- Toledo Cathedral: Building Histories in Medieval Castile by Tom Nickson
Despite millions of visitors in recent decades, Toledo Cathedral has a marginal profile in histories of architecture, art, and spirituality. Publishers may release piecemeal studies of a chapel, a painting, or an ecclesiastic, yet the historian and layman alike usually cannot verbalize a cohesive narrative of the institution that arose after Christians conquered the city in 1085. The formidable publication by Tom Nickson, however, recognizes the primatial cathedral of Spain for its heroic stature within Peninsular and European frameworks. While synthesizing a wide range of scholarship, he also conducted on-site research to advance a perceptive account of the late medieval building.
Lucid prose and a tripartite structure impart clarity to the book. Nickson presents an overview of Toledo as a city with ancient roots, often at the center of religious, political, and artistic discourse. With the spotlight on vibrant medieval cosmopolitanism, he contests the notion, bequeathed by the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, of a passive, liminal Spain. In the second section, Nickson becomes an architectural historian and furnishes a strikingly accessible description of the cathedral as it grew from a converted mosque into one of the largest Gothic basilicas in Christendom. Documentary and physical evidence informs his thorough characterization of the site and its construction, which drew inspiration from international architecture. When identifying the four building campaigns from 1222 to 1381 that brought the existing cathedral to its "substantially complete" form, Nickson repudiates the year of 1492 or 1493 that modern historians have long repeated as the terminal date. His momentum continues into the final portion of the study, which brings to life the experiences, cults, liturgy, music, art, and royal presence at the cathedral. Generous with his knowledge of the full history of Toledo, Nickson focuses on the late eleventh through the early fifteenth centuries.
Readers of Catholic Historical Review may take the book and gorge on the rich illustrations, the engaging narratives about ecclesiastics, and the steady analysis [End Page 565] of facts regarding the altars, relics, images, chapels, sacred texts, and other components of the church. Matters large and small arise in this story. For example, one can appreciate how Archbishop Rodrigo Ximénez de Rada (r.1209–47) harnessed the grandeur of Constantinian basilicas by endowing this Gothic cathedral with a double-aisled design. The gesture, which supported Toledo as the apostolic heir to early Christian Rome, downplayed centuries of Islamic rule over the former Visigothic urbs regia. On a more modest scale, the tomb of Fernán Gudiel (d. 1278) features an epitaph celebrating the knight as having "honorably served Jesus Christ and Holy Mary"; the high-ranking official rests beneath decorative geometric plasterwork that Nickson characterizes as "seemingly derived from Nasrid Granada." Nickson cautions against reading the ornament as a statement of any otherwise unsupported identity or Mozarabic lineage for the deceased, but he largely avoids offering an interpretation of this "part of the decorative repertoire available to patrons and artists in medieval Castile." The intricate decoration may have evoked the palatine style of the Alhambra, where Arabic inscriptions identify some comparably embellished spaces as paradisiacal—a theme also suitable for a tomb.
Just as the archbishops of Toledo had envisioned their monumental cathedral as speaking to diverse audiences near and afar, the book can serve a similarly broad readership. In his references to English, French, Italian, and Andalusian traditions, Nickson links Castilian magnificence with international developments. To be sure, the story includes uncomfortably hard edges; after all, the church had effaced a mosque, and, in grave moments, some artworks quarreled with the Jewish tradition. All of these dynamics resonated in the subsequent centuries of the cathedral, which deserve renewed study in light of this analysis of its medieval history. The cogent publication by Nickson will serve as a touchstone for scholars who pursue new research on a range of questions.