Islam's Spanish Eyes - Sackler Show
Tracks Glory Days of Muslim Spain

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post
May 16, 2004

"Caliphs and Kings: The Art and Influence of Islamic Spain," a new show at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery, has a few exquisite objects in it.

An ornamental silk brocade, covered in geometric patterns, is one of the most gorgeous textiles I have ever seen. It was woven by hand 600 years ago in the last years of the Muslim enclave of Granada. It is so pristine and perfect, however, that it looks like it was made yesterday on the latest in computer looms.

A carved ivory perfume box, about as big around as a coffee tin, was made 400 years before that, when Cordoba's Muslim caliphate controlled almost all of Spain. Its domed lid is hinged in ornate silver and luxuriant foliage crawls across its entire surface. It seems to celebrate the good things in life. A lovely bit of Arabic verse runs under the half-sphere of its top, letting the box speak for itself: "The sight that I offer is the fairest of sights, the still firm breast of a lovely young woman. . . . "

Despite these and a few other gems, however, this exhibition isn't really about art. It is about history. Guest curator Heather Ecker uses its objects to open a small window onto a patch of the European past most of us have barely glimpsed.

For centuries after its consolidation in the 750s of our era, Islamic Spain -- known in Arabic as al-Andalus -- had the richest culture, by far, of all of Western Europe. The Christian north, still emerging from the ruins of the fallen Roman Empire, could only gape at the wonders found south of the Pyrenees. In economy, technology, learning, cultural diversity and artistic sophistication -- in literature, philosophy, science, music, architecture, cuisine and all the decorative arts -- there was nothing like Islamic Spain. If the northerners at long last caught up in the later Middle Ages, it had a lot to do with what they had been able to beg, borrow, buy and steal from their neighbors to the south.

This exhibition's 89 objects include works of decorative art in cloth, stone, wood and ceramic as well as manuscripts, astronomical instruments, maps and many coins. All but a handful are from the collection of the Hispanic Society in New York, which agreed to this rare loan show in celebration of its 100th birthday. Though this is said to be the country's finest collection of art from Islamic Spain, it's still small and full of holes. (The exhibition lacks any examples of the fantastic metalwork developed by Spanish Muslims, for instance.) Shown without loans from other institutions, the Hispanic Society's holdings can provide only a hint of that culture's surviving treasures. But for the purposes of calling to mind the illustrious and complex history of the Spanish Middle Ages, even an assortment of minor objects can do the trick.

Staring at a vitrine full of old coins, for instance, is not most art lovers' idea of a good time. But for those with even a passing interest in Europe's past, the coins in "Caliphs and Kings" are irresistible. Anyone who has seen the coarse coinage of early medieval Europe -- even when struck for such famous leaders as Charlemagne or the German emperor Otto I -- will be impressed by the exquisite refinement of the gold dinars minted in Islamic Spain in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries. When the nascent Christian kingdoms of far northeastern Spain first try to copy their neighbors' coinage -- in the years around 1050, the dinar was the prestige currency for international trade -- the results are laughably bad. The exquisite Arabic calligraphy on the Cordoban coin becomes an illegible blur. The northern mints couldn't hope to rival the Islamic original; their goal was simply to nod in its direction, so the world would know the kinds of people they rubbed shoulders with. Even in 1215, when the Catholic king of Castile struck one of the gold coins in this show, its Christian inscriptions were entirely in Arabic: The pope is invoked as "The Imam of the Christian faith." After all, many of this king's most powerful allies, rivals, vassals and subjects would have been brought up speaking the language of the Koran.

Scholar Maria Rosa Menocal has argued for the thorough interpenetration of medieval Spain's cultures. She claims that Alfonso VI, the Christian king who conquered Toledo in 1085, might have been literate only in Arabic. He had spent years of exile in Toledo when it was still Muslim. His legendary champion Rodrigo Diaz, "El Cid", might have spoken Arabic. Like many of Spain's medieval warriors, both Christian and Muslim, he fought on both sides of the religious divide; his famous nickname comes from the Arabic for "lord." And an entire class of Christians, the so-called Mozarabs, had long lived and worked in Arabic, and would have read the Bible in it, too.

