The Sephardic Museum is located within the Samuel ha-Leví Synagogue, popularly known as the El Tránsito Synagogue. Since its origins, this synagogue has had its ups and downs and has been subjected to various modifications, and it offers us a passionate testimony of the history of our country.
The origin of this spectacular building dates to the 14th Century, when its construction was ordered by Samuel ha-Leví, an important figure of the time, who held various important positions in the court of King Pedro I of Castille, such as Oidor [judge, literally “hearer”] of the royal court, diplomat, and royal treasurer.
With the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, the Catholic Monarchs granted the Synagogue to the Order of Calatrava in return for some of its possessions, such as the Alcázar and the Palacio de Galiana with its Santa Fe church.
Two years later, the building became part of the San Benito Priory. At this point, the first modifications were made, and the area occupied by the rabbinical school and the women’s gallery was used as a hospital and nursing home for the Calatrava knights, while the Great Prayer Hall became a Christian church and burial place, appearing in documentation as the Church of San Benito [St Benedict].
During the 16th Century, it ceased to be a hospital and nursing home to become exclusively a church. At this time, various architectural changes were carried out, constructing an entrance door to the sacristy and a recessed arcosolium for homage to an image of the Virgin, both in a Plateresque style. An altarpiece was attached to the central body of the old Torah ark (heikhal) and the main altar was placed on the original floor of the synagogue. The old women’s gallery was blocked off and came to be used for housing. In addition, wooden floorboards were laid for the choir on the west side.
It was in the 17th Century when the San Benito church came to be known popularly as the church of El Tránsito because of the painting El Tránsito de la Virgen [The Death of the Virgin] which adorned the Plateresque altar. This work was painted by Juan Correa de Vivar and is today displayed in the Prado Museum.
During the 18th Century, the military orders went into decline, which also affected the previously wealthy church of “Nuestra Señora del Tránsito”, which now appears in the documentation merely as a shrine.
Later, during the Napoleonic wars the Synagogue was used as a military barracks, and it suffered a continuous deterioration throughout almost the whole of the 19th century, while it continued to be used as a shrine until its confiscation by the state.
In 1877, it was declared a national monument and between then and 1910 a series of restorations were carried out to alleviate the poor state of the building.
In 1910, the old Synagogue was entrusted to the Board of Trustees of the El Greco Museum, governed by the Marquis of Vega-Inclán, which proceeded with its restoration according to the criteria of the time. Thus, between 1910 and 1968 the Synagogue was under the protection and custody of the Vega-Inclán Foundations, with the final restoration performed in the 1960s before its inauguration as a museum, in which the old choir stalls that had been placed during the time of the Marquis were removed, the plasterwork, flooring, and woodwork were repaired, and a silk tapestry imitating fabrics from the Las Huelgas monastery in Burgos was added to the walls.
And it is here where the story begins of what we know today as the Sephardic Museum, which was created by decree in 1964 located at the Samuel ha-Leví Synagogue, the most important Hispano-Jewish building in Spain and set in the heart of Toledo’s Jewish quarter.
In 1968 the Museo Sefardí was named the National Museum of Hispano-Jewish Art, and in 1969 the El Tránsito Synagogue was disassociated from the Vega-Inclán Foundations, the organization that had managed it since the beginning of the 20th Century, thereby beginning its path as an independent centre.
The museum opened its doors to the public in 1971 and since then it has been the object of various improvements, with the implementation of an integrated remodelling plan to adapt the building to current museological requirements, along with a new museological and museographic project.
As a result, there have been architectural works, restoration of the plasterwork and the coffered ceiling, and archaeological excavations, with the aim of repairing the wide range of interventions that the building had suffered over time and to allow the Synagogue to become part of the Museum as the main piece of its collection.
Today, it is a state museum – dependent on the Ministry of Culture and Sport, assigned to the Directorate General of Fine Arts and managed by the Sub-directorate General of State Museums – whose main mission is to preserve and transmit the Hispano-Jewish and Sephardic legacy as a fundamental part of the history of Spain.