16.09.03, Nickson, Toledo Cathedral

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Cynthia Robinson

The Medieval Review 16.09.03

Nickson, Tom. Toledo Cathedral: Building Histories in Medieval Castile. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015. pp. 304. ISBN: 978-0-271-06645-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Cynthia Robinson
Cornell University
cynrobin@earthlink.net

Rocío Sánchez did a good thing when, several years back, she brought to Tom Nickson's attention the lack of a monograph on Toledo cathedral and suggested he fill the gap: the result is Nickson's fine study, Toledo Cathedral: Building Histories in Medieval Castile. "Spain's Canterbury," as Nickson terms it (3), now has its monograph and, what is more, a monograph in English. This fundamentally important building, along with its treasury and its multiple histories, can finally begin to form part of scholarly conversations and pedagogy. Nickson's is the most recent of a series publications on timely, neglected, and/or key Iberian monuments and topics from the Pennsylvania State University Press (benefiting from the editorial selection and skills of fellow Hispanist Ellie Goodman), which serves to place Iberian monuments at the front and center of debates, discourses, and even survey books for introductory courses, where Spain often makes only the briefest of cameo appearances, or is even absent altogether. Though strictly speaking an art historical work, as is the trademark of these publications shepherded by Goodman, Nickson's study is fully interdisciplinary: in addition to thoroughly documenting and describing the building throughout its long construction history, Nickson makes ample use of a wide range of previously unstudied or little-consulted archival material, as well as imaginative and well-chosen comparanda, to bring Toledo's cathedral to life.

In the introduction, Nickson begins by peering into the "gilded cage" that houses Toledo cathedral's most prized relic, described evocatively as "a grubby stone, barely visible in the gloom, and worn smooth by thousands of pious kisses and caressing fingers [that] purports to bear the footprints of the Virgin Mary," who, "as the story goes...alighted [there] circa 666," in order to carry out the investiture, with a "sumptuous" robe, of Ildefonso, Bishop of Toledo, in recompense for his "robust defense of her virginity" in a treatise he had penned, entitled De virginitate Mariae (1). Nickson notes similarities with the stone bearing Saint Michael's footprints in Rome, in the church of the Aracoeli, stating that both of these may originally have been Roman votive plaques, numerous examples of which survive in Southern Spain. One also thinks here of the tradition that grew up around the large stone at the center of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, believed by Fatimid times to bear the footprints of Muhammad, left during his night voyage to the "farthest mosque." Toledo's tradition would seem to be earlier, thus opening the door onto a fascinating line of inquiry.

The next few pages are devoted to laying out thorny questions of terminology, transmission and "influence" which always rear their heads wherever Spain is concerned, particularly when the reception of styles that most agree to have originated elsewhere (Romanesque, Hispano-Flemish, or, in this case, Gothic) are in question. I myself dislike those labels precisely because of their being weighted toward the places scholarship has determined to be the Centers of Things, but Nickson has made the decision to use them, and more than justifies his choice by flipping the center-periphery model, invoking Pratt's notion of "hinge, not fringe," thus laying a path toward the examination of Toledo's Cathedral on its own terms (7). Noting the advantages enjoyed by art historians who can place extensive photographic documentation of a French cathedral next to a Spanish one and happily proceed on an expedition of arm-chair motif tracking, Nickson rightly opines that these sorts of exercises have blinded scholars to a crucial fact: the enormity of Toledo's cathedral project had no equal anywhere else in Europe, if only by virtue of its size. A large part of the book's contribution, then, lies in Nickson's laudable effort to meet the cathedral on its own terms: in his own terms, he wishes to negotiate and navigate "that tension between local and international contexts," a task in which, as regards the rest of 'Gothic Europe', he succeeds brilliantly (6-7).

