Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca
|Santa María la Blanca|
Interior of Santa María la Blanca.
The Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca (literally Synagogue of Saint Mary the White, originally known as the Ibn Shushan Synagogue, or commonly the Congregational Synagogue of Toledo) is a museum and former synagogue in Toledo, Spain. Erected in 1180, according to an inscription on a beam, it is disputably considered the oldest synagogue building in Europe still standing. It is now owned and preserved by the Catholic Church.
Its stylistic and cultural classification is unique among surviving buildings as it was constructed under the Christian Kingdom of Castile by Islamic architects for Jewish use. It is considered a symbol of the cooperation that existed among the three cultures that populated the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages.
The synagogue is a Mudéjar construction, created by Moorish architects for non-Islamic purposes. But it can also be considered one of the finest example of Almohad architecture because of its construction elements and style. The plain white interior walls as well as the use of brick and of pillars instead of columns are characteristics of Almohad architecture. There are also nuances in its architectural classification, because although it was constructed as a synagogue, its hypostyle room and the lack of a women's gallery make it closer in character to a mosque. Though it does not have a women's gallery today, an early twentieth century architect suggested that it did at one time have a one.
The synagogue was turned into a church in 1405 or 1411, but without any major renovations. It took at that time the name of Santa María la Blanca (Saint Mary the White) and today it is most commonly known by this name.
The Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca was wholly unusual in both plan and elevation. The floor plan is an irregular quadrilateral divided into five aisles, with the central nave aisle slightly larger than the remaining four. The space runs between 26 and 28 meters long and between 19 and 23 meters wide. The interior features a series of arcades supported on a network of twenty-four octagonal piers and eight engaged piers. These octagonal supports line the central aisle of the synagogue and support the large arcade of horseshoe arches above. The arches rest on intricately detailed capitals with finely carved pinecones and other vegetal imagery. These capitals are Mudéjar in style and are derived from classical, Corinthian antecedents as well as Byzantine concepts.
The focal point of the synagogue is the scallop-shell-topped arch at the center of the building. This was the location of the Torah ark. In many synagogues found throughout the Jewish Diaspora and what is now Israel, the scallop shell motif is a marker for the location where a portable ark should be placed. Evidence from Catholic altarpieces depicts the ark as a tall, movable structure that would fit nicely in this particular niche. It is torpedo shaped, much like a traditional Sephardic Torah scroll case.
The building is surrounded by a courtyard. This courtyard served as a place for the people to congregate before and after prayer services and also held the different communal institutions. The Rabbi's residence, a ritual bath, a study hall, and other things the community may have invested in were all built in this courtyard to give the Jewish community a central place for care of their spiritual needs.
The exact origins and original specifications of the synagogue prove difficult to place. Evidence points toward a construction date sometime in the late twelfth century or early thirteenth century CE. One commonly accepted opinion is that it was erected sometime around 1205, as documents from the time mention a "new", great synagogue located in Toledo. Another theory arises from a wooden tablet found in the area that describes a new structure, saying, "Its ruins were raised up in the year 4940" [CE 1180]. This date makes sense in some respects, as the structure's style is closer to that of Moroccan monuments of the twelfth century, such as those at Tinmal (1149) and Kutubiyya (1147). If this inscription indeed refers to the Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca, then the synagogue may in fact be a reconstruction of an existing building or a new building located on the same plot as a demolished one. Whether the synagogue's layout might have been taken from a preexisting mosque located on the same site is still unclear and purely hypothetical.
It is also somewhat unclear who might be the patron of the original synagogue, although there is some evidence for Joseph ben Meir ben Shoshan, or Yusef Abenxuxen, as the original patron. Joseph was the son of a finance minister to King Alfonso VIII of Castile and, upon his death in 1205, recorded having built a synagogue. Some theories suggest Joseph rebuilt the synagogue after a pogrom against Jews in Toledo. This may be the cause for the building's irregular floor plan and again points to a late-twelfth-century construction. Other historians, such as L. Torres Balbas, note similarities between the plaster work in the aisles of Santa María la Blanca and the convent Las Huelgas de Burgos, which is of a later date, around 1275. However, the scale and proportion of the ornamentation, the nature of the ornamentation, the blank canvas against which the ornamentation is placed, as well as the way in which light is used in the space all correspond to structures contemporary with the earlier construction date.
History after synagogue life
In 1391, Vincente Ferrer, a Dominican priest, came to Toledo to preach a series of sermons to the Jews. Because of the Spanish's harsh methods of converting Jews at the time, the means which Vincent had at his disposal were either baptism or spoliation. But, according to the Catholic church, he won them over by his preaching, estimated at 25,000. The synagogue was turned into a church shortly thereafter, then converted for use as a monastery, and later as an armory and warehouse. The building was eventually declared a national memorial site and restored in 1856, but there were numerous changes to the building over the centuries. The building was at first used for prayer services, perhaps by recent converts from Judaism to Catholicism. In 1550 the building and its courtyard became the property of an order of monks[who?] who sought to purify the building of its Jewish past. They named the building Santa María La Blanca in an effort to drive out the perceived "darkness" of the building's Jewish past. Eventually the monastery abandoned the building, perhaps because the northern wall fell. The building was then used as a warehouse and armory for a company that manufactures bullfight swords to this day.
Request for return to Judaism
In 2013 the Jewish community of Toledo asked the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Toledo, Braulio Rodríguez Plaza, to transfer ownership and custodianship of the building to them. As of late 2016, the Church has failed to respond. There is no judicial recourse because the modern Jewish community are not direct descendants of the original owners. The building, the third most visited historic monument in Toledo, is presently a museum and is not used for any religious ceremonies. The Cardinal Archbishop of Madrid, Carlos Osoro, who is also vice-president of the Episcopal Conference of Spain, has indicated that its return could benefit both religious communities.
- Synagogue architecture
- Mudéjar architecture
- Other well-preserved, pre-expulsion synagogues in Híjar, Córdoba, Barcelona and Tomar
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