Santa María la Blanca

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Santa María la Blanca (literally Saint Mary the White, originally known as the Ibn Shushan Synagogue, or commonly "The Congregational Synagogue of Toledo'") is a museum and former synagogue in Toledo, Spain. Erected in 1180, it is disputably considered the oldest synagogue building in Europe still standing. It is now owned and preserved by the Catholic Church.

Its stylistic and cultural classification is unique as it was constructed under the Christian Kingdom of Castile by Islamic architects for Jewish use. It is considered a symbol of the cooperation that existed among the three cultures that populated the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages.


The synagogue is a Mudéjar construction, created by Moorish architects on Christian soil for non-Islamic purposes. But it can also be considered one of the finest example of Almohad architecture because of its construction elements and style. The plain white interior walls as well as the use of brick and of pillars instead of columns are characteristics of Almohad architecture. The typology also presents nuances in its classification, because although it was constructed as a synagogue, its hypostyle room, and the lack of a women's gallery, make it closer in character to a mosque. Though it does not have a women's gallery today, it did at one time have a women's gallery according to an early 20th-century architect.

It became a church in 1405 or 1411, but no major reforms were done for the change. It took then the name of Santa María la Blanca (Saint Mary, the White), and today it is known by this name.


The synagogue at Santa Maria la Blanca is located on the outskirts of Toledo situated between the Church of San Juan de los Reyes and the Synagogue of El Transito. Other well-preserved, pre-expulsion synagogues can be found in Híjar, Córdoba and Tomar.


Santa Maria la Blanca was a wholly unusual synagogue, in both plan and elevation. The floor plan of the synagogue is an irregular quadrilateral divided into five aisles, with the central nave aisle slightly larger than the remaining four. The space runs between 26 and 28 meters long and between 19 and 23 meters wide. The interior features a series of arcades supported on a network of twenty-four octagonal piers and eight engaged piers. These octagonal supports line the central aisle of the synagogue and support the large arcade of horseshoe arches above. The arches rest on intricately detailed capitals with finely carved pinecones and other vegetal imagery. These capitals are Mudéjar in style and are derived from classical, Corinthian antecedents as well as Byzantine concepts.

The focal point of the synagogue is the clam-shell topped arch at the center of the building. This was the location of the Torah Ark. In many synagogues found throughout the Jewish Diaspora and what is now Israel, the clam shell is a marker for the place where the ark should be placed. Evidence from Catholic altarpieces depicts the ark as a tall movable structure which would fit nicely in this particular niche. It is torpedo shaped, much like a traditional Sephardic Torah scroll Case.

The building is surrounded by a courtyard. This courtyard served as a place for the people to congregate before and after prayer services and also held the different communal institutions. The Rabbi's residence, a ritual bath, a study hall, and the other things which communities invest in were all built in this courtyard to give the Jewish community a central place to take care of their spiritual needs.

Stylistic origins

The exact origins and original specifications of the synagogue prove difficult to place. Evidence points toward a construction date sometime in the late twelfth century or early thirteenth century. One commonly accepted opinion is that the temple was erected sometime around 1205, as documents from the time mention a "new", great synagogue located in Toledo. Another theory arises from a wooden tablet found in the area that describes a new structure saying, "Its ruins were raised up in the year 4940" [CE 1180]. This date is not irrational as the structure's style is closer to that of Moroccan monuments of the twelfth century such as Tinmal (1153) and Kuturbiyya (1150). If this inscription indeed refers to Santa Maria la Blanca, then the synagogue may in fact be a refabrication of an existing building or a new building located on the same plot as a demolished one. Whether the synagogue's layout might have been lifted from a preexisting mosque located on the same site is still unclear and purely hypothetical.


It is also somewhat unclear who might be the patron of the original synagogue, although evidence does prefer to identify Joseph ben Meir ben Shoshan, or Yusef Abenxuxen, as the original patron. Joseph was the son of a finance minister to King Alfonso VIII of Castile who, upon his death in 1205, recorded having built a synagogue. Some theories suggest Joseph rebuilt the temple after an uprising against Jews in Toledo. This reasoning may be the cause for the building's irregular floor plan and again points to a late-twelfth century construction. Other historians, such as L. Torres Balbas, note similarities between the plaster work in the aisles of Santa Maria la Blanca and the convent Las Huelgas de Burgos of a later date around 1275. However, the scale and proportion of the ornament, the nature of the ornamentation, the blank canvas against which the ornament is placed, as well as the way in which light is used in the space all correspond to structures contemporary with the earlier construction date.

History After Synagogue Life

The building ceased to be a synagogue in the year 1411, it was converted for use as a monastery, and later as an armory and warehouse. The building was eventually declared a national memorial site and restored in 1856, but there were numerous changes and evolutions which the building went through during this period. The building was, at first used for prayer services, many believe, by recent converts from Judaism to Catholicism. In 1550 the building and its courtyard became the property of an order of monks who sought to purify the building of its Jewish past. They named the building Santa Maria La Blanca, meaning St. Mary the White, in an effort to drive out the perceived "darkness" of the building's Jewish past. Eventually, the monastery abandoned the building, perhaps because the northern wall fell down and that was seen as a bad omen. The building was then used as a warehouse and armory for a company which manufactures bullfight swords to this day.

In 2013, a request was made to the Catholic Church for the return of the building to the Jewish community.


See also

  • Synagogue architecture
  • Mudéjar


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