As must all historians of the visual culture[s] of medieval Iberia, Nickson also faces the question of what to do with the material evidence of Spain's (too?) much-discussed "Three Cultures," each of whose DNA is often uncomfortably linked to the one among medieval Europe's three monotheistic religions--Christianity, Judaism, or Islam--to which scholarship, in purely stylistic terms, has deemed it most satisfactorily corresponds. Nickson's response to this conundrum, again in his own words: "...one of my principal aims is to find a way of integrating scholarship on Iberia's plural material cultures (dominated by scholars in the United States) with research on the architecture, decoration, and liturgies of churches of medieval Iberia (largely conducted by Spanish scholars, with greater or lesser reference to northern Europe). Too often these appear as entirely separate areas of inquiry: one side implies that everything depends on Iberia's Jewish and Muslim communities; the other acknowledges them only with jejune references to 'Reconquista' or 'Islamic influences,' that much-abused catch-all for anything that looks odd or exotic..." (6). This goal, however, is achieved, in the opinion of this reviewer, only partially, a bone which I will leave for the final section of this review. Far more successful is Nickson's project, carried out in Part Three, of establishing Toledo cathedral as a place for the making and performing of memory, which he views as mobile and fluid, rather than static: "...it could be captured and reperformed in other ways, the basis for new invention and amplification" (7). This would have been achievement enough for any book, and the question of Toledo's multi-culturalism, with which Nickson is clearly uncomfortable and perhaps is not entirely equipped to address, might just as well have been left for other scholars to chew over.

First, the good, the novel, and the excellent: Before addressing the cathedral itself, in Part One, "On the Edge, at the Center," which consists of a single chapter, entitled "The City," Nickson sets the stage by introducing readers to the city--its history, its inhabitants, its culture and its buildings. Part Two, "Building Histories," is devoted to the cathedral itself; it contains four chapters. Chapter 2, "Design," imagines maestro Martín, whom Nickson argues must have come from France, the architect first entrusted with the transformation of Toledo's Friday mosque into a cathedral, in his first encounters with the recently conquered city. This allows Nickson to place Toledo's cathedral into a context that reaches far beyond the confines of the Iberian peninsula, tracing links across France to Rome, Sicily, and other further-flung locations, all the while refraining from slipping into an unreflective meditation on 'Mediterraneanism' and vaguely shared 'visual languages' (most often with no discernible meaning attached), thus eliciting this reviewer's profound admiration and gratitude. In chapter 3, "Rodrigo's Project," Nickson reconstructs the cathedral project as carried out during the lifetime of Archbishop don Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, making ample and able use of primary source materials that, under the happily more accessible nouveau régime of the cathedral's archive, have recently become available to scholars. Also of note are the well-done and plentiful visual aids, in the form of coded plans, rib profiles, and schematic drawings, all of which help the reader to visualize the cathedral in its thirteenth-century reality. Chapter 4, "Between Córdoba and Paris," successfully walks the methodological tightrope of contextualizing of the cathedral within the discourse of the Franco-centered 'Gothic,' while paying equal homage to Iberian roots, notably acknowledging a debt in the arcade formation of the presbytery with the Córdoba's Capilla Villaviciosa, with the well-known screens of polylobed and interlacing arches from the caliphal period forming a base for thirteenth-century additions, allowing it to serve as the Córdoba cathedral's high-altar area from 1236 to 1607 (87-89). Finally, chapter 5, "The Exemplary Form," is largely centered on construction activity during the fourteenth century, again with heavy use of little consulted or previously unused archival sources. Much royal patronage comes to light, particularly the funerary arrangements of Enrique I Trastámara and his wife, queen Juana Manuel, whose arms appear along the edge of the western bay vaults (101-102, fig. 57). Through a combination of archival sources that reveal names of the various maestros who headed up the cathedral works throughout the fourteenth century, as well as stylistic comparisons with other cathedral constructions throughout the same century both in Iberia and throughout Europe, Nickson is able to refine our understanding of which trends and motifs traveled and how, and which--during a period of conservatism following the death of the architect known as Petrus Petri--did not. (104-105). In the final section of this chapter, Nickson boldly--but on solidly argued ground--contests the mythic date of 1492, or at any rate in the 1490s, commonly associated with the termination of Toledo's cathedral, especially among "local tour guides" (105). Nickson would push this date, with the exception of certain relatively minor alterations (106), well back into the fourteenth century, and though other reviewers whose areas of specialization hew more closely to 'the Gothic' than do mine may quibble, Nickson's arguments seem convincing enough to me.

