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Medieval Synagogues of Toledo & Cordoba

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

Jews were expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492; all synagogues were shut down and repurposed. Two medieval synagogue buildings survive in Toledo, with some of their original decoration in place, as does one in Cordoba. The two in Toledo survived by being consecrated into churches; the one in Cordoba was taken over as a rabies hospital.

Santa Maria La Blanca

Santa Maria La Blanca is the earliest construction of these three, and perhaps the oldest survivor in Spain. It came into its name as a Christian church when it was converted to in the early 1400s. Completed in 1180, it owes its existence to its likely patron, Yusef ben Meir ben Shushan, who was finance minister to the King Alfonso VIII. Jewish communities in Spain are calling upon the Catholic Church to release the building to them; they refer to it as the Ibn Shushan Synagogue. Building of synagogues was highly restricted in medieval Spain, especially in an area which Christian kings had fought to wrest from Muslim rule. ben Shushan's political power and accompanying wealth would help make the unlikely possible. As with synagogues in medieval Italy, there are no exterior characteristics to signify it as a Jewish place (in sharp contrast to church exteriors). Given the history of Jewish-Christian relations in Europe, it is understandable that Jewish communities did not want their religious buildings to resemble churches, and the builders were careful to use a range of architecture components that would mark the building as prestigious, but *not* Christian. This was no mean task, since Roman and Middle Eastern architecture heavily influenced Europe, giving both Christians and Muslims a model of glory to a deity which they carried through hundreds of years after the fall of the empire. The Jewish people, after the destruction of their temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D., suffered a diaspora which made it difficult to develop an architectural style of their own. After all this, when the Jewish community of Toledo created this synagogue, they preferred to adopt the style of the remaining mosques in the city.

Keyhole Arches, Stuccoed Patterns

The pillars are arranged like a forest of trees, with capitals that suggest the palm trees of the Holy Land, but, as in Almohad style, are abstractions of nature, rather than realistic. The arches are in keyhole pattern, familiar in Toledo since Visigothic Christian rule, but then associated with Muslims more than the vanquished Visigoths. More abstract geometric designs are pressed into stuccoed walls, above the arches. To the far-left in this photo you can see part of the niche where the Torah ark was; the scallop-shell niches marked where the portable ark was set. I am a little puzzled by the placement, because I think the niche faces south, and traditionally the ark would be placed in the east, facing Jerusalem. The upstairs women's gallery has not been preserved. In this breath-taking and tourist-free 360-degree image, you can see the poly-lobed arches up where that gallery would have been.

Perhaps there was Hebrew text in stucco on the building, or more symbols of Judaism in the furnishings, but those haven't survived. In the image above, you can see eight-pointed stars centered in an interlocking pattern with seven-pointed stars. This design, called alicatado, was used frequently in tile work, and can be seen all over the Alhambra.

The Forest of Arches

Cordoba was arguably the most glamorous and advanced city in all of Europe at the time Santa Maria La Blanca was being built. Its architecture referred back to the mosque of Damascus, originally a Roman Basilica, especially in the striking alternating red and white voussoirs which compose the arches. In Cordoba mosque, the capitals on the pillars were spolia, taken from Roman ruins when the mosque was being built in the 8th century.

The Keyhole Arch in the Cordoba Mosque

Here is the keyhole arch in Cordoba, used to frame the mihrab, which, similarly to the Torah ark and most early Christian churches, orients the praying congregants east, in this case toward Damascus. The Cordoba Mosque is distinctive in that the mihrab is not oriented toward Mecca, reflecting the founding caliph's dynasty's origins, from which they were exiled. Inside the mihrab, you see the poly-lobed arches, with small Roman pillars supporting them. Unlike in a Christian church, the direction of prayer in a mosque bears no image of God, because that was thought to be sacrilegious.

The Sharing of Conventions, The Blending of Cultures

Still, the poly-lobed arch is not owned by Islamic art. Here, in a Romanesque church in Toledo, built about 40 years after Santa Maria La Blanca, one finds poly-lobed arches and Islamic text. There are horseshoe arches with the alternating red/white voussoirs, too, but I'm saving San Roman church for its own post.

The Cordoba Synagogue

The Cordoba synagogue was built in 1315. It was made for a very small congregation--perhaps a rich, private family, or a trade guild. One of the restrictions placed on synagogue construction by the Christian kings of Spain was height of the building--nothing could be made that would rival churches in prestige. From the outside, one clue that medieval Jewish travelers might recognize as a signal that the building was a synagogue is the clerestory's five windows, with simple arched shapes. Those five windows symbolize the five books of the Torah. (You can also find this sign in the synagogues in the Ghetto of Venice.) Inside, the walls are covered in stucco with passages from the Psalms and the Song of Songs written in Hebrew. On this wall we see the poly-lobed arch. This isn't the hekhal (Torah ark niche), which is on the east wall. This bears a remnant of a fresco painting of a cross, dating from after the time when the synagogue was decommissioned and taken for a rabies hospital.

