en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 44, Number 1January/February 1993

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Second Flowering

Art of the Mudejars

Written by María Luisa Fernández

Visigothic Spain was conquered by Muslim armies from North Africa in 711, and within varying territorial limits, Islamic rule con­tinued in the Iberian Peninsula until 1492. However, many Muslims also lived and worked in Christian-held territory until as late as the 17th century; they were called Mudejars - in Spanish Mudéjares, probably from the Arabic al-mudajjanun, "those permitted to remain," with a suggestion of "tamed, domesticated," or perhaps from al-muta'akhkhirun , "those who stayed behind." It was during the 14th and 15th centuries that Islamic artistic and cultural influences flourished in the form of Mudejar art created in the service of Catho­lic kings and nobility.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World; thereafter, many Mudejars, as well as Christian craftsmen who had inherited the tech­niques and art of Islamic decoration, migrated to the New World (See Aramco World , May-June 1992), transplanting both Mudejar art and its cultural pa­trons to Hispanic America, particularly during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Mudejar art and architecture derive from the Islamic art traditions of the Iberian Peninsula, but must be viewed through the prism of the reconquista. By comparing an important Islamic monu­ment, such as the Alhambra Palace in Granada, with a Mudejar structure of similar scale and pur­pose, like the Alcázar of Seville, we can identify Mudejar elements that are most likely to appear in Hispanic-American colonial art.

From the 12th through the 15th centuries - when austere Cistercian monastic architecture and later the more decorative Gothic style were on the ascendant in Christian Spain, strongly reinforced by the reconquista, and Islamic art was about to expire in Granada - Mudejar art, heir of Islamic art traditions, flourished in Christian-held parts of Andalusia and other provinces of the peninsula.

The Alhambra (from the Arabic al-Hamra', the red [fortress]) was built during the reigns of two Nasrid rulers of the kingdom of Granada, Yusuf I and Muhammad V, in the 13th and 14th centuries. While it was being completed, King Pedro I of Castile, dubbed the Cruel, took over the old Almohad palace in Christian-held Seville in 1364 to build the Alcázar (from the Arabic al-Qasr, the palace). However, Pedro did not use either the Cistercian or Gothic styles in con­structing his royal residence; instead, he ordered the use of lavish Islamic architectural ornamentation.

When Muhammad V finished con­struction of the Hall of Ambassadors in the Alhambra, Pedro I asked the sultan to lend him his artisans to build the so-called Hall of Justice at the Alcázar, in imitation of the Hall of the Ambassadors.

The Alcázar adheres to an Islamic plan, with open courtyards and fountains, recalling the Alhambra. The stucco and tile decoration and the extraordinary effects of light and shadow seen in the Alcázar echo those of the Nasrid palace. However, while the Alhambra bears Arabic inscrip­tions in an Islamic context, the Alcázar combines praises to God in Arabic with blessings invoked upon the Christian "Sultan" Don Pedro, and Gothic paintings and motifs alternate with Islamic patterns.

Why would a Christian ruler dedicated to driv­ing the Muslims from Spain choose Islamic decora­tion for his palace? The cathedral of Seville was built by Christian architects, so there was no lack of qualified Christian craftsmen. The explanation, I believe, lies in the application of temporal power: Mudejar style was deliberately used to express the authority of Christian kings over subject minorities in terms the subjects could understand. By appro­priating the Islamic artistic tradition, Pedro the Cruel was able to express notions of power, luxury and wealth familiar to his Muslim subjects. Islamic palaces and gardens, from Madinat al-Zahra' to the Alhambra, had a long, well-established tradition in the peninsula, providing a large and lavish reper­toire of royal symbols. By contrast, Gothic architecture's symbolism had been developed solely for religious purposes.

Mudejar ornamentation was occasionally applied to Christian religious monuments. From a theological point of view might sound rather con­tradictory. However, the reasons for incorporating an Islamic vocabulary in Catholic churches were similar to those that applied to the Alcázar. First, Islamic motifs were still meaningful to a popula­tion which for eight centuries had lived under Isla­mic rule; and secondly, Mudejar decoration revived the glories of an Islamic past, which had been appropriated by the Christian reconquest.

