Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 20, 2017
Tom Nickson Toledo Cathedral: Building Histories in Medieval Castile University Park: Penn State University Press, 2015. 324 pp.; 60 color ills.; 80 b/w ills. Cloth $89.95 (9780271066455)

The title of Tom Nickson’s impressive and beautifully illustrated monograph, Toledo Cathedral: Building Histories in Medieval Castile, cleverly highlights the dual agenda of his ambitious study of the Spanish cathedral. As a book dedicated to a single work of architecture, it endeavors to untangle the complicated and often tacitly accepted building history of the cathedral’s construction from the early thirteenth through late fourteenth centuries. In so doing, Nickson reveals how the cathedral’s most influential patrons and clergymen also “built” its histories. These histories have been layered upon the immense cathedral, creating a sort of palimpsest that is best understood not only through the physical architecture itself, but also through its interaction with the cathedral’s richly decorated (and changeable) interior and the rituals that were performed in its spaces. As a result, Nickson contributes to an understanding of Toledo Cathedral as a “living church” that developed its sacred topography over time and space. A wonderfully interdisciplinary study, Toledo Cathedral will have great appeal to a variety of readers interested in medieval Spain and Gothic art and architecture, as well as those who study medieval memory and the extended “life” of buildings.

In his introduction, Nickson clearly lays out the goals for his study. Rather than presenting the cathedral as a passive receptor of foreign influence—as much nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholarship has assumed—Nickson argues that the artists and patrons of Toledo Cathedral brought sophisticated knowledge and craftsmanship to the work, drawing from a variety of written and visual sources as well as architecture they may have encountered. Seeking “to find a way of integrating scholarship on Iberia’s plural material cultures (dominated by scholars of 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), Nickson attempts to refocus the study of the cathedral by considering Toledo’s local and international contexts together in the development of Gothic architecture there. He argues that in absorbing and translating French Gothic design to fit a multicultural Iberian context, Toledo Cathedral broke with local building traditions in a way other Gothic cathedrals could not. Rather than a peripheral example that responds to major building projects in Italy, France, and England, Toledo Cathedral, Nickson insists, therefore offers a way of comprehending the Gothic aesthetic that these “centers” cannot provide.

In order to tackle such an ambitious and wide-ranging agenda, Toledo Cathedral is divided into three main parts and an epilogue. The order is well-conceived, although one may want to reference the construction timeline in appendix 1 before reviewing the detailed discussion of the building and its numerous changes and additions. Chapter 1 begins with the birth of Alfonso X in Toledo, using his likely birthplace in the Alcázar as the first example in an overview of the city’s important multicultural history and sites connected to its Islamic and Visigothic pasts. Nickson’s discussion of the mosque Bab-al-Mardum’s transformation into the Church of Santa Cruz sets the stage for the theme of conversion—both architectural and religious—that permeates the narrative of Toledo Cathedral. He then demonstrates how the plan of the Friday mosque that once stood upon the cathedral’s grounds was consciously incorporated into the new Christian space. Having established this context, Nickson commences his main task of analyzing the cathedral’s “history of construction and construction of that history” (9) in part 2 (chapters 2–5). Development is a key factor here, and Nickson urges his readers not to view the cathedral as a stable whole. He looks to correct past narratives by examining not only the extensive archival records and archaeological evidence at the cathedral itself, but also by expanding his discussion to consider the great Gothic architectural building projects of the 1220s in order to place Toledo within this larger history. Nickson uses these strands of evidence to interrogate assumed patterns of construction, arguing that despite long-held beliefs that Toledo Cathedral was not finished until 1492 (based around Spain’s mythic associations with this date), the vaults were actually closed much earlier, by the 1380s. In bringing such evidence to light, Nickson sustains his thesis that the study of Toledo Cathedral can provide a more nuanced understanding of the Gothic aesthetic not only in Iberia but more broadly throughout Europe. He also convincingly argues that Toledo’s location on the border between Islamic and Christian Spain allowed for mixed building solutions and artistic influences. This analysis is perhaps most successful in Nickson’s discussion of the cathedral presbytery, where new Gothic conventions mingle with those of Córdoba and recall the more local history of Toledo Cathedral’s own construction on the site of a former mosque. Moreover, Nickson’s argument that the locality of Islamic and Islamic-inspired architecture in Toledo may have actually rendered the Gothic “more extraordinary” (91) is an intriguing suggestion that demonstrates the preconceived notions often brought to the study of these monuments.

