homage to those artists who came from Granada, here to repeat, with even greafer perfection were it possible, the marvels of the immortal Alhambra.

It is well worth while to let the eye travel slowly over every detail of this matchless art. Our gaze, moving from wonder to wonder, hardly knows where to seek a moment's pause for meditation. Lapped in this atmosphere of inexhaustible beauty, it follows ecstatically the magic of this art, which, as if touched by the fingers of Midas, is able to turn everything into solid gold.

At the east end, where there are three tall narrow arches, as if the beauty of the Arab palaces of Granada had sought still further stylization in Toledo, large expanses of wall have submitted their stone-hard stucco to the sublime touch of the artist. Oriental pines, vine-leaves, palmettos, escutcheons of Castile and León, lilies of the valley, twisted vine-shoots, the star of David, hemispherical reliefs, the Hebrew letter Zain which signifies strength, delicate bows, a frieze packed with lines which turn dry geometry into poetry; lines interwoven into a gorgeous dreamland labyrinth in which the imagination wanders lost in delight.

Let us begin by contemplating the feast of art on the western wall, perhaps the most sumptuous because this was the place of honour where the reading and commentating of the Books of the Old Law took place.

It is divided vertically into three rectangular sections, all three beneath the very slightly projecting canopy of the stalactitic almocárabe frieze, similar to the one on the ceiling of the chapel which serves as Treasury in the Cathedral.

It is finely wrought, after the manner of a large reredos, on a background of still more delicate work; the colours of red and green, painted six centuries ago, are only slightly faded with the relentless passage of time.

This marvellous retable is an astonishing piece of Moorish filigree embroidery, and in square panels and on the edges of the arches there are Hebrew inscriptions, quoted below. Three beautiful arches, whose curves form lobulations alternately round and pointed, rest on pairs of marble columns with original capitals. On that side there enters the light which, six centuries ago, silhouetted the chief Rabbi when, aloft in the «Wooden Towers», he used to read and comment on the Old Testament, and remind the Jews of their duties under the Law.

The above-mentioned inscriptions read approximately thus in translation:

On the left side as we face it:

«Behold the sanctuary that was sanctified in Israel, and the house that Samuel built, and the wooden Tower for reading the written Law and the laws ordained by God for the enlightemment of the understanding of those who seek perfection»

On the right (remembering the letter Zain):

«This in the stronghold of perfect letters, the house of God; and the words and deeds that they wrought before God to call together the peoples who come before the doors to hear the Law of God in this house»

Below these, and in the square panels already mentioned, we read the following. On the Epistle (right-hand) side:

«The mercies that God was pleased to do with us, by raising up amongst us Judges and Princes to deliver us from our enemies and oppressors. There being no king of Israel that could deliver us from the last captivity of God which for the third time was raised by God Israel, dispersing us some to this land and others to divers parts, where they are desirous for their land and we for ours. And we, the men of this land, built this house with a strong and mighty arm. That day when it was made was great and well-pleasing to the Jews, who through the fame of this came from the ends of the earth to see if there were any remedy that some Lord should rise up over us, who should be unto us as a tower of strength with perfection of under-tanding to rule our State. There was not found such a Lord among us who were in this part; but there rose up among us for our succour Samuel who was God-with-him and with us. And he found grace and mercy for us. He was a man of war and peace; mighty among all peoples and a great builder. This came to pass in the time of the King Don Pedro; and may God he his help, and enlarge his estates, and prosper him and exalt him and set his seat above all Princes. May God be with him and with all his house; and may all men bow down to him, and may the great ones that be in the land know him and may all those that shall hear his name rejoice to hear it in all his Realms, and be it declared that he is become a helper and defender unto Israel»

The first thing this legend shows is the nostalgia of the Hebrew people for their beloved land of Palestine, a longing that was to accompany them throughout the centuries, never losing hope that one day their descendants might be able to return to their country just as those who were expelled from Spain by the Catholic Sovereings stayed firm in the faith that those who are still living in southeastern Europe might eventually return and live in their old homes.

Secondly, it shows their unshakable faith in the God of Israel, their respect and gratitude towards King Peter I, and the elevation of Samuel Levi to the rank of a demigod. The inscriptions bounding the friezes on all the walls, on the mouldings of the ornamentation, are from Psalms 83 and 99, and will be quoted later.

We now continue the above translation, which was made with great care by a learned Jew about a century ago. That on the lefthand side of the main wall runs:

«With (his) protection and leave we determined to build this temple, peace be with him and all his generation and relief in all labour. Now God hath delivered us out of the power of our enemy: and since the day of our captivity there hath not come to us any other such refuge. We made this building with the counsel of our wise men. Mercy was great upon us. Don Rabbi Meyr enlightened us. May blessing be upon his memory. He was born that he might be unto our people as a treasure: for before this Our people had war at their gates every day. This Holy man gave such ease and relief to the poor as never was done in the first times nor the ancient times. This Prophet was verily from the hand of God: a just man, who walked in perfection. He was one of them that feared the Lord and cared for his holy name. Besides all this he added that he wished to build this house and his dwelling, and finished it in a very good year for Israel. God increased a thousand and a hundred of his people after this house was built for him: who were men and mighty ones that this house might be upheld with a strong hand and great power. No people was found in the four corners of the world that was of less avail before this: but hail, O Lord Our God, thy name being powerful and mighty, thou didst ordain that we should happily conclude this house in good days and fair years: that thy name should prevail therein and that the fame of the builders should resound in all the world and that men should say: "This is the house of prayer which thy servants made, to invoke therein the name of God their redeemer".»

It is worth reading these inscriptions carefully, to get an idea of how the Israelite people caught the artistic manifestations of the artificers with a clear intuition and a detailed perception of the marvellous tracings on the extremely hard stucco, which nevertheless turned soft beneath the inspired chisel which carved filigree as it pleased. And how it burst into eulogies of those extraordinary artists!

While not fogetting the munificence of Levi or the protection of the Castilian king, they did not fail to remember Meyr Abdelí, the hero of this bloodless battle between an artresisting material and an art which beautified it.

It will be observed that the only decorative elements used are drawn from vegetation, especially oriental flora, and from geometry. The reason is that the Koran forbids Moslem artists to make representations of the human form or of any kind of animals.

Pursuing our survey of the interior, we now come to the truly magnificent frieze which runs along the north and south walls. It is bounded all the way along by mouldings bearing Hebrew inscriptions, and deserves the closest attention.

As was said before, it appears traced by magical fingers endowed with the power of Midas to turn all they touched into gold. The artist seems to have exhausted all human possibilities of art and to have called in the very angels to help him. In this frieze, green vine-clusters and twisted vine-shoots, silky bows filled with allusive inscriptions, palmettos, pine-cones, the arms of Castile, the symbolic fleur-de-lis on the heraldic tower, in other words the flora of the east and the escutcheons of León and Castile, all stylized in such a way, with such perfect combination and exquisite taste that the beholder's eye and mind remain in suspense, unwilling to leave this paradise of art and desiring, as it were, to carry it away, fixed in the soul for ever.

Higher up, we have a narrow frieze, running along the same walls, and inscribed as follows.

On the north wall, Psalm 83, 1-5:

«For the winepresses, a psalm for the sons of Core.—How lovely are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts: my soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord. My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God. For the sparrow hath found herself a house, and the turtle a nest for herself where she may lay her young ones: thy altars, O Lord of hosts: my king and my God. Blessed are they that dwell in thy house, O Lord: they shall praise thee for ever and ever»

On the south, Psalm 99:

«A psalm of praise.—Sing joyfully to God, all the earth: serve ye the Lord with gladness. Come in before his presence with exceeding great joy. Know ye that the Lord he is God: he made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture. Go ye into his gates with praise, into his courts with hymns: and give glory to him. Praise ye his name, for the Lord is sweet: his mercy endureth for ever, and his truth to generation and generation»

We have mentioned the presence of the arms of Castile and Leon, with the fleur-de-lis, in different parts of the decoration. It is said that the use of this flower may have been a posthumous tribute by King Peter to his wife Blanche of Bourbon, the fleur-de-lis being the emblem of France. In such a tribute, maybe, sorrow and remorse may have played a part. If King Peter was true to his sobriquet of «the Cruel» in his treatment of Blanche, he may also have obeyed his other sobriquet of «the Just» in making posthumous reparation. These friezes should also be studied with a good glass, if their full beauty is to be appreciated, and especially that of the background, as delicate as the finest lace.

