ne of the greatest
pleasures of the Spaniards is to sit in the beautiful summer evenings, and
listen to traditional ballads, and tales about the wars of the Moors and
Christians, and the "buenas andanzas
" and "grandes hechos
," the "good fortunes" and "great
exploits" of the hardy warriors of yore. It is worthy of remark, also,
that many of these songs, or romances, as they are called, celebrate the
prowess and magnanimity in war, and the tenderness and fidelity in love, of the
Moorish cavaliers, once their most formidable and hated foes.
- Washington Irving, Recollections of the Alhambra
words justly express both the multifaceted history of the Iberian Peninsula and
the close rapport between some of its many civilizations throughout time.
The geographical placement of this landmass situates it at the threshold of
Europe and Africa, two of the most dynamic continents of the Early
Modern Era. It is thanks in part to these cultural crossroads that the
culture of modern-day Spain has more exotic resonances for foreigners than
perhaps other European nations. A great deal of these
seemingly "Spanish" characteristicsare
rooted not in Spain’s Catholic and European ancestry, but rather in its history
of interaction with the Romans, Visigoths, and various Muslim dynasties. Some traits are faithful examples of an Islamic influence, since they are original mosques, palaces, and other
buildings or monuments that exist to this day. While many of these clues of cultures past do exist, there are thousands of others that have been lost, both as a result of the destruction produced
by Spain’s wars, and
intentionally, through purposeful demolition, as if being erased from history
to demonstrate a new ruler’s power. And while the political power in Spain made a dramatic
shift from Muslim to Catholic
in the fifteenth century, certain
rulers were more lenient than others in terms of the degree to which Muslim
inhabitants, their culture, and religion could remain.
Particular towns were completely ravaged while others have survived, at
least in part, to this day. In examining which Spanish
edifices date back to Umayyad, Nasrid and other Muslim dynastic rule, it is mystifying to consider why certain ones were
destroyed and why others are still in use today.
Were those rulers who endorsed
Catholicism refuting the former Muslim presence by
destroying so many of these elaborate buildings when they came to power?
Perhaps, since it is
not unusual for victors to do so in a newly conquered land. If that is the case, then what is the significance of these rulers and their
administrations reusing some, but not
all, of the former
civilization’s architecture? Did the Catholics of Spain only convert that which
was utterly spectacular because they could benefit from its use and
beauty? If so, were they honoring Islamic architecture, or was the
Spaniards’ take-over of such structures meant to symbolize their new dominance
in the land? Further questions arise around this issue considering the
establishment of Spanish colonies in Central and South America where buildings
exist that perpetuate the architectural vocabulary of Muslim?dominated Spain.
The goals of this article are two-fold. First, I will
explore the significance of Islamic vestiges in modern-day Spain manifested in
religious structures and imperial palaces. Many of these (now Catholic Spanish royal) edifices were
original architectural examples from cultures even prior to the Muslim presence, namely from the Visigoths and Romans; thus, there seems to be an established tradition in which an
architectural motif or geographical location of a building from one
civilization is absorbed and reused by the more powerful culture’s
Furthermore, since the purpose of these buildings was either royal or
religious, these buildings’ style became emblematic of the Crown and its power
because the Catholics dominated the peninsula. This ideology serves as a bridge
to connect the first to the second point, which posits that once the Spanish had established
colonies in the Americas; they
had absorbed this foreign architectural language, known as the mudéjar
as something of their own.
Therefore, examples of
this style in places such as modern-day Mexico and Perú are not
straightforward allusions to Islamic rule in Spain. Rather, they are Catholic
Spanish expressions of what they themselves considered
to be their own architecture. Although this was not a colonial Spanish
style created and initially propagated by the Spaniards, in conquering
Andalucía, the Spaniards adopted and, in effect, created mudéjar
architecture and christened it
as their own.
Stemming from the Arabic word mudajjin
today the term mudéjar
meanings. It is sometimes applied to the Muslims who were allowed to
remain in Spain after the Reconquista
but were subject to strict Christian rules. It
has also become descriptive of the style of architecture from, or
modeled after that of, Muslim rule. For the purposes of this project,
this term will refer to both buildings and decorations from Spain as well as in
the New World that evoke an Arab-esque style.
In each case, whether it was the Muslim architects who constructed a given
example that was later adopted by the Spaniards or whether Spaniards created it
is not central to this paper. What interests me is whether or not the mudéjar
style was employed at all,
and in what context. That is, if an Islamic building in Spain was kept in
use (even if slightly altered) by Catholic monarchs, or if new edifices were
constructed in the mudéjar
(either in Iberia or in the Colonies), and how those
structures were used (and reused) by their new inhabitants.