Having established a timeline for construction, part 3 (chapters 6–10) turns to the cathedral’s interior and its role in creating a “cathedral of memory” (112). The theme of absence and presence looms large throughout Toledo Cathedral, but no more so than in this section. Nickson urges readers to consider not only the significance of the cathedral’s stones, but also those objects stored in its treasury, tombs that commemorate the dead, statues representing strong Toledan cults, and local rituals that, even in a medieval setting, could have referenced Toledo’s illustrious past. Acknowledging the loss of much of this “life” of the cathedral, chapter 6 moves from the immaterial and ephemeral—liturgy and processions—to the “stuff of memory” (112) that decorated the church in the form of chapels, altars, and tombs, and finally to the riches of the treasury and multilingual manuscript collection. Of particular interest in this section is the role of processions and other liturgical performances at the cathedral, and the ways in which they point to changes in the function of architectural spaces. While it would have been useful to consider the role of music at the cathedral more broadly—notwithstanding a lengthy discussion of performances of the famous Cantigas de Santa Maria in the next chapter—often so little is known, and Nickson gives these ceremonies a much-overlooked role in the narrative of the cathedral.

Chapter 7 turns to examine the material culture related to the cults of Mary and Saint Ildefonso, among others. The footprints of the Virgin—the cathedral’s most precious relic despite its lack of corporeal remains—serves as Nickson’s most potent example of such interplay between ritual, object, and memory, as the sacred Christian relic may have been reimagined as such from an ancient votive plaque. Last, Nickson addresses the extensive sculptural programs found on the portals and in the choir. These interior and exterior furnishings of the architectural shell help to confirm its construction history and point to changes in function, use, and political allegiances. His observations often relate to patterns and sources of transmission and reception given Toledo’s Christian, Jewish, and Islamic population, but also extend over the Pyrenees. In particular, Nickson’s attention to the use of Jewish sources on the choir screen (available via local multicultural networks and Toledan artists’ relative freedom of invention) and their application to anti-Jewish polemics and reception by conversos provides an important context for understanding the late medieval history of Toledo.

Throughout his book, Nickson provides intriguing examples of Islamic or Islamic-inspired sources embedded in the cathedral’s architectural and decorative programs for purposes of cultural, but not religious, emulation. The notion that Islamic objects and architecture were perceived as markers of luxury has been addressed previously by other scholars, but Nickson’s discussion of the ways in which recording and recalling these objects as “Moorish”—even in some instances when they were not—adds a new dimension to the role of cultural memory and forgetting in the larger “histories” of the cathedral. Similarly, arguments for the changing meaning of architectural forms and especially the use of Islamic ornamentation and Arabic inscription in Christian contexts are not new here, but they serve an important reminder in the context of Gothic architecture in Iberia. While Nickson’s attention to primary-source material and archeological evidence is extensive and impressive, an extended engagement with some more recent secondary literature, particularly on the subject of the mudéjar style, would help to strengthen his analysis.

Toledo Cathedral is a significant contribution to recent scholarship on medieval Spain as well as Gothic architecture more broadly. Nickson is right to criticize the isolated study of medieval architecture, and his book provides an alternative and highly interdisciplinary methodology for the field. It is encouraging that such attention is now being paid to this important monument, and Nickson’s monograph will stand as a key source for its continued study.

Elisa A. Foster
Henry Moore Foundation Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds