Spanish art and architecture

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Spanish art and architecture, works of art and architecture produced in what is now the European country of Spain. Open to a wide variety of cultural influences, the art and architecture of Spain have had an unusual and exciting heritage.

Early Works

Aside from important prehistoric remains, including cave paintings at Altamira and at Cogul, near Lleida (see Paleolithic art), the earliest monuments date from the Roman occupation (3d cent. BC–5th cent. AD). Little remains of the works of the Visigothic period (6th–7th cent.), although crude classical motifs were used, especially in the decorative sculpture. Such Visigothic monuments as the Church of San Juan de Baños in the province of Palencia (AD 661) suggest a possible Middle Eastern influence in the use of a flattened horseshoe arch.

Moorish and Asturian Influences

The full horseshoe arch introduced by the Moors (8th cent.) and extensively employed in the famous mosque at Córdoba (8th–10th cent.). In their palaces and mosques the Moors developed certain architectural features that have remained part of the Spanish tradition down to the present day. Moorish interiors, subdivided into isolated units, are cool and graceful and utilize intricate effects of light and shadow, as in the famous Court of the Lions in the Alhambra (Granada). This tendency to enframe space is reflected in the enclosed choirs of almost all Spanish cathedrals and collegiate churches. Other Moorish elements, such as multifoil and intersecting arches, influenced the Christian buildings of medieval Spain, as did the Moorish love of reiteration and multiplicity of small motifs in luxuriant flat ornament (exemplified in the Alhambra).

By 850 the Moors had conquered all Spain except the Asturias region. Characteristic of Asturian churches (9th cent.) is a basilican plan with square apses, rounded arches, and balustered windows. In Santa Maria de Naranco (mid-9th cent.) is found one of the earliest uses of barrel vaulting in the Middle Ages. The art and architecture of the Mozarabs (9th–11th cent.), combining Asturian and Moorish features, produced some of the most original and interesting European buildings of the time.

The Romanesque Period

During the Romanesque period (11th–12th cent.) Christian Spain in general exhibited characteristics common to the Romanesque style of Europe, but with traces of Middle Eastern influence. The cathedral at Santiago de Compostela (11th–12th cent.) reveals striking analogies in both architecture and sculpture to Burgundian works.

The Gothic Period: Architecture

With the gradual unification of the Spanish kingdoms, there was increased prosperity and artistic activity during the Gothic period (13th–mid-16th cent.). Castilian architecture was basically French-inspired, although a distinctly native taste can be felt in the proportions and more ornate decorative features. Outstanding examples include the cathedrals of Burgos, Toledo, and León, the last remarkable also for its stained glass. Catalan Gothic architecture, exemplified in the cathedrals at Barcelona and Palma de Majorca, made distinctive use of wide naves with two side aisles instead of the usual four; they have heavy interior buttresses and lateral chapels. At Girona the aisles were suppressed altogether, so that the cathedral had one of the widest vaulted spans of medieval Europe.

A pervasive element in Spanish architecture is the Mudéjar style, whose influence lasted well into the 18th cent. The favorite materials of the Mudéjar builders were brick, plaster, and wood, which they employed with singular versatility. Their decoration is distinguished by the use of the elaborate geometrical configurations and stylizations associated with most Islamic art. Gothic churches, particularly in the south, are frequently crowned by Mudéjar artesonados, or wooden roofs.

The Gothic Period: Art

Early Gothic sculpture was predominantly influenced by French models. In the 15th and early 16th cent. there were strong Flemish and German trends. Retables and choir stalls were elaborately sculptured and polychromed, the former being sometimes made of alabaster. Remarkable examples include those in the cathedrals of Tarragona, Seville, and Toledo. At the end of the 15th cent. Gil de Siloe executed the magnificent retable and royal monuments in the church of Miraflores (near Burgos), representative of a late Gothic realism.

In painting of the 13th and 14th cent. there was a diffusion throughout Spain of the elegant and courtly style of French and Sienese artists, although strikingly expressive and original works of art were created by masters such as Ferrer Bassa and Luis Borassá. Extensive trade with the Netherlands in the 15th cent. encouraged the emergence of a Hispano-Flemish style, exemplified in the paintings of Jaume Huguet. A successful combination of Moorish and Flemish elements was developed in the works of the painter Fernando Gallego.