Iberian History: Roman Rule to the Reconquista
Under the auspices
of the Roman Empire, the Kingdom of the Visigoths (a group of Germanic peoples
who descended from northern Europe) controlled the region during the third
century CE (all dates will henceforth be in the Common Era). As
the Empire fell further into its demise, Rome relinquished control of far-off
lands (such as Iberia), allowing the Visigoths control until 711. Within this
period the Byzantines also claimed legitimacy over part of the southeastern
Peninsula from 554-624, under Emperor Constantine. The powerful Syrian
Umayyad Emirate abruptly ended Visigoth rule on the continent,
while maintaining their capital at Damascus. Following the fervent
conversion efforts of contemporary Muslims after the death of their Prophet
Mohammed in 632, the Syrian Umayyad Emirate gained control of all of
After a provincial capital in Córdoba was established, al-Andalus
(from which we have the
modern term for the southern territory of Andalucía) became the name of the
territory that the Umayyad, Nasrid, and other Islam-endorsing dynasties ruled.
contemporaneously with the Prophet Muhammad’s life and teachings,
certain architectural traits—especially on religious buildings—in
Muslim-dominated lands appropriately reflected and consolidated Islamic values.
For instance, the "unwavering Muslim hostility to figural decoration" due to
an opposition to idolatry, "encouraged an intense focus on abstract ornament,"
which to this day is fundamental to Islamic decoration.
Whatever the nature of decoration, whether architectural, functional, or
decorative, a primary objective was to create the illusion that the structure
on which the designs appear is dissolved. This goal was accomplished often by
the seemingly infinite repeating single units: ornamental motifs, arches,
arcades, columns, honeycomb cells, etc.
Often, this lavish adornment followed a geometrical plan (for example, the
square root of two or proportional ratios of 3:2 were often employed), which
were further emphasized by bright color schemes.
These traits are general characteristics of Muslim architecture, both
chronologically and geographically. However, for the purposes of length, this
essay will not consider the nuances and evolution of Islamic architecture as it
were, but rather the reuse and reiteration of that style on the part of the
importance increased in 756 when the Abbasid Dynasty conquered Damascus, which
at the time was controlled by the Umayyad Dynasty. Only one Umayyad family
al-Rahman—survived, and he fled to Córdoba and made it his capital.
However, once he established power there, Abd al-Rahman cultivated
strong relations with the Abbasids in Baghdad, the Christian regions in
Northern Spain, the Byzantine Empire, and various kingdoms in
North Africa. Emir Abd al-Rahman (r.756-788) was responsible for the
construction of Great Mosque of Córdoba (fig. 4), which is still considered by
some the pinnacle of the early period of Hispano-Islamic art and architecture.
The Spanish Umayyads presence existed as an emirate until 929, when Abd
al-Rahman III declared himself Caliph and the regime thus became the Spanish
Umayyad Caliphate, which remained in power until 1031. This territory did
however witness attacks by several European (i.e. Catholic) invaders,
such as Charlemagne who conquered Zaragoza and Catalu?a (both in Northern
Spain) in 777 and 801, respectively. The establishment of the Kingdoms of
Asturias-Leon (718-1037), Navarre (9th
cent-1035) and Feudal
counties of Catalonia (800-1137) further punctuated Umayyad power.
While the Spanish
Umayyad Caliphate was most powerful in al-Andalus
this group ruled over the other kingdoms and religions in Iberia. Because the
peninsula had had such an extensive history with peoples of different creeds
and cultures, it is no wonder that there was an acceptance of non-Muslims, and
as a result was in general a peaceful coexistence among Jews,
Christian and Muslims. In the eleventh century, there were three principal
Christian Kingdoms: León-Castile, Navarre, and Aragon. While often in conflict,
they united to wage war against their common enemy (i.e. the dominant Muslims)
in what was known, in Spanish, as the Reconquista
(the re-conquering of the continent from its Muslim inhabitants who,
needless to say, did not recognize this term). In fact,
this had been theoretically occurring already for several centuries,
since 722, from the Battle of Covadonga. Though their efforts were
not initially well focused, the operation was largely achieved later in 1492
(though repetitive expulsions of Muslims from Iberia continued for at least
another 150 years) with the conquest of Granada under the royal couple Isabella
and Ferdinand. However, before that Muslim domination simultaneously began to decline
warlord—kingdoms rose to powerdue to lack of centralized Muslim control
ended with the conservative Almoravid dynasty from North Africa,
whose Spanish capital became Seville after victory in 1040.
Following the Almoravids, the Almohad dynasty (1145-1232) and the Nasrid
Dynasty (1232-1492)—the last Muslim Dynasty to rule in Andalucía Intense
battles against the Christians following the Reconquista
campaign punctuated Muslim dynastic rule.
