Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca: A Stunning Symbol of Religious Cooperation

It must say something about the architectural genius involved when an empty room without any furnishings, is still stunning.

And when we walked into the Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca in Toledo that’s the first word that came to mind.

Built as a Jewish synagogue by Islamic builders around 1200, it’s concrete proof that the appreciation of beauty can transcend cultural and religious differences.

The building’s four rows of octagonal pillars supporting horseshoe arches, and its Artesanado ceiling make it a classic example of Mudéjar construction. And the contrast of the deep-red, azulejos floor tiles makes the room even more dramatic.

Arches resting on intricate capitals with finely carved, unpainted pinecones juxtapose two very different textures and colors, emphasizing the detail of the workmanship.

The synagogue is 800 years-old, and is one of the oldest standing Jewish synagogues in Europe. A lot can happen in eight centuries, and as you might expect, the building has survived many changes.

Christian Influences

In 1492 it became a Catholic church when Ferdinand and Isabella’s religious zeal resulted in an edict that forced Toledo’s Jews to convert to Catholicism … or leave. Later, Napoleon’s troops inflicted the final indignity when they used the church as a horse barn.

Mezquita – Catedral de Cordoba, courtesy of No Particular Place to Go

This grand synagogue is unusual, but it’s not totally unique. Just 200 miles southwest of Toledo is another architectural gem that went through a transformation at the hands of two different religions. It’s the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, which started life as a classic Islamic mosque and was later converted to a Catholic cathedral.

The Mosque-Cathedral, courtesy of No Particular Place to Go

Our blogging buddies Anita and Richard over at No Particular Place to Go were kind enough to provide these excellent photos of the cathedral.

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, courtesy of No Particular Place to Go

And even though the Cordoba cathedral is much more colorful and the addition of Catholic elements were more “enthusiastic,” it demonstrates that Mudéjar architecture was an attractive style that appealed to church leaders. Richard and Anita’s post provides a thorough history of the Cordoba Cathedral, and it’s an informative summary of Spain at the time. 

This was a time of radical transition in Spain, and animosities ran high. But these impressive architectural hybrids show a willingness for people with disparate beliefs to adapt ideas from the other side. And in generational wars the hope of peace is about small increments.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri



We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

34 thoughts

    1. Peggy, given the state of things today it’s hard to believe, but it’s certainly good to know that at some point in the past people agreed to disagree and got on with their lives. ~James

  1. I love the contrast between the Santa Maria la Blanca and the Mosque-Cathedral and have to agree with your opening sentence that the use of the space creates a sense of awesome beauty. The intricate detail of the stucco carving in the white-on-white decor really stands out and the light itself adds a sense of wonder in both places of worship. “Stunning” says it all! Anita P.S. Thanks for both the link to our blog and the pingback!

    1. Anita, it’s interesting that you mention the light, because in both buildings, the natural light adds so much to the feel of the space. And it appears that we both were photographing the buildings on the perfect day. One thing that I didn’t mention about La Blanca was the two keyhole windows high up in the back of the room. I couldn’t tell for sure, but I think they were alabaster, and the golden glow they produced was magical. Thanks again for the photos. ~James

    1. Peta, I’m sure that Toledo has a totally different feel in winter. I understand that it can get quite cold, and I see in your post that you and Ben are bundled up. It’s a special place for sure, and I’m sure there are lots of special holiday events – and hopefully, fewer tourists. ~James

  2. This is an example of what religious cooperation can do to a society: only beauty. Thanks for constantly reminding us all, James & Terri.

  3. While it is true that Toledo’s synagogue is an example of cooperation, and the tolerance which produced a remarkable civilization, it is also, sadly, true that cooperation did not outlast the complete Christian reconquest of Spain, which is why both those buildings became churches. The reuse of the Cordoba mosque is an example of Christian triumphalism, not cooperation (not altogether surprising when you think how long the reconquest took).

    I was reminded of the great synagogue in Budapest which looks a lot like a church – also built in the style of the then-dominant religion.

    1. Kathy, what you say about the Cordoba mosque is true, but because they chose to keep the majority of what was certainly a Muslim building instead of tearing it down, must at least show some level of acceptance, if not cooperation. There are many examples of Christians destroying mosques and Muslims razing cathedrals. In the case of these two structures, this did not happen. ~James

      1. Not necessarily. Since the mosque was converted immediately after the reconquest of Córdoba, while the Moors were still in control in parts of Spain, it looks more like an in-your-face statement of ownership. And since all the Jews were expelled in the same year as the fall of Granada, no, I don’t think Spanish monarchs were motivated by acceptance and cooperation. Certainly the Spanish Inquisition was not.

