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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Artistic Interaction among Cultures in Medieval Iberia

Extending continental Europe toward Africa at the western limit of the Mediterranean Sea, the Iberian Peninsula has served as a site for the meeting of different cultures since antiquity. During the medieval period, peoples of three faiths—Islam, Christianity, and Judaism—inhabited this land, undertaking sustained and intensive interactions that proved especially fruitful for the visual arts. The sharing of particular artistic techniques, materials, ornamental schemes, and even, at times, imagery among cultures occurred under a variety of circumstances, enriching both sacred and secular arts.

After the dissolution of Roman rule in Iberia, successive invasions shaped the peninsula’s medieval cultural landscape, initiating a series of encounters among different artistic traditions. Coming from the north in the early fifth century, the Visigoths introduced an artistic culture based in Germanic tradition, which specialized in fine metalwork (1988.305a,b), though they also looked to Roman ideas in building some of the earliest surviving Iberian churches. A subsequent Byzantine invasion also brought the language and iconography of the eastern Mediterranean to bear upon Visigothic art, as may be seen in an elaborate inlaid horse bit with a Greek monogram (47.100.24).

In the early eighth century, Arab and Berber armies conquered much of the peninsula, prompting many local people to convert to Islam, though communities of Christians and Jews continued to live under Muslim rule. Arab and Berber patrons and artists transformed Iberian visual culture yet again, in part through the introduction of art and architecture in the service of Islam, and in part through the celebration of a sophisticated and learned court culture. North of al-Andalus (as Muslim-ruled Iberia was known), a small, Christian-ruled territory remained. Over time, Portugal, Castile, Navarre, Aragon, and Catalonia grew in strength, undertaking the gradual conquest of al-Andalus  (often referred to as the reconquista, or reconquest).

In many parts of the peninsula, Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived and sometimes worked together. Cities such as Córdoba, Toledo, and Zaragoza harbored people of all faiths, as did the shifting frontier zones between the Christian-ruled north and Muslim-ruled south. Routines of daily life prompted regular interactions among people of different religions. Relations among individuals of different beliefs were often amicable, though social norms nonetheless kept people from intermingling too freely. The potential for relatively peaceful coexistence among faiths (convivencia in Spanish) was thus tempered by the consequences of legal inequalities and popular biases. Interfaith interactions on the local level also weighed against the broader setting of territorial conflict between Christian and Muslim rulers, and different regimes also had varying perspectives on interfaith interaction. There is no question, however, that visual expression was an area of appreciation and emulation among Iberian cultures.

High-ranking patrons of the arts helped to make possible the transfer of artistic ideas in the peninsula. Royal courts gathered political, intellectual, and artistic elites of all religions, making them ideal settings for cross-cultural interaction. In Córdoba, the capital of al-Andalus until the early eleventh century, both Muslim and Jewish poets had the ear of the caliph, the civil and religious leader. The thirteenth-century court of Castilian king Alfonso X similarly received people of all backgrounds, as portrayed in a manuscript produced for the king that depicts people of many cultures playing chess and other games in a courtly setting.

The dynamic and diverse nature of medieval Iberian society inspired architectural creativity. Many surviving buildings bear witness to the transfer of architectural forms, materials, and techniques from one tradition to another. It has been suggested by Jerrilynn Dodds that the Great Mosque of Córdoba, begun in the eighth century, incorporated some architectural elements used in Visigothic church architecture, including the apse and the horseshoe arch. The latter form is observed in the decoration of a bronze incense burner thought to be from al-Andalus (67.178.3a,b), which suggests a local inspiration, though the horseshoe arch is also seen in the arts of North Africa. The popularity of this form thus attests to the complexity of cross-cultural interaction, which could follow many channels. Synagogues, such as the one now known as El Tránsito in Toledo, were decorated with the elaborate carved stucco wall panels, geometric tilework, and patterned wooden ceilings characteristic of Islamic architecture in al-Andalus. Churches, from the hermitage of San Baudelio de Berlanga begun in eleventh-century Castile to the thirteenth-century Cathedral of Teruel in Aragon, also feature decorative patterns, motifs, or materials coming from al-Andalus. Artisans trained in specific techniques, such as stonemasonry, carved stucco, brickwork, or painting, facilitated the transfer of ideas among cultures, often working for patrons of different faiths.

