Two years ago, I decided to take one day of my last weekend in Madrid to go off to see Toledo. I kept my camera on a little stool overnight to charge. After reaching Toledo I realized that my camera was not fully charged; perhaps the stool was a bit wobbly or the plug a little loose. I was carrying a phone which was then reputed to have one of the best cameras going, so I decided to draw out the battery life on my camera as far as I could, but it gave up when I needed it most.
Behind the high altar is one of the most outrageous pieces of rococo art that you can hope to see. A tall hole was cut into the top of the immense back wall of the cathedral to let a beam of light illuminate the pastry cake of an altarpiece. This ridiculously direct approach was then disguised in a wonderfully playful way by decorating the simple architectural idea with swirls of sculptures and paintings of angels, saints, and high panjandrums of the church. The effect is not only stunning, but also, because of the natural chiaroscuro, requires finicky photography. Just as I took the first photo (featured) my camera batteries gave up. The AIs behind phone cameras were already good enough to do nearly as well (photo above), but I did not have a zoom attachment on my phone to get close to some of the details that Narcisco Tome and his four sons had put together between 1729 and 1732 CE. That gives me another reason to go back, and I think I will spend a night in Toledo the next time around. I want to see this piece in the morning when the sun is at the right elevation.
On my last Sunday in Spain I took the short day trip from Madrid to Toledo. This citadel is really worth visiting, if you have the time, and the inclination, to see one of the old capitals of Castile. One of the highlights is the immense cathedral filled with chapels and side-chambers. Apparently the reason why it is so large is that it was established by razing the old mosque, and wanted to build over the full area that it occupied.
I took a ticket with an audio guide and meandered through the place, looking for the paintings by El Greco, Raphael, Murillo, Velazquez and Goya. After finding them, I followed the audio-guide’s whispered commands and came to the chapel you see above: dedicated to the new kings of Castile. The two sepulchres which you see in the featured photo belong to Henry III of Castile and his wife, grandparents of Isabel who, with Ferdinand, were instrumental in unifying Spain. All that is history. What I don’t understand is this business of three pillows. Wouldn’t that be too high for comfort?
Toledo calls itself the city of three cultures. This is most visible in the monastery of San Juan de los Reyes. I walked through the Jewish quarter, and past the synagogue, into this large monastery built in the Mudejar style by Islamic architects and artisans, and found a stunning building.
There is a wonderful mix of Christian spaces with Islamic decorations in the tiles on the floor and the woodwork in the ceilings along the corridors. But my eyes were caught by the exuberance of the details on the carvings on pillars and pediments.
I have seldom seen this kind of naturalistic detail outside of India. I walked slowly along the verandah bordering the central courtyard, admiring each piece of sculpture and taking a few photos. I’m sure each of these has been fitted into a symbolic belief structure, and if I were well-versed in medieval Christian symbolism I would see other layers of meaning under them.
I just took pleasure in what the simple artists saw: a dog, a pig and a duck. Satisfied with my slow circuit around the central garden, I waddled out.
I saw everyday pottery from before the modern era in various parts of Spain. In a village museum in Andalucia I saw the plate shown in the featured photo. The decoration looked very modern. When I looked at the date, it turned out to be from the early 20th century. I liked the red colour of the fired clay, which you see in the rim. The thin white glaze and the faded green decoration looked very nice too.
In the same place, I saw the pieces which you see above in the photo on the left. These pieces are also Andalucian and come from the early 20th century. On the right, above, is a detail from a painting by Murillo. If it shows contemporary pottery, then it is Andalucian, and from the early 17th century. Three hundred years has changed this pottery a little. The shapes are very similar. The newer pottery has somewhat of a brighter glaze. This could be because the firing kilns are hotter, and therefore allow different glazing.
Finally, I leave you with photos of pottery I saw in Toledo, said to be from El Greco’s time. If this is an example of mid-16th century Castillian pottery, then it is remarkably similar in colour and design to tiles from other parts of Spain and Portugal of that time. Interestingly, even now one finds in southern France, pottery with similar decoration.
Passing through Mumbai airport last week I saw, for the first time, crows inside the huge building. I have seen pigeons inside buildings before, but this was the first time I saw crows. An airport terminal is a closed structure, so it is somewhat strange to see birds inside. One wonders how they get in.
I was reminded of the ingenious Spanish bird’s net: a large net strategically placed to exclude birds. Spanish buildings are open to the air, as Indian buildings are, and for the same reason. Clever circulation of air can cool buildings. A typical Spanish style is a structure built around one or more open courtyards. I noticed that there were seldom any birds inside these buildings. The reason is a net stretched right across the opening at the level of the roof. The mesh is small enough to exclude even the notorious Spanish sparrows!
The Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Toledo is a Spanish-Gothic monastery which is still being restored. It was founded by Ferdinand and Isabel, who united Spain and financed the voyages of Christopher Colombus. There’s a lot to say about this monastery. I’ll say that in a later post. This post is only a gallery of the fantastic waterspouts which drain from the roof into the inner courtyard.
The choir of the cathedral of Toledo looked so much like something out of Harry Potter that I had to sit down to recover. I’d decided to make a day trip to Toledo from Madrid largely to see the city that El Greco made his own. My first introduction to El Greco, decades back, came in the form of a large format book where each plate seemed to have a picture of Toledo in the background. Not only does Toledo loom large in El Greco’s paintings, I found that El Greco looms large in Toledo’ history.
The Cathedral of Toledo has a room full of paintings by El Greco. It is dominated by this painting of the disrobing of Christ before his crucifixion. The figures are the typically elongated ones that one expects in the middle and late period of El Greco’s paintings. It also has the wonderful colours of cloth that are such a signature of his style. There’s so much to see in the Cathedral of Toledo that I did not grudge the 10 Euro ticket. The free audio-guide that you get with it actually made the trip very much more enjoyable. I found that it nudged me to see much more than I would have seen otherwise. I spent a full two hours in the cathedral, perhaps twice as long as I would have without this wonderful guide.
On the other hand, I did feel a twinge when the Church of San Tome charged me nearly 3 Euros to see the single painting by El Greco that they have. Its the magnificent painting called the Burial of The Count of Orgaz. El Greco painted this for his parish church, and my final charitable thought was that this could be thought of as a bequest by the painter. I wish though that they let you photograph the painting. Since they don’t, and I took one photo before I was told, I converted it to monochrome before posting it. In the roughly twenty minutes that I spent here, the crowds tripled. The church does well from this bequest. Did you notice that there is exactly one woman in the painting?
Nearby is the Museo El Greco. It is housed in an old Jewish house which was mistakenly thought to be one which he lived in. Nevertheless, the museum is worth visiting, because if the wonderful collection of about twenty original El Grecos that you can get to see. One of my favourites is this commissioned altarpiece designed and painted by the Greek, called Saint Bernardine of Sienna. This is one of his last finished paintings. You can see the extreme elongation of the figure here. Also notice that Toledo is worked into the bottom of the painting.
I’ll end this post with a wonderful picture by El Greco of his city, Toledo. This alone would make the Museo El Greco worth visiting. Given the nearly twenty paintings by the master collected here, I would not mind paying as much as the entrance to the cathedral. The fact that entrance was free on Sunday was a bonus.