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Nickson, Toledo Cathedral: Building Histories in Medieval Castile (Lincoln)

  • 12 Dec 2016 12:50 PM
    Message # 4455487
    Janna Bianchini (Administrator)

    Tom Nickson, Toledo Cathedral: Building Histories in Medieval Castile, (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 2015), 304 and xvii pages, 141 figures, 3 tables. ISBN: 978-0271066455.

    Reviewed by Kyle Lincoln, Kalamazoo College

    It is hard to imagine a more daunting subject than the soaring heights of the cathedral sitting on Plaza del Ayuntamiento in Toledo. A project could easily tackle smaller facets of the history of Toledo and still make a considerable impact on historical scholarship and the study of medieval Iberia. In his 2015 volume, Tom Nickson presents not only a history of the cathedral’s stones, chapels, or façades—targets at which more traditional art or architectural histories might safely aim—but a kind of living history of the cathedral, its construction, and the themes and trends to which it responded and which it helped to shape. In this regard, the book feels intellectually weightier than its 320-or-so page length, and its bibliography (27 pages of nearly ten-by-ten-inch square and three columns wide) betrays both the breadth and depth of Nickson’s task. In all, Toledo Cathedral: Building Histories in Medieval Castile is a subtle, thought-provoking, and careful project that argues for a more comprehensive and complex understanding of the process of cathedral building (and its inherent components), while demonstrating that such a project is not only feasible but contributes greatly to historical understanding of the ways in which cathedrals came to be.

    The three parts of Toledo Cathedral cover an array of topics as varied as the evidence they draw from—a fact for which Nickson deserves considerable credit. The introduction of the volume examines the “fit” of Toledo into larger discourses about pan-European trends and the problems with previous interpretations of the cathedral as an aberration or anachronism. In this respect, the introduction sits apart from the rest of the work, which is focused more on particular details than on the wider argument. The first part of the volume examines the ways in which Toledo simultaneously existed both “on the edge [and] at the center” (as the title of the first part’s only chapter suggests) prior to the new construction projects that culminated in the present Gothic edifice. If the first part’s task is to lay out the cathedral’s complex past before construction began on the new Gothic form, the second part’s goal is to examine, across four chapters, the ways in which Toledo’s cathedral developed structurally and came to cover as much intellectual and architectural territory as the archbishops who ruled there. By examining the evolution of the structure in part two, Nickson is able, in the third and final part, to demonstrate how it responded to, engaged with, and shaped the historical trends of its period. Distilling the weight of the volume into a paragraph, however, does not do Nickson’s work justice.

    Given Nickson’s mastery of the subject and the vast scope of his book, it seems wisest to draw attention to a few chapters which will likely provide the greatest inspiration for future studies. Chapter three, which excavates the details of the construction of the cathedral, demonstrates that its fabric reflects no fewer than seven distinct phases of overlapping and intersecting construction. Along with the physical evidence of the cathedral’s structure, Nickson examines the practical realities of a project of so great a scale as Toledo, paying particular attention to the costs and materials employed at various phases. In chapter six, in part three, he examines the ways in which the cathedral’s physical structure was overlaid simultaneously by a complex web of memories. In effect, the stones that were shaped by living hands become living historical subjects themselves, and Nickson shows how chapels, altars, tombs, and donations to the cathedral were woven together over time into a series of narrative historical layers. One of the most important testimonials to Nickson’s attention to historical detail can be found in Figure 64 (pgs. 122-3), labeled “Plan showing the location of chapels and altars in Toledo Cathedral.” What makes Figure 64 so striking is not that Nickson labels each of the cathedral’s eighty-four identifiable chapels, but that he identifies (and supports in Appendix 2) the earliest documented date of each of the altars’ and chapels’ existence. In doing so, he provides a visual representation of devotional practices in the cathedral, to be paired with his earlier plans of the building’s structural evolution.

    The archival sources for medieval Castile are often lamented as being sub-par, but there is reason to reconsider this assessment. Even if the parchments in diocesan, capitular, and even national archives are labelled “sub-standard” in terms of numbers or preservation (a claim that I would personally dispute), one cannot say the same about archives of another variety. Tom Nickson’s book is accurately sub-titled: “building histories in medieval Castile” demonstrates that the structures that often house the under-complimented archives are also archives themselves. Reading the histories of the cathedrals, parish churches, monasteries, and palaces that dot the landscape of medieval kingdoms allows for a different kind of archival documentation, one which is neither less difficult nor less rewarding than textual evidence. For this reminder alone, Nickson’s book has earned its place as an important statement on behalf of the merits of architectural historical research. One can only hope that a flurry of similar volumes on the great cathedrals and monasteries of the Iberian peninsula will follow this one, helping to fill the buildings’ vast, chilly, echoing spaces with the kind of patient scholarship that recovers not just their histories, but their human essence too.

    Last modified: 22 Dec 2016 9:53 AM | Janna Bianchini (Administrator)

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