Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Breaking the Myth: Toledo Cathedral on the International Stage

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Breaking the Myth: Toledo Cathedral on the International Stage

Article excerpt

Breaking the Myth: Toledo Cathedral on the International Stage Review of: Toledo Cathedral: Building Histories in Medieval Castile by Tom Nickson, University Park, Pensylvannia: The Pennsylvania University Press, 2015, 304 pp., 55 col. illus., 86 b.&w. illus., $89.95 Hardcover, ISBN: 978-0-271-06645-5; $39.95 Paperback, ISBN: 978-0-271-06646-2

In 1865, the British historian of architecture George Edmund Street (1824-1881) confessed in his Some Account of Gothic Architecture in Spain that he was not expecting to see any example of the great Gothic architecture of the thirteenth century in his first trip to that country until his way back home, when he could set his eyes again on the cathedrals of Chartres, Notre-Dame of Paris, or Amiens. This assumption, however, was shattered when he visited Toledo Cathedral for the first time because this church, to his surprise and in his own words, was 'an example of the pure vigorous Gothic of the thirteenth century', and 'the equal in some respects of any of the great French churches.' As he admitted, Toledo Cathedral was a startling and pleasant discovery that led him to declare: 'I hardly know how to express my astonishment that such a building should be so little known [among my compatriots].'1 One has to wonder what would have been StreetÂ?s reaction should he have learned that, despite his account and praise of Toledo Cathedral, it would take the astounding length of time of one hundred and fifty years for that gap in knowledge to be filled?

Indeed, it has only been recently, in 2015, that a comprehensive monograph in English of Toledo Cathedral has been published. This milestone in the knowledge of Spanish gothic architecture, and arguably of gothic art and architecture in general, is the ground-breaking book by Tom Nickson, Toledo Cathedral: Building Histories in Medieval Castile (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015). Numerous reviews of Toledo Cathedral have been published ever since exalting, and rightly so, its masterful analysis of the problems, wealth of information, rigorous research, and the breadth of its scope.2 But the relevance of NicksonÂ?s study goes beyond that of providing excellent and sweeping information about a poorly known cathedral. From the point of view of the historiography of art and architecture, NicksonÂ?s monograph marks a necessary, subversive, and radical turning point in the study of Spanish gothic architecture. And it does so not only because it employs, as we shall see, a highly-updated methodology, but more importantly because that methodology allowed Nickson to break a centuries-old myth about Spanish gothic buildings regarding their relevance within the international frame of European gothic architecture.

The construction of the myth

The myth in question argues that Spanish gothic buildings are just copies or adaptations of foreign models, or that they were designed by foreign architects. In a historiography that has been dominated by stylistic and national taxonomies focused on the creation of original models and schools, this indictment about Spanish buildings had, as it is to be expected, disastrous repercussions for their study. First, because it placed them in a position of dependence, and thus of inferiority, with regard to French, English, and German monuments. And secondly, because that position implied that Spanish buildings did not have an intrinsic interest of their own, but one just extrinsic and limited to their relationship to established canonical models. This myth, shared by European, American, and Spanish scholars alike, has had an extraordinary persistence and ubiquity, thus acquiring a validity which has hardly ever been called into question, but whose damaging consequences for the study of the Spanish buildings from the gothic period can still be felt today and should not be underestimated.

The consequential indifference towards the gothic architecture of Spain brought about by this myth, as well as the significance of NicksonÂ? …

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