The task of interpretation and bringing the building to life--handled by making use of an impressively wide range of sources, comparanda, and approaches--occupies Part Three, "The Living Church," which consists of six chapters. Chapter 6, "The Cathedral of Memory," brings the cathedral to life through the lenses of the liturgies and tombs used to create a localized sacred topography. This chapter likewise includes a detailed examination of the contents--many now disappeared--and constitution of Toledo's treasury, which included, as did many of its peers throughout Europe, numerous objects of Islamic and/or Andalusī manufacture, as well as others commissioned specifically for the Toledan context. As Nickson notes,"[t]he cathedral was in effect an extraordinary machine, transforming its vast income into jobs and precious goods" (130). Chapter 7, entitled "Cults," is devoted to an examination of Toledo cathedral's principle chapels and cults, principle among these, logically, being those dedicated to the Virgin and Saint Ildefonso. The first section bears the title "Mad about Mary," early on in which Nickson notes, "[i]n medieval Iberia it was the Virgin who assumed the role of holy landlady, the king her vassal...." Nickson's prose is engaging and enjoyable throughout, an occurrence that should be much more common than it is---there is absolutely no reason that academic writing cannot be fun, both to produce and to read.

Numerous cathedrals and churches throughout Iberia were dedicated to the Virgin, particularly, as Nickson notes, citing previous scholarship by Remensnyder and others, those converted from mosques, in some cases likely owing to the scarcity of relics of other saints in areas that were recently conquered (132). He also explores both the particularities and the particularly fervent nature of the Iberian cult to the Virgin, throwing light in this chapter on the performance of Alfonso X's Cantigas de Santa María (CSM) in Toledo's cathedral, a discussion in large part based on the extensively annotated manuscript copy of that text known as To, which formerly belonged to the cathedral's library, though the date of its acquisition is not known (the annotations, however, as Nickson notes, would seem to indicate continuous use). And, as Nickson observes, "CSM's fictional world is absolutely that of Toledo's streets, fields, churches, and houses. Jews, Christians, and Muslims, men and women, young and old: a full spectrum of Castilian society united in its veneration of the Queen of Heaven and, by extension, the kings of Castile" (132). Comparing these images to the numerous statues of the Virgin (both seated and standing) and Child that formed part of the cathedral's collection, Nickson makes a case for the "...centrality of images in late medieval devotion in Castile" (134), which I would qualify further as "images of the Virgin," and which, as he notes, citing William Christian, Jr.'s influential work, appear themselves to have shaped devotional culture in important ways, as is also true of later periods: "miraculous visions of the Virgin were explicitly inspired by local statues of her." Indeed, and my own research confirms this for later periods, "[h]er images stand (and sit) at the intersection of the everyday and the visionary" (134). This chapter, making vigorous use of inventories and other archival sources, also includes examination of the cults to Saint Eugene and the cross, as well as the imagery these cults generated. Of particular interest is a piece of the lignum domini donated to the cathedral by none other than Saint Louis IX of France on the eve of his departure for the disastrous crusade of 1248 (153).