Known to his
Spanish counterparts as Boabdil, Emir Mohammad XII of the Nasrid Dynasty was
the last of the Muslim rulers in Spain. At the same time, Isabella and Ferdinand,
whose marriage several decades earlier had united the Christian kingdoms of
Castile and Aragon, were ruling the Christians in the
Following a drawn-out blockade, Emir Mohammad surrendered to the forces of
Isabella and Ferdinand in 1492—also the same year that there was a mass
expulsion of Jews from Spain—and subsequently they forced him to leave the
following January. Upon his departure, the royal couple adopted
his palace in Granada, the Alhambra,
as their casa real
which was inhabited later on by Charles V.
long fought struggle between the Christians and the Muslims, it
is no wonder that towns throughout al-Andalus
were systematically destroyed. For example, only ruins of the once
imperial town of Madînat al-Zahrâ (fig. 1) exist to this day.
However, there are
Fig 1. Madînat al-Zahrâ 10th
Century. Umayyad Dynasty.
(Photo: courtesy of American Institute for Advanced Studies in Cultural History)
complete examples of Islamic architecture that were not destroyed by the
vengeful Christians, many of which have been maintained to appear largely
as they had under Muslim rule. In fact, not only were some of
these buildings saved, many were even reused in ways similar to how Muslims
used them; specifically, Islamic palaces remained as residences for the
Christians, and several mosques became Christian equivalents. In
addition to the Alhambra
other famous remnants of Muslim Spain include the Great Mosque of Córdoba,
the Cathedral of Seville, and the Palace of Seville. These structures are
celebrated today as some of the most popular destinations in modern Spain,
but rarely is it considered why and how these buildings still exist.
While each of these individual buildings equally show
the Christian take-over of Muslim Spain and much of its architecture,
information regarding the Alhambra
more accessible, I will thus focus on it in this article.
Nevertheless, I am not suggesting a hierarchy of importance among the following
The Mudéjar in Spain
(from the Arabic al-qal’a al-hamrâ
meaning "red citadel")
shown in fig. 2, was commissioned during the 11th
Nasrid rule. From the beginning, the Red Citadel was intended to be a separate
palace-city from Granada for the ruling caliphate, but there was a wall that
connected the two locales. While the Alhambra
is revered today for its exotic beauty, even in the early years of
its existence, the palace was highly valued for it was "far more complex than
the citadels and palaces of the taifa
four gates, seven palaces, and domestic structures for all social
classes. In addition, there were offices, the royal mint,
mosques, workshops, garrisons, defensive structures, a summer residence,
and a fortress. 
Fig. 2. The Alhambra. 11th Century. Nasrid Dynasty. Grenada, Spain.
(Photo: courtesy of Wikipedia.org)
In putting oneself
in the position of the xenophobic, anti-Muslim Spanish crown the question as to
why the Alhambra
had been saved
becomes more significant. While changes have been instituted over centuries,
there was little destruction of the original plan. Both the first Catholic
rulers to live in the palace and future ones, namely Charles V, inhabited the Alhambra
. While they inevitably made
certain changes or renovations to suit their taste, the monarchs generally
respected the original plan and decorative scheme.
The Catholic Kings took it over,
destroying nothing in the process, and made themselves at home there, with the
obvious desire to preserve the palaces as far as humanly possible. Even Charles
I of Spain (i.e. the Emperor Charles V), whose massive addition does not really
harmonize with the aesthetics of the existing palace, that of the Nasrids; and while he had the latter furnished for his own purposes,
he did not do anything destructive.
While it is inevitable that the
monarchy destroyed older parts of the Palace to make room for changes (most
notably the relatively newer Palace of Charles V), it is important to
understand that this "destruction" was executed with the objective to modernize
and revamp the Alhambra.
demolition was not "destruction" for destruction’s sake (for instance as an
insult on the part of the Spanish monarchs to dynasties past), but rather as a
means for the current ruler to make stylistically avant-garde
renovations for his own comfort and to reflect his
political platform. The Spanish Monarchs and their representativesthus did not expend effort on the destruction of the
palace, even though they had just ended a multi-century campaign to essentially
destroy the creators’ presence in the country. This information seems to go
against other aspects of the Spanish Reconquista
considering other aspects of Islamic culture were hastily erased, and forced
conversions to Christianity were frequently carried out. The fact that the Alhambra
was preserved among the
thousands of other buildings that were destroyed is noteworthy. It
is further remarkable that even as Christian rulers began to build Renaissance
and Baroque style buildings they simultaneously maintained the original Islamic
The etymology from
the palace’s nomenclature shows a similar adoption of Muslim culture,
despite the fact that they were overthrown and expelled from the land.
For starters, as previously stated, the word Alhambra
comes from the Arabic al-qal’a
meaning "the red citadel". The complex’s far-eastern alcazaba
structure comes from the Arabic
, another word for "citadel",
which is a walled fort within the walls of the Alhambra
, and is also the oldest structure of the city.
This type of building is not unique to the Alhambra
since similar examples exist in cities and towns all over modern Andalucía
as further evidence of the Spanish absorption of Islamic architecture.
