Bell Tower from Calle Arco de Palacio
(Catedral Primada Santa María de Toledo) was built between 1226 and 1493. It
followed a building that had been built on the site several centuries earlier as a mosque. When
Alfonso VI conquered the city in 1085, one of the conditions of a peaceful transition was that the
religious practices of the Muslim population would not be disrupted, and in particular that they
would be allowed to continue using their mosque. Alfonso apparently intended to keep to this agreement,
but in 1087, during an absence of the king from the city, his wife (Queen Constance) and the new
archbishop of Toledo (Bernard of Sedirac) sent an armed force to take over the mosque, into which they
installed a Christian Altar. This nearly set off a Muslim uprising, and Alfonso was naturally most
displeased on his return, ordering the execution of all who took part. But the chief Muslim negotiator,
faqih Abu Walid, requested that the king show mercy and persuaded his fellow Muslims to accept the
Christian conversion of the mosque (possibly a matter of seeing the handwriting on the wall, and wishing
to avoid bloodshed). In 1088, Pope Urban II recognized the former mosque as the main cathedral over the
kingdoms of León and Castile, and it stayed that way until 1226. At that time, during the reign of
Ferdinand III, deterioration and shortcomings in the church led to the decision to demolish it and
replace it with a new cathedral. The new cathedral took 267 years to build, but was finally completed
during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella.
The cathedral's main façade, facing the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to the west, has three doors, with the
Portal of Hell (Puerta del Infierno) and the Portal of the Last Judgment (Puerta del Juicio
Final) flanking the central Portal of Forgiveness (the Puerta del Perdón). To the left of the
doors is a 300-foot bell tower. A matching tower was originally intended for the position to the right
of the doors, but this plan was changed when it was discovered that the ground at that point might not be
stable enough. Instead, a Mozarabic chapel with a smallish, elongated dome was built there.
Main Façade with Towers
Despite all the doors on the west side, entry for visitors is through a door on the south side of
the church, along the Calle Cardenal Cisneros (the ticket office is across the street from the church).
On entering the church, we could see that it was pretty wide – there are five gothic naves, plus a
cloister to the north. Apparently it was important to use all of the land once used for the mosque.
Above Puerta del Perdón
Mozarabic Chapel Dome
After looking around a little, we found the church to have an odd layout that we'd seen in other
Spanish cathedrals – the cathedral's main chapel, which one might expect to be the center of
attention for the church, faces a choir which is surrounded by a choir screen that makes it
impossible to see into the main chapel from anywhere except the elaborate but smallish choir
and the small area between the choir and chapel. The largest contiguous floor area is behind
the choir, from which there is a nice view of the back side of the choir screen. This part of
the screen, called the trascoro, is nicely decorated in its own right, and actually contains
three small chapels. They're nice little chapels, but they pale in comparison to the main chapel,
discussed below. I'm not sure why there's so much open space behind the trascoro – maybe
worshipers are expected to stand there during services, staring at the trascoro. Or maybe there's
someplace where a whole lot of folding chairs are stored and sometimes brought out, so worshipers
can gaze at the trascoro in seated comfort.
If you back up from the trascoro far enough, it's possible to see part of the main chapel
sticking up above the choir. This was better than nothing, but not really good enough for us.
We walked around the choir so we could see the main chapel close up. Here we found that the
main chapel was locked away behind the bars of a large grille. Through the bars we could sort
of see the chapel's massive altarpiece, created between 1497 and 1504 by a team of artists and
craftsmen. The altarpiece is covered with scenes from the life of Christ, including the
nativity and the crucifixion, with several scenes in between. The altarpiece also includes a
central depiction of the cathedral's monstrance, discussed below. We were able to get some
pictures by pointing our cameras between the bars of the grille. The altarpiece is
beautiful – heaven forbid anyone should be able to see it very well.
