Sunday, April 6, 2008

Looking for Convivencia: The View from Toledo

Light poured through the stained-glass window, pooling on to the stone floor. The Toledo Cathedral was stunning, awesome beyond words. We ended our tour at a small courtyard surrounding what had once been an exit portal. There was a beautifully painted fresco around the archway and surrounding wall, but the content was confusing. It seemed to depict the capture and crucifixion of a young boy. It turned out that the Cathedral's exiting message to the Toledo populace over hundreds of years was the old blood-libel myth that Jews capture and kill young Christian children. And it was so beautifully painted...

La Convivencia, "The Coexistence", has its tensions and contradictions. There was no way to be in Spain during La Semana Santa, Holy Week, without falling under it's spell. Easter here was definitely not about chocolate and bunnies. If I were in India during a major Hindu festival, I would want to learn about it and experience its spirit. We had seen incredible floats depicting the Passion of Christ in Girona on Good Friday, which would be carried in procession on Easter Sunday. We had gone to the Granada Cathedral on Easter Sunday morning hoping to see Granada's floats. And yet, it was the zeal of the Inquisition that expelled my people, or forced them to convert to Catholicism, or burned them alive in auto da fe's. So, it was both like enjoying a Hindu fesival in India as outside observers, and not like it at all. How to reconcile the incredible beauty of the Alhambra with it being the place the Edict of Expulsion was signed in 1492? How to reconcile the fun of the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, with all its wonderful restaurants and shops, learning at the same time that it was a place that people came to watch Jews being burned alive in auto da fe's? And how to reconcile the beauty of Toledo's Cathedral, largely due to it's core of Moorish architecture and it's former life as a Mosque, learning that the Muslims were later also subjected to the same treatment as the Jews? And then the frescoe at its exit portal - essentially fine art used as hate speech?

The weird thing is that I came away in love with Spain, despite all the contradictions and unanswered questions. I understand why people became Conversos rather than leave the warmth and beauty of the land, the people, the climate, the wonderful mix of cultures.

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