The Toledo Cathedral – Spain Travel

I went to Toledo in the pleasantest time of the year, the first days of June. The early harvest was in progress, and the sunny road ran through golden fields which were enlivened by the reapers gathering in their grain with shining sickles. The borders of the Tagus were so cool and fresh that it was hard to believe one was in the arid land of Castile. I am glad I am not writing a guide-book, and do not feel any responsibility resting upon me of advising the gentle reader to stop at Aranjuezt or to go by on the other side. There is a most amiable and praiseworthy class of travelers who feel a certain moral necessity impelling them to visit every royal abode within their reach. They always see precisely the same things,—some thousand of gilt chairs, some faded tapestry and marvelous satin upholstery, a room in porcelain, and a room in imitation of some other room somewhere else, and a picture or two by that worthy and tedious young man, Raphael Mengs. I knew I would see all these things at Aranjuez, and so contented myself with admiring its pretty site, its stone-cornered brick facade, its high-shouldered French roof, and its general air of the Place Royale, from the outside.

If Toledo had been built, by some eaprice of enlightened power, especially for a show city, it could not be finer in effect. In detail, it is one vast museum. In ensemble, it stands majestic on its hills, with its long lines of palaces and con-vents terraced around the rocky slope, and on the height the soaring steeples of a swarm of churches piercing the blue, and the huge cube of the Alcazar crowning the topmost crest and domineering the scene. The magnificent zigzag road which leads up the steep hillside from the bridge of Alcantara gives an indefinable impression as of the lordly ramp of some fortress of impossible extent.

This road is new, and in perfect condition. But do not imagine you can judge the city by the approaches. When your carriage has mounted the hill and passed the evening promenade of the Toledans, the quaint, triangular Place—I had nearly called it square—”waking laughter in indolent reviewers,” the Zocodover, you are lost in the daedalian windings of the true streets of Toledo, where you can touch the walls on either side, and where two carriages could no more pass each other than two locomotives could salute and go by on the same track. This interesting experiment, which is so common in our favored land, could never be tried in Toledo, as I believe there is only one turnout in the city, a minute omnibus with striped linen hangings at the sidles, driven by a young Castilian whose love of money is the root of much discussion when you pay his bill. It is a most remarkable establishment. The horses can cheerfully do their mile in fifteen or twenty minutes, but they make more row about it than a high-pressure Mississippi steamer; and the crazy little trap is noisier in proportion to its size than anything I have ever seen, except, perhaps, an Indiana tree-toad. If you make an excursion outside the walls, the omnibus, noise and all, is inevitable; let it come. But inside the city you must walk; the slower the better, for every door is a study.

Your first walk is, of course, to the Cathedral, the Primate Church of the kingdom. Besides its ecclesiastical importance, it is well worthy of notice in itself. It is one of the purest specimens of Gothic architecture in existence, and is kept in an admirable state of preservation. Its situation is not the most favorable. It is approached by a network of descending streets, all narrow and winding, as streets were always built under the intelligent rule of the Moors. They preferred to be cool in summer and sheltered in winter, rather than to lay out great deserts of boulevards, the haunts of sunstroke and pneumonia. The site, of the Cathedral was chosen from strategic reasons by St. Eugene, who built there his first Episcopal Church. The Moors made a mosque of it when they conquered Castile, and the fastidious piety of St. Ferdinand would not permit him to worship in a shrine thus profaned. He tore down the old church and laid, in 1227, the foundations of this magnificent structure, which was two centuries after his death in building. There is, however, great unity of purpose and execution in this Cathedral, due doubtless to the fact that the architect Perez gave fifty years of his long life to the superintendence of the early work. Inside and outside it is marked by a grave and harmonious majesty.

The great western facade is enriched with three splendid portals—the side ones called the doors of Hell and Judgment ; and the central a beautiful ogival arch divided into two smaller ones, and adorned with a lavish profusion of delicately sculptured figures of saints and prophets; on the chaste and severe cornice above, a group of spirited busts represents the Last Supper. There are five other doors to the temple, of which the door of the Lions is the finest, and just beside it a heavy Ionic portico in the most detestable taste indicates the feeling and culture that survived in the reign of Charles IV.

To the north of the west facade rises the massive tower. It is not among the tallest in the world, being three hundred and twenty-four feet high, but is very symmetrical and impressive. In the preservation of its pyramidal purpose it is scarcely inferior to that most consummate work, the tower of St. Stephen’s in Vienna. It is composed of three superimposed structures, gradually diminishing in solidity and massiveness from the square base to the high-springing octagonal spire garlanded with thorny crowns. It is balanced at the south end of the facade by the pretty cupola and lantern of the Mozarabic Chapel, the work of the Greek Theotocopouli.

But we soon grow tired of the hot glare of June, and pass in a moment into the cool, twilight vastness of the interior, refreshing to body and soul. Five fine naves, with eighty-four pillars formed each of sixteen graceful columns—the entire edifice measuring four hundred feet in length and two hundred feet in breadth—a grand and shadowy temple grove of marble and granite. At all times the light is of an unearthly softness and purity, toned by the exquisite windows and rosaces. But as evening draws on, you should linger till the sacristan grows peremptory, to watch the gorgeous glow of the western sun-light on the blazing roses of the portals, and the marvelous play of rich shadows and faint gray lights in the eastern chapels, where the grand aisles sweep in their perfect curves around the high altar. A singular effect is here created by the gilded organ pipes thrust out horizontally from the choir. When the powerful choral an thew of the church peal out over the kneeling multitude, it requires little fancy to imagine them the golden trumpets of concealed archangels, who would be quite at home in that incomparable choir.

If one should speak of all the noteworthy things you meet in this Cathedral, he would find him-self in danger of following in the footsteps of Mr. Parro, who wrote a handbook of Toledo, in which seven hundred and forty-five pages are devoted to a hasty sketch of the basilica. For five hundred years enormous wealth and fanatical piety have worked together and in rivalry to beautify this spot. Each of the chapels—and there are twenty-one of them—is a separate masterpiece in its way. The finest are those of Santiago and St. Ildefonso,—the former built by the famous Constable Alvaro de Luna as a burial-place for himself and family, and where he and his wife lie in storied marble; and the other commemorating that celebrated visit of the Virgin to the bishop, which is the favorite theme of the artists and ecclesiastical gossips of Spain.

Toledo is a city where you should eschew guides and trust implicitly to chance in your wanderings. You can never be lost; the town is so small that a short walk always brings you to the river or the wall, and there you can take a new departure. If you do not know where you are going, you have every moment the delight of some unforeseen pleasure. There is not a street in Toledo that is not rich in treasures of architecture—hovels that once were marvels of building, balconies of curiously wrought iron, great doors with sculptured posts and lintels, with gracefully finished hinges, and studded with huge nails whose fanciful heads are as large as billiard balls. Some of these are still handsome residences, but most have fallen into neglect and abandonment. You may find a beggar installed in the ruined palace of a Moorish prince, a cobbler at work in the pleasure-house of a Castilian conqueror.