  4. Interesting how those religious site can be interchangeable, beautiful detailing. What an insult for Napoleon’s troops to turn it into a horse barn.

    1. Leslie, the building is now owned by the Catholic Church, and hats off to them for an excellent renovation. Apparently, the Jewish Community has requested that the synagogue be turned back over to them, but I’m not sure if that will ever happen. In the meantime, it’s an excellent museum. ~James

  5. These are two wonderful examples of the amazing architecture you find in Spain. I love all the different influences and how they blend together to present something so appealing. When I touch the pillars or walls, I can´t help thinking of all the people through the centuries who have also touched that spot and I feel connected to the past.

    1. Darlene, up until 1560 when the King moved his capital to Madrid, Toledo was a very important place. So I can imagine that in the 800 years the synagogue has been around lots of important people have passed through its doors. At least, it remains standing for everyone to enjoy today. ~James

  6. Oh I love stories of cooperation and particularly religious cooperation. Such beautiful structures. I was struck by the pine cone carvings. Are they made our of plaster?

    1. Sue, I’m not sure, but they really appeared to be made of some sort of very pure sandstone, or it could have been cement. I’m sure the originals were stone of some sort. They’re very cool though. ~James

  7. Oh what fabulous architecture and details! Such irony in the name of this place of prayer… since saints don’t comprise any part (to my knowledge) of Jewish theology or temple practice. But Santa Maria de la Blanca is such a beauty, I’d vouch for it anyway. (I think I might have visited a few decades ago with my family, but I don’t remember it being so stunning.. great find!)

    1. Perceptive of you Amit. According to wikipedia: It was originally called Ibn Shushan Synagogue, or commonly “The Congregational Synagogue of Toledo.” The Catholics made it Santa Maria La Blanca, and as a matter of fact, there’s another church by the same name in Seville. ~James

  8. I also like the architectural style, and I like even more the spirit of tolerance that existed in Toledo all those years ago. The synagogues-cum-churches-cum-mosques are what I remember most about my own time in Toledo.

    1. Lexie, I was heartened to hear of this tolerance, and before our trip to Toledo, I wasn’t aware of it. But sadly, when the Catholics fell off the tolerance wagon, they fell hard, and the Inquisition was the result. These were the darkest of days in Spain. ~James

  9. Such Detail! It’s hard to imagine the hand work involved in these columns. Of course, like always, I wonder practical things: who does the cleaning?? And is it done by feather duster or spray hose? Because you know someone is cleaning in those buildings…

    1. Susan, this building is now owned by the Catholic Church and is a museum. So I’m sure there’s no shortage of money to pay cleaning staff. It’s a marvelous, simple space and other than the floors, it probably isn’t too tough to keep clean … now that the horses are gone. 😉 ~James

  10. These 2 buildings are proof that the melding of cultures and religions produces things of great beauty. Why aren’t we learning from these examples?!!

    I’m intrigued by the pine cone carvings. Meticulous, detailed work at its finest!

    1. Joanne, I was intrigued about the pine cones as well. It’s an unusual motif, and as far as I know, this area isn’t known for pine trees (someone out there may correct me on this). But whatever the reason, they’re beautifully detailed capitals and the contrast to the simple white columns is wonderful. ~James

  11. Another fascinating place — love the white, and it really makes quite a statement. Thanks for taking and sharing the close-up details of the pine cones. Remarkable. Well, all of it is remarkable when you get down to it. We don’t have cathedrals like these here in the U.S., and as far as we can tell, they’re not building ’em anymore in Europe either. So, thank goodness for preservation efforts all around.

    1. Rusha, you’re right about new cathedrals on both sides of the Atlantic. Imagine what one of these ornate beauties would cost to build today. And I’m sure that there are so few artists around that could actually do this type of work that it would be almost impossible. Also, given the number of folks who actually attend church regularly, there’s probably already enough churches to do the job. ~James

      1. More than enough. When we drive through small towns in Tennessee, we see numerous churches. Although small, there are enough to hold a city’s worth of Sunday attendees!

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