Travel Spain: Ancient City of Toledo

A Few hours ride from Madrid, by the Delicias line, through an unattractive country, brings one to the ancient city of Toledo. This “crown of Spain,” the “light of the whole world,” as it has been called in the extravagant words of patriotic writers, has a grand position upon rocky hills beside the river Tagus. The rock upon which the city stands is more than eighteen hundred feet above the sea, and the gorge through which the river foams and tears sweeps around its base, so that the main approach is by a bridge. This is the bridge of Alcantara, with gate-towers at either end, crossing the deep cavern of the Tagus upon a single broad and lofty arch, from the castle of San Servando to the steep roadway which leads to the Puerta del Sol. This way is defended by Moorish walls and towers. Few cities in Europe compare with Toledo in the magnificence of its situation. We found, as we explored it, that there were also novelties at every turn, quaint old houses, picturesque groups of buildings, nooks and corners crammed with historical and traditional interest, the marks of Romans, Goths, Saracens, and Christians, who have in turn reigned in these lordly towers, and left each the mementos of their own occupation. We had read of its wonders, and been taught that Toledo ought still to be, as it once was, the seat of government. We found the objects of interest more than we had imagined, and at the same time decided that a town so inaccessible, so absolutely mediaeval, and so out of touch with the life and spirit of the age, even in old Spain, was utterly unfitted for a modern capital, and only suited to be a repository of departed grandeur and a manufactory of that reminiscence of the past, the Toledo sword-blade.

Our entrance to the town from the railway was in a mule wagon, which was whirled over the bridge and up the steep hill to the accompaniment of oaths, which the beasts seemed to appreciate as preliminary to blows. We stopped before the magnificent gateway, the Puerta del Sol, a dignified and noble work of art formed of four different arches one behind the other, picturesquely placed at a sharp turn in the winding military road, from which there is a lovely view over the “vega,” made green by the waters of the Tagus.

Through another gateway, and then through streets so narrow that it seemed quite impracticable for a wheeled vehicle to pass, we were drawn to a sort of hotel, which proved better than it looked. After lunch we sallied out, but not without a guide. He who should do so would make a serious mistake, for the plan of Toledo is so intricate that the most skilful traveller will soon be lost in the maze of streets which climb and twist and creep over the steep hillside. Every turn shows one that the city is very old. The houses are massive and Moorish, with long, dark entrance-passages, an outer door thickly studded with huge nails and furnished with immense knockers. The ante-room opens into a central court, over which, in hot weather, an awning could be hung. There are galleries around this court, and within there are often one or two wells. These arrangements imply defence from enemies and protection from a hot summer’s sun. There is little need of the former now, but the climate is very hot, when, in July and August, the rockbound hills reflect the sun’s rays back on the shadeless town. The people are said to be solid, like their houses, and to speak the purest of Castilian; for this is the city of Cervantes. His house, where he wrote “Don Quixote,” is still shown, with an inscription upon it, just beyond the Zocodover, a Moorish square with balconies hanging from all the house fronts. This square has witnessed many martyrdoms in those good old times, when heretics and Jews and Bibles were burned by the Roman Catholic Church, as the best way of getting rid of disturbers of the peace.

The impression which Toledo first makes is sad and solemn, and this is not removed by a longer visit. Much remains to attest its greatness and glory, but one constantly feels that more is gone. Foreign foes and domestic spoilers have impoverished the once imperial city. There were here, besides the Cathedral, one hundred and ten churches. now there are fifty-nine. Most of the closed churches are in ruins, and out of thirty-four hospitals only two remain. Tourists come to see the famous place, antiquaries to prowl among its ancient monuments and shrines; painters and poets find here rich material for their arts, and the architect suggestions for his modern designs. But “here,” it has been poetically written, “the voice of the Goth echoes amid Roman ruins, and the step of the Christian treads on the heel of the Moor; here are palaces without nobles, churches without congregations, walks without people.”

The great sight of Toledo is the Cathedral. We could not find any point from which to obtain a satisfactory view of the outside, for a network of winding lanes surrounds the building. The steeple is a great square tower, rising in this shape for one hundred and seventy feet from the ground, then changing into an octagon with bold turrets and pinnacles, and above this a short spire with three rows of metal rays encircling it. The entire height is three hundred and twenty-five feet. The interior is grand and beautiful. The ground plan is upon an enormous scale, being exceeded by the cathedrals of Milan and Seville; but the area, covered by cloisters, chapels, and other buildings, is greatly in excess of Milan, which has none of these accessories. The width is one hundred and seventy-eight feet, the length three hundred and ninety-five feet, and the nave is fifty feet wide. There are four aisles, exclusive of chapels between the buttresses.