Madonna and Child Figures, Trascoro
Main Chapel Beyond Trascoro
Grille to Main Chapel
Main Chapel Grille
Main Altarpiece Through Grille
Crucifixion and Ascension
With the main chapel being the Main Chapel, it's also the burial place for some prestigious
remains. Over in the corner to the left are Alfonso VII (1105-1157) and his first wife Berenguela
of Barcelona, and on the left wing is Cardinal Pedro González de Mendoza. Mendoza was a
confidante of Queen Isabella, working tirelessly on her behalf for several years. He acted as an
intermediary during disputes between Spanish royalty and the Papacy, and was also an advocate for
the outlandish schemes of Christopher Columbus. Anyway, he's buried in the main chapel of the
Crucifixion, Ascension, Nativity, Passion
Monstrance, Scenes from Life of Christ
The choir, directly opposite the main chapel, is also protected by an imposing grille, but this
one had an open gate in it, allowing us to enter and look around. The inside of the surrounding
choir screen is lined with two tiers of beautifully carved choir stalls. The carvings of the
lower tier mostly depict scenes from the conquest of Granada, while the upper tier has
representations of prophets and other characters. Above the stalls is similarly carved
stonework of marble and alabaster. The stonework and upper tier are mainly the work of 16th
Century sculptors Philip of Burgundy and Alonso Berruguete, while the lower tier was done by
Rodrigo Alemán in the late 15th Century.
Tomb of Cardinal Mendoza
Above Tombs of Alfonso VII and Doña Berenguela
Madonna and Child Figures in Choir
Side Reliefs and Choir Stalls
Choir Stall Detail
Sculpture, Reliefs and Choir Stalls
Atop the left and right choir screens are two gigantic 18th Century pipe organs. It must be
very loud in the choir when duets are played.
Sculpture Above Choir Stalls with Rose Window
Relief Between Choir Stalls
Going around the back side of the main chapel (there is a semi-circular path known as the
ambulatory), we ran into a unique feature called El Transparente. This feature
uses a skylight in the cathedral wall to illuminate an elaborate baroque altarpiece on the back
of the main chapel with the morning sun. Unfortunately, we were visiting in the late afternoon,
so we didn't get a chance to fully appreciate this feature. However, the skylight (also heavily
decorated) does let in a certain amount of indirect light, so some illumination was projected
onto the upper part of the altarpiece. El Transparente was added in 1729-32, which explains why
it's baroque in style, while the rest of the cathedral is high gothic.
El Transparente Skylight
El Transparente Skylight
Detail, El Transparente Skylight
Arrayed along the outside of the ambulatory are small chapels and entrances to larger chapels.
There is also an entrance to the cathedral's chapterhouse, also known is its capitulary room.
A chapterhouse is used as a meeting room for a cathedral's chapter. This particular chapterhouse
has an anteroom which was once a chapel. The anteroom is decorated with elaborately carved
cabinetry (originally for the storing of capitulary documents) and a coffered wooden ceiling.
Madonna and Child on Altarpiece
The walls of the chapterhouse itself, commissioned by Cardinal Cisneros (Queen Isabella's
confessor) in 1504, are decorated with frescoes by Juan de Borgoña depicting the life of the
Virgin and the Passion of Christ. Below the frescoes is a series of portraits of all the
Toledo archbishops leading up to Cardinal Cisneros. Again, there is an elaborately decorated
Cabinetry, Chapterhouse Anteroom
Entrance to Chapterhouse
A door at the north end of the ambulatory leads into the rooms of the sacristy, in which are
displayed enough prestigious artworks to qualify the sacristy as a museum unto itself.
Philip and Crucifixion Scene, Chapterhouse
Last Judgment, Chapterhouse
Sacristy Ceiling (Luca Giordano)
Paul III, Titian
The Virgin of the Veil, Raphael
The Arrest of Christ, Goya
St. John the Baptist, Caravaggio
Especially well represented is Doménikos Theotokópoulos, the artist commonly known as El Greco.
El Greco was born in Crete in 1541, but moved to Toledo in 1577, where he would spend the rest of
his life, until 1614. He had hoped to gain the favor of Philip II, who was in the process of
building and decorating the
monastery at El Escorial,
but apparently El Greco's style (which was
rather ahead of its time) was not to Philip's liking. But his work was much better appreciated
in Toledo, where he worked steadily and apparently lived well for the remainder of his life. A
recreation of his Toledo residence is now
(which we did not get a chance to visit).
