You could live 90 years in Toledo, visit the cathedral ever day to study something new, and still never get to the end of its treasures. Masons, carpenters, carvers, painters, sculptors, glaziers, metalworkers, and many others worked for 250 years to create something that surely must please God. Many of those who worked on the cathedral surely hoped to have a pass to heaven, their sins, considerable as they might be, forgotten. Or perhaps they simply exulted in being part of creating something magnificent.
Toledo Cathedral outcathedrals most of the other cathedrals. It combines the Spanish tendency to overdo it, overornament, with the light-filled magnificence of a gothic cathedral with baroque and neoclassical thrown in with a Moorish tinge. Winchester cathedral, the other cathedral I visited most recently, seems like a church hall in relation to Toledo. Lima Cathedral is overdone. Durham seems too bare.
You gasp as you enter Toledo Cathedral, as all great cathedrals make you gasp, but it also rewards several hours of study.
The original city of Toledo was Jewish, perhaps built by Jews fleeing Babylon, and as we walked the city we were reminded of Jerusalem. Then Toledo was Roman, Visigothic, Moorish, and eventually Spanish. The cathedral has touches from all these cultures, and the original cathedral was built by the Visigoths.
What do I remember from our visit apart from being almost overwhelmed.
Mostly the exalted feeling, the wonder that men could create such a thing.
The retable with its coloured gothic sculptures telling stories of Christ’s life.
The completely over-the-top transparente, the baroque contribution to the cathedral with its light coming in at the top. The most extraordinary thing about this is that something that is so architecturally discordant could fit so well into the gothic surroundings.
The choir has magnificent carvings, and at the front stands the White Virgin, who is older than the cathedral and has the infant Jesus tickling her chin in a most affectionate way.
El Greco’s Disrobing of Christ is among the greatest treasures of the cathedral, and it hits you the minute you walk into the sacristy despite the fact that it’s some 40 metres away. You are caught by the excitement of the painting but particularly by the crimson of Christ’s capacious robe and the upward swirl of the painting. I loved too the blocks of yellow, green, and blue; I imagined the painting reduced to just those blocks.
Then El Greco’s painting of the crucifixion (one of many) struck me as strange in that there were no people around the cross but only bones at its base. The other two crosses are also not there. Was this to emphasise the suffering of Christ? Left alone? Abandoned? Might this painting be one of the reasons that El Greco upset the church?
I liked as well his dark portrait of St Francis and another monk meditating on death. One of the remarkable things about these paintings was that you could get within inches of them with nobody around.
The cathedral also has pictures by Bellini, Raphael, Titian, and many others, including Caravaggio. The painting by Caravaggio is of St John the Baptist with his sheep. It has all the power you associate with Caravaggio, and I was particularly struck by his careful paining of the underside of a leaf. Was this simply to show his skill? Or to emphasise that as saints come and go nature continues? Or does the leaf, soon to fall, symbolise the brevity of life?
The cathedral has multiple chapels, more than most cathedrals because it is wider than the usual gothic cathedral. Two struck me particularly. The fist was the strangely named Chapel of the New Kings, which contained the tombs of the parents, grandparents, and great grandparents of Queen Isabella, who together with her husband finally liberated Spain from the Moors. The chapel is lined with white tiles.
The Chapel of St Blaise contains his tomb and is painted with frescos that reminded me of Giotto’s Scrovengi Chapel in Padua.
I don’t have 90 years to explore this magnificent cathedral, but my three hours left me mightily impressed.