The Women's Gallery

The women's gallery in the Cordoba synagogue is intact. There may have been wooden screens to protect the men praying below from the distraction of women's presence. The entry arch below has a modern screen, which would be akin to what might have been used orginally. Note the clerestory with its five windows above.

A Closeup of the Psalms

El Transito

Like Santa Maria La Blanca, El Transito's construction was made possible by a man with powerful political connections and wealth: Samuel Halevi, Pedro I's treasurer. I've read that it was built as an annex to his own palace: its quite large and spacious, shattering the restrictions on height that other synagogues were constrained by. It was completed in 1357. A long-standing papal bull had forbidden new synagogue construction, but Halevi managed a dispensation from his king. The image above shows the Torah ark, framed by an elaborate stucco framework called "ataurique" These plaques include Pedro I's coat of arms on either side, sanctioning the building. The plaques also declare Pedro I Halevi's (and the Jewish community's) "lord and master." Tragically, by 1360 Halevi would fall from Pedro's favor and be executed.

You can see the poly-lobed arch, supported by Roman-style pillars. I wonder whether these made moving the Torah awkward. In the niche is an elegantly embroidered mantle cloth for the Torah, although there is no longer one there.

Only the Very Best

In El Transito, the Halevi's vision of a synagogue almost on the scale and grandeur of the cathedrals, mosques, and churches he had seen was realized. The construction of the synagogue coincided with the final major building activity in the Alhambra, and the Alhambra may well have been a stylistic influence. By now, you can recognize the ornamental features from the other synagogues above, but significantly better-preserved. They are also more lavish. The small pillars in the clerestory are made of different marbles, as in the Cordoba mosque. The blind arcades were used extensively in Romanesque Christian architecture. The capitals are carved in detail worthy of a Roman temple, or a church, or a mosque, and painted. The combination of styles in El Transito is described by scholar Jerrilynn Dodds as mudejarismo --employing the combination of Muslim and Christian styles, but putting his own distinctive (and Jewish) stamp on them. The stucco above the arches has similar themes to the style in Santa Maria La Blanca, but much more elaborate. As with the Cordoba synagogue, there are prayers and inscriptions on the walls. The vine patterns running below the clerestory windows are in a more realistic pattern than most Mudejar works. The upper inscription announces Halevi as benefactor: "Behold the Sanctuary that is consecrated in Israel and the House that Samuel built."

"There is One God"

In this ataurique design in the women's gallery of El Transito, you see centered between two inscriptions in Hebrew an emblem with Kufic calligraphy. I've spent hours trying to track down a translation, but the most definitive thing I've read has been that it is a Koranic slogan consistent Jewish belief, such as "There is One God." These kufic designs decorate Christian churches in Al-Andalus as well. In cities with sub-groups who speak different languages but share public spaces, some familiarity with words from a language not one's own develops. In the U.S., many English-only speakers know dozens of simple Spanish terms, like "casa," "grande," and food words. Similarly, the centuries of Arab rule in Toledo created a culture where inhabitants long after those rulers were gone would still be familiar with commonly-held monotheistic slogans that encouraged unity and good will.

Traditional Sephardic Dress

The Sephardic Museum resides in the Women's Gallery of the synagogue--essentially, the whole second-floor. There, traditional clothing is found on display. These pieces are only about a century old, and so aren't artifacts from the time of the creation of the synagogue, but a community displaced as many times as the Sephardim had been held on to its tangible history as their chief identifying symbols, and so this clothing gives us something to work with in imagining the people who worshipped in this synagogue.

Signs of Shared Community

I'll leave you with one of the most enigmatic and compelling objects in the Sephardic Museum in El Transito: the "trilingual basin." It was found in Tarragona, then a bustling port city on the Spanish eastern coast, and it dates from the 5th century AD. It's not directly associated with the synagogue or Toledo, but it is an artifact that demonstrates the long history in Spain of Jews sharing community among diverse faiths. The basin has an inscription in Hebrew (top left), saying, "Peace on Israel, on us, and our children." There's a Latin inscription (top right), saying "Pax Fides," which is probably a Visigothic Christian slogan for "Peace and Trust." There is also Greek on the basin, but it is too damaged to get anything but "MAH" out of it. The images on the basin are two peacocks: symbols of eternal life in Christianity, and perhaps still in memory from Roman religion. There is a large menorah in the center, a shofar to its left, and a Tree of Life to its right. The Tree of Life has a long symbolic history in the eastern Mediterranean and further east. This is quite a cosmopolitan item. The predominating theory is that it was used as a public water basin, perhaps to be used before entering the synagogue, or in a more secular space where non-Jews would have felt enough shared ownership of it to inscribe their similar wishes for peace and trust within the community. The decor of the medieval synagogues of Spain assert the uniqueness of the Jewish religion, and also affirm that the Jewish people have standing and connection to the communities which surround them.

*An indispensable guide to understanding the coexisting cultures of medieval Spain is The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture, by Dodds, Menocal, and Balbale.

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