For example, such structures exist in Almería (where the largest
as well as in Antequera, Badajoz, Guadix, Málaga and Mérida, all of
which are towns within the boarders of Andalucía.
The fact that these structures are still referred to by derivatives of their
Arabic roots, or rather that the names were re-used by the Spanish conquerors,
demonstrates it was not imperative for the conquerors to convert these names to
something more evocative of their own cultural traditions. The physical relationship
between the Palace of Charles V and the original buildings of the complex
illustrates the parallel relationship between former Muslim rule and the
Catholic victors. Charles’ Renaissance-style "block-design residence with a
porticoed round courtyard"
was constructed at the heart of the Alhambra
stylistically contrasted with the original buildings. The foundation upon which his palace stands today had
been both "dilapidated Morisco houses" and "the house of three clerics of the church
of Santa María".
was the logical location on which to build since, for Charles V, the
destruction of those buildings was not a great loss, nor were these structures
architecturally or functionally important buildings on a grand scale. Such
original buildings surround his Palace like the Patio of the Albrea,
the Lindaraja Gardens, the Church of Santa María and the Plaza of the
Albibes. It seems that while maintaining and benefiting from the original
Islamic constructions, Charles V strategically placed his own palace in the
center, as the physical and ideological the heart, of the city, as
if to demonstrate his power over the conquered Muslims, represented by
their architecture. It is further interesting to note that:
No palace was
built by Charles’ predecessors on the Spanish throne because they often
added royal quarters to a favorite monastery or they made the piecemeal
alterations in a Moorish residence or castle to adapt it to their needs, usually employing mudéjar
artisans to repair or decorate
Thus, Charles broke away from
royal traditions by merely constructing a palace; the fact that it is centrally
located further significant. That Charles did decide to build a new palace
at the Alhambra
suggests that he may
have intended for the Spanish capital, or even that of the Empire, to
be at Granada. 
Whether or not this is the case, being that he was the ruler of a vast empire, he
hosted a great number of ambassadors and other guests who were exposed to both
his new palace, as well as the original structures of the Alhambra
. The juxtaposition of the
exotic Islamic edifices and Charles’ Renaissance palace would have been an
effective demonstration of his power. In addition, because this period was
marked by an interest to possess and conquer that which
was foreign, the Alhambra
have been considered a crown jewel.
Though the style at the Alhambra
manifested ubiquitously on the Iberian Peninsula it was still associated with
its Muslim creators, and was therefore still somewhat exotic to him, but
certainly very much so for foreigners visiting Grenada.
Fig. 3. The Palace of Charles V at the Alhambra. Pedro Machuga. 1527. Granada, Spain.
(Photo: courtesy of Wikipedia.org)
that was occupied by the Spaniards is the Great Mosque of Córdoba, or
Spanish for "mosque", shown in fig. 4.
The original building, constructed in 784, is reputed to have "set
the standard for all other sacred architecture in Andalucía."
Functioning today as a Roman Catholic Church, the Mezquita
was built on the remains of the Visigothic church of St.
Fig. 4. Mezquita or Great Mosque. 784.
(Photo: courtesy of Wikipedia.org)
Despite the fact that the
Christians were refuting Islamic culture by destroying their regional
legitimacy (following the ideals of the Reconquista
Mosque was immediately turned into a church in 1236, the year that Córdoba was
overtaken from the Nasrids by Ferdinand III of Castile (1199-1252).
This introduces a pattern on the part of the Christians of conquering Muslim
rulers and subsequently assuming use of their buildings.
have been reconstructions of the Mezquita,
such as a Renaissance nave implanted in
the center of the old mosque (also by Charles V), it was never torn down,
suggesting a certain degree of respect for the original construction or, at
least recognition that the building could benefit them. Unlike the Alhambra
, the Mezquita
is a religious compound limited to
much fewer buildings.
the two complexes share a similar evolution from Islamic rule to that of the
Christians, in which relatively little changed structurally despite for the
new audience’s different faith. Even to this day, the building previously designated as the Caliph’s palace is now where the Bishop
remained a palace and the Mezquita
remained a religious center for
the dominant faith, paradoxically during a time of rampant xenophobia on
the part of the Christian Spaniards, as exemplified by the Inquisition.
While it may not have been the Catholics’ agenda to take credit for these
Islamic architectural feats, they nonetheless did advance the mudéjar
style, though perhaps were
unaware of the fact that they were doing it. That these buildings have remained
treasured by the Spanish royalty and people for their role in their country’s
history (and not of Islamic rule) emphasizes this point of view.Therefore, in their eyes, those buildings were no longer
Umayyad or Nasrid, but Spanish, and could be (re)used
for Spanish purposes. Especially demonstrative of this is the annexation of the Alhambra
when, on 2 January 1492, Emir
Mohammad XII surrendered to Isabella and Ferdinand who subsequently moved in to
the grand palace.
took a great deal of warfare and other violence to get to this point, the royal
couple’s immediate use of the palace reveals the Spanish relationship to
previously Muslim buildings.
