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Learn/ Educators/ Curriculum Resources/ Art of the Islamic World/ Unit Five: Courtly Splendor in the Islamic World/ Chapter One: Court Arts of Islamic Spain/ Featured Works of Art: Images 20–22/ Image 21

Image 21

10th century
Spain, probably Córdoba
Marble, carved; 14 1/2 x 13 1/2 in. (36.8 x 34.3 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Theodore M. Davis Collection, Bequest of Theodore M. Davis, 1915 (30.95.134)

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Umayyad Spain, ancient Rome, architecture, capital, vegetal ornament, marble

The deep carving and symmetrical design of this Corinthian-inspired capital are distinguishing features of the courtly arts of Umayyad Spain. Buildings and palaces, such as those in Madinat al-Zahra were covered with intricately carved vegetal designs.

Capitals are the decorative tops of columns. Originating in ancient Greece, this architectural form was used all over the world and continues to be used today. This capital was part of the decorated colonnades in the palace city Madinat al-Zahra, near Córdoba (see fig. 21), where gardens with cascading pools, carved and painted stone arcades, capitals, and tiled wall panels combined Syrian, Byzantine, and local influences into a distinct Umayyad Spanish style.

Lacelike surface ornament became one of the distinguishing characteristics of Umayyad Spanish style; further examples can be seen in textiles and ivory carvings of the period (see image 20). This capital, which once crowned a column, has four identical sides. Decorative vegetal stems climb, intertwine, and spread out to the sides, giving the heavy marble a sense of lightness. Near the top, acanthus leaves, supported by elegant arabesque-like stems, form thick crowns. The name of the stone carver appears in an Arabic inscription on a boss at the top center of one side of the capital. Traces of paint on similar capitals suggest that they were originally painted.

Syria was a Roman, and later a Byzantine province before the Umayyads conquered it in 634. Capitals like this one, which combine Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic styles, are a testament to the rich artistic heritage of the Spanish Umayyads. This synthesis of influences distinguishes the decorative forms developed in Islamic Spain, and the ornate column capitals of Madinat al-Zahra tell us as much about the Spanish Umayyads' history as their taste for opulence in court architecture.

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