Toledo – Spain’s medieval treasure

Driving to Toledo from Madrid Airport can take you an hour or so. You can also catch a train departing from the beautiful Atocha station in Madrid, but this time we decided to hire a car. I had some serious ‘backlog’ in Toledo and wanted to make up for it.

Having entered the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary through the Gate of Forgiveness, I immediately went to see El Greco paintings. I have some little trauma associated with this artist, so, naturally, it pulled me to him. This was professors Kostyrko last year at the university. The exam in art’s history, the first term. We would walk into professor’s office in pairs. The exam covered the whole year, so I spent a lot of time studying for it. Mannerism was not my strength, so I asked for a lecture from a well-known in artistic circles, architecture lecturer, my high school teacher, and a mother of my childhood friends, now a great companion for long night’s discussions over a bottle of wine. The lecture was long, absorbing and detailed as always – that’s a trademark of Iwona Sandach’s talks. No wonder I felt that I knew almost everything about El Greco.

I was lucky. We got to the exam date, I draw my questions and I saw that I was to talk about Mannerism, so here how I started: “The images of Goya are full of ecstasy, they have vibrant colours and expressive forms. The Count Orgaz funeral, The Adoration of the Madonna and the Child by Saint Hyacinth and so on, and so forth… The professor was supposed to sleep during the exam, but this time she had her eyes wide open and asked one short question: “Who paintedSaturn devouring its own children?”. “El Greco” – I responded quickly and recklessly. That was the end of my exam – I failed and had to retake it. My friend (I guess due to stress) also failed. She has not spoken to me since. I hope she’s got good life and does not wake up at night due to Spanish nightmares.

The Toledo Cathedral is said to be the most gothic of the Spanish cathedrals and the most Spanish of the gothic cathedrals. Built on the foundations of the Visigothic cathedral, on the ruins of the mosque – it was meant to follow French Gothic cathedrals style. The Spaniards approached the project very meticulously. Naturally, as befits the main cathedral in a capital city: a miracle occurred. In its western part, between the two left side naves (the Toledo Cathedral has five naves), in the chapel later called the Descent from Heaven, the bishop of Toledo Ildefons had met Mother of God who approached him and left him a gift: a chasuble. As befits the man who witnessed a miracle and had tangible evidence for it, Ildefons became a saint. In addition to Ildefons, the Toldeo Cathedral has two more saints and one Apostle, James the Elder, who was supposed to be the first bishop of this city.

I like Toledo for a number of reasons, among others for its colourful history with Jewish, Christian, and Arabic influences which presence is evident today, any way you turn. For instance, Toledo School of Translators.When, after the fall of the West German Empire, Europe experienced a civilization collapse, much of the work of ancient scholars was lost, and only a handful of works were kept in the Benedictine monasteries. Also, the city, later reclaimed by Christians, had preserved many books written in Arabic and Hebrew, unknown to Christian Europe. At that time, the then bishop of Toledo, Raymond (he was not made a saint), by virtue of his role as the chancellor of the Kingdom of Castile, created an international and interreligious team of scholars who had begun to translate Arabic and Hebrew books into Latin. Spanish was the language used at that time to communicate. Thanks to the great effort of the group created by Bishop Raymond, Europe began to read works of Aristotle, Plato, Archimedes, and Arabic treatises on medicine, algebra and astronomy. The translation of scientific works, accelerated the refinement of Gothic constructions. Toledo School of Translators also gave an impulse for creation of European universities.

I left the cathedral and I thought that there is something crazy in the gothic temples, something maniacal, compulsive. It reminds me of how Herbet in his  “The Stone of the Cathedral” proposed to think of the workers and architects who built these crazy buildings. About ropes, cranes, ladders, mortar, how much they were paid and how they were treated. They must have had great pain in their legs from spinning the wheels and pain in their hands from  digging deep pits for future building’s foundations. Probably they were parched from the sun, and their sun-burnt skin was treated with curd by their wives. Hasn’t not been for them, there would be no miracles, Columbus or book shelves.

Gothic cathedrals. Great improvisations.



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