Chapter 8, Urbs Regia, focuses on imagery and documentary sources referencing the historical events involving royal personages that wove much of Toledo's history. Though, as Nickson notes (157), Castile's monarchy was itinerant and thus had no designated coronation church, royal patronage left a deep impression on the cathedral in the form of funerary chapels and material culture, particularly that related to Sancho IV (d. 1295) (165-167). The chapter concludes with an examination of a series of sculptures in the presbytery, some of which, like the better-known cases of the cathedrals of Burgos and Oviedo, may have been intended as portraits. Chapter 9, "Cathedral and City," which can be read productively in dialogue with the work of Sánchez Ameijeiras, Barbara Abou el-Haj, and others, places the cathedral in the context of ceremonies that linked it with the city, and includes detailed analysis of the iconography of its portals. Acknowledging the important pathways forged by Jacqueline Jung and Felipe Pereda, Chapter 10, "Art and Belief," places particular focus on Toledo's choir enclosure, offering detailed examinations of cycles of Old Testament imagery that, while clearly 'Gothic' (and implicitly French) in style, have no known precedent in terms of iconography. Nickson also considers his findings in light of recent work on French picture bibles, as well as the writings of Archbishop Rodrigo himself, including the anti-Jewish Dialogus libri vite, and Nicholas of Lyra's Postilla literalis, a biblical commentary which relied heavily on previous Jewish writings. (215) For visual comparanda Nickson turns productively to the Alba Bible (216-220), for an examination of "image culture in late medieval Castile" (216) which, in Toledo cathedral's case, included often sharp-edged visual statements concerning the status of images in light of a mid-fifteenth-century hardening of attitudes toward converted Jews, or conversos.

The book closes with chapter 11, an epilogue entitled "Toledo and Beyond," where Nickson ponders the question of why Toledo's cathedral would seem to have had few modern repercussions, offering solid arguments to the effect that these may have been more notable during the later middle ages, with both Milan and Seville making imitative gestures in the constructions of their own cathedrals that might indicate a certain perceived rivalry with Toledo, largely owing to the "renewal of [Toledo's] political and religious authority under the leadership of the cardinal-archbishops Mendoza (r. 1482-1495) and Cisneros (r. 1495-1517)" (225). The epilogue is followed by a series of useful appendices, particularly Appendix 2, a table documenting all of Toledo cathedral's chapels and altars, as well as an ample bibliography.

And now for the picking of the bone. As noted, one of Nickson's stated goals was that of "...find[ing] a way of integrating scholarship on Iberia's plural material cultures (dominated by scholars in the United States) with research on the architecture, decoration, and liturgies of churches of medieval Iberia (largely conducted by Spanish scholars, with greater or lesser reference to northern Europe)" (6). Anyone at all familiar with my work will know that I will be paying especial attention to this aspect, perhaps unfairly so, but we are all spurred by our own interests, or--another way of putting it--constrained by our own areas of expertise and their limits, and this is particularly the case in the present age of high expectations of scholarly dexterity in the analysis of "multiculturalism" (my word, not Nickson's, and the observation applies to me as much as to anyone else). Nickson begins his discussion solidly enough, starting with the city's conquest by Christian forces in 1085, which he describes as "...a near unprecedented opportunity for Christian patrons and artists to discover and possess a great Islamic city. Its Friday mosque consecrated as the city's cathedral, its palaces converted into monasteries, Toledo's Arabic identity was covered with only the lightest Christian veil..." (4). And, as he writes, "[i]t is tempting to portray Toledo cathedral as some kind of hybrid progeny of these tastes and histories, the material deposit of the confluence of Iberia's many cultures." Nickson wishes to resist the (superficial?) notion of 'hybridity'.

Further on, though, Nickson states--not entirely correctly--that the American position is exemplified ("typified"; 241, n. 13) by the study co-authored by Jerrilynn D. Dodds, María Rosa Menocal, and Abigail Krasner Balbale, The Arts of Intimacy (Yale University Press, 2008). It is true that the 'hybridity' concept as it pertains to medieval Iberian visual culture is most fully developed in that study, but Nickson, somewhat puzzlingly, elects not to engage the theoretical meat of its arguments (largely based on a reading of Homi Bhaba and critiqued in a review by the present author Art Bulletin September 2009). Perhaps this choice was made with the intention of directing the debate out of the terminological morass in which it has existed for lo, these many decades, which could--albeit somewhat reductively--be boiled down to whether or not to continue to use mudéjar as an established aesthetic category, and if not (Nickson elects to use it; I belong to the party of "not"), what to do instead.