For the important Jewish communities of Muslim Spain, Arabic was the language of culture, learning and daily life. Hebrew was mostly reserved for sacred matters. The great Jewish vizier Hasdai, first minister and military chief for the Cordoban caliph Abd al-Rahman III in the 940s, rose in the ranks through his superb skills in Arabic composition. The famous Jewish sage Moses Maimonides, born in Cordoba in 1135, wrote all but one of his works in Arabic. The design of one of the Hebrew bibles in the Sackler show is heavily influenced by Islamic models, even though it was made in Seville in 1472, more than 200 years after that important Muslim city first fell into Christian hands.

In the years around 1400, when the Hispanic Society's exquisite silk brocade was woven in Granada, the Muslims had lost political control of all but that tiny piece of southern Spain. But their artistic prestige was still so great that that length of cloth became one of the treasures of a Christian church, where it was so carefully preserved that it's come down to us almost unworn.

Two centuries earlier, it seems that almost every member of a Christian royal house in Spain would have been buried surrounded by Islamic silks. One fragment of a burial cloth included in this show even has an Arabic benediction woven into it -- the language alone had yet to carry with it necessary echoes of an offensive foreign faith.

The fertile mixing of cultures that happened in Iberia was partly the result of the peculiarly laid-back brand of Islam practiced by the Umayyad nobles who first ruled it. They resisted the puritanical Islam of some of their North African rivals, and reveled in the pleasures of the body and the mind -- witness the erotic verses on this show's ivory box, as well as the love of Greek philosophy and science the Umayyads helped spread north from Spain. (The show includes a couple of the astronomical instruments known as astrolabes that became an obsession among medieval European intellectuals, after they borrowed them from Islamic Spain.) They also took to heart the Prophet Muhammad's notion that Christians and Jews -- the other "Peoples of the Book" -- deserved special status in any Muslim polity. Overall, though with occasional exceptions, the Umayyads and their descendants tended to profit from the cultures of their predecessors and neighbors in Spain, rather than striving to stamp them out.

The growing Christian kingdoms in Spain often followed the example some Muslim rulers had set. This show includes 10 beam-ends elaborately carved in the 13th or 14th century for buildings in Toledo. They were almost certainly made by Muslims living under Christian rule. These "Mudejar" craftsmen set the style -- a distinctly Islamic-flavored style -- for many of the public works and private luxuries of medieval Spain. There was plenty of ethnic friction, even discrimination and persecution, but there was also evident cross-fertilization. As late as 1400, the crude baptismal font of a Toledan church seems to have been made by Muslim ceramic workers -- now much less skilled than their ancestors -- or by Christians so deeply Arabized that they included Islamic talismans in its decoration.

Things began to fall apart in the later Middle Ages, especially after the Almohads, an intolerant Berber dynasty, crossed Gibraltar to claim Islam's Spanish holdings but eventually lost almost all of them. Crusader popes and nobles and clerics from beyond the Pyrenees who helped the local Christian rulers against their Muslim rivals also encouraged an end to whatever multiculturalism had survived. When Granada, last of the Muslim outposts, finally surrendered to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in 1492, the conquerors promised to respect Iberia's 700-year tradition of cultural and religious tolerance. Within three months they had reneged, immediately expelling all unconverted Jews and soon forbidding any Muslim practices as well.

By 1511, decrees were passed forbidding all things Muslim, including even traditional Islamic dress, "so that here and henceforth there will be no memory of the things of the Moors, and they will act and live like old Christians." The last ceramics in this exhibition, dating from around that time and probably made by forced converts from Islam, are far cruder things than most of the earlier works on show. They demonstrate how much Spain's Christian culture lost through its attempts to purify itself.

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