Virgin of the Treasure (13th C.)
Virgin with Child in Alabaster
The Disrobing of Christ, El Greco
St. Joseph and Child, El Greco
Also part of the sacristy is a vestuary, in which ceremonial clothing and decorations are displayed.
St. Jude Thaddeus, El Greco
St. Andrew, El Greco
Altar Cover with Coral Decoration (detail)
Scattered throughout the cathedral were several chapels (discussed below), and assorted other
decorations which appeared not to be chapels. One such decoration was a small column which was
decorated with angels and cherubs. We never figured out exactly what it was used for – it looked
like it could be used for a hatrack, but this somehow seemed unlikely.
Robe with Crown and Heralds
Column with Angels
Column with Angels (detail)
Which brings us to the chapels. There are chapels all over the cathedral grounds, most of which
are fenced off from the oafish tourists. Many of them are small, some consisting of little more
than an altar with an altarpiece. Here are a few of those:
Christ with Column
Puerta de los Leones and Rose Window
Capilla del Sagrado Corazón
Capilla de San Juan Bautista
Chapel of the Baptismal Font
Other chapels are big enough to walk into and look around in (or would be, if a fence wasn't in
the way). Among others, these include the Mozarabic chapel (located in the cathedral's southwest corner beneath
the dome shown above), the Capilla de San Ildefonso (found directly across from El Transparente's
altarpiece) and the Capilla de los Reyes Nuevos (also entered from the ambulatory; assorted royals
are buried here, including Henry II, assassin of Pedro the Cruel).
Siege and Capture of Oran, Mozarabic Chapel
Capilla de San Ildefonso
Above Bishop Albornoz Tomb, Capilla de San Ildefonso
Capilla de los Reyes Nuevos
Chapel Ceiling, Capilla de los Reyes Nuevos
Entry Gate Detail, Capilla de los Reyes Nuevos
One chapel, the Capilla de la Descensión, is not located along an outer wall of the building,
but is stuck up against one of the cathedral's columns. And surrounded by a low fence. By
tradition, it is supposed to mark the spot where the Virgin Mary descended and placed a chasuble
(a liturgical vestment) on St. Ildephonsus in 665.
Another chapel, that of St. Blaise, is found at the far end of the cloister from the cathedral
proper. This chapel has a very nice ribbed ceiling, and once had some beautiful frescoes along
its walls. Unfortunately, the chapel was built well below ground level, and seepage over the
centuries caused a chronic humidity problem which has severely damaged the frescoes.
Capilla de la Descensión
Relief, Capilla de la Descensión
A final chapel, located directly beneath the bell tower in the northwest corner of the church,
is no longer used as a chapel (it was once the chapel of St. John), but is now used to present
the cathedral's Treasury to its visitors. A number of valuable historical articles are displayed
here, but the most important is the Great Monstrance of Arfe. If this sounds familiar, it might
be because there is also an Arfe monstrance in
the Mezquita in Córdoba.
Like the Córdoba monstrance, the Toledo monstrance was created by Enrique de Arfe, an immigrant from the Cologne
area of Germany (where he was born with the name Heinrich von Harff). At more than ten feet,
this monstrance is a little taller than the one in Córdoba. It was created using 18 kg of gold
and 183 kg of silver between 1517 and 1524, and since 1595 it has been customary to carry it on a
float in the annual procession of Corpus Christi. In the Treasury it sits atop a baroque 18th
Bell Tower from Cloister
Ceiling, Chapel of St. Blaise
Crown of the Virgin of the Tabernacle
The Bible of St. Louis
After visiting the Cathedral, we found dinner and retired to our room at the hotel. The following
day would be our only full day in Toledo, so we wanted to make it count. We would be starting it
with a visit to the Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes.
Great Monstrance of Arfe
Platform, Great Monstrance of Arfe