Despite the fact that the Spanish Inquisition received papal permission in 1479 to destroy Arabic manuscripts, Mudejar architecture exhibiting Ara­bic inscriptions and Islamic-style stucco and tile decoration continued to flourish in Christian-controlled territories.

The Alcázar of Seville was neither the first nor the only example of Mudejar architecture. The Alcázares of Carmona and Segovia, and a long series of civil buildings ordered by Pedro I, all followed the style of the Seville Alcázar. Mudejar ornamentation was even applied to Jewish architecture: The synagogue in Toledo known as El Transito, built in 1355 by Samuel Ha-Levi, royal tax collector of Pedro the Cruel, in addition to traditional Heb­rew inscriptions, also exhibits Arabic characters in praise of the Christian monarch.

Even after the Christian conquest of the king­dom of Granada in 1492, palatial Mudejar architecture remained fashionable in Andalusia, and its influence spread throughout the peninsula. The famous palace of Doña María de Molina and the Palace of Tordesillas, both in Valladolid, as well as the aristocratic House of the Knights of St. James in Córdoba, are remarkable examples of Mudejar architecture, both in design and ornamentation. Among the largest and richest private dwellings of the 16th century is the Mudejar-style House of the Marquis de Rivera in Seville, better known as the Casa de Pilatos, or House of Pilate - so-called because it copied features of the praetor's house in Jerusalem (See Aramco World, March-April 1992). These and many other palaces illustrate the flowering of Mude­jar art in the peninsula.

In late 15th century, Seville achieved historical import­ance as the second royal seat - after Toledo - of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The many long sojourns of the Catholic monarchs in Seville reflected their interest in managing the military   struggle against Muslim Granada and, after 1492, in administering affairs of the "Indian Continent."

Within the Alcázar of Seville was built a wing known as the Admiral's Apartments, named for Co­lumbus, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Queen Isabella received the explorer in the Alcázar after his second voyage, and it was in the Admiral's Apartments, in 1503, that she established the Casa de Contratación, or House of Trade - the govern­ment department that regulated commerce with the New World.

The Alcázar, one of the most meaningful exam­ples of Mudejar architecture in the peninsula, and the presence of an active Mudejar population in Seville, are important elements in understanding the transfer of Mudejar art and architecture to the New World.

Until the 15th century, historians make no men­tion of the existence of a special quarter (aljama) for Seville's Mudejars. But in 1483, the Cortés, or coun­cil, of Toledo, which had authority over Seville, insisted upon separating the Muslim and Jewish minorities from the Christian population. Docu­ments show an apparent decline in the number of Mudejars; however, Seville's overall population did not decrease, leading one to conclude that instead of moving out, some Mudejars might have had themselves counted among the Christian population. Spanish historians have taken note of the various building activities of the Mudejar population. In 1420, some 200 Mudejars lived and worked in Seville as alarifes (master masons, from the Ara­bic al-'arif, foreman), carpenters, potters, and tile and glassmakers, suggesting an abundance of Mudejar craftsmanship in the city throughout the 15th century and particularly at the time of the discovery and conquest of the New World.

The conquistadors arrived in the Americas and established a colonial administration as soon as the physical conquest of the population was achieved in the first quarter of the 16th century. Then more Spaniards came to settle, cities were either reconstructed or founded, and a whole building enter­prise began.

Franciscans, Augustinians and Dominicans were the first religious orders to settle in the New World, followed by the Jesuits. The orders founded large monasteries and churches in order to preach to, teach and control the Amerindian population, particularly in places where Indian religious prac­tices were still strong. Once the viceroyalties of New Spain (Mexico and northern Central Amer­ica), Peru (the Andean region), New Granada (Co­lombia and neighboring countries) and Rio de la Plata (Argentina and its neighbors) had been con­solidated, cathedrals - symbols of religious and civil power - were erected, according to plans drawn up by renowned Spanish and Italian architects. For provincial churches and small chapels, however, local authorities had to develop their own plans and make use of Indian and Mude­jar craftsmanship. Converted Mudejars seemed to have been more competent, because they were familiar with church construction techniques back in Spain.