The coexistence of
older Islamic and new Spanish buildings seems somewhat contradictory
considering the history of the relationship between Islamic and Christian
Spaniards. However, keeping in mind the dynamic of the contemporary
Spanish Empire, one could view the actions of Charles V,
perhaps not necessarily as imperial, but certainly as a product of the imperial
nature of the state and world. In his book on Spain at this time, Henry
Kamen remarks that:
Within a few months of Charles’s
accession, Castile’s horizons began to expand to unforeseen limits thanks to
the help of international finance. Very slowly, Spaniards began to identify
themselves with a broader destiny.
That is, upon rising to power, the
dynamics within Spain and abroad began to develop, largely resulting from the
kingdom’s international relationships. Since Charles V controlled the German
and Austrian states of the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands,
parts of modern day Italy, and parts of the Americas, there was a worldly
sentiment associated with his title considering that he reined over so much of
Because these political changes took place quickly, their effect was profoundly
felt by the people of Spain who, like the nature of the government itself and
the country’s past, were beginning to have a more
Graber points out that Iberia, under both Muslim and Christian rule, was a
frontier territory. Often in these places there is a rather contradictory
nature to the dynamic between different groups, which is at times defined by
hate and warfare, while at other times exhibits "open-minded cohabitation and
creative inventiveness." And, furthermore, a decorative motif can be considered
as belonging to a region, rather than to a religion or people in that land.
That is, that vestiges of Islamic architecture not destroyed but used by the
Christians could have, to the Spaniards been considered "Iberian" or
"Andalucían" and not specifically "Muslim". Therefore, their reasons for
keeping such edifices may have been influenced by their territorial heritage,
and not their religious differences as if these buildings belonged to the land,
and not a culture.
whether consciously or not, were developing their own Spanish royalstyle by adapting these Muslim buildings and
complexes. Whether this was accomplished by adding more European-style
structures or altering an original one’s purpose, by maintaining these
buildings as functional, the Spanish royalty was propagating a regal
architectural language, since these edifices were seen by civilians and
international figuresalike. Again, while taking over this foreign style by
reusing these buildings was likely not the Spanish monarchy’s platform, they
nonetheless did so and in effect made it part of their legacy, as the edifices
are still occupied and cherished today. When considering these Islamic
buildings now, members of the Spanish royalty are evoked as much as (or perhaps
even more so than) Islamic figures who lived there before. Since these
buildings were host to a great deal of Spanish governance, their architectural
and decorative style cannot be divorced from other popular royal styles. Spanish
structures that remain from Muslim rule are unique examples that relate to the
power structure of the state, since they were either royal palaces or religious
structures. By selecting these structures as the ones through which they would
govern the country, and by simultaneously destroying countless others of the
same exotic style, the ruling Spaniards were creating a stylistic distinction
between the architecture appropriate for their rule and that of the rest of the
country. In so doing, these buildings were no longer Islamic, but Spanish, and
more specifically, regal Spanish. While the demonstration of this style takes a
different form in the colonies of the Americas, the association is similar
since the buildings on which the mudéjar
is manifested were initially only for religious purposes.
explorers never embarked on voyages to the New World, there are examples
architecture in both Perú
and Mexico. These buildings were neither large-scale, grandiose examples like the mudéjar
of Andalucía nor were they the result of Morisco
builders repeating the same style of
architecture that was in Spain. In fact, it generally was
indigenous people, under Spanish order, who were responsible for building
colonial architecture, since "Mudehars [sic] and Moriscos…were banned from
traveling to the New World. "
Therefore, the only means by which the mudéjar
style could have been used in New Spain and Per? is by Spanish governmental
and religious officials specifically requesting it, and thereforeit must be associated with Spanish
stylethat exists in the New World differs from that of Spain in one
fundamental way: While
in Spain entire buildings were constructed in this style, (that is, that one
building or complex would possess motifs such as geometric decorations, artesonado
ceilings, striated horseshoe
arches etc.), across the Atlantic, the mudéjar
style was manifested only in fragments on a stylistically composite building
(i.e. a building might only have an artesonado
ceiling, with no other mudéjar
motifs and instead with more traditionally Western European decoration or
architecture). The appearance of the mudéjar
stylein the New World suggests
that it had been incorporated into Spain’s architectural language. Thus,
according to the Spanish, this style was theirs to bring to their colonial
architecture. While the Spanish may not have been aware of the fact that they
were bringing a style that would later become known as "mudéjar",
they were in any case perpetuating this kind of
architecture in the New World
Among the first
Spanish voyages to the New World were religious campaigns carried out by
Catholic orders such as the Franciscans, Dominicans and others. In
addition to their religious instruction and conversion efforts,
the friars brought elements of Spanish architectural styles to the new churches
and monasteries they came to build. Harold E. Wethey aptly describes
these structures as "colonial descendants of the Andalucían mudéjar
churches of Seville and Granada". 