The Cathedral is built upon the site of one which existed before the capture of the city by the Moors. Indeed, tradition records that the first Cathedral was built here during the lifetime of the Virgin! The Moors made it a mosque, and when they were conquered in turn, the Christians violated the promise of their king, Alonzo VI., that the Moors should retain it, and they reconsecrated it as a cathedral. The king came back to Toledo in great wrath, determined to burn both queen and bishop who had broken his royal oath for him, and riding into the city met a crowd of Moors. He cried out to them that no injury had been done to them, but only to him, who had solemnly given his oath that their mosque should be preserved to them. They, however, prudently begged him to let them release him from his oath, “whereat,” says the chronicler, “he had great joy, and riding on into the city the matter ended peacefully.”

The new building was begun in 1227, when King Don Fernando III. laid the foundation stones; and from that time to the seventeenth century additions and alterations were constant. Street is sure that the architect was a Frenchman, or a Spaniard educated in France, because the church is thoroughly French in plan and details, until a considerable height is reached. Indeed, the whole work is a protest against Mohammedan architecture and a distinctively Christian structure, purer, truer, more lovely, and more symbolical than any Moorish building. The interior is very impressive and picturesque, divided into a nave and four aisles, with a roof at the height of more than one hundred feet, composed of seventy-two vaults resting upon eightyeight piers. These piers resolve themselves into groups of shafts, some of which receive the arches half-way, while others continue to rise and bend, with the graceful curve of a palm, till they reach and support the groined roof of the nave. Between these rows of arches, seven hundred and fifty stained win dows shine with translucent brightness. The choir is filled with superb carved work, divided by jasper pillars, and around the altar are glorious tombs of Cardinal Mendoza and some of the earlier kings. The freshness and beauty of the coloring, the mysterious light falling through colored glass from many windows, broken into a thousand blue, yellow, and roseate rays, like rainbow arches, and the clear tone of the stone delight the eye and gratify the taste. The aisles wind with a beautiful sweep around the apse and afford a charming perspective; two splendid rose windows light the transepts, and there breathes throughout the building a spirit of grandeur and majestic repose most fitting to a noble sanctuary. Contrary to our usual experience, also, our meditations were undisturbed by intrusive guides, or more intrusive beggars, and we could enjoy the grand temple with that solemn and serene joy which fills the soul when contemplating a glorious creation. The choir is rich in marbles as well as in carvings. The chapels within the Cathedral are as large as many churches, the high chapel being fifty-six feet long, forty-five feet wide, and one hundred and sixteen feet high, its form being like the Cathedral itself. It is gorgeously decorated, paved in mosaic, and filled with fine sculptures. There are many others almost equal in grandeur and beauty; but one, from its history, deserves especial mention.

The Muzarabic chapel, or chapel of the Arab imitators, is built under the tower of the church. It has a curious history. When the Moors invaded Spain, they met with a gallant resistance at Toledo, and were glad to grant the conquered heroes liberal terms of capitulation. Among the stipulations was one that five churches should be allowed them in which the worship of the Christians should be freely maintained. The ritual of these churches consisted of the Lord’s Prayer and the words of our Lord at the Last Supper. A few prayers from St. James were added. In 633 this ritual was modified in a new version, which was condemned by the fourth Council of Toledo. But it was preserved by the Christians, and retained in the churches of Toledo. It is simple and earnest and free from the Romish doctrine of auricular confession. Some of the prayers and collects were adopted in the English liturgy, and are to be found in the Prayer Book. This ritual is still used in the Muzarabic chapel every morning.

It was in the reign of Alonzo VT., when the power of the Christians was re-established in Spain, that the legate of the Pope endeavored to substitute the Gregorian for the Muzarabic ritual, his demands being supported by the king and queen. The clergy of Toledo were so intense in their opposition to the change that the king became alarmed, and proposed to settle the matter by a solemn appeal to Heaven.

After a general fast, with prayers in all the churches, a great bonfire was built in the Zocodover, and copies of the Roman and Muzarabic rituals were placed upon the pile. It was agreed that the copy which escaped the flames should be recognized as divine. It was a windy day, and the Roman Prayer Book was caught up by the wind and blown away, while the other breviary remained unconsumed in the midst of the flames. Both parties claimed the victory, but the friends of the old ritual were victorious, and it was continued. In 1512, Cardinal Ximenes instituted a special order of priests to maintain this service, and built the chapel where it is still performed. A printed copy, one of the first ever made, is still preserved here. The walls of the chapel are covered with frescos, one of which represents a battle between the Moors and the soldiers of Toledo. It is of great historical interest, for the original city with its walls and houses, the warriors in their dress and the weapons which they use, are exactly pictured, so that one can read from the fresco an accurate description of the times. There are two other frescos in which the fleet which brings the Arabs into Spain is represented in the same detailed method. From this chapel we went into the robing-room and saw a collection of church vestments which exceeded anything I had ever seen outside of Rome. Not even the gorgeous sacristies of Russia contained finer specimens of needlework and embroidery. These robes and insignia are kept in immense drawers placed one above the other, and in closets with swinging arms on which the robes hang, and in cases in which they stand like ecclesiastical armor. As one after another of these treasuries was opened, the ladies of the party became more and more excited, and we deemed it prudent to give the enthusiastic priest his fee and retire, before the extended magnificence of the show should have exhausted the superlatives of the English language, and reduced the feminine visitors to the condition of the Queen of Sheba when she visited Solomon.

