Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Art of the Nasrid Period (1232–1492)

Founded by Muhammad I ibn Nasr of Arjona (r. 1232–73), the Nasrid dynasty ruled Granada and neighboring Jaén, Almería, and Málaga in the southern Iberian Peninsula. The early period of Nasrid rule was characterized by insistent pressure from Christian armies from the north, which successfully conquered Valencia, Játiva, and Jaén and made the Nasrids tribute-paying vassals in 1243. The Nasrids formed tentative alliances with the Marinids of the Maghrib and kept uneasy peace with their Christian overlords. Despite its precarious political situation, for over two and a half centuries Granada served as a great cultural center of the Muslim West, attracting leading scholars and literati of the day. Severe political crises in the Maghrib in the fifteenth century, combined with the union of the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon through the marriage in 1469 of Ferdinand and Isabella, whose avowed mission was the expulsion of the Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula, proved to be the downfall of the Nasrids. The last Nasrid ruler, Muhammad XII (called Boabdil by Spanish historians), was exiled to the Maghrib on January 2, 1492. The termination of Nasrid rule also brought to an end almost 800 years of an Islamic presence on the Iberian Peninsula.

During the fourteenth century, the Nasrid sultans dedicated themselves to the decoration of their splendid palaces. Their most singular artistic achievement was the famous Alhambra (al-qal‘a al-hamra), or the red castle, so-called perhaps because of the color of the walls and towers that surround the citadel. Situated on a hill overlooking Granada, the Alhambra was conceived as more than a well-fortified palace—it was a royal city. The creation of a succession of Nasrid rulers, in particular Isma‘il I (r. 1314–25), Yusuf I (r. 1333–54), and Muhammad V (r. 1354–59, 1362–91), the Alhambra was a powerful image for a waning monarchy, a vast stage set for the diminishing power of the last Muslim rule on the peninsula. Work on the palace-city continued for nearly two centuries; the resulting architectural complex, with its intricate succession of rooms and courts, its rich interior facades, and its numerous gardens, fountains, and watercourses, is one of the most magnificent examples of Islamic architecture.

Nasrid arts grew from Almohad traditions but displayed far more variety and splendor than their precursors. Textiles recall the rich interior settings of the Alhambra. Also important are ceramics overglaze-decorated in luster, a technique dating back to ninth-century Iraq and dispersed to many parts of the Islamic world. Initially lusterware was manufactured in Málaga, Murcia, Almería, and possibly Granada, but by the fifteenth century, Manises, near Valencia, supplanted Málaga as the main center of luster production. These Spanish luster-painted wares, whether produced under Muslim or Christian patronage, had an important impact on the ceramic industry of Italy, where they gave rise to the development of maiolica. The finest military arts that survive from al-Andalus are also from this period; the Nasrid’s luxury arms, which were probably never used in battle, offer examples of a rich craft used to support a public image.