The Hospital de San Juan Bautista, better known as the Hospital Tavera, is the most important building of the Toledan classical Renaissance style. It was initially built as a general hospital during the most lively and cosmopolitan period of the imperial city, though the cardinal who ordered its construction, Don Juan Tavera, decided to renounce his plan to be buried in the primary cathedral and make this hospital's chapel his burial place.
Its current appearance was shaped by this dual purpose of welfare institution and sepulchre and by the succession of various architectural styles embraced throughout the long history of its construction.
The fabulous sum of money which, according to the Hospital's administrator, Pedro Salazar de Mendoza, had been spent up until 1599--half a million ducats--at which point much of the Church had yet to be built, makes it one of the most splendid constructions of the period, perhaps, according to the art historian Fernando Marías, comparable only to the Monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial.
The entrance is on the southern side of the building. It is composed of three levels of granite masonry. On the first level you can observe the use of rusticated blocks, which are repeated on the corners of the second level. The door and the niches on the second and third levels are all framed by a thick band of similar blocks, which are rectangular on the first level and semi circular on the second. The door was designed in 1760 by the architect Pedro Martínez Morales. It is made up of three main parts. The top part ends in a vaulted niche which displays a statue of St. John the Baptist, patron saint of the hospital.
The architectural highlight of the building are the twin patios, said to be by the art historian Prof. Fernando Marías "one of the most solemn, sober and complex cloisters of Modern architecture". It can be described as Renaissance from an orthodox standpoint due to the perfection of its entablatures and the superposition of the Classical Antiquity orders. The Doric columns in the low gallery and Ionic columns in the upper one, more modern and following the Italian manner. The central gallery which divides the patio creates a magnificent sense of space. The idea was to direct the eye towards the church and viewed from other angles one may appreciate the amazing symmetry and proportions of the arches and columns.
The Pharmacy is the only room in the hospital complex that continues to have its original identity in the same place as Covarrubias originally intended. According to his first plans which date from 1540, he situated the pharmacy near the old infirmaries in the wing opposite to the non- clinical services such as the kitchens and the larder area. A large collection of items can be seen in the Pharmacy such as ceramic and glazed earthenware jars, mortars, spatulas, weights and measures. What particularly stands out is the group of glass and ceramic jars made in Talavera de la Reina, Alcora and Puente del Arzobispo dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Also worth seeing is a beautiful seventeenth century polychrome cupboard whose doors are decorated with the coat of arms of the Cardinal Tavera. The doors, known as the “chemist’s eye”, open to reveal seventeen small drawers in which the most expensive medicines were kept, such as garnets or emeralds.
The Sepulchre of Cardinal Tavera
Commissioned in 1552 this was the last work of Alonso de Berruguete. Just after having completed this work he died in the clock tower of the hospital. According to his contract, the design was to be based on the tomb of Cardinal Cisneros. On one side of the sepulchre you can see the beheading of St. John the Baptist and his Baptism of Jesus. On the other side, the Apostle Santiago of Compostela is a reminder of his last eleven years when Cardinal Tavera was archbishop of Santiago de Compostela. His body is surrounded by the cardinal virtues. When depicting the Cardinal’s face Berruguete chose to take his inspiration from the Cardinal’s death mask, which can still be seen in the museum.
The altarpieces of the church
In 1608, Pedro Salazar Mendoza, the administrator of the hospital, commissioned El Greco to make the sculptures for the altarpieces. These were based on a theme of baptism and penitence which Salazar had already established in the hospital. He wanted to transmit the idea that a person could be purified and saved through receiving the sacraments. El Greco had previously been commissioned to paint Saint Peter Crying as well as a tabernacle for the main altar to house the Resuscitated Christ. Both pieces can now be seen in the museum. When El Greco died in 1614 he left three unfinished pieces; The Annunciation (which was stolen in the nineteenth century), The Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse and The Baptism of Christ, the last one can still be seen on one of the lateral altarpieces.
Situated on the epistle side of the church (the right side), the sacristy was designed by Nicolás de Vergara the younger, the third architect in the construction of the hospital. In Vergara’s works one can see the echoes, not the imitation of Juan de Herrera’s classicism applied in The Escorial. The room is sober and well proportioned, showing the most basic principles of classical architecture. Today it houses a superb collection of Italian religious art.
Construction of the hospital began with this circular crypt, which is situated below the transept. The crypt was designed by Hernán González de Lara and finished in 1572. The acoustic effects created by the perfect shape of the dome may come as a surprise to visitors, considering that this was intended to be a place of eternal rest. Originally the crypt was used by members of the family of Malagón, then later by the House of Medinaceli as well. The latter were forced to abandon their crypt in the Royal Cistercian Monastery of Santa María de la Huerta after the nineteenth century disentailment.
the widowed Duchess of Lerma, with the approval of her nephew the Duke of
Medinaceli, restored part of the monument to exhibit works of art. The area is
mainly made up of paintings which her late husband had inherited in 1886 from a
superb collection belonging to his parents. To preserve the memory of her late
husband the Duchess created the Duke of Lerma Foundation. This later joined
with the Ducal House of Medinaceli Foundation, which has since then donated
more works from the same collection. The museum attempts to recreate the atmosphere of a palace from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As well as having an important collection of furniture and Flemish tapestries from the same period, the museum also has an impressive selection of artworks by artists such as El Greco, Luca Giordano, Zurbarán, Pantoja de la Cruz, Carreño de Miranda and Sánchez Coello.
The Archives of the Ducal House of Medinaceli
The old accounting department of the hospital now houses the Archives of the Ducal House of Medinaceli. As this is a research area it is not open to the public. The archive contains an impressive collection of documents, which go back over a thousand years. The collection is divided into seventy sections based on the titles that have been won or inherited by the family over the years. The oldest manuscripts date back to the ninth century and originate from the early Carolingian counties of the “Marca Hispánica” (a frontier land in the time of Charlemagne, which covered the area around the Pyrenees.)
Titled El Hospital Tavera de Toledo, this book is the reference work of this building, written by the art historian Prof. Fernando Marías and illustrated with superb photographs by Joaquín Bérchez.