While experts have devoted considerable ener­gies to the study of Spanish baroque art, little atten­tion has been paid to the development and evolu­tion of Mudejar decoration in Hispanic-American colonial architecture. But the role of Mudejar art in the New World was substantial, and should be viewed in the light of those converted Mudejars who arrived in the New World, the perceived urgent need to build churches and the evolution of Spanish policies.

During the first half of the 16th century, monastic orders permitted Indian and Mudejar artistic ele­ments to mingle with European forms; they even allowed the Indians to hold traditional festivals in the large atriums of their monasteries. The Protes­tant reformation of the 16th century, however, put the Catholic Church on the alert against trends toward religious and cultural syncretism. The church and crown joined forces in promulgating a royal decree in 1543 forbidding Moorish, Jewish, Protestant and Gypsy immigration to the New World (See Aramco World, May-June 1992). In 1574, Las Leyes y Ordenanzas Reales de las Indias del Mar Oceano — The Royal Laws and Ordinances of the Indies of the Ocean Sea - insisted that "all Berbers, male and female slaves, as well as Moors recently converted to Christianity, including their children, should be expelled from the Indies." The prom­ulgation of these laws indicates that a considerable number of Mudejars were already living, legally or illegally, in the Spanish colonies.

Their presence explains why Mudejar orna­mentation was profusely applied to 16th-century monasteries and churches throughout the viceroyalties, reales audiencias (high courts) and capitanias (provinces) created by Spain. In these territor­ies, Mudejar art is represented by sumptuous alfarjes - the Spanish word, from Arabic al-furjah, a space between two things, refers to wooden painted ceilings with elaborate decoration based on interlacing star-shaped polygons, yet inter­woven with Christian iconography.

For ideological reasons, the Spanish church in the second half of the 16th century began barring the use of either Indian or Mudejar motifs in the ornamentation of religious structures, on the grounds that these forms could mislead the recently converted Indian population. In 1557 appeared the first set of Ordenanzas para Pintores y Doradores - Ordinances for Painters and Gilders in New Spain, which set limits on artists' portrayals of religious subjects. But these rules applied more to painting than to architectural decoration, where Mudejar techniques and ornament were allowed to mingle with the dazzling baroque of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The viceroyalty of New Spain was well-known for its alfarjes. The Franciscan church of Tlaxcala, the church of San Diego in Huejotzingo and the church of Tulancingo, the Franciscan cloister at Tzintzuntzan and the chapel of San Francisco in Uruapan (Puebla) feature the most beautiful exam­ples of Mudejar ceilings.

Originally, the single nave of the 16th-century Cathedral of Mexico City was covered by a splen­did Mudejar alfarje, but in the 17th and 18th centu­ries the entire church was transformed to a national baroque style.

The facade of the church of San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador, could be classified as sober ba­roque, in the style of Spanish architect Juan de Herrera, but its single nave is covered by a lavish "cielo mudéjar" (literally, "Mudejar heaven"), a ceiling exhibiting stars and hanging mocárabes, or stalac­tites. The original ceiling was severely damage by the earthquake of 1755, but was entirely recon­structed in the same style and with the same tech­niques by Indian craftsmen.

In capitanias such as Venezuela, most churches exhibit baroque facades and vaults, with contrast­ing Mudejar alfarjes in their lateral chapels. A baroque vaulting system is used to cover the three central naves of the Cathedral of Caracas, but its southwestern chapels exhibit wooden ceilings in the Mudejar style. Although heavily restored, the one crowning a rococo altarpiece shows elaborate, polychrome wooden interlaced work, echoing Spanish-Mudejar alfarjes.

A second major Mudejar contribution to Hispanic-American architecture is the patio, or central courtyard, designed as an organizing unit in houses and cloisters. Patios were often provided with a fountain and potted plants and were defined by arcades, following the Andalusian architectural tradition.

