This issue’s limited edition print of a sketch by Ladd P. Ehlinger is of Sinagoga Santa María la Blanca (St. Mary of the Snows) in Toledo, Spain. This synagogue was founded in Ca. 1203 - 1205, nearly two centuries before the Tránsito Synagogue, which was featured in our 1st Quarter 2008 newsletter. It is one of the three remaining synagogues in Spain, and actually functions today as a museum.
This synagogue was designed by unknown Mudéjar architects. If you recall from the Tránsito article last issue, Mudéjar (pronounced moo-DAY-har) is a type or style of decorative and carved plaster with very intricate geometric patterns that was developed by craftsmen /artists in Spain during the time of the Moorish occupation. Mudéjar ornament was used in Islamic, Jewish and Catholic places of worship and other buildings throughout this period of time. The Islamic / Mudéjar influence is readily apparent throughout the building.
In plan, Santa María la Blanca has five aisles formed by four colonnades of octagonal drums supporting seven horseshoe arches each on capitals with very decorative filigree of vegetal inspiration from Almohad influence. The architrave (space above the arches) is filled with Mudéjar ornament above and between bandings on the white walls that support the wooden roof structure. The bandings are thought to have had inscriptions on them at one time, though today in their “restored” state, they are plain. The flooring is a decorative red tile that dates from the restoration also, so the original flooring is unknown It is believed that there was a niche for the Ark though it no longer remains, nor is it known where the Bimah was. The ambiance is more like a Mesquita (Mosque) than a synagogue because of the five parallel aisles and horseshoe arches, perhaps also because of the lack of a women’s gallery (the other Spanish synagogue have women’s galleries). However, some believe that a Women’s Gallery did exist when the synagogue was first built because there are brackets in the masonry on the western end that appear to have been for holding wooden beams that are otherwise unexplained.
Some scholars believe that Santa María la Blanca was originally built as a mosque, construction date unknown, that had burned Ca. 1180, which explains the multiple aisle plan. These same scholars also believe that Joseph ben Meir ben Shoshan (Yucef Abenxuxen) was the patron for the reconstruction of the building into a synagogue. Joseph was the son of a finance minister (almoxarife) to Alfonso VIII of Castile (ruled 1158-1214). If so, he certainly had the money to be the patron of such a project.
After 1492 and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, this synagogue was also converted to a Catholic church — hence the name. The original Jewish name is unknown. It was stormed by a Christian mob led by St. Vincent Ferrer. The building was later used as a carpenter’s shop, a store, a barracks, and a refuge for reformed prostitutes. The altar from the 16th century is from its use as a Christian church remains.
Ladd P. Ehlinger AIA