Toledo (English version)

Email journal E2 – Part 2

July 5, 2010

Saturday, July 3 was our day trip to Toledo. Toledo was the capital of Christian Spain from 1085 – 1561, when the capital was moved to Madrid. Toledo has an interesting and rich history. It was one of the Spanish cities where three cultures lived in relative peace for generations – Muslims, Jews and Christians. An enlightened king, Alfonso XIII invited a group of translators who translated some of the most important philosophical, literary and scientific works from Arabic and Greek into Latin, the official language of the ruling class at that time. Without these translated works, Europe would never have had a Renaissance! And it all began here, in Toledo.

It was raining when we approached Toledo, so my pictures from the bus are blurry, and it also rained for awhile after we got there. I was cold and damp, but of course, (Murphy’s Law!), as soon as I bought a rain cape, the rain stopped and the sun came out for the rest of the day. I never even had a chance to wear the rain cape!!

Our tour guide took us to the main sites of Toledo. First we went to the Cathedral where he told us way too many details, facts and figures, instead of helping us to understand what everything meant. The Cathedral was built mostly in the Gothic style, on top of the remains of a mosque, of which were only retained the columns which held up the arches. It had been a holy site before that too – the Visigoths had a church there and the Romans had a temple to the goddess Minerva. Anyway, the Cathedral is huge and opulent. The most interesting parts were the choir loft with its 5000 pipe organ and mahogany seats whose backs contain carvings of the conquest of Granada. Since few people could read in those days, especially the Latin Bible, they made a huge altar with scenes from many Bible stories, and of course, Christ on the cross at the very top. These scenes on the altar are illuminated by the morning sunlight which comes in through a hole in the ceiling surrounded by frescoes.

There’s an interesting El Greco painting in the Sacristy called “El Expolio.”  (Note: I have posted a copy of this painting in my other Toledo post in Spanish). This work was commissioned by the bishops of Toledo but when it was finished, they did not want to pay the expensive price that the artist was asking. It is a beautiful work showing the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemane. The bishops found 3 “mistakes” which they used as their reason not to pay El Greco his full fee: 1. The women depicted in the picture were not at Jesus’ arrest;  they didn’t arrive until he was crucified. 2. the Romans that came to arrest Jesus were dressed like Spaniards instead of Romans, which I suppose was offensive to the bishops, but which makes sense in understanding the full meaning of El Greco’s work. 3. Some of the figures in the painting were taller than Jesus, which was a no-no in those days – Jesus had to be the tallest, most imposing figure in a work of art.

Something I found interesting which was not explained by the guide (I asked someone) were vestments hanging from the ceiling in various spots. Apparently these were the vestments worn by the clergy who were buried beneath those places under the floor.

We then visited a little chapel at Santo Tomas church, which houses another painting by El Greco, who lived in the Jewish quarter of Toledo. Although the guide spent way too much time explaining this painting in detail, it was good to know that El Greco was paid handsomely for that work!

Example of Moorish arch. That’s my husband going through the doorway!

The 14th century synagogue known as El Tránsito became a church after the Jews were expelled from Spain. The synagogue was originally built by the Moors (Muslims) who were in control of Toledo at that time, and it is one of two old synagogues preserved in Toledo. The Moorish influence can be seen in the arches and in the decoration of the walls which use Islamic motifs and designs. Among these are sayings carved in Hebrew. Upstairs in the women’s gallery (where women and children had to sit during services) there is now a Sephardic museum which tells of Jewish Spanish history and customs.

After that we visited the Monasterio San Juan de los Reyes. We were able to take pictures here, of the beautiful courtyard where there stood an orange tree full of ripe oranges and a fountain in the center.

Courtyard at Monasterio San Juan de los Reyes. You can see the oranges on the tree!

This monastery was built to honor Queen Isabella’s forces’ victory and she had in mind for herself and the king to be buried there, but by the time they died the Spanish Christians had reconquered Granada from the Moors, so they are buried there instead.

After seeing these main sights, we were free for two hours to explore on our own. I wish I had brought my guidebook because there are other sights worthwhile seeing, but instead Dale and I wandered around, I in quest of good damascene jewelry! I found a place and bought a beautiful pendant and earrings of good quality. I remembered this beautiful damascene work from my first trip to Toledo. It is characterized by a gold or silver backing, with a thin black layer, on which are pressed gold and silver threads in strikingly beautiful designs and scenes You can buy everything from knife holders (Toledo is famous for its steel knives also) to decorative plates to jewelry in damascene.

We ended up back in the Plaza Zocodover where we sat to cool off with ice cream.

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