15 May 2024

The lost ark I realised
was hidden in a former
synagogue is found
in a church in Seville

The lost ark of a synagogue has been found behind the statue of the Virgin Mary above the main altar of Santa María la Blanca in Seville (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

It is four or five years since I visited the former Jewish Quarter in Seville and stayed for a few days in Las Casas de Judería in October 2018. I still think it was probably the most beautiful hotel I have ever stayed in.

Next door to the hotel is the Church of Santa María la Blanca, which gives its name to the street. The church, on the corner of Archeros street, was once one of the main synagogues in this area. But, after the Jews were expelled from Seville, the synagogue was converted into a church.

The doors that once served as the main entrance to the synagogue from Archeros street were closed throughout my stay in Seville, and the church too was closed every time I tried to visit it that week … until late one Friday evening as I was leaving the hotel for dinner.

It was a Friday evening … was I praying as a priest … or was I praying the prayers of Shabbas evening?

As I wandered around the church that Friday evening, I found I was wondering whether the ornate dome in the church had once stood over the tevah or bimah in the synagogue … whether the main altar had once been the place where the Torah scrolls were once kept in the Holy Ark or Aron haKodesh … whether the gallery over the main entrance had once been the women’s gallery.

The ornate dome in Santa María la Blanca … did this once stand over the tivah in one of the principal synagogues in Seville? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

So, understandably, I was interested to read in Jewish Heritage Europe yesyerday how experts who are now carrying out restoration work on the apse and main altarpiece of the Church of Santa Maria la Blanca in Seville have identified the site, long concealed by the elaborate altar, where the Ark had stood when the church was a synagogue in mediaeval times.

JHE quotes José María Rincón, the director of the restoration, telling local media that the site of the Ark had been concealed by the gilded, wall-sized baroque altarpiece, which was installed in the mid-17th century. The discovery, he said, represents ‘a unique opportunity to witness an element unseen for 350 years, soon to be veiled once more, likely never to be seen again.’ He told local media that the Ark was ‘in an exceedingly precarious state of conservation.’

The church was a mosque from the 11th century until the Catholic reconquest of Seville in 1248. It then became a synagogue, in the heart of the mediaeval Jewish quarter. After the massacre and forced conversion of the Jews in 1391, it became a Catholic church.

The church went through many architectural changes over the centuries, culminating in its Baroque transformation, with the main altarpiece built in 1657-1660. It is an ornate structure with twisted columns framing an image of the Madonna and child.

Archaeologists and restorers began work on the altarpiece and apse in the church in November 2013, dismantling the altarpiece for the restoration work. The project was organised by the Heritage and Urban Planning Department of the Andalusian regional government.

Ahead of the work, Rincon told local media that he suspected that remnants of the mediaeval synagogue could come to light. Historians had already supposed that the area behind the main altarpiece was once the location of the ark. The area will be hidden once again by the main altarpiece when the restoration work is completed.

The gallery in the Church of Santa María la Blanca beside Las Casas de Judería in Seville (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

That Friday evening, I was conscious how one extnded branch of the Comerford family is descended from David de Mendoza (1650-1730), a Marrano or member of a Jewish family who had converted publicly to Christianity at the Inquisition but who continued to adhere to Judaism and who moved from Seville to Amsterdam, where he died in 1730; from his son Daniel de David Mendoza (1685-1758), who was born in Seville; and from Daniel’s wife Esther (1689-1774), who was also born in Seville.

That Friday evening four or five years ago, as I looked at the statue of the Virgin Mary depicted as Santa María la Blanca above the high altar, I imagined the Jewish Mary her looking down the full length of the former synagogue and up at what I saw as the former women’s gallery at the other end, and I could imagine her as one Jewish woman weeping at the death of thousands of other Jewish women in Seville on the night of 5 and 6 June 1391.

In the Pieta-like portrayals in the church, depicting the Virgin Mary weeping over the dead Christ, I thought of her weeping at the expulsion of so many Jewish parents and their children on the orders of the Spanish Inquisition at the end of the 15th century.

The Church of Santa María la Blanca was a mosque before it was given to the Jews of Seville in 1252 to use as synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Around the corner from the church and the hotel, at the Jewish Interpretive Centre on Ximenez de Enisco, many exhibits tell the stories of strong women who suffered in the pogroms and persecutions in Seville in the 14th and 15th centuries.

These stories include the legend of Susona ben Susón, the daughter of Diego Susón, a wealthy merchant and Jewish convert. Her intended fiancé betrayed Sosana, alleging a Jewish plot to overthrow the city and church authorities in Seville. Diego was burnt at the stake on the orders of the Inquisition, along with up to 20 of the other alleged conspirators.

They included Pedro Fernández de Benadeva, the cathedral butler, Juan Fernández de Abolafia, a lawyer known as the ‘perfumed one’ for his tendency to overdress, Adolfo de Triana, a wealthy merchant, and others who were Christians from families that had converted from Judaism in the previous century.

Needless to say, Susona was abandoned by her erstwhile lover, and she later lived a mysterious and hidden life that gave rise to many mysteries and legends.

There are parallels with story of Susanna (שׁוֹשַׁנָּה), also called Susanna and the Elders, in Daniel 13. This is the story of a woman who is accosted and falsely accused. She refuses to be blackmailed and she is arrested and about to be put to death for promiscuity when Daniel interrupts the proceedings to prevent the death of an innocent woman.

When the former Ark in the Church of Santa Maria la Blanca in Seville is concealed once again after the current restoration work on the main altarpiece is completed, I hope that story of the former synagogue is not forgotten and the stories of the women of Jewish women of Seville do not slip into oblivion.

A modern image of Susona ben Susón in the Jewish Interpretive Centre on Ximenez de Enisco street in Seville (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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