Review of Spain, 1000-1200: Art at the Frontiers of Faith at the Cloisters
“Frontier” usually denotes separation and limitation, a boundary betwixt “here” and “there,” and even “us” and “them.” Whether wrought by nature or by human hands, a frontier at once divides and defines. According to Julia Perratore, curator of the Met Cloisters’ exhibition “Spain, 1000-1200,” geopolitical frontiers, or borderlands, in medieval Spain, were understood as places that “simultaneously separated and connected different territories.” This conception is appropriate for medieval Spanish artistic creation, as different faith communities maintained their own distinct beliefs while also cultivating shared interests and tastes, thereby “navigating the tension between separation and connection.”
Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities coexisted in medieval Spain for centuries, and, despite religious differences, shared their respective and vibrant artistic traditions. Constantly shifting geopolitical frontiers were important points of contact and exchange: At them, artists and patrons of the Christian-ruled northern peninsula interacted with the cosmopolitan arts of southern, Muslim-ruled Spain (al-Andalus).
The degree of this interaction is attested by the 46 impressively diverse religious and secular objects (many from the Met collection, with some loans from other institutions) displayed in the Cloisters’ austere Fuentidueña Chapel gallery—which is itself included in the exhibition. The exhibition’s contents include silk textiles, monumental sculptures, illuminated manuscripts, and fine metalwork ranging in size from the Fuentidueña Apse itself to a small carved ivory chess piece.
Whereas cultural adaptation and appropriation are often met with criticism and hostility in our own time, through most of history they have been accepted and cultivated, as was the case with the incorporation by Muslims into their own artistic production of the Romanesque style of Christian Western Europe. This meeting of different traditions is famously exemplified by the Great Mosque of Córdoba, which melded northern Christian church-building practices with the Islamic architecture of al-Andalus. The monastery church of San Baudelio de Berlanga, built in the late 11th century after the Christian-ruled kingdom of León and Castile seized previously Muslim Toledo in 1085, is another fine instance of it: The Christian-Muslim intersection is strongly evident in its 12th century frescoes, included in the exhibition, by painters from northeastern Spain, which bear the distinctive traits of Romanesque and Byzantine art while also revealing their creators’ acquaintance with Islamic art.
Among these Baudelio frescoes (later transferred to canvas and part of the Met collection) are a pair depicting miracles from Jesus’ adult life: the Healing of the Blind Man and the Raising of Lazarus, and the Temptation of Christ by the Devil. While Islamic pictorial features are largely absent here, the Romanesque style is evident both in the treatment of the figures and their garments, and the almost cartoonlike, side-by-side scenes are simultaneously presented with directness and restraint.
Another fresco, of a one-hump camel (dromedary), is a delightful example of the meeting of cultures, showing that the monks, living in Christian territory, came into contact with travelers riding on animals that were brought into Muslim Spain from faraway lands. In addition to the creature’s deeply dipping neck, saucily upturned hooves, and gentle expression, there are faint yet distinctly Islamic motifs along the picture’s outer edges, all of which combine to offer visual testimony to Christian-Muslim mutual awareness and contact.
Islamic architectural elements, such as stepped crenellations, vegetal motifs, and the horseshoe arch, are also discernible on a hefty marble gravestone from Almeria, dating from the 12th century. These embellishments recall the exterior façade of the Great Mosque of Córdoba (the spiritual heart of al-Andalus) and include inscriptions professing the faith on the stele’s outer border, while inside the horseshoe-shaped arch is inscribed the beginning of a text praising God.
An ornate, leather-bound Hebrew Bible (which Jews in medieval Spain referred to as the “Sanctuary of God”) dating from before 1366, is one of the exhibition’s several precious religious texts. It bears decorative elements found in both Islamic and Christian manuscripts, which demonstrate medieval patrons’ and artists’ practice of alternating between visual languages. Almost perfectly intact and splendidly adorned, the Bible is powerful evidence of shared artistic tastes that transcended cultural and religious biases.
Also on show is an exquisite bifolium from the 13th-century Andalusian Pink Qur’an, so called after the hue of paper. Crisply executed calligraphy and extensive use of gold suggest that the Pink Qur’an was made for a royal or a noble patron, and it stands as a superb example of Islamic work within a Spanish context. Meanwhile, three illuminated manuscript leaves from the Beatus (of Liébana) manuscripts depicting the visions of Saint John the Divine (Book of Revelation) are beautiful testaments to the artistry and intellectual strength of monastic culture in that city. And two 10th and 11th century panels (which may have originally served as the covers of a sacred book), where a carved ivory Crucifixion scene is the central feature surrounded by glass, stone cabochons, and other decoration, are tours-de-force of medieval Spanish panel work, one of which contains a sapphire seal inscribed in Arabic with four of the 99 “Beautiful Names” of God.
On the other side of this deeply religious era was an equally lively secular life, and the exhibition includes a variety of small objects, many for private use, that enlarge our understanding and appreciation of medieval Spain’s creativity and practicality. An elephant ivory pyxis (box), lavishly adorned with diverse animals, is a splendid melding of European and Islamic carving technique. Whether a bronze 11th-century incense burner was meant for secular or religious use is unknown, but its imaginative design seems to outweigh such considerations. The image of battling soldiers on the boldly-colored coffret (box) showing the Legend of Guilhem, Count of Toulouse, on its lid and sides, are vibrant with life, and an otherwise quotidian object serves to commemorate a legendary figure.
“Spain, 1000-1200” offers a number of monumental objects in carved stone. But the imposing apse (the rounded eastern end of a church), painstakingly dismantled in 1957 from the ruined church of San Martin in the Spanish village of Fuentidueña and reconstructed in 1961 at the Cloisters as a permanent loan from the Spanish government, is arguably the exhibition’s most architecturally dramatic and spiritually moving object. (The exhibition includes a 28-minute documentary video chronicling this process.) Its thick, yellow jasper walls, with horseshoe arched, slit windows, rise to a barrel vault and culminate in a half-dome, engendering a solemn worship space. Subtle and softening Islamic patterning can be noted in the stonework around the window arches, which are also supported by columns surmounted by decorated capitals. In the dome is a fresco from the apse of another Spanish church, San Juan de Tredós, in the Catalonian Pyrenees, illustrating the Virgin and Child. This image of the enthroned Mother of God—majestic, remote, transcendent—embodies all that is understood by the Romanesque spirit and style.
Intelligently conceived and carefully organized, “Spain” is accessible and unencumbered by an excess of information. Bilingual wall labels enable Spanish-speaking visitors to engage fully with the stories behind the objects, and clearly designed maps provide the geographical context in which this period developed. That most of the objects in “Spain” belong to the Met is to our benefit, as they will stay in place once the exhibition has concluded, making it possible for us to visit them where they permanently live. But for the first time at the Met Cloisters, an exhibition has brought together an array of diverse works that speak to the complexity and beauty of Spanish art during a dynamic period when religious and cultural differences were exciting rather than frightening, and when art knew no boundaries.