On the south wall, below the frieze which serves as a sort of canopy, there is a gallery with Moorish lattice, straight lintel, and delicately carved plinths, all in the same mudéjar style. The gallery is broad and luxurious for its day and was reserved for women. Access to it was given by a door handsomely decorated with plaster work, perhaps in imitation of the Beautiful Gate of the Temple at Jerusalem by which the «Court of the Women» was entered. It takes little imagination to see the row of their dark-eyed faces, above the parapet, gazing down intently at the Rabbi who was commenting on the passages read from the sacred Law. A similar gallery once ran along the front wall as well, but insurmountable difficulties prevented this restoration.

If we now look above the superb frieze we shall be struck by a set of 54 arches, distributed around the four walls. They are most beautiful and elegant and rest on pretty pairs of alabaster columns, wrought in the most varied manner. These arches have many lobulations above the Corinthian capitals, and serve to frame windows —some open, some bricked up— with really enchanting lattices of stone in geometrical designs. Each lattice is different, and each is carved from a single piece.

These windows let in the light, which can never be too bright to illuminate the gems of art in the building, and is indeed insufficient for a full admiration of the superb carved ceiling. This is in fact made of cedar-wood, from the famous cedars of Lebanon with which the Temple of Jerusalem was built. The Jews brought over this wood especially, so that the perfume of their lost fatherland might mitigate their homesickness.

The use of binoculars is really needed to appreciate this superb ceiling, worthy of the priceless treasure it covers. It is 40 feet from the floor and is composed of a vast number of pieces. Wood and mother-of-pearl have been combined in it to produce a peerless gem of beauty; but remorseless time has gradually stripped off most of the mother-of-pearl. Yet we can still admire its lovely geometrical designs, so typical of the Arab style. The triangular squinches at the corners are some what easier to see, and at a suitable hour of day even a casual glance is enough to show with what mastery they were wrought by these incomparable mudéjar craftsmen - these Moslems who seem to have wished to repay with the gold of their art the tolerance of Alfonso VI in allowing them to remain in Toledo after its reconquest in May 1085.

The altars

It may seem strange that there should be Christian altars in a Jewish synagogue. But after the Jews were expelled from Spain in the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella (1492), this building was handed over to the Knights of Calatrava, one of the four Military Orders in Spain; in return, the Order ceded to the Comendadoras de Santiago the Priory they possessed at what is now the Convent of Santa Fe, on the esplanade known as the Miradero; this site had been that of the palace which in 1221 the birth of Alfonso the Wise (son of St Ferdinand III), in whose reign the present Cathedral was begun.

The Knights of Calatrava established in the former synagogue the Priory of San Benito (St Benedict) for their spiritual needs; however, in exceptional cases other crusaders of the Faith —the Knights of the Orders of Santiago, Alcantara and Montesa— were also entitled to use it, though without the right of burial there.

Three altars were then erected in the hall. A large main reredos was put up in front of the eastern wall, covering the arches through which the first rays of the rising sun now enter, which formerly silhouetted the Chief Rabbi as he read and commentated the Old Testament. The reredos disappeared some years ago, but some of its panels went to the Mozarabic Chapel in the Cathedral.

As was said, the Knights of Calatrava were entitled to be buried here, as we can see from the 19 tombs in the floor, the three in the central part being outstanding.

The first, the one nearest the east wall, is decorated in the gothic style, and bears no epitaph. The second has renaissance decoration and states that it contains the remains of «Freire Don Pedro de Silva, Comendador of Ojos, son of the Most Magnificent Lords of Ribera, who died on the last day of January 1500...»