There are fourteen chapels in the Toledo Cathedral, besides the two which I have already mentioned; some of them are very elaborate and beautiful, others have great historical interest. One of the earliest is that of San Ildefonso, founded by Arch bishop Rodrigo. The saint was born in Toledo, and was a famous controversialist and a special advocate of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which was proclaimed twelve centuries later, as a universal dogma, by Pius IX., in 1854. Tradition informs us that the Virgin, in gratitude to St. Ildefonso, once came down from heaven and sat in the saint’s seat in the cathedral, and at another time she descended in the same place and put the cassock on the saint’s shoulders. Of course this holy garment has been preserved, like the coat of Treves.

The chapel of Santiago is near by, one of the finest in the Cathedral, an octagon building of stone, with doors, roofs, walls, and pillars elegantly wrought and carved. Outside it looks like a castle. Within are the magnificent tombs of Don Alvaro de Luna, Master of Santiago and Constable of Castile, and his wife. At his feet is his helmet, crowned with ivy and laurel; and beside this kneels the figure of a page who attended him to the scaffold at Valladolid, where, after thirty-five years of faithful service to his king, he was executed for treason, his last words being, ” This is the reward of devoted service to my king.” He had built a mausoleum to himself, and arranged his effigy so that when mass was said the figure rose and remained kneeling till the service was ended, when it lay down again. This was removed by Isabella as profane, and the present tomb was built by his daughter. These tales are told by the cicerone to the traveller who admires the white marble tombs of Alvaro and his wife, but knows nothing more about a man of whom Pius II. said, “He was a man of lofty mind, as great in war as he was in peace, and whose soul breathed none but noble thoughts.”

Each chapel has its historic tombs, but we cannot even mention all. The chapel of the Virgin of the Rock is placed upon the very spot where the Virgin stepped when she called on St. Ildefonso, embrac ing her own statue on the way. The stone of red jasper on which she stood is religiously kissed by multitudes of the faithful. The wardrobe of the Virgin is a sight indeed. Her festive mantle is wrought of silver and gold cloth, and embroidered with seventy-eight thousand pearls, besides multitudes of diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. She has many other robes of various colors and rich patterns of embroidery, which have been given by kings and queens, popes, archbishops, and female devotees. Her crown, without its jewels, cost twenty-five thousand dollars, and she has bracelets and brooches innumerable and of countless value. The worship of the Virgin in Spain is like that paid to a divine queen, and assumes a most practical character. She has always a royal crown, a household formed of the greatest ladies of the land, who provide for her wardrobe and altars, her fetes and processions, and she has considerable landed estates, from which a sacred revenue is derived.

In the chapter-house are portraits of eighty archbishops of Toledo, including those of Cardinals Mendoza and Ximenes. We were disposed to agree with O’Shea, who is often extravagant in his eulogies of Spanish architecture, that “on the whole, this superb structure stands unrivalled in many points, and is one of the finest and largest cathedrals in the world.” Its associations with the early times and latter days of the Gothic empire, its celebrated councils, the great monarchs who were crowned here, the heroes who enriched its altars with the spoils of victory, and the master minds of generations of races in politics, and arts, and letters, render it as important as St. Peter’s, and more worthy than the Pantheon of Byron’s noble lines.

Leaving the Cathedral, we went to the Convent of San Juan de los Reyes, which was in process of restoration. The cloisters here are very beautiful, and the ancient capitals, carved in foliage, birds, and animals, have been saved from a general ruin. From the walls hang long iron chains, that were taken from the Christian prisoners after the conquest of Granada, and there are bas-reliefs of shields of Castile, eagles, and emblematical inscriptions. The cloister, which was full of workmen and their materials, has a multitude of slender and lovely columns, whose capitals are delicately carved, and everywhere grace and lavish ornament are combined with majesty and strength.

