2000s Archive

Conjuring Spain

continued (page 2 of 3)

There is a phenomenon encountered only in fairy tales, and in special places of the heart: that of the large contained in the small. In Toledo, that endearing marvel finds sublime expression in the mighty Flamboyant Gothic cathedral, constructed on the site of a former mosque. Its lacy, dignified spire appears—if one surrenders oneself to the laws and fancies of perspective—at the top of a little crooked street: a divine exclamation point at the end of a knotted warren. Flooded with sincere northern light, the cathedral—with its spectacular gold-and-wrought-iron grilles and its stained glass and its works by Rubens, Velázquez, Goya, and Bellini—is a coherent mélange of Mudejar and Renaissance and Baroque architecture. Calligraphic plaster traceries on the ceiling are similar to those at the Alhambra; cupboards are densely carved from pearwood. But, as it is the nature of genius to contradict expectations, the overall effect is one of delicacy and lightness. Delicacy deriving from stucco—which is to say, mud.

If one is inclined to the belief that God has a sense of humor, the odd relics here resonate nicely: a miter made from the feathers of a hummingbird; a piece of stone that Mary trod upon when she descended from Heaven to invest Saint Ildefonso with the chasuble (an event that occurred, I’m told somewhat implausibly, in A.D. 666). No one could be so sour as not to find pleasure in the theatricality of the choir stalls (stories sculpted in stone and precious gems, larchwood and walnut, alabaster and jasper). But the genius of the cathedral resides in the reredos of the Chancel, which rises in serried majesty from the high altar to the roof. Is this truly an inanimate object? It breathes and it teems. Frothing wood, carved and painted, dimensionally fretted everywhere with stone canopies and niches, a series of elaborate stone tableaux. Sculpture, no less than painting, is the bible of the illiterate, and of the visually arousable. This was the country’s prescient answer to Communism and Fascism. This was the heart of God. This was the heart of Spain.

On Toledo’s highest hill squats the Alcázar, blunt and sober, a reminder of death. During the country’s fratricidal civil war, blood ran down these streets, and 40 anarchists burned themselves to death here in 1937. Times were mad. Sometimes, when I am at Mass in Spain, I wonder at everybody’s temperate exchange of the greeting of peace. For these are a people who died at the hands of their neighbors not so very long ago. Their restraint seems to me nothing short of miraculous. (They are restrained in traffic, too. Where Italians would indulge in opera buffa, Toledanos calmly go about unsnarling the works.)

This is a country that interpreted the Black Death of 1348 as divine punishment, that tortured heretics and burned them at the stake. This is the land that bred ecstatics—Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Ignatius the Jesuit. History’s demented quirks are writ large in Spain. Here, for centuries, Moors, Christians, and Jews lived in harmony. After the Reconquest, when the Moors fell to Christian King Alfonso of Castile, Toledo’s Jews enjoyed prosperity and popular esteem. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the city, capital of Hispanic Jews, had been known as the “Jerusalem of the West.” Then, in 1492, the Jews were expelled from Spain. But from their time of glory, two former synagogues, Santa María la Blanca and Del Tránsito, remain—the latter’s ceiling formed by cedars of Lebanon, its floor covered with the soil of Palestine. The veils of stucco arabesques and honeycombed Hebrew calligraphic tracery on their walls were executed by Moorish artisans.

Much of Toledo is closed for the duration of my visit. This is liberating. I feel free to prowl the streets, committed to nothing but my own pleasure. I find myself in the vicinity of the 14th-century Convento de Santo Domingo el Real, a bewitching neighborhood of little squares, churches, escutcheoned palaces, and convents. People with romances to write set their books in this Toledo, perhaps bestowing upon them such titles as The Legend of the Kiss or The Rose of Christ’s Passion. Near the long and narrow Plaza San Vicente, virgins prick themselves with pins of various colors and sizes and offer them to Mary (to whom no gift is unacceptable) so that she may intercede for them and provide them with a worthy mate. And when they have secured their handsome boys, they will travel to the outlying town of Oropesa to buy snowy linens for their beds. In the black shadow of the church and of huge trees sit old women, spinning and sewing. Once they too were young. The girls will go to the small town of Talavera de La Reina to buy the gay ceramic plates and vessels that will grace their tables. We go there, too. The acquisition of loot is an antidote to thoughts of death. Beautiful, inexpensive plates. On blue-green, beige, white backgrounds, naïve animals—fox, quail, deer, rabbits; rearing, scratching, hurdling, huddling.

The scent of white-flowering jasmine fills the air. On the roofs of churches preposterous white storks guard their untidy nests. We return to our parador, making our way through an enfilade of public rooms, velvet and tiles, rich and sensual. The inn offers a mingled coziness and formality—friendly multicolored cats, antiques with runners of pale-rose–streaked silk and dove-gray embroidery, and strawberries and cream served with fried flowers and almond-cream sauce.

We drive almost due south over the Sierra Morena to Córdoba, where Isabella commissioned Columbus to sail to the New World and where, today, whitewashed houses are wreathed by cascades of hanging flowers, orange-blossom perfume anoints the air, and gates to flower-bedecked courtyards are left tantalizingly ajar. Two old ladies invite us into their courtyard to enjoy their earthly paradise—espaliered bougainvillea, plumbago, a lacy jacaranda tree. Rooms open directly onto patios: One could so easily touch a table, a bed. In the evening, streets bustle with the paseo, but in the heat of day shimmering Córdoba is as mysterious as it is quiet and self-regarding, and fountains rob the heat of its power to prick (Death, where is thy sting?). At night I hear the wail of guitars in shuttered rooms, music that has its roots in Byzantium and in Gregorian chant, in the plaintive songs of the Jews, and in the music of Gypsy tribes. Music that is languid and voluptuous ... wanton.

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