‘It is said that whoever has not seen Granada has seen nothing’, said our guide breathing in the air coming from the river. It was filled with the magic of spices and the scent of flowers.
Granada is one of the most popular cities in the Andalusia region. It stretches along the Genil River, right at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. This picturesquely situated town is famous for its unique architecture from the One Thousand and One Nights and well-preserved monuments that simply took my breath away.
We left the river behind and slipped through the narrow streets of the souk among the stalls with pyramids of spices and colorful fabrics. It was already our second week we were spending among the treasures of southern Spain with its strong oriental character singing in one voice with the Christian spirit and the bells of Catholic churches and cathedrals; Seville, Cordoba and finally Granada have shared with me their secrets.
In January, 1492, the last of the Muslim rulers in Spain surrendered in Granada to the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. To commemorate the great triumph of Reconquest, a silver Cross and a pennant of Saint James were erected at the top of one of the towers of the fortified palace of Alhambra. Catholic kings placed a pomegranate in their coat of arms, probably without expecting its seeds would sprout and give wonderful fruits of art over time.
Mudejar Style and its Creators
One of the artistic expressions was the mudejar style. It had grown out of the roots of Moorish art but gained a unique character from combining the latter with the Christian tradition. Despite the victory of the Reconquest, this unique style did not disappear from the art of Spain converted back to Christianity, but it was further continued by more or less Christianized Moorish artists and craftsmen who remained in the lands of Spain to serve Catholic rulers. They were called mudajjan, or people who were allowed to stay, and hence the Spanish term mudejar, which refers to the products of art and their creators.
According to the terminological Dictionary of Fine Arts, mudejar is a style in the architecture and decoration of Spain, developing from the eighth to the seventeenth century AD. Its development is noted especially in the end of the Moorish reign, that is from the fourteenth to the fifteenth century. The style was definitely closer to the Gothic than to the Italian Renaissance, with which it quarreled.
Still the style of mudejar itself and contemporary European style influenced the character of the Spanish Renaissance and then Baroque. The dominant feature of mudejar is the astonishingly rich decoration made in stucco, especially visible in vaults carved in wood and covered with polychrome, horseshoe arches, azulejos and muqarnas (mocárabe) – a motif that adorns column heads, or the so-called stalactite vaults. A particularly important feature of the mudejar style is a colorful or gilded ornament of oriental origin – arabesque or moresque, Arabic inscriptions, and stylized figurative and animalistic motifs, characterized by a much greater freedom of composition in comparison with the art of Islam developing outside the Iberian Peninsula. The projecting of mudejar-style sacral buildings usually is of the western type, while the secular architecture is dominated by rather oriental patterns. In addition to architecture, the style was also mastered by craftsmanship, which played a leading role in the development of the Moorish art. In the mudejar style, for example, the rich Alcazar decoration in Seville was made.
Due to the strongly established influence of Islam in Andalusia, the Moorish art has found its place and expression in many products of architecture and the craft of Christian Spain. It was also present in literature and music, and what is more, it became one of the most important stages of the development of art on the Iberian Peninsula. After the Moors retreated, they left behind silent witnesses of their domination in Spain, and the splendour of Islamic culture and art. Those were remains of secular and sacral Moorish architecture – castles, palaces and mosques.
A large number of architectural works of this style have grown into a Christian structure imposed on the older. More often, however, architectural works were dismantled to become a source of valuable building material for new creations of the Christian architecture; Moorish columns, capitals and precious marble have become elements of a new, alien to them constructions. Islamic defensive castles were taken over by Catholic kings. In the process they were gradually destroyed, changing into ruins but preserving their picturesque remains for the landscape of today’s Andalusia.
