Ok so I know I am totally going out-of-order with my blog posts on the AP Art History 250 (and I haven’t written one in forever. Sorry!) but this blog post aligns with my summer Spain trip and my academic project for the NEH Summer Institute, A Reverence for Words.
Art Historical Context
The Alhambra is an Anglicized abbreviation of the original Arabic: Qal’at al-Hamra, which translate to “Red Fort.” In the photo of the exterior above, you can clearly see where it gets that nickname. The Alhambra was built by the Islamic Nasrid Dynasty (1232-1492) in the Iberian Peninsula in Granada, Spain. The Nasrid Dynasty was founded by Muhammad ibn Yusuf ibn Nasr (where the dynasty gets the name “Nasrid”) and he began construction on this structure almost immediately.
The Nasrid, and all Islamic rulers in fact, were ousted from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 by the final victory of the Catholic king and queen, Ferdinand and Isabella (of Christopher Columbus fame, hence the year 1492). This ousting is known as the Reconquista. The last Moorish ruler of Alhambra was Abu Abdulla (Anglicized as Boabdil).
When the Nasrid’s were defeated their palace became a royal residence and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, actually added onto it with his own palace on the side. Less impressive than the Alhambra but it certainly shows the respect he, and other Catholic rulers, had for the Islamic architecture left behind after the Reconquista.
Read more: Medieval Al-Andalus
The Alhambra’s royal palace, known as the Nasrid Palace, is what encompasses the bulk of the images from the 250: Hall of Sisters, Court of Lions, and the plan.
Note: to visit this section of the Alhambra, you have a strict 30 minute entrance window.
Court of Lions
The most famous and striking feature is the lion fountain in the center of the courtyard. It consists of 12 lions holding a marble basin for a hydraulic fountain. The channels of water cross the courtyard to make a cross; the water channels figuratively deliver water to “the four corners of the earth.” The covered walkway around the courtyard contains incredibly intricate and detailed stucco work held up by 124 slender columns.
“And a river went out of Eden to water the garden and from thence it was parted into four heads.” (Genesis 2:10)
Read more: Travel Tips: Buying Alhambra Tickets
Hall of Sisters
Two royal chambers come off of the Court of the Lions: Muqarnas Chamber (which gets its name from the carved stalactite-like brackets called muqarnas) and the Hall of Kings (with paintings depicting courtly life). One of the other sections in the Palace of the Lions is the Hall of the Two Sisters. This was a residential apartment that became famous for its gorgeous muqarnas-filled domed ceiling. It is believed to be a royal bedroom with alcoves for private use and center space for audiences or meetings with a fountain.
Do you know why this hall is called “the Hall of the Two Sisters”? It is for the twin marble slabs on the floor by the fountain (boring, I know). And I had a hoot taking a picture with my sister in the Hall of Sisters.
Although not part of the images in the 250 the gardens of the Generalife are an incredibly important part of the Islamic architectural design. The gardens are technically outside the walls of the Alhambra (which is why I assume they are not included in the 250). The Anglicized word of the Generalife comes from the Arabic Jannat al-arifa: “jannat” means paradise which in the Qu’ran illustrates as a garden. Water is also an important element in Islamic planning because in the Middle East, the Islamic heartland, water was scarce and that deep respect for the life-giving quality of water extended to the Islamic culture of the Iberian Peninsula. Water elements can also be seen in the Court of the Lions, which IS part of the 250, with the fountain and intersecting canals. So that can been shown instead of images of the gardens of the Generalife.
“How beautiful is this garden where the flowers of Earth rival the starts of Heaven? What can compare with this alabaster fountain, gushing crystal-clear water? Nothing except the fullest moon, pouring light from an unclouded sky.”
Islamic architecture worldwide is known for its intricate tiling work and arabesque styles. The palace structures of the Alhambra are also filled with geometric tiling, Quranic calligraphy, and elaborate stucco. As a whole, European medieval art shifts away from naturalism but Islamic art also tends to be aniconic, against images of people and animals (although that is not always the case in secular structures as you will see with the Fountain of Lions).
Because Islam shys away from figural human and animal forms in art, their attention is focused on creating gorgeously decorated, functional objects. Most objects and buildings are covered in floral patterns, geometric designs, and flowing Arabic calligraphy (of the Qur’an or other Islamic poetry).
Fun fact: M.C. Escher was inspired by the mathematically planned tile in the Alhambra for his mind-bending drawings.
Transfer of Culture to Europe
Knowledge of papermaking processes came from China, through the Mongols, to the ISlamic Empires and passed onto to Al-Andalus. Paper was cheaper than vellum, thereby making books cheaper and more accessible. The shared Arabic language from Central Asia to North Africa to the Iberian Peninsula sped up the transfer of knowledge via merchants and scholars.
How does knowledge gathering fit with religious belief? It was believed that G-d created humans with the capacity to reason, and the search for knowledge is another way to discover and glorify G-d.
Next time: # 66. Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece). Workshop of Robert Campin. 1427–1432 C.E. Oil on wood.