Central courtyards occur in convents and private dwellings of the Colonial period in Mexico City. Even closer to the Andalusian tradition are the patios found in provincial Mexican cities such as Puebla, Morelia and Mérida, and the Casa del Alfeñique in Puebla is among the most remarkable houses of the 18th century. Although its decoration is a Mexican version of baroque, its plan, central courtyard, and tile decoration exemplify the Mude­jar artistic legacy.

The garden in front of the main facade of the Quinta de Anauco - a villa in Caracas built around 1797 and now housing the city's Museum of Colo­nial Art - is divided into four segments, and has a fountain at its center, following the Mudejar gar­den pattern. Moreover, the estrado, or hall with a platform, is perhaps the most conspicuous feature of this house. The estrado was the place reserved for women's informal activities. The platform was covered by an Oriental carpet spread with cushions, recalling Eastern reception rooms. Win­dows were provided with wooden screens that allowed light to enter but kept out the heat of the sun and prevented intruders from looking inside -like the mashrabiyyah, or wooden window screens, so commonly used in the Middle East.

Among the most important Mudejar techniques taught by the Spaniards to local craftsmen in the New World was the art of enameled tiling or azulejería, from the colloquial Arabic al-zulaij, meaning faience or ornamental tile. Decorated tiles were often applied to fountains, walls, domes, niches, floors and building facades, following the tradition established by the Mudejars in the peninsula (See Aramco World, March-April 1992). However, the motifs displayed on these tiles were not always Mudejar; Italian artistic influences had also reached the Spanish colonies.

Building facades of the 17th and 18th centuries in Mexico City often display tile revetments, or derivations of Mudejar motifs mingled with ba­roque stone carving, as on the facade of the Casa de los Azulejos, or House of the Tiles, the former resi­dence of the Conde del Valle de Orizaba. But the greatest concentration of buildings that feature tiles alternating with bricks is to be found in Puebla, about 75 miles southeast of Mexico City.

Wood-carving and inlay technique - setting tiny pieces of rare woods and ivory in furniture and other woodwork - was another Mudejar craft taught at escuelas de artes y oficios, or church craft schools, in Mexico. Just as in Mudejar Spain, Mex­ican artisans applied this technique to doors, pul­pits and choir stalls.

Although Mudejar influences contributed to the formation of Hispanic-American colonial art, the original Islamic meaning underlying the art was essentially lost. The Mudejar style in the New World developed not in an Islamic but in a Christian-baroque and neo-Hispanic context.

In the 16th century, the ambitious building pro­grams of the Catholic Church had created a need for master masons that Spanish architects were unable to satisfy. The church thus turned to trained - and inexpensive - Mudejar craftsmen. When the church had achieved its goal of converting the Indi­ans, and baroque art had fulfilled its propagandistic task in Spain, the cathedrals of America were rebuilt in the nationalistic baroque style. Neverthe­less, provincial chapels, churches and monasteries, particularly those far from urban centers, escaped the overwhelming pressure of the baroque, and Spanish-Mudejar forms did not vanish from the New World. Instead, they fused with local and other imported architectural elements, giving birth to Hispanic-American Mudejar art.

From the 16th through 18th centuries, there occurred a fascinating mestizaje, or blending, of local and imported styles in the arts of Hispanic America. An amazing variety of styles and ele­ments were often incorporated in the same build­ing over various historical periods. These styles-Spanish and Italian renaissance, mannerism, plateresque, local interpretations of Spanish-Mudejar techniques, baroque, churrigueresque, rococo, and Filipino-Mudejar influences coming out of the East, as well as indigenous artistic expressions - produced Hispanic-American hy­brid styles unknown to the artistic repertoire of the Old World.

Professor Maria Luisa Fernandez, the first Venezuelan to earn a doctorate in Islamic art history from Harvard University, teaches at Simon Bolivar University in Caracas.

This article appeared on pages 36-41 of the January/February 1993 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1993 images.