- Contesting the Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz
I have for the past decade or so begun my undergraduate survey of medieval Spanish civilization with an interior shot of the so-called Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz, the diminutive mosque-cum-church that lies just inside Toledo’s Puerta de Valmardón along what once had been one of the principal routes of access to the medieval city center. “What do you see?” I ask my students, knowing they will fixate first on the Christ-in-Majesty commanding the structure’s Christian apse, then on the arcade of horseshoe arches just below, finally on the Arabic script spanning the apsidal arch. They invariably end up scratching their heads over what they perceive to be the very odd juxtaposition of Christianity and Islam in what surely must have been sacred space.
My purpose, of course, is to open students’ minds to those spaces of negotiation that emerged between Christianity and Islam in medieval Spain, even within sacred space. And yet in this purpose I expose my biases as a [End Page 201]
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scholar and teacher of the Spanish Middle Ages, that is, my all-too-ready subscription to medieval cultures of tolerance and even the possibilities of ecumenism. Left in place as I read the image with students is the assumption that the mosque remained as more than just a spectral presence beyond the moment of its conversion to a church; so too the assumption that the Arabic script was evocative and meaningful –and necessarily emblematic of Islam– for the Christians who used the space. This notion of the site as integrative rather than conflictive, that is, as mosque and church rather than mosque despite the church or church despite the mosque, is one in which even Toledo colludes as it packages for tourist consumption a hybridized “Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz”. Here, for example, is text from the most recent brochure distributed at the site’s ticket office:
Este valioso edificio milenario, supone un ejemplo único de la pervivencia del arte de Al-Ándalus: una mezquita o pequeño oratorio de época califal a la que dos siglos después, al ser transformada en iglesia se va a añadir un ábside siguiendo el estilo del edificio primitivo dando lugar al arte mudéjar, en perfecta combinación y simbiosis.
Of note here is the naturalizing of mudéjar as a cohesive artistic style, existing always in potentia until it emerges out of the uncontested transformation of mosque to church. Left for us to imagine –and Toledo certainly has certainly imagined it well for us through its “Tres Culturas” campaign– is the “perfecta combinación y simbiosis” of medieval Toledo’s cultural communities. The hybrid Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz becomes the illustration of everything so many of us have dreamed of for medieval Spain.
Art historians have of course been contesting for decades the “naturalness” of mudéjar, now read by some as the byproduct of an evolving material culture, by others as high-handed appropriation of Andalusi elements in the service of Christian hegemony.1 So too will I argue here –this against my [End Page 203] dream vision for medieval Spain– that there is nothing natural about the Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz, whether in its medieval morphings or in its contemporary conscription as emblem of a multicultural Toledo. All told, the hybrid mosque-church, neither one nor the other but both, the perfect symbiosis of Islamic and Christian space, is the invention of a modern age, a necessarily provisional solution to the conundrum of how to account for the flashpoints in its history.
Just as modern, however, is the Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz’s deliberate conscription as contested space residing perennially at the fault line between Islam and Christianity. Among the most repeated of the legends associated with the site is one that lies in uneasy tension with ecumenizing narratives: Alfonso VI...