The third in the centre, which like all the remaining ones is in renaissance style, is that of «Freire Don Grandi... Knight», but the inscription is so worn that it can hardly be read properly.

The gravestone on the left of the first mentioned states that it contains the body of the «Comendador of la Fuente who died on 8 March 1524».That on the other side reads thus: «F. Tello Ramirez de Guzman, Comendador of Moratalaz, son of Ramiro Núñez de Guzman and Doña Juana Carrillo, died 7 August 1588, aged 83 years».

The rest of the 19 tombstones are completely illegible. All bear coats of arms, among which we frequently find those of the Guzman family with its famous cauldrons, and the crescent moon of the descendants of Don Alvaro de Luna.

Chapel of «Nuestra Señora del Transito»

When the decline of the Military Orders set in with the falling off of their revenues, the church of St Benedict became that of «Nuestra Señora del Tránsito» (the Transitus of Our Lady), a title it still bears, though only the title, since worship ceased there many years ago.

All that remains of its period and that of the Knights of Calatrava are the more or less clear traces of some altars and of the doorway of the former sacristy.

On the altar on the north side there is still the hollow and the frontispiece with the arms of the cardinal who turned the synagogue into a Christian church: Cardinal Cisneros. The one on the opposite wall is in renaissance style —plateresque— and quite well preserved. The columns are entirely covered with very fine carving in the plateresque style, so-called because its reliefs imitate the work of silversmiths (plateros).

Above the arch, flatter than a semicircle like the first renaissance one, runs a pretty frieze with Calatrava crosses, human figures, fabulous animals, etc.; above, two handsome urns with supporters.

Looking to the left, we can see the doorway of the former sacristy, also finely carved with plateresque work, which was much in vogue at the time that it and these altars were made.

Both bear the well-known arms of the Guzmans, and on the lintel is the inscription «Xpoval me fecit», which tells us that the artist's name was Christopher (Cristobal: the Xp is the Greek for Chr, and V is written for B, the two letters being commonly confused in Spanish; the artist would thus have spelt his name Christoval). This plateresque style, here shown at its finest, is also to be admired in the Cathedral choir, the Hospital of Santa Cruz and elsewhere.

We should not leave the building without a further visit to the east wall, where we can get an idea of the pavement that existed when the synagogue was at the height of its splendour. It is a small rectangle, roped off so that the tread of visitors may not wear it out; here we see the green and white paving tiles which in distant days were trodden by the silent, solemn steps of the Rabbi as he proceeded to the «Wooden Tower», perhaps by the light of the seven-branched candelabrum, to call the Children of Israel to prayer. On the north wall there is a long seat of Arab glazed tiles. The west wall and part of the south are occupied by choirstalls from some Toledo church which no longer exists.

Near the exit door, on the right, there is a room which was once the documentary archive of the Military Orders of Alcantara and Calatrava.

We leave, not without regret, this magnificent synagogue, whose beauties cannot but remain permanently impressed on our minds.

Back again in the street, if it is spring, our senses will be delighted with the scent of the roses and acacias in flower; if it is summer, the green leaves will give us welcome shade; and if it is winter, the sun of Castile will still flood us with gentle warmth. At all seasons we shall find pleasant benches from which to gaze across the river gorge to the famous «cigarrale's», the country houses with orchards praised by Tirso de Molina, dotting with their whiteness the hillsides from which the Cretan painter took his greys —those hillsides, where the body takes its ease and the mind gives itself over to poetical musings, while contemplating Toledo, like a jewel encrusted on a rock around which the Tagus swirls.

Later, we can continue our poetical journey through this quarter where everything speaks of olden times, of Jewish memories and of romantic legends, while above us towers the hill of San Cristóbal, the site of the Moorish alcazaba, scene of the celebrated Noche toledana which has passed into history as a byword for a night of horror.

On arriving at the bend in the ascending road, we may take the stairway on the right up to the esplanade of San Cristobal, now a broad belvedere from which the panorama is well worth while contemplating.

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