Spanish Culture and the Muslims

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Spanish Culture and the Muslims

Promoting the Reconquista.

Like their counterparts in England, the tenth-century rulers of the Christian kingdoms of Spain were consolidating power in the face of enemy resistance and developing a visual culture of ornament and symbols to express their political aspirations. Muslim forces had crossed from northern Africa into Spain in the year 711 and proceeded to defeat the Visigoths, a Germanic people converted to Christianity who had ruled Spain until that time. After the Muslim conquest of most of Spain, the Christian territories occupied only the northernmost and northeastern parts of the Iberian Peninsula. Here, Christian rulers held their ground against Muslim incursions and gradually expanded the area of their control. Clinging to the hope that all of Spain would one day be united under Christian rule, as it was before the Muslim conquest, Christian rulers in Spain developed the notion of the Christian Reconquest of Spain (Reconquista), and they sponsored a program of visual arts to advance this notion. From liturgical objects (objects used in church services) created out of precious materials to illuminated manuscripts of Bibles and other religious texts, the arts of early medieval Christian Spain proclaimed Christian victory to be inevitable. In the Christian kingdoms of Asturias, León, Castile, and Navarre, these luxury arts combined established Visigothic visual traditions with Carolingian influences, as well as artistic motifs and styles derived from the neighboring Islamic culture.

The Victory Cross of Oviedo.

The royal ideology of Christian Reconquest is clearly evident in the spectacular Victory Cross of Oviedo, donated in 908 by King Alfonso III of Asturias to the cathedral of Oviedo, and probably made a few years earlier. This fine object draws upon the tradition of the cross as an image of Christian victory, which originated in the fourth century with the Roman Emperor Constantine (who was told in a dream that he would defeat his enemies "under this sign"). As an object of richness and beauty, it perfectly showcases the artistic splendor and magnificence that in the early Middle Ages was the aesthetic counterpart to the Christian idea of worldly triumph in its figural embodiment. The iconography of this cross displays no humility or poverty, virtues often associated with Christianity in other contexts.

Apocalyptic Imagery.

Monastic communities in Christian Spain, just as in Carolingian France and Germany, and Anglo-Saxon England, played a major role in the elaboration of the visual arts. As scribes and illuminators of decorated and illustrated manuscripts, Spanish monks developed a recognizable visual language that was the unique expression of their culture. An illustration from a manuscript produced around 950 is a fine example. The work is an illustrated commentary on the Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse of St. John in the modern New Testament. The text of this commentary was compiled before 800 by a Spanish monk known as Beatus of Liébana, and, as the idea of Christian Reconquest picked up momentum in the tenth century, it was expressed anew in the monastic houses of the Christian north through extensive programs of illustration. The apocalyptic theme of these books may have appealed to monks of the time, who imagined the Christian Reconquest of Spain as an apocalyptic battle between good and evil. An illustration from one manuscript of the Beatus Commentary, perhaps produced for the monastery of San Miguel de Escalada in the kingdom of León, shows the Heavenly Jerusalem, a mystical vision presented in highly schematized (rather abstract and diagrammatic) form. The visual language of intense color and ornamental flatness—for the image lacks any suggestion of naturalistic or three-dimensional space—hearkens back to some Visigothic precedents but may also be understood in relation to the very impressive and influential art of Islamic Spain. Islamic art is noted for its geometric patterns, its profusion of ornament, its rich colors, and its general avoidance of figuration because the Koran forbade the reproduction of human and animal forms in art as idolatrous. Of course, in such Beatus illustrations, the inclusion of human (and divine) figures indicates a specifically Christian point of view. The decorative and somewhat formulaic presentation provides an effective way to express in pictorial form a text that is full of mystical imagery.

Mozarabic Influence.

Also typically Spanish in such illustrations of the Heavenly Jerusalem is the "horseshoe" arch that often frames the figures arranged around the central square or circle. This is an architectural form common in Islamic Spain and certainly familiar to those Christians, known as "Mozarabs," who had lived under Islamic rule before coming north to the Christian kingdoms in the tenth century. The Mozarabs brought their knowledge of Islamic culture and artistic traditions along with them, and the image of the Heavenly Jerusalem is an example of how those traditions were incorporated into the visual art of Christian monasteries in tenth-century Spain. Another example of Mozarabic influence can be found in a Beatus manuscript from about 970, made for the monastery of San Salvador at Tábara in the kingdom of León. The image on the colophon page (at the end of the manuscript where the scribe provides identifying information about his involvement in the production) shows the same architectural feature—the horseshoe arch—in the representation of the tower and scriptorium of the monastery. In this earliest surviving image of a medieval scriptorium (where manuscripts were copied by hand and sometimes decorated), the scribes named "Emeterius" and "Senior" are hard at work. It is a testament to the cultural importance of monasteries such as this one that the likely creators of this illuminated manuscript are known to us by name.

Common Elements.

The ongoing struggle between Christianity and Islam in medieval Spain clearly was (and continued to be) a significant factor in the development of unique and often hybrid artistic forms. Yet the visual art of early medieval Spain shares many commonalties with other artwork being produced outside of Spain during the same period: its undeniably Christian character; its royal and/or monastic context of production; its relationship to earlier and contemporary artistic traditions; and its ambitions, which at this early stage in the history of medieval Europe sometimes exceeded the level of technical ability or the availability of wealth and resources.


The Art of Medieval Spain, A.D. 500–1200—Exhibition Catalogue (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993).

John Williams, Early Spanish Manuscript Illumination (New York: Braziller, 1977).

see also Religion: The Spread of Islam ; Religion: The Crusades

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Spanish Culture and the Muslims

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