Among the secular architecture left by the Moors the most beautiful is the Alhambra, a palace rising from the thirteenth to the fourteenth century on a hilltop, overlooking the majestic city of Granada, and challenging the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada. The Alhambra is today the most exquisite example of the genius of secular architecture and artistry created by the Moors. The latter were Muslims who invaded the Iberian Peninsula from North Africa at the beginning of the eighth century. Under the pressure of the Muslim invaders, Visigothic Spain had failed and surrendered. The green banner fluttered in Spain over the following centuries until the Reconquista. Without a doubt, it was a period when one of the most outstanding chapters of art was written in the background of world art. The uniqueness of the Moorish art in Andalusia – the Arabic Al-Andalus – became possible because of the relative integration of Islamic, Christian and Jewish cultures that sought to live side by side in peace and symbiosis, complementing each other to some extent.
Similar conditions ensured rapid development of human spiritual needs: literature, music, crafts, and architecture. On the other hand, the closeness of monotheistic religions, their values and artistic achievements, as well as the background of the culture of the Visigoths, was not without significance for the shape of art sprouting in the areas of Andalusia at that time.
More oriental palace than the buildings preserved in the very Orient
The Alhambra Palace is a kind of labyrinth of shady courtyards, halls, magnificent arcades, marble columns, fountains and ponds.
The walls of the majestic building are covered with intricate patterns similar in lightness to intricate laces and shimmering in the colours of the rainbow with glass tiles. The palace’s beauty is also glorified by poets, lyricists and singers, such as Loreena McKennitt.
I’d long intended to make a pilgrimage to Spain and to visit the palace called Alhambra. [And] I finally travelled there. I discovered the Moorish towers built by a thirteenth century Muslim sultan, interior courtyards with pools of water, elegant pillars and intricate tracery. All designed to duplicate famous descriptions of paradise within Islamic poetry. For centuries it served as an oasis for nomads and travellers, a meeting place for cultures and traditions, a crossroads for religions, where Muslims, Jews and Christians once coexisted in harmony. It’s a place where darkness gives a way to life, every stone has heard a 1001 secrets and where distance feels so near. It’s a place of infinite beauty, a Mystic’s dream, Alhambra.Loreena McKennitt, Nights from the Alhambra.
After J. Pijaon the Alhambra is today a more oriental palace than the buildings preserved in the very Orient. An extremely important decorative element of Moorish art and the palace’s decoration in Granada are the so-called azulejos, which are ceramic tiles covered with enamel used for lining the walls both inside and outside, decorating the exterior of the building.
This art was introduced by Arabs from the Iberian Peninsula in the fourteenth century, and after the Moors were driven out of Spain it was still cultivated by Christian artists; in the seventeenth century, mainly in Seville, but also in neighboring Portugal, from where it reached the New World, and they have decorated the facades of the buildings in the capital of Brasilia. At the beginning of its history, azulejos, the term from Arabic az-zulayj, which means a small stone, were monochromatic, mainly blue. Hence it is not without significance that azul means blue in both Spanish and Portuguese. Over time, however, the tiles began to adorn strongly geometric, multi-colored floral motifs, but also depictions of military or humorous scenes.
Apart from azulejos, the most captivating in the Islamic art are the decorations in the form of stalactites forming the shell of the Alhambra palace’s vaults, which seem to explode like gigantic starfish. The effect of vibrating stalactite forms is present especially in the decoration of the dome in the Abencerrag Hall and the dome in the Hall of the Two Sisters in the Alhambra. Made of stucco elements and embedded in wooden frames, the vaults resemble a diagonally cut honeycomb. As in many other examples of Arab art, the motif of stalactite brings to mind the creations of nature and their glorification in art. The Arabs were once a nomadic people, dependent on nature and sensitive to its beauty and life, which flourished in oases in a barren desert. Organic elements, like water and greenery, are also an inseparable element of the architecture of bands such as Alkazar and Alhambra.
