TOLEDO remains one of Spain’s great cities. Redolent of past glories, it is packed with memorable sights – hence the whole city’s status as a National Monument and UNESCO Patrimony of Mankind – and enjoys an incomparable setting, a landscape of abrasive desolation and on a rocky mound where every available inch has been built upon: churches, synagogues, mosques and houses are heaped upon one another in a haphazard, cobblestoned spiral.
Be aware, however, that the extraordinary number of day-trippers can take the edge off what was once the most extravagant of Spanish experiences. To see the city at its best, it is advisable to avoid peak holiday periods and stay at least a night: a day-trip will leave you hard pressed to see everything. More importantly, in the evening with the crowds gone and the city lit up by floodlights – resembling one of El Greco’s moonlit paintings – Toledo is a different place entirely.
Even if you’ve never seen Toledo – and even if you’ve no idea what to expect – there’s an uncanny familiarity about your first view of it, with the Alcázar and the cathedral spire towering above the tawny mass of the town. This is due to El Greco, whose constant depiction of the city (as background, even, for the Crucifixion) seems to have stuck, albeit unwittingly, somewhere in everyone’s consciousness.
Domenikos Theotokopoulos, “the Greek”, was born in Crete in 1541 and worked in Venice and Rome before going to Spain. He had originally hoped to get work on the decoration of El Escorial, but after being rejected by Felipe II, he arrived in Toledo in about 1577. His first major commission was to produce a series of paintings for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo and many others followed, including his most famous work: The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. El Greco remained in the city until his death in 1614 which came while he was working on a commission for the Hospital de Tavera. He was buried in Santo Domingo el Antiguo.
Many of El Greco’s extraordinary paintings – some of the most individual, most intensely spiritual visions of all Spanish art – remain scattered throughout the city. Years ahead of his time, his work went on to influence artists for centuries to come, including Manet, Cezanne and Picasso.
Hortension Félix Paravicino, a Spanish preacher and poet who was a subject of one of El Greco’s paintings, commented “Crete gave him life and the painter’s craft, Toledo a better homeland, where through death he began to achieve eternal life.”
In a country overflowing with massive religious institutions, the metropolitan Catedral has to be something special – and it is. A robust Gothic construction that took over 250 years (1227–1493) to complete, it has a richness of internal decoration in almost every conceivable style, with masterpieces of the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque periods. The exterior is best appreciated from outside the city, where the hundred-metre spire and the weighty buttressing can be seen to greatest advantage. From the street it’s less impressive, so hemmed in by surrounding houses that you can’t really sense the scale or grandeur of the whole.
Inside the cathedral, the central nave is divided from four aisles by a series of clustered pillars supporting the vaults, 88 in all, the aisles continuing around behind the main altar to form an apse. There is magnificent stained glass throughout, mostly dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, particularly beautiful in two rose windows above the north and south doors. Beside the south door (Puerto de los Leones) is a huge, ancient fresco of St Christopher.
At the physical heart of the church, blocking the nave, is the Coro, itself a panoply of sculpture. The wooden stalls are in two tiers. The lower level, carved in 1489–95 by Rodrigo Alemán, depicts the conquest of Granada, with each seat showing a different village being taken by the Christians. The portraits of Old Testament characters on the stalls above were executed in the following century, on the north side by Philippe Vigarni and on the south by Alonso Berruguete, whose superior technique is evident. He also carved the large Transfiguration here from a single block of alabaster. The reja (grille) that encloses the Coro is said to be plated with gold, but it was covered in iron to disguise its value from Napoleon’s troops and has since proved impossible to renovate.
The Capilla Mayor stands directly opposite the Coro. Its gargantuan altarpiece, stretching clear to the roof, is one of the triumphs of Gothic art, overflowing with intricate detail and fanciful embellishments. It contains a synopsis of the entire New Testament, culminating in a Calvary at the summit.
Directly behind the main altar is an extraordinary piece of fantasy – the Baroque Transparente. Wonderfully and wildly extravagant, with its marble cherubs sitting on fluffy marble clouds, it’s especially magnificent when the sun reaches through the hole punched in the roof for just that purpose. You’ll notice a red cardinal’s hat hanging from the vaulting just in front of this. Spanish primates are buried where they choose, with the epitaph they choose and with their hat hanging above them, where it stays until it rots. One of them chose to be buried here, and there are other pieces of headgear dotted around the cathedral.
There are well over twenty chapels embedded into the walls of the cathedral, all of which are of some interest. Many of them house fine tombs, particularly the Capilla de Santiago, the octagonal Capilla de San Ildefonso and the gilded Capilla de Reyes Nuevos.
In the Capilla Mozárabe, Mass is still celebrated daily according to the ancient Visigothic rites. When the Church tried to ban the old ritual in 1086 the people of Toledo were outraged. The dispute was put to a combat, which the Mozárabe champion won, but the Church demanded further proof: trial by fire. The Roman prayer book was blown to safety, while the Mozárabe version remained, unburnt, in the flames. Both sides claimed victory, and in the end the two rituals were allowed to coexist. If you want to attend Mass, be there at 9.30am and look out for the priest – you may well be the only congregation.
The Capilla de San Juan houses the riches of the cathedral Tesoro (Treasury), most notably a solid silver custodia (repository for Eucharist wafers), ten foot high and weighing over two hundred kilos.
An even more impressive accumulation of wealth is displayed in the Sacristía (Sacristy), where paintings include a Disrobing of Christ and portraits of the Apostles by El Greco, Velázquez’s portrait of Cardinal Borja and Goya’s Christ Taken by the Soldiers. The adjoining rooms house works of art that were previously locked away or poorly displayed. Among them are paintings by Caravaggio, Gerard David and Morales, and El Greco’s most important piece of sculpture, a polychromed wooden group of San Ildefonso and the Virgin.
The Sala Capitular (Chapter House) has a magnificent sixteenth-century artesonado (wooden sculptured) ceiling and portraits of all Spain’s archbishops to the present day.