A golden age in Spain, when people of Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths co-existed and even thrived, began to crumble with the dawn of the 14th century and finally imploded in 1492, when Queen Isabel and King Fernando ordered every Jew to either leave or convert to fit into their vision of a unified Catholic nation.
Copies of the decree of expulsion were sent to every city in Spain – and one of them is taking temporary residence in one of the lands where the Spanish Jews fled: the New World outpost that is now New Mexico.
It’s just one of the precious documents that will be included in a display that chronicles the decline of tolerance into persecution and diaspora: “Fractured Faiths: Spanish Judaism, The Inquisition and New World Identities.” It opens Sunday at the New Mexico History Museum.
“Can you imagine having just a few months to get out of Spain?” asked Josef Diaz, curator of Mexican and Spanish Colonial collections. The decree, signed on March 31, required all Jews to convert or depart by July 31.
“They couldn’t take any gold or silver,” he said, and they had to sell their land and any possessions they couldn’t take with them. “In one case, a vineyard was traded for loaves of bread.”
But that’s not how the exhibition begins. Instead, visitors enter through series of pillars leading into arches that are patterned on Santa Maria la Blanca, a former synagogue in Toledo, Spain, that was designed by Islamic architects. Lacy wooden screens echo that Moorish influence on a Jewish building in a Christian nation.
Immediately establishing that sense of time and place of early co-existence from 900-1300, the exhibition shows a number of documents that illustrate some of the brilliant work done by Jewish mathematicians, scientists and philosophers. One from the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides dates back to 1190.
Many of the items being lent from Spain are accompanied to this country by couriers, who oversee the unpacking, the conditions of display and the final locking of the works into the display cases, Diaz said. The old, fragile books and documents require limited exposure to light, so the Spanish guardians will fly over again each time pages need to be turned to expose a different portion of a manuscript, he said.
As the exhibit travels through time, though, visitors are taken through the Black Plague and blame attached to the Jews for the deaths, the expulsion of the Jews (another expulsion order against the Muslims followed in 1502) and the birth of the Inquisition to investigate allegations that arose about people continuing to practice Judaism in secret (the crypto-Jews) or questioning the faithfulness of those who converted to the Christian faith (conversos).
Vividly illustrated genealogies put together at the time attempt to offer proof of a family’s “pure line” of ancestry in an attempt to document bloodlines “untainted” by non-Christian heritage, thus allowing family members to rise to positions of trust and leadership within the Spanish Empire.
The impacts reach into the present, as long-time New Mexico families trace their histories and discover traces of Jewish roots or discover religious meanings behind some practices of their grandparents.
One section of the exhibit addresses the Inquisition’s reach into the Spanish territories with investigations and trials in Mexico and New Mexico. Up to 1600, some 84 people in Mexico were punished for following Jewish practices, while 10 received death sentences in the decade preceding 1600, including the Carvajal family.
In New Mexico, 1662 saw the arrest of the outgoing governor in Santa Fe, and his wife, Doña Teresa de Aguilera y Roche.
A room has been re-created to represent Doña Teresa’s personal retreat when she lived in the Palace of the Governors, complete with sumptuous fabrics and accoutrements, including utensils for preparing and drinking her much-loved chocolate, on display.
Diaz noted that the items were similar to what she would have had, based on an inventory of her possessions at the time of her arrest, and are not actual items she had used.
Through the expertise of students from Highlands University, the room also will show a hologram of Doña Teresa moving about her retreat. (No actual images of her have been found, so we don’t know exactly what she looked like.) An audio from a KNME-TV show with Frances Levine, a former History Museum director and author of a book being released in July about Doña Teresa, will be playing, Diaz said.
The exhibition itself had its roots in Levine’s research on Doña Teresa and conversos who came to the Southwest from Spain.
“It’s a fascinating story of survival, really,” Diaz said. “We thought it was a fascinating idea for an exhibit.”
Since that birth of an idea about four years ago, museum staffers have taken “trips to Spain, Mexico, the East Coast, scouring collections,” he said. Roger Louis Martínez-Dávila, a scholar from the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, contributed expertise “that really enriched the exhibit,” Diaz added.
Overall, “Fractured Faiths” has about 150 items on display, with 20 of them from New Mexico itself. Barely a week before the opening, the museum received the Inquisition trial records of Doña Teresa from Mexico City, he said.
Asked what he learned from putting together this exhibit, Diaz said that, while he knew the Spanish Inquisition had stretched into the New World, “I think I really didn’t know the scope of the Inquisition … and the number of people it affected – not just Jews, but anyone who did not fit a particular” ideal of religious practice.
And an inquiry could start with a simple accusation from anyone.
“What an easy way to get vengeance,” Diaz said, “or to make life difficult for someone.”