After the Reconquest, the mosque, the so-called mezquita in Spain, was most often turned into a church. The place of mihrab – a niche in one of the walls of the books, which went towards Mecca, the holy city of Muslims, was replaced with a Christian altar. According to the principles of Christian art, the altar was to be orientated towards the east. In Spain, the mezquita wall with the mihrab were mostly oriented southeastwards. Hence the unique orientation of Christian altars in the churches of Andalusia, adapted to the location of earlier Moorish constructions and their purposes. A similar procedure was used in the case of a minaret – a slender tower from which the faithful were called to pray. From then on it served as a belfry, as it was applied, for example, in the Cathedral of Seville.
Sacral Hybrid of Styles
The most important and undoubtedly the most famous example of the Moorish church building is the Mezquita – the Great Mosque of Cordoba.
After Spain was overtaken from the Morish hands, the Mezquita was clasped within the Catholic Cathedral. The whole structure is a sacral hybrid of styles arising from the needs of two religions, which, however, have not succumbed to any of them. Thanks to this, the building is so unique in its form. On the one hand, the elements of Muslim and Christian structures seem to quarrel and push away each other, on the other, the duality of styles argues that there are artistic currents prevailing in both sacred arts, stemming from the values of both religions.
The choir of the Christian cathedral with figural representations of angels and saints, made in the Spanish Renaissance style – plateresco, known as the goldsmith style, is in conflict with the interiors of the Mezquita. Sometimes the contrast between the Muslim and Christian understanding of the sacred is difficult to withstand, and even shocking. In the Christian temple the mihrab has been preserved and so it creates the sacred space together with the Christian altar, to which the main nave of the temple created by the Christians leads. Despite its importance, the building of the Gothic cathedral of Crdoba is visible only from the bird’s eye view, somewhat embedded in the center of the whole massive structure of the Mezquita, with the tower of the minaret-belfry rising in the north.
To raise the place of prayers in Cordoba, the Muslim invaders used half of the Visigothic church of St. Wincenty, built on the site of the pagan temple dedicated to Janus. The basic element of the Mezquita became the ancient and Visigothic columns, acquired on the spot or imported. Jan Białostocki compares the layout of a large number of columns forming nineteen aisles to “an unbounded stone forest, as if the people living in the desert shaped their world into a shady oasis.” Because of the original purpose of the building, the columns do not set the direction towards the current sanctuary, as it is intended in Christian basilicas. The lack of a central axis, also visible in the façade of the temple, actually evokes the impression that one has just entered the interior of the dense forest of columns that are diverging in various directions. Among the low trunks of columns deprived of bases there is a twilight.
During the Moorish times, there were small lights flickering around, now one entering from the outside is suddenly plunged into the darkness of the temple dedicated to the God being called the Light. The columns combine double, two-colored bows and the more one approaches the mihrab, the more their forms seem intricate. The spaces defined by the strips of running columns hide vaults in the form of domes in the shape of an eight-leaf rosette or a half-cut orange.
The dominant element of the Mezquita in Cordoba is the horseshoe arch. This is the main element of the local mihrab. Probably this shape of the arch already existed in the territory of Spain during the Visigothic times. The Arabs took over many elements from the art of conquered cultures of Asia and Africa. In the case of Spain, it was the artistic style created by the Visigoths, assimilated and in time adapted to the needs of the invaders. While the first Arabian buildings in Egypt are characterized mainly by the form of a pointed or ogival arch, in Spain dominates the horseshoe arch, with a clearly rounded shape. This bow decorates the Mezquita in Cordoba. It was only from Andalusia that a similar form of the arch spread further in North Africa and was commonly used in Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian buildings.
The exuberance, elegance and decorative culture brought by Arabs in Spain testify to the high level of their contemporary intellectual and artistic life. As such the Moorish Andalusia was an enclave of light and a real phenomenon in the history of European art. For the defeated Moors, it became a symbol of the lost Paradise.
Featured image: Star-shaped ceiling with a honeycomb pattern. Hall of the Abencerrajes, Nasrid Palace, Alhambra. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.
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