Architecture was not the only area in which artisans served patrons of different faiths. For example, a number of late medieval Hebrew and Christian illuminated manuscripts produced in the Crown of Aragon share stylistic, ornamental, and even, in some cases, iconographic features. The resemblances suggest that the same illuminators, whatever their own religious backgrounds, worked for patrons of different beliefs—or, alternatively, that illuminators serving patrons of different faiths were in close communication.

In certain instances, Iberian craftspeople of different faiths collaborated. For example, Manises, Valencia, which by the thirteenth century was part of the Christian-ruled Crown of Aragon, was an important site of late medieval ceramic production. Its potters created a type of tin-glazed ceramic known as lusterware, using techniques developed in the Middle East that had been brought to Manises from the Andalusian city of Málaga. Muslims and Christians worked together in the Manises workshops, where the techniques of Málaga potters met the decorative tastes of Valencian consumers. These tastes, it turns out, were varied. Many examples of Manises lusterware adapt an Islamic aesthetic, such as a plate (56.171.161) with geometric motifs, abstracted trees, and pseudo-Arabic patterning, so-called because it seems to imitate the form of Arabic script without spelling real words. Other contemporary examples were decorated with coats of arms and floral motifs associated with Gothic art  (56.171.148).

In addition to direct, face-to-face interactions among people of different cultures, portable objects frequently served to connect people and places. Such items could be carried by various means—through trade, as war booty, as presents, or merely as travelers’ personal items lost along the way. Pliable and relatively easy to carry, textiles were the ultimate portable objects, whether brought to Iberia from elsewhere in the Mediterranean or made in al-Andalus and brought north. Prized for their craftsmanship, vivid colors, and materials, imported textiles and the garments made from them enhanced the prestige of the elite in life as well as in death. This is attested by a fragment of cloth from the tomb of Don Felipe Infante, the son of King Ferdinand III of Castile (46.156.8), which is decorated with the repeating Arabic inscription al-Yumn (felicity). The glorification bestowed by such fine weavings also extended to the space of the church, where Andalusian textiles embellished altars, reliquaries, and shrines such as that of Saint Librada in Sigüenza Cathedral (58.85.2).

The reception of different artistic traditions is also evident in the incorporation of ready-made objects into new works of art. A case in point is a mixed-media panel (17.190.134) commissioned by Queen Felicia of Aragon that displays two imported objects: a Byzantine ivory carving of the Crucifixion and an Arabic-inscribed sapphire. We do not know exactly how either object arrived in Aragon. Nonetheless, the esteem for the ivory is evident in its emulation on a companion panel of local manufacture (17.190.33). The seal, though difficult to read, is minutely inscribed with four of the 99 “Beautiful Names” of Allah, the Arabic word for God. These may well have been understood by Arabic-literate members of the Aragonese court, though the gem’s significance on the panel, made for a community of nuns, is debatable. Perhaps it was valued as a precious material, perhaps as booty (and thus as a sign of military dominance), perhaps as a talisman, or perhaps even as a glorification of God—albeit not originally from a Christian context.

Portable objects also had the potential to inspire the monumental arts of different cultures. For example, a twelfth-century fresco originally from San Baudelio de Berlanga (61.219) depicts a camel below two roundels containing quadrupeds. The inhabited roundels suggest the ornament of textiles made in al-Andalus and other Mediterranean centers. As camels are not indigenous to Iberia, this image is a firm testament to cultural exchange, inspired either by a real camel brought from afar or an intermediary object bearing a picture of a camel. Either may have been possible, since at the time the paintings were made, the hermitage stood within the frontier zone between Castile and al-Andalus. The San Baudelio panel—one of a series of paintings representing animals and hunt scenes in the church—reveals a widespread, cross-cultural appreciation of animal imagery (1970.324.5). Though often associated with secular arts, which would have facilitated exchange among people of different beliefs, this imagery also found a place in a Christian religious setting.

The similar aesthetic of two late-medieval necklaces (17.190.160; 17.190.161a–j) reveals the persistence of shared tastes among Iberian cultures. Both are constructed of beadlike components, and each features gold filigree work and tiny cloisonné enamel panels with diminutive flowers. Additionally, both have inscriptions. One reads “Hail Mary, full of grace” in Latin; the other, “Glory is God’s alone” in Arabic. Their comparable designs and materials suggest common standards of beauty for the decoration of the body, while the inscriptions’ invocations reveal their parallel functions as affirmations of faith for different religions. The necklaces thus demonstrate the simultaneous, paradoxical closeness and distance of Iberian cross-cultural interaction.