The Renaissance and Mannerism

In the 16th cent. Italian sculptors working in Spain, such as Jacopo Fiorentino, Domenico Fancelli, and Pietro Torrigiano, did much to popularize Renaissance motifs, which were combined with Gothic and Mudéjar in works of the plateresque style. An outstanding monument of the plateresque style is the cathedral of Granada by Diego Siloe. Its rotunda in particular, designed on the model of the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem, also reflects the humanistic aspirations of its architects, who were classically inclined. Typical of the more ornamental plateresque are the facade of the Univ. of Salamanca (c.1520–30) and that of the Convent of San Marcos (León). A more developed High Renaissance style appears in such works as the unfinished palace of Charles V (Granada), designed by Pedro Machuca, and the Escorial, designed by Juan Bautista de Toledo and finished by Juan de Herrera.

Outstanding native sculptors, such as Alonso Berruguete, Juan de Juni, and Gregorio Fernández, were strongly influenced by the more tortuous creations of Donatello and Michelangelo. Italianate painters, such as Luis de Vargas and Luis de Morales, and later Juan de Juanes, developed eclectic and mannerist styles. It was only toward the end of the century that a genius appeared who truly incarnated the dark, mystical Spanish idiom—El Greco. With roots in the Byzantine and Venetian traditions and in his very personal version of mannerism, El Greco translated aspects of Italian form in terms of his own highly spiritual, incandescent vision.

The Baroque Period

The baroque period (17th–mid 18th-century) was marked by decisive affirmation of native taste and individual genius in all the arts. Polychrome religious sculptures by Juan Martínez Montañés, Alonso Cano, and Pedro de Mena exemplify characteristic effects of extreme realism and an inward spirituality. Similarly in painting, sobriety of color and insistent naturalism, as well as dramatic contrasts of light and shade, were typical of such masters as Ribalta, Ribera, Navarrete, and Zurbarán, who are sometimes linked with Caravaggio and the Italians known for their dark palettes, termed tenebrosi [gloomy]. However, the outstanding master of the period was Velázquez, one of the greatest figures in the history of art. His paintings are admired as much for their display of technical virtuosity as for their profundity of characterization. The works of Murillo revealed a tendency to lyricism and decorative effects.

In architecture an extreme reaction against the severity and restraint of Renaissance forms manifested itself in the Churrigueresque style (see under Churriguera), which was characterized by animation of surface, play of light and shade effects, and an exaggeration and sumptuousness of ornament. Examples of Churrigueresque architecture include the Transparente in Toledo cathedral and the sacristy of the Cartuja (Granada). The style was imported into the American colonies (see Spanish colonial art and architecture), where many examples of the style can still be seen.

Under the Bourbons there was strong reaction against the individualism and exuberance of late baroque art. The founding in 1752 of the first of the Spanish academies of art resulted in a wave of sterile academic neoclassicism that tended to discourage creativity in the arts for nearly two centuries. The great exception to the general decline was Francisco Goya, who detailed in his works the corruption and brutality of this era in Spanish history.

The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: The Classic, Romantic, and Modern

Among 19th-century painters, José de Madrazo y Agudo belonged with the school of Jacques-Louis David and Mariano Fortuny with French romantic and historical painters. The foremost architect working in the neoclassical style was Juan de Villanueva. At the turn of the century the architect Antonio Gaudí designed a number of startling and enormously original structures in Barcelona, including the Expiatory Church of the Holy Family.

The foremost of modern painters, Pablo Picasso, though born a Spaniard, is permanently associated with the school of Paris, as are the cubist Juan Gris, the surrealists Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí, and the sculptor Julio González. Nonetheless, each has in his style something that is distinctively Spanish in origin. In the 1950s there was an outburst of abstract expressionism in Spain represented in the works of Antonio Tapies and Luis Sáez, among many others. Eduardo Chillida is a major modern Spanish sculptor, as are Francisco Barón, José Luis Sánchez y Gabino, and Martin Chirino. Notable contemporary painters include Luis Ficto José Francés, and Rafael Canogar.

The Decorative Arts

In general, Spanish minor arts exhibit characteristics analogous to those of the major arts in the corresponding periods. Rich mineral resources in Spain and later in the colonies made for extensive development of wrought metalwork. Luxuriantly decorated iron church screens or rejas (see rejería) are characteristically Spanish. Moorish influence encouraged development of filigree and enamel as well as tooled leather. Flemish influence encouraged the establishment of tapestry works. In the 18th cent. Buen Retiro porcelains (named for the palace at Madrid) were among the finest ceramics produced in Europe.


See C. Gomez-Moreno, Spanish Painting: The Golden Century (1965); C. R. Post, A History of Spanish Painting (14 vol. in 20, 1930–66); B. Smith, Spain: A History in Art (1966); S. Hogan, ed., Spanish Art (1983).

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Spanish art and architecture

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