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Andalusi art treasures in Madrid

From astrolabes to ceramic bowls, the collection of the National Archaeological Museum of Madrid offers an ample scope of Andalusi art forms and techniques

Mohammed Elrazzaz, Sunday 5 May 2013
The Gazelle Fountain Spout
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Views: 4752

Unlike other Spanish cities, Madrid’s Islamic past is not easily visible to today’s visitor. It takes a visit to the Arab city walls to get a feel for the city's Andalusi origin. Founded by Emir Mohamed I between 860 - 880 as Majrit (the Arabic name that was distorted to Madrid), the city originally served as a military camp meant to defend al-Andalus against the alarming power of the emerging Leon. It finally fell to Alfonso VI in 1085 and it remains to be remembered in the Muslim world today for being the birthplace of the great mathematician, Maslama al-Majriti (literally, the one from Madrid).

The National Archaeological Museum of Madrid has one of the finest collections of Andalusi art (also known by some art historians as Hispano-Islamic art) in the whole world. From astrolabes to ceramic bowls, the collection offers an ample scope of art forms and techniques. Ahram Online chooses three of the collection’s highlights to guide the reader through the arts and crafts of al-Andalus.

The Pyxis of Zamora

Ivory carving reached unprecedented heights in al-Andalus, in large part due to a Byzantine inspiration. Exchanging gifts between the Umayyad and the Byzantine rulers was common practice and the carved ivory panels and caskets that reached al-Andalus from Constantinople left quite an impression on them. As a reaction, several workshops started appearing in cities like Cuenca and it became fashionable for caliphs and military leaders to commission these workshops to manufacture ivory pyxies, caskets and cups as gifts for their wives and sons.

One such gift is the Pyxis of Zamora, dating from the tenth century. Named after Zamora, where it was found, it was originally manufactured in Medina Azahra (outside Cordoba) by ad-Durri as-Saghir for the order of Caliph al-Hakam II, who presented it as a gift to his wife Subh.

The pictorial scheme used in decorating the pyxis resembles a geometrical jungle in miniature, reminiscent of Persian gardens, where gazelles and peacocks seem at home. An elegant band of calligraphy (tiraz) brings a change of rhythm to the cylindrical body, counterbalancing the exuberant decoration. The lid is conical in shape and rests harmoniously on top of the pyxis.

The Casket of Palencia

This casket is a splendid example of the Andalusi artisans’ ability to work with different materials and fuse them into a harmonious whole. Wood, copper, enamel and ivory are all elements used in this casket, manufactured by Abd al-Rahman ben Zayyan in the Cuenca workshop around the mid-11th century during the era of the Taifa kingdoms.

Originally presented as a gift to Ismail ibn al-Maamun, one of the sons of the ruler of Toledo, it ended up in the Cathedral of Palencia where it housed relics, just as many other objects that were recycled into religious functions in the Catholic world. 

Just like the Pyxis of Zamora, one can see more gazelles and birds, with the addition of lions devouring gazelles (symbolic of the triumph of Islam over its enemies), but the protagonism here is assumed by the recurring motif of the floral leaves in the surface decoration. This technique, known as 'ataurique' (from the Arabic al-tawriq, or the use of leaves as decoration) is a recurring element in Andalusi art. Again, a band of calligraphy in Kufic (early Arabic) script decorates the casket.

Gazelle fountain spout from Medina Azahra

Little remains of the former glory of Medina Azahra, founded by Abd al-Rahman III in the 10th century and destroyed by the Berbers in 1009. Nevertheless, once the name is mentioned, the most iconic image that comes to mind is that of the fountain spouts in the form of gazelles that survived the demolition.

The gazelle at the museum in Madrid is made of gold-plated bronze and almost the entire surface is decorated in bas-relief with stylised circles and stars. The body encases the tube and the water exits from the open mouth. Moreover, the body is clearly out of proportion, and some art critics speculate that it was purposeful: many Muslim artists wanted to avoid close imitation of human and animal forms so as to not to cross the line and offend iconoclasts. Islamic art is, after all, nonfigurative to some extent.

The triumph of crafts and art objects

The term ‘Andalusi Art’ typically evokes mental images of the Alhambra of Granada, the Great Mosque of Cordoba and the Giralda tower of Seville. However, beyond the obvious monumentality of these buildings - all recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites - another dimension of Andalusi creativity remains unknown to many: the realm of Islamic crafts and art objects. Every day, visitors queue up to admire the Pyxis of al-Mughira in the Louvre or the Pyxis of Zamora in the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid. They may be overshadowed by other items from these museums’ collections, but anyone with a passion for the art and culture of al-Andalus should learn about them and inspect them closely, because the shapes and motifs would slowly unfold into metaphors of a golden age that left behind this unique legacy.

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