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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

The Cathedral Of Toledo

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The exterior of the Cathedral of Toledo is far less ornate than that of the Cathedral of Burgos: it has no efflorescence of ornaments, no arabesques, and no collarette of statues enlivening the porches; it has solid buttresses, bold and sharp angles, a thick facing of stone, a stolid tower, with no delicacies of the Gothic jewel-work, and it is covered entirely with a reddish tint, like that of a piece of toast, or the sunburnt skin of a pilgrim from Palestine; as if to make up the loss, the interior is hollowed and sculptured like a grotto of stalactites.

The door by which we entered is of bronze, and bears the following inscription: Antonio Zurrerno del arte de oro y plata, faciebat esta media puerta. The first impression is most vivid and imposing; five naves divide the church: the middle one is of an immeasurable height, and the others beside it seem to bow their heads and kneel in token of admiration and respect; eighty-eight pillars, each as large as a tower and each composed of sixteen spindle-shaped columns bound together, sustain the enormous mass of the building; a transept cuts the large nave between the choir and the high altar, and forms the arms of the cross. The architecture of the entire building is homogeneous and perfect, a very rare virtue in Gothic cathedrals, which have generally been built at different periods; the original plan has been adhered to from one end to the other, with the exception of a few arrangements of the chapels, which, however, do not interfere with the harmony of the general effect. The windows, glittering with hues of emerald, sapphire, and ruby set in the ribs of stone, worked like rings, sift in a soft and mysterious light which inspires religious ecstasy; and, when the sun is too strong, blinds of spartium are let down over the windows, and through the building is then diffused that cool half-twilight which makes the churches of Spain so favourable for meditation and prayer.

The high altar, or retablo, alone might pass for a church; it is an enormous accumulation of small columns, niches, statues, foliage, and arabesques, of which the most minute description would give but a faint idea; all this sculpture, which extends up to the vaulted roof and all around the sanctuary, is painted and gilded with unimaginable wealth. The warm and tawny tones of the antique gold, illumined by the rays and patches of light interrupted in their passage by the tracery and projections of the ornaments, stand out superbly and produce the most admirable effects of grandeur and richness. The paintings, with their backgrounds of gold which adorn the panels of this altar, equal in richness of colour the most brilliant Venetian canvases; this union of colour with the severe and almost hieratic forms of mediaeval art is rarely found; some of these paintings might be taken for Giorgione's first manner.

Opposite to the high altar is placed the choir, or silleria, according to the Spanish custom; it is composed of three rows of stalls in sculptured wood, hollowed and carved in a marvellous manner with historical, allegorical, and sacred bas-reliefs. Gothic Art, on the borderland of the Renaissance, has never produced anything more pure, more perfect, or better drawn. This work, the details of which are appalling, has been attributed to the patient chisels of Philippe de Bourgogne and Berruguete. The archbishop's stall, which is higher than the rest, is shaped like a throne and marks the centre of the choir; this prodigious carpentry is crowned by gleaming columns of brown jasper, and on the entablature stand alabaster figures, also by Philippe de Bourgogne and Berruguete, but in a freer and more supple style, elegant and admirable in effect. Enormous bronze reading-desks supporting gigantic missals, large spartium mats, and two colossal organs placed opposite to each other, one to the right and one to the left, complete the decorations...

The Mozarabic Chapel, which is still in existence, is adorned with Gothic frescoes of the highest interest: the subjects are the combats between the Toledans and the Moors; they are in a state of perfect preservation, their colours are as bright as if they had been laid on yesterday, and by means of them an archaeologist would gain a vast amount of information regarding arms, costumes, accoutrements, and architecture, for the principal fresco represents a view of old Toledo, which is, doubtless, very accurate. In the lateral frescoes the ships which brought the Arabs to Spain are painted in detail; a seaman might gather much useful information from them regarding the obscure history of the mediaeval navy. The arms of Toledo - five stars, sable on a field, argent - are repeated in several places in this low-vaulted chapel, which, according to the Spanish fashion, is enclosed by a grille of beautiful workmanship.

The Chapel of the Virgin, which is entirely faced with beautifully polished porphyry, jasper, and yellow and violet breccia, is of a richness surpassing the splendours of the Thousand and One Nights; many relics are preserved here, among them a reliquary presented by Saint Louis, which contains a piece of the True Cross.