Although, to a less extravagant degree than churches in
these buildings certainly show a resemblance to their Spanish—and as a part of
Examples of mudéjar
architectural elements that were
surfaced in the New World include the artesonado
wooden ceilings, which have either carved or mosaic wood pattern. 
Other examples of the Spaniard’s use of the mudéjar
are brightly colored geometric or vegetal designs (especially on fired
brick, glazed ceramic tile, stucco or plaster), ornamental stylized
calligraphy, various types of arches such as leaf, interlacing and horseshoe,
In regards to the artesonados,
typical churches were
designed with only the most basic plan: a single nave that was long and narrow,
and a wooden roof. 
Despite their widespread implementation, the use of these artesonados
was not by any means a practical choice. While it was
not unique to Islamic architecture to use wooden roofs, given the time
period (circa 1550s) there were much more effective means of stone vaulting
known by Spain’s builders, for example at Seville’s famed Gothic Cathedral
(which, incidentally was built on the ruins of a mosque) that would have lasted
much longer than wooden ceilings against some of the harsh weather conditions,
fire, or warfare. This is an instance in which the artesonados
were used in a land without a history of Islamic
peoples, and for entirely decorative purposes thus, they seem to derive from the
Islamic architectural tradition adopted in the motherland by the Spanish and
later brought to the New World through colonization. This is significant
because, unlike most of the mudéjar
structures in Spain, these were newly constructed Spanish buildings and
therefore show an active choice on the part of the Spanish architects to reuse
style by reiterating it
in the colonies. Indeed, these ceilings are a component of this style
that was manifested on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, as evidenced by
examples that Charles V had installed in his Palace, suggesting that this trend
of new mudéjar
examples was not
limited to the Americas.
To give specific
examples, the monastic church of San Francisco (not pictured) in Sucre
from the Viceroyalty of Per? (now modern-day Bolivia) still bears most of its
original attributes. Of these:
Notable are the fine mudéjar
ceilings, for they are among the best type so
frequently used in South America in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, but so rarely
preserved until the present day.
Although many of these fine wooden
ceilings have since been destroyed, or replaced by more modern and durable
alternatives, early in the history of Spanish colonization in the Americas the
wood ceilings were popularly
employed. Like most other instances in which the mudéjar
style is harkened, only one part of the church,
specifically the ceiling in this case, shows that relationship.
Figures 5 and 6
illustrate the similarities between the artesonado
of the Cathedral of Tlaxcala and that of a room in the Alhambra,
respectively. Both ceilings
use gold and wood,
and while that of Tlaxcala belongs to a religious center, the Spanish image is from a
Fig. 5. Cathedral
of Tlaxcala artesonado ceiling.
(Photo: courtesy of American Institute for Advanced
Studies in Cultural History)
Both examples feature casetones
, which are surrounded by larger
While in Tlaxcala there is an elevated central panel with a larger decorative
scheme than that of the main section, the ceiling at the Alhambra
consists of one plane and maintains a more regular
Intricate geometric design is a
trademark of Islamic art which is exampled ubiquitously on buildings in lands
that Islamic power reached, for instance on such great complexes as the
Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, The Great Mosque of Damascus, or from fragments at Abbasid ruins in
Samarra. Because the Iberian Peninsula had once been within the boundaries of
Muslim rule, its architecture, too, display this motif on several existing
Fig. 6. Alhambra artesonados. Wood and Gold. Granada, Spain.
(Photo: courtesy of American Institute for Advanced
Studies in Cultural History)
7 shows a Spanish example of this geometric design. It is a ceiling from Paranifo
Ceremonial Hall at the
University of Alcalá in the town of Alcalá de Henares near Madrid.
The Regent of Spain, Cardinal Cisneros, founded this institution
in 1499 as an educational project based on the institutions of Paris and of
Salamanca. Contemporary with the European renaissance,
Cisneros had ambitions that the university would be a gateway through which
both the clergy and the royalty receive a world-class education. 
Fig. 7. Geometric Design Ceiling. University of Alcalá. Alcalá de Henares, Spain.
(Photo: courtesy of American Institute for Advanced Studies in Cultural History)
ceiling, found at the Cardinal’s chapel at the university displays the
motif interspersed with
hexagonal shapes, which are further outlined by a boarder in another
This type of ornamentation is demonstrated frequently in Islamic art.