A hesitancy to wade into murky methodological waters, roiled to a foam by more than a century of much and bitter hand-wringing, is more than understandable. Nonetheless, by engaging neither Dodds' and Menocal's study nor the several rebuttals that have appeared in the years following its publication, Nickson has boxed himself into the default position, one that does in fact accept, and uncritically, mudéjar as a stable aesthetic category--a style, if you will: art or architecture (or, more often, the 'decoration' of this art or architecture) made for Christian (or, less frequently, Jewish) patrons and audiences, that 'looks Islamic' (the question that follows, of course, being 'to whom?'). Nickson's recourse to a rather unwieldy "so-called" as a precedent to most of his uses of the troubled term likely signals his own discomfort with it.

The 'Islamic-influence-or-not' question calls for some extensive delving into a tradition of scholarship which, distasteful and/or tiresome as some of it may be, is nonetheless required reading for anyone desiring to weigh in on the debate. An additional desideratum would be specialized knowledge of the rather unwieldy body of material most conveniently referenced as "Islamic art" and its scholarly tradition, and finally, in an ideal world, a command of Arabic sufficient to approach primary sources with the depth, expertise and care Nickson has lavished on Toledo's cathedral archive, as well as on an impressively wide range of primary sources in Latin and late-medieval Castilian. A tall--some might say unreasonable--order; nonetheless, in the opinion of this reviewer, a highly desirable one, if one is going to talk mudéjar.

Nickson's discussion of the objects of Islamic provenance in the cathedral's treasury (which sort of objects scholarship, for whatever reason, has decided to exclude from the mudéjar) is unproblematic. As he notes, "[m]any of these items probably entered Toledo's treasury via networks of trade and gifts. Although their Arabic origins were often recognized, most of these items were originally made for domestic or courtly contexts, and they were prized as objects of special workmanship and materials--not necessarily compromised by their association with Islam." Of great interest is his discovery that, "[i]n the inventories the label "Moorish" is used together with other labels of origin to distinguish between different materials...these labels reflect types and styles more than genuine perceptions of geographical origins." This is particularly remarkable in the case of three Merinid banners captured during the battle of Salado, which are "described neutrally and nonchalantly...nothing distinguishes them from other "Moorish" items" (128-129). This would seem to echo conclusions reached by María Judith Feliciano in her much-cited study "Muslim Shrouds for Christian Kings" (in Under the Influence: Questioning the Comparative in Medieval Iberia, eds. Cynthia Robinson and Leyla Rouhi; Brill, 2005), where she posits that quality and other aesthetic features, rather than their 'Islamicness,' attracted Christian patrons to 'Islamic' textiles. Nickson rightly and in a word describes Toledo's treasury as a "cosmopolitan" one (129).

It is in his discussion of other Toledan architectural monuments, specifically tombs and convents--i.e., "Toledan mudéjar"--that Nickson runs into problems. In the epilogue, he returns to the "example of intricate carved plasterwork in the tomb of Fernán Gudiel" from the cathedral's chapel of Saint Peter, discussed in an earlier chapter, where he rightly and successfully separated, as he did for the objects in the treasury, style from "connotations of confession or identity" (118-119). Then follows a consideration of the well-known Latin inscription that adorns a set of doors from the Alcázares in Seville, built under Pedro I, which mentions the use of Toledan artisans (221). Stating that the Latin inscription indicates the presence of both Christian and Muslim artisans among the doors' manufacturers (not an air-tight argument, but likely), he notes, echoing Feliciano's observations about Andalusī textiles, that "it was their craft that mattered, not their confession, and it clearly mattered by then that their craft was associated with Toledo..." (222)--so far, so good.

