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This Spanish Gothic Cathedral, Saint Mary of Toledo, also known as the Preimate Cathedral of Toledo, was built between 1227 and 1443 (-93?). It is compared to the French Cathedral of Bourges in plan, since neither church has what is commonly called a projecting transept. It's a five-aisled church with many side chapels, and the transepts only project as far as the first and fifth aisles. Its relocated altarpiece and the "transparente," which lights it naturally, has a special history and will be reviewed below.

This is the northwest tower, a tall, slender, graceful gothic design obviously reaching to the heavens. Its height is 90 to100 meters, depending on the source (295' – 328'). Here as elsewhere in Europe, the main church – in this case the cathedral - “dominates” views throughout the city. The tower rises above surrounding buildings, and serves as a spiritual beacon to the inhabitants.

The western facade, with doors set into deep tympanums. The Cathedral is composed of five aisles, but with typically just three doors. It is not of great height, characteristic of Spanish designs, but is quite wide internally, about 68 meters (220'). The northwest older and taller tower is to the left, and the southwest, newer and shorter tower, is on the right. Typical French style sculptural detailing can be seen on the tympanums.

The southwest tower, built during the Renaissance in the 17th century, features a dome, and actually covers a chapel, the Mozarabic Chapel. The passion of earlier religious fervor is not evident. Instead, there is a sense of assurance produced in a cold, unemotional manner. Here, everything spells out horizontality, and thus becomes rather static.

The Cathedral of Toledo is one of several Spanish churches, which received direct French influence through monks bringing designs from France. Statuary is at a minimum, with seemingly selected pieces projected beyond slight niches. Built on the site of a Moorish mosque it was, interestingly, originally the site of a Visogothic church.

A close-up of the northwest tower, which is the older tower, even though it is taller - or perhaps because it is taller, it is older. Designed during the Gothic period, between 1227 and 1493, it typifies the creative urges of the Gothic time to reach for the sky. Everything about the design is vertical, and soars upward. Notice, too, the multitude of crockets and other appendages, which blur the solid, dissipating the basic silhouette into the atmosphere.

Entrance to the south transept, through the “Gate of the Lions.” This was built between 1460 and 1466, and was a collaboration of Spanish and Flemish artists

A rose window within the Cathedral. The church design is early in Spanish Gothic history, and still basically simple. Notice the rather plain yet articulated quadripartite vault. The rather wild and dramatic Baroque-variation Churrugueresque style to follow in the 18th century changed the character of Spanish design. The church contains eighty-eight columns in its five aisles.

This is the reja in front of the altar area, and it features a crucifixion

The retablo is, perhaps, an exception to the otherwise simple design. It is a classic work of art, which becomes the physical body of the church – a total integration of symbolic art with architecture. The huge retablo of gilded and painted larchwood (1504) has four tiers of New Testament scenes with life-size figures.

This is the vaulted roof above the altar and the reredos.

The cloisters, begun in 1389, were built on the north side of the cathedral, and completed in 1425. The open courtyard is surrounded by four corridors composed of quadripartite vaults.

Although quite beautiful there might be an unsolved mystery lurking here. The north side of the cathedral was a “Hevbrew” commercial district, composed of shops and stalls. Owners were reluctant to give up their space, when it was announced a cloister was to be built. During financial negotiations, a fire wiped out the entire market. The Archbishop, Pedro Tenorio, who was the principle advocate of building the cloister, quickly took advantage of the destruction, and had the cloister constructed. This is sadly so like the forced destruction of the Synagogue and Jewish markets in the heart of Nuernberg, Germany in 1349. The foundation for the Church of our Lady, which occupies the site, was begun just six years later, in 1355. Whether the Nuernberg pogrom, which killed one-third of the Jewish population in the city (560 Jews were burned to death) was seen as a precedent for the Archbishop is open to further research. Interestingly, there was no monastic order affiliated with the church, a usual prerequisite for building a cloister. Remember, monks would use the sheltered ambulatory and peaceful courtyard to meditate and pray. Instead, the area was used progressively for storage, classrooms, businesses, city gatherings, and eventually prayer.

This is a small silver monstrance, a term used to describe silver or gold objects of devotion, usually housed within treasuries of cathedrals, and often carried through local streets during specific festivals. It pales in significance to the much larger and more elaborate gilded monstrance, described by Sir Banister Fletcher as a “custodia” and “the flower of Spanish Gothic miniature art;” it is viewable on the internet site:


It is the “custody” or “monstrance” in which the Eucharist is carried through the streets on Corpus Christi day. Sir Fletcher describes it as “silver-gilt” as it was made from solid silver, then gilded with gold, all brought from America by Christopher Columbus. Its designer was Enrique de Arfe, who completed the work in 1524.

The gilded monstrance is 2.7 meters (9') tall, contains 272 kilograms (600 pounds) of silver, and 17 kilograms (38 pounds) of gold. It is, naturally, kept in the Treasury of the Cathedral.

Writing in Royal Spain of Today, its authoress Tryphosa Bates Batcheller writes that apparently a Cardinal Ximenez opposed the first voyage of Columbus, yet is described as having been quite ready to appropriate its results, linking this hypocrisy to present day (she wrote the book in 1913) shenanigans. The adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” is appropriate here, and, interestingly, is the lead-off track from Cinderella's third album “Heartbreak Station.” The song is notable for making political commentary on Tipper Gore (Al's wife), who founded the Parents Resource Music Center.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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