Behind the Puerta del Sol stands a Moorish mosque, now called the Church of El Cristo de la Luz (Christ of the Light). The name is accounted for by the legend that one day, when the Cid was riding by on his faithful mare, Bavieca, she suddenly fell upon her knees, and remained in this reverential posture. It at once occurred to the pious rider that his worshipful steed had a sacred reason for kneeling. A modern rider whose horse fell on its knees in the steep and slippery street of Toledo, would never have imagined it a miracle or an omen. But the Cid had the wall opened, opposite the place where Bavieca tumbled down, and, lo, an image of Christ in a niche which had been closed up, and before the image a lighted lamp which had been burning for several centuries! The chapel built there is only twentytwo feet square, but it is a little gem, formed into six narrow aisles which cross each other and thus make nine vaulted ceilings, which are so strangely interarched that the effect is very beautiful. Santa Maria la Blanca and El Transito were once noble synagogues. The ceiling of the former was made from cedar of Lebanon, and the ground on which it stood had been covered with earth brought from Palestine. The entrance is through a little garden, and upon opening a door one comes at once upon five long and narrow aisles, with eight-sided pillars upholding Moorish arches. Everything is glaring with whitewash, and much imagination is needed to change the building into one of the richest of Hebrew temples, and repeople it with wealthy and powerful Jews. This is all the more difficult when one learns that it has been successively used as a mosque, a church, a Magdalen asylum, a barrack for troops, a military storehouse, and a dancing-hall.

El Transito is much finer. It was built by Samuel Levi, the treasurer of Pedro the Cruel, and finished in 1366. At the expulsion of the Jews, the Catholic kings gave it to the Order of Calatrava. It is built of brick, but richly decorated within, after the style of the Alhambra. There are Hebrew letters still to be deciphered upon the walls and richly carved pillars, and it has a wonderful cedar ceiling of Moorish artesinado work. This name comes from antesa, a kneading-trough, and this carved ceiling is in the shape of an inverted trough. This interior would be a fine model for a public hall or senate chamber, and its ceiling would be rich enough for any palace.

All around these ancient synagogues are the narrow streets inhabited by Israelites. Their houses are small, but cleaner than anywhere else in Spain. Their history in Toledo has been a sad one. They lived there in great security and prosperity during the reign of the Moors, but when the Christians took the city their tribulations began. They were taxed at thirty pieces of silver a head, that being the wages of the traitor, Judas Iscariot. They only saved their synagogues by a curious affirmation. They declared that their ancestors had not consented to the death of Jesus Christ. When he was brought to the council over which Caiaphas presided, the votes were taken by tribes, whether Christ should be released or put to death. One tribe voted for his acquittal, and from them the Jews of Toledo have descended. This Jewish claim, with a Latin translation of the Hebrew text, is preserved in the archives of the Vatican. But their memorial did not save the Toledan Jews from persecution.

In 1389, their market, which was near the Cathedral, was suppressed; in 1454, at the instigation of San Vicente Ferrer, Santa Maria la Blanca, their synagogue, was taken from them; in 1490, the Christians, plotting the further oppression and robbery of the Jews, circulated a story that Juan Pasamonte, a boy of Guardia, had been stolen, crucified, and his heart preserved as a charm against the Inquisition. In 1478, every Jew who would not be baptized was put under the ban; and when the Inquisition was established at Toledo, seventeen thousand Jews became good Catholics at a stroke. In 1492, every unbaptized Jew was compelled by Ferdinand and Isabella to quit Spain, and more than 170,000 were cruelly expelled, choosing banishment and the loss of all things rather than to become false to their faith. Persecution by the government is ended in Spain, and Jews may worship when and as they choose, but they thrive most in half-civilized and degraded countries or in dense communities, where their avarice, shrewdness, and devious ways can be concealed; and hence free Spain is not half so Jewish as persecuting, intolerant, and ignorant Spain was. Perhaps the time may come when the great empire of the North will become so civilized that the Jew will find no more the opportunities for making ignorant peasants unwilling contributors to his wealth, and when the banishment of Israelites will be unknown in any nation.

Travellers and guide-books give much space to the Alcazar, once the palace and fortress of the city which it defended and adorned. Wars, and neglect, and several conflagrations, the last in 1886, have left little of the Alcazar but four walls and the ruined towers at the corners. From one of these, there is a fine panorama of Toledo, -the Tagus, the groves of trees, the green vega, and, in the distance, hills and mountains far as the eye can reach.

We drove outside the town for a couple of hours, and then took a late train to Madrid. The train was full of soldiers, and we had three generals in our carriage. They were very polite, offering us sweetmeats and cakes, and they occupied a large part of the journey in comparing swords and spurs and their other military equipments. We were not sorry to come back for a little while from the solemn stillness and sombre interiors of Toledo to the life and gayety of the Spanish capital.