But as Nickson proceeds to the examination of other examples of "this Toledan mudéjar", including the well-known but--I submit--still poorly understood synagogue of the Tránsito, built in the 1350s, whose patron was Samuel ha-Levi, erstwhile treasurer to Pedro I, of whom he later fell spectacularly afoul--the ice grows thin. And thinner still when we come to a group of palaces, referred to in most documentary sources as "casas y palacios," eventually converted into convents. He focuses on Santa Isabel de los Reyes, specifically a "fine doorway [from the infirmary cloister] of carved plasterwork, its spandrels filled with delicate vegetal motifs in which nestle heraldic shields" (222). All this he describes as "typical of Arabic domestic architecture," a common explanation for the existence of such structures and such ornament in much of the (rightly deplored) literature of 'the mudéjar.'

This is a description, however, that denies meaning to the elements of which such ornamental programs are composed (the descriptor 'domestic' makes certain of that): we are left, by default, with decoration for decoration's sake, which is not a terribly far cry from the now-verboten (but hardly effectively banished, for it underlies many a notion still in use) horror vacui, employed by generations of scholars to explain 'the Islamic aesthetic.'

An implicit assumption of meaninglessness for the elements that frame them also handicaps Nickson's discussion of the inscriptions he next addresses: "surrounding the doorway [of Santa Isabel de los Reyes] is the indulgenced antiphon, in Latin, 'Mary, Mother of Grace, Mother of mercy. Shield me from the enemy and the hour of my death'." As well as another phrase, in a band dividing door from windows, associated with the "epitaph of Saint Agatha," "widely used as a kind of textual talisman against storms and...also inscribed on a late fifteenth-century bell from Toledo cathedral." Nickson interprets as follows: "Together with the Marian antiphon, it presumably endowed the portal with apotropaic power, protecting those who passed through it and into the house within." He goes on to say, "This kind of decoration is entirely characteristic of Toledo's other fourteenth-century palaces and convents, and there is no need here to trace specific analogies with plasterwork elsewhere in Toledo, Castile or Nasrid Granada. The point is that just a few hundred yards from the cathedral we are in a wholly different aesthetic world, and it was this aesthetic, far more than the cathedral's, that was imitated in Toledo and beyond" (222).

Motif-tracking between Toledo, elsewhere in Castile, and Granada is indeed a futile exercise; it is one that we should all stop performing. Just. Say. No. But we need to substitute that futile exercise with something more productive. And the dichotomy, or comparison, that Nickson ponders instead is a fascinating one: in Toledo, the exotic element is hardly the 'Islamic-looking' ornament, but rather the 'Gothic' cathedral. Understanding what medieval Toledans made of such a striking (and monumental) aesthetic juxtaposition, however, will only be possible if we allow the 'Islamic-looking' ornament to mean with a range and weight equal to those we accord its imposing 'Gothic' neighbor (or at least beyond the vague, folksy realm of the apotropaic).

Otherwise, we are left with the cathedral as a place where significance is generated, broadcast, and consumed, while the adjacent "wholly different aesthetic world" remains meaning's binary handmaid, a crownless first-runner-up, nose shyly buried in a bouquet of (decorative) roses. Tombs and convents were spaces of considerable significance--social, political, devotional--and their programs of ornament meant, surely, to their original audience[s], much more than mere adornment (a growing body of scholarship makes just this argument for a series of specific structures most often classified as 'mudéjar,' but compiling that list would include a further wander down the path of crass self-citation; interested readers have at their disposal such efficient electronic resources as JSTOR and Dialnet).

No one book, of course, can be everything to every reader, and this is doubly, triply, true where medieval Iberia, with its many layers and multiple complexities, is concerned. All reservations aside, Nickson has produced a magnificent and multifaceted piece of scholarship, thus making a superb contribution to the state of our common knowledge. Toledo Cathedral: Building Histories in Medieval Castile will remain for generations to come an essential point of reference for all who wish to embark on the study of medieval Toledo and 'Gothic' (if we must) Spain.

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