To recover our breath, let us make, if you please, the tour of the cloisters, whose severe yet elegant arcades surround beautiful masses of verdure, kept green, notwithstanding the devouring heat of this season, by the shadow of the Cathedral; the walls of this cloister are covered with frescoes in the style of Vanloo, by a painter named Bayeu. These compositions are simple and pleasing in colour, but they do not harmonize with the style of the building, and probably supplant ancient works damaged by centuries, or found too Gothic for the people of good taste in that time. It is very fitting to place a cloister near a church; it affords a happy transition from the tranquillity of the sanctuary to the turmoil of the city. You can go to it to walk about, to dream, or to reflect, without being forced to join in the prayers and ceremonies of a cult; Catholics go to the temple, Christians remain more frequently in the cloisters. This attitude of mind has been perfectly understood by that marvellous psychologist the Catholic Church. In religious countries the Cathedral is always the most ornamented, richest, most gilded, and most florid of all buildings in the town; it is there that one finds the coolest shade and the deepest peace; the music there is better than in the theatre; and it has no rival in pomp of display. It is the central point, the magnetic spot, like the Opera in Paris. We Catholics of the North, with our Vottairean temples, have no idea of the luxury, elegance, and comfort of the Spanish cathedrals; these churches are furnished and animated, and have nothing of that glacial, desert-like appearance of ours; the faithful can live in them on familiar terms with their God.

The sacristies and rooms of the Chapter in the Cathedral of Toledo have a more than royal magnificence; nothing could be more noble and picturesque than these vast halls decorated with that solid and severe luxury of which the Church alone has the secret. Here are rare carpentry-work in carved walnut or black oak, portieres of tapestry or Indian damask, curtains of brocatelle, with sumptuous folds, figured brocades, Persian carpets, and paintings of fresco. We will not try to describe them in detail; we will only speak of one room ornamented with admirable frescoes depicting religious subjects in the German style of which the Spaniards have made such successful imitations, and which have been attributed to Berruguete's nephew, if not to Berruguete himself, for these prodigious geniuses followed simultaneously three branches of art. We will also mention an enormous ceiling by Luca Giordano, where is collected a whole world of angels and allegorical figures in the most rapidly executed foreshortening which produce a singular optical illusion. From the middle of the roof springs a ray of light so wonderfully painted on the flat surface that it seems to fall perpendicularly on your head, no matter from which side you view it.

It is here that they keep the treasure, that is to say the beautiful copes of brocade, cloth of gold and silver damask, the marvellous laces, the silver-gilt reliquaries, the monstrances of diamonds, the gigantic silver candlesticks, the embroidered . banners,-all the material and accessories for the representation of that sublime Catholic drama which we called the Mass.

In the cupboards in one of the rooms is preserved the wardrobe of the Holy Virgin, for cold, naked statues of marble or alabaster dc not suffice for the passionate piety of the Southern race; in their devout transport they load the object of their worship with ornaments of extravagant richness; nothing is good enough, brilliant enough, or costly enough for them; under this shower of precious stones, the form and material of the figure disappear: nobody cares about that. The main thing is then it should be an impossibility to hang another pearl in the ears of the marble idol, to insert another diamond in its golden crown, or to trace another leaf of gems in the brocade of its dress.

Never did an ancient queen, - not even Cleopatra who drank pearls, - never did an empress of the Lower Empire, never did a Venetian courtesan in the time of Titian, possess more brilliant jewels nor a richer wardrobe than Our Lady of Toledo. They showed us some of her robes: one of them left you no idea as to the material of which it was made, so entirely was it covered with flowers and arabesques of seed-pearls, among which there were others or a size beyond all price and several rows of black pearls, which are of almost unheard-of rarity; suns and stars of jewels also constellate this precious gown, which is so brilliant that the eye can scarcely bear its splendour, and which is worth many millions of francs.

We ended our visit by ascending the bell-tower, the summit of which is reached by a succession of ladders, sufficiently steep and not very reassuring. About half way up, in a kind of store-room, through which you pass, we saw a row of gigantic marionettes, coloured and dressed in the fashion of the last century, and used in I don't know what kind of a procession similar to that of Tarascon.

The magnificent view which is seen from the tall spire amply repays you for all the fatigue of the ascent. The whole town is presented before you with all the sharpness and precision of M. Pelet's cork-models, so much admired at the last Exposition de l'industrie. This comparison is doubtless very prosaic and unpicturesque; but really I cannot find a better, nor a more accurate one. The dwarfed and misshapen rocks of blue granite, which encase the Tagus and encircle the horizon of Toledo on one side, add still more to the singularity of the landscape, inundated and dominated by crude, pitiless, blinding light, which no reflections temper and which is increased by the cloudless and vapourless sky quivering with white heat like iron in a furnace.



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