Its widespread use has been described as:
These endless star patterns in faïence
mosaic have been used, since the building
of the Alhambra
to cover square
kilometer upon kilometer of wall space throughout the Moorish world…
patterns are one of the trademarks of Islamic art and thus it seems ironic that
the ceiling shown in fig. 7 was commissioned by a man of such
strong Spanish pride and aspirations. One would think that the
architectural language of any structure associated with him would reflect
uniquely Spanish culture, however his ceiling shows an undeniable Islamic
aesthetic. Furthermore, the Muslims had established a tradition of learning in
the West during their years in power in Spain, and this kind of decoration in a
Spanish university setting may be another case where Catholic Spaniards
perpetuated the use of Islamic customs and eventually made them a part of their
own culture. If so, then this is an example of the fact that this geometric
decoration had been incorporated into Spanish style as one of the fundamentals
art. A strong support for
this cultural appropriation is that this ceiling was created not by Muslims
themselves, but by the Christians and, furthermore,
for a man of fervent Spanish and Catholic conviction. While Cardinal Cisneros
did not physically make this ceiling, he was its patron and had to nonetheless
approve its appearance. By allowing this ceiling (which displays historically
foreign motifs) to cover a room that hosts the advancement of Catholic Spanish
citizens, it seems that the Cardinal would have considered its decoration
representative of Spanish style than any other culture’s style.
these geometric forms are found in some of the Spanish colonies of the New
Fig. 8 shows a ceiling from the porter?a
at Atlatlauca, Mexico. The detailed pattern strikes a remarkable resemblance
to those of Spain. Like that of the University of Alcalá,
this design consists of the trademark casetone
motif scattered with other geometric motifs and a rope-like boarder that
outlines the forms. Perhaps the most composite element of this ceiling
is the small cherub figures that appear within the geometric forms: this aspect
is an excellent example of Catholic Spain’s absorption of Islamic motifs, since
angels would never appear on a similar Islamic ceiling.
Fig. 8. Geometric DesignCeiling.
(Photo: courtesy of American Institute for Advanced
Studies in Cultural History)
Fig. 9. Bifurcate Horseshoe Arch The Mezquita. Córdoba, Spain.
(Photo: courtesy of American
Institute for Advanced Studies in Cultural History)
addition to ceiling design, certain kinds of arches that were employed by the
Spanish in the New World. Figure 9 is an illustration this type from the
. Among the reasons that this
type is perhaps more recognizable than other types of is that they appear in
great scale in some of the most famous Islamic buildings, such as in the
interior of this building (where there are several aisles of them in the
interior as well as older monuments such as the town of Madînat al-Zahrâ (see fig.
1)and would thus be exposed to a broader
audience. Another reason is that it is a much older motif. The horseshoe arch
is actually a vestige from Visigoth times that Muslims adopted upon conquering
Indeed, the Christian Spaniards followed this precedent when they gained control
of the peninsula by literally reusing Islamic architecture or architectural
adapted several Umayyad and Nasrid buildings for their own purposes. The
Spaniards also perpetuated use of this arch in the Americas on colonial
Fig. 10. Bifurcate Horseshoe Arch
Cortés. Cuilapán, Mexico.
illustrates a bifurcate horseshoe arch from Casa
in Cuilapan, Mexico. While the red and white striated voussoirs
do not appear on this example
as they do so frequently on those of Iberia, the characteristic shape of the
arch is nonetheless present. The arch’s presence as an individual element of
architecture in the Spanish colonies is evidence of Spain’s country’s selective
use of mudéjar.
An additional motif
from Islamic architecture used as a decorative element of arches is the
freeze-like motif called an alfiz
which borders the upper curve of an arch. This articulation is demonstrated in both
figs. 9 and 10: in fig. 9 this is the design and the two-colored striations
while in fig. 10 this is the collective presence of the several voussoir-
like blocks. Wethey, in his
article on Peruvian missionary Franciscan architecture, agrees that the alfiz
is a motif that has been absorbed
by the Spanish as something of their own since he describes it as an "age-old
Islamic feature in respect to design which passed through the repertory of
He duly notes that this was employed at some of the finest and most important
sixteenth century Peruvian monuments, such as the Franciscan cloister at Cuzco
(not pictured), which had "round arches, Renaissance capitals, plus the
peculiarly Spanish mudéjar alfiz…"
Thus it can be seen that while the mudéjar
style was indeed used architecturally both in Mexico and in Perú, it was
used only as individual elements on a larger composite building of Spanish
The Legacy of the Mudéjar
One could even say that there is still a fondness for the mudéjar
style in modern Spain,
since this style has been employed on several occasions; one such example is
illustrated in fig. 11. The Mudéjar
was designed by Spanish architect Aníbal González as one component
of a large-scale urban project for the Ibero-American Exhibition in Seville, in
This building appropriately hosted the decorative arts portion of the
exposition. In addition to the lavish ornamental elements of the colorful
which boasts horseshoe and leafed arches, complete with alfizes,
there were also glazed tile
fountains, decorative bricks and other architectural elements that
celebrate Spain’s Muslim past. From the Spanish Monarchy’s use of Islamic
buildings to decorative manifestations in the New World, to the modern Mudéjar Pavilion,
is a celebration of Spain’s diverse past.
