Tuesday 15 October 2013

The Synagogue El Tránsito

Figure 1 El Tránsito Exterior

In relation to my recent academic inquiries about the status of Jews in medieval Spain, I would like to devote this post to the Synagogue of Samuel Ha-Levi, or what is better known as El Tránsito.

El Tránsito was built within the Christian kingdom of Toledo and was founded and financed by Samuel Halevi Abulafia who was treasurer of the Castilian king Peter I, and a prominent member of Toledo’s Jewish community.[1] El Tránsito was built in the fourteenth century for personal use by Ha-Levi and was attached to his home via private gates.[2]

Figure 2  El Tránsito Exterior

Based upon an exterior view, the synagogue has an appearance of a simple edifice with horseshoe shaped windows, which were a common aspect in medieval Spanish architecture.

However, the interior of the synagogue has decorative aspects that may be likened to the interior of Alhambra (constructed intermittently between the 9th-14th centuries in the Muslim kingdom of Granada) in regard to the Nasrid style finely carved stucco with arabesque motifs as well as the horseshoe shaped archways.[3] 

These decorative aspects are reflective of the predominant styles within the medieval Iberian Peninsula and could be could be found in Christian, Jewish and Islamic architectural structures.

Figure 3  El Tránsito Interior

Figure 4 Alhambra

But the aspect of El Tránsito that I find particularly interesting is the incorporation of both Hebrew and Arabic inscriptions within one edifice. To me, this relates to how the social structure of Toledo and other areas within the Christian kingdoms of Spain were, in certain instances, indefinable. I shall use the socio-political role of the Jew as an example. On one hand the Jews were ‘servants’ of the crown used to proliferate its wealth, whilst on the other hand, they were vilified for the very acts they were entrusted to complete. I would suggest this may be due to the nature of some of these acts in the eyes of Christianity (such as usury), which, in turn, reflected upon, and propagated, the perceived ‘nature’ of the Jews.

Figure 5  El Tránsito Islamic and Hebrew Inscriptions

Figure 6  Alhambra
Due to their linguistic proficiencies, the Jews acted as intermediaries between Christian and Muslim kingdoms and as tax collectors the Jews were an important aspect to the continued financial growth of the crown.[4] According to Law XXV of the Siete Partidas, the almojarife (a role usually fulfilled by a Jew) should be ‘loyal and without covetousness.’ [5] Also, in some areas of Spain the Jews were so important to the economical and ‘commercial well-being’ of the town that they were permitted to attend general assemblies of the Cort. [6]  However, Christian accounts of Jews (both illustratively and in writing) describe the Jew as a greedy, ‘renegade rogue’ that lies and covets money and wealth. [7] Additionally, in Cantiga 348, the Virgin described the Jews as “'people much worse than the Moors'” who hoarded and buried their wealth.[8]

Figure 7  Teófilo in Satan’s court. 
                                    Source: Escorial Ms. T. I, fol. 3r, detail. 

The Jews were also known to be knowledgeable about sciences and medicine, which proved to be useful in the medical treatment of Alfonso X. [9] However, within literature and other religious accounts, the Jews were not to be trusted. The Jew’s proficiencies, which many people sought and relied upon, were conveyed as a form of trickery because as a people the Jews were devilish magicians who formed a brotherhood with the devil.[10] Furthermore, within illuminated manuscripts, this brotherhood was amalgamated by the illustrative representations of the physical similarities between the devil and the Jew. [11]

Figure 8  El Tránsito Hebrew Inscriptions

Even though there are numerous accounts (both written and Illustrative) delineating the socio-political and religious standing of the three Abrahamic religions living within medieval Iberia, one cannot ignore the visual intermingling of ideas and traditions that occurred within the area. To some, these intertwined visual aspects speak to the idea that the Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together in medieval Iberia happily and openly shared ideas, but, to me, it speaks of the delicate nature of the socio-political currents of the time period. The existence of architectural structures that exchanged hands (from Muslim to Christian or Jewish to Christian) but were still able to retain much of its cultural identifiers relates to what I would consider to be a power struggle even though the area was dominated by one religious culture.


[1]Sinagoga del Tránsito http://archnet.org/library/sites/one-site.jsp?site_id=7587
[2] Ibid.
[3] The Art of the Nasrid Period http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nasr/hd_nasr.htm
[4]Jonathan Ray, The Sephardic Frontier: The Reconquista and the Jewish Community in Medieval Iberia, Cornell UP 2006, 68.
[5] Robert I. Burns, S.J. ed, Las Siete Partidas, Vol 2: The Medieval Government: The World of Kings and Warriors, translated by Samuel Parsons Scott, University of Pennsylvania, 2001, 327.
[6]Jonathan Ray, The Sephardic Frontier: The Reconquista and the Jewish Community in Medieval Iberia, Cornell UP 2006, 90.
[7]Gonzalo de Berceo, The Miracles of Our Lady, stanzas 679-681;648.
[8]Walter Mettmann ed, Alfonso X, el Sabio: Cantigas de Santa Maria, Castalia, Madrid, 1989
[9]Francisco Prado Vilar, 'Iudeus Sacer: Life, Law, and Identity...,' in Kessler and Nirenberg, Judaism in Christian Art, Philadelphia/Oxford: Pennsylvannia UP  2011, 116.
[10]Gonzalo de Berceo, The Miracles of Our Lady, stanzas 766-769.
[11] Pamela Patton, 'Constructing the Inimical Jew in the Cantigas de Santa Maria: Theophilus' Magician in Text and Image.' In Beyond the Yellow Badge: Anti-Judaism, Anti-Semitism and European Art Before 1800, ed. Mitchell Merback. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2008, 244.

Figure 1-http://www.spainisculture.com/en/monumentos/toledo/sinagoga_del_transito.html
Figure 2- Ibid.
Figure 3-http://www.flickr.com/photos/paulayjesus/5354939383/
Figure 4-http://www.ecotravellerguide.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Canopy-at-the-Alhambra.jpg
Figure 5-Sinagoga del Tránsito http://archnet.org/library/sites/one-site.jsp?site_id=7587
Figure 6-http://tourists360.com/alhambra-palace/
Figure 7-David Nirenberg, “Christian Love, Jewish ‘Privacy,’ and Medieval Kingship,” in Center and Periphery: Studies on Power in the Medieval World (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2013), 30.
Figure 8-Sinagoga del Tránsito http://archnet.org/library/sites/one-site.jsp?site_id=7587

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