Fig. 11. Mudéjar Pavilion Aníbal González, 1929. Parque Maria Luisa. Seville, Spain.
(Photo: courtesy of Wikipedia.org)
To conclude, this
article has argued that as the Christian Spaniards overtook the Iberian
Peninsula, they simultaneously adopted the preexisting Islamic architectural language
as a component of their own. The resulting style has been named mudéjar,
and examples of it exist both
in Spain and in its colonies. Despite the seemingly paradoxical nature this
hypothesis has to hostile the relationship of the Christians to the Muslims,
there are several arguments to support it. For one, there had been a preceding
tradition in Iberia of a victorious culture’s adaptation of certain decorative
motifs or examples of architecture that had once been used by the vanquished
culture (such as the Visigoth horseshoe arch that is now considered a mudéjar
trait). Furthermore, the
frontier nature of the Iberian Peninsula harbored extremes in cultural
relations between the Christians and Muslims, who could at times live in
peaceful coexistence, while at others suffered though some of the most brutal
battles and conversion efforts. The Islamic structures that exist to this day,
for example the Alhambra
Mosque of Córdoba, have survived because they were absorbed as a part Catholic
Spain’s royal style, since the buildings that were saved from Islamic rule were
used for purposes relating to Spanish authority. This claim is strengthened in
considering select mudéjar
of colonial architecture. While the existing mudéjar
style of Spain was, in most cases, a vestige of former
Muslim rule, in the colonies of Perú and Mexico, the style was manifested in
fragments (i.e. individually as a ceiling, an arch, a decorative element, etc)
on new buildings. By constructing buildings that demonstrate mudéjar
elements, the Spanish
perpetuated this style of architecture that they had absorbed in the motherland.
This style has remained present in the Spanish architecture up to modern times,
motifs have been used
on new buildings for national events while older buildings, such as the Alhambra
, have nearly become national
symbols themselves. Indeed, much like other Islamic legacies in Spain, such as
the one evoked by this article’s opening quotation by Washington Irving, the mudéjar
style has become a fondly
regarded component of Spanish visual culture. Its use beyond Muslim rule in
Andalucía and implantation in New World colonies suggests a selective cultural
appropriation of Islamic culture along with a refutation of other Islamic
values and shared historical conflicts.
In practice this was mainly
executed at the end of the 15th
century when Isabella and
Ferdinand’s forces overthrew the Nasrid dynasty in Grenada.;
however, the Reconquista
being carried out since 722 C.E. and lasted through the 17th
The term mudéjar
will be employed in this article to refer to an
architectural style of structures in Catholic Spanish dominated territories,
whether Muslims were the original architects or if Catholic victors who adapted
a formerly Muslim building.
Barrucand and Bednorz, 228.
During the Early Modern Era,
similar phenomena took place with other colonial powers, namely the British, as
they often employed an "Arabesque" or "Indo-Saracenic"
style in their colonies for official buildings. This was primarily executed in
lands with Islamic or other non-Christian populations. While this article will
only elaborate on Spain’s use of this kind of style, it should be kept in mind
that similar styles were being evoked simultaneously around the world.
It should be noted that the
worship of idols is forbidden in Islam, not the act or display of figurate
images.Indeed, this prohibition
is only in religious settings (and thus figurative art can and does justly
appear on secular buildings and objects used by Muslims), though due to the
ambiguous definition of "Islamic Art", there are often false accusations of
blasphemy against the appearance of these motifs in certain domestic (or
otherwise non-religious) settings.
Barrucand and Bednorz ,183.
This becomes relevant later
on for future generations who, in turn, persevered the appearance of the palace
this time out of respect for their ancestors (i.e. Ferdinand and Isabella and
Charles V), but in preserving their residence, they were also preserving and
perpetuation an originally Islamic vestige in their homeland.
Barrucand and Bednorz, 188.
These fortifications should
not be confused with the similar sounding alcáza,
one of which does not exist at the Alhambra
, and whose name comes from the Arabic al-qasr,
Ibid, 3. This quotation employs
the term mudéjar
, as an ethnicity of the laborers and not, as
has been done throughout the article, as a stylistic term. In this case mudéjar
is referring to people who
follow Islam and remained in Spain after the Catholic monarchs gained control.
Gallego y Burin, 55.
One might imagine that the
Spanish used the Alhambra
as a casa real
because visitors could
experience the foreign and unknown world without actually leaving it. Similarly
the monarchical inhabitants could rule their vast empire from this
paradoxically foreign palace in their homeland.
Barrucand and. Bednorz, 39.
in Spanish) was the
term for Muslims who remained in Spain after the fall of the Nasrid Dynasty.
Sometimes it also can refer to former Muslims who converted to Christianity.
and Bednorz, 217.