Spain, 1000-1200: Art at the Frontiers of Faith

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Crossing Lines

Spain, 1000-1200: Art at the Frontiers of Faith
The Met Cloisters, Fuentidueña Chapel Gallery, Gallery 2
Through January 30, 2022

Reviewed by Pamela A. Lewis

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 Cloister’s 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 both 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. Geopolitical frontiers were important points of contact and exchange, where artists and patrons of the Christian-ruled northern peninsula interacted with the cosmopolitan arts of southern, Muslim-ruled Spain (al-Andalus), and dramatic shifts in the balance of power between Christian and Muslim rulers resulted in the Muslims’ losing territory to the Christian kingdoms of the northern peninsula.

Yet this was not entirely a divisive age, as the 46 religious and secular objects attest, which are displayed in the austere Fuentidueña Chapel gallery, typically focused on Christian iconography, and which itself is included in the exhibition. The years encompassed by this show reflect the impressive diversity of Spanish art that resulted from a cultural intersection that transcended the frontier’s moving line.

The exhibition’s works (many of which are drawn from The Met collection, with some loans from other institutions), which include silk textiles, monumental sculptures, illuminated manuscripts, and fine metalwork, and which range in size from the Fuentidueña Apse itself to a wee, carved ivory chess piece, underscore the more nuanced story about the energetic frontier-crossing of artistic ideas during these roughly 200 years of the Iberian peninsula’s history.

Whereas cultural adaptation and appropriation are often met with criticism and hostility in our own time, these actions were accepted and cultivated, in such manner where Muslims incorporated in their own artwork the Romanesque style of Christian Western Europe they encountered.

The monastery church of San Baudelio de Berlanga, Spain, built in the late 11th century after the Christian-ruled kingdom of León and Castile seized the taifa (independent Muslim principalities of the Iberian peninsula) city of Toledo in 1085 and began organizing the lands south of the Duero River, stands as compelling example of an area where different traditions met, as seen in its architecture, exemplified by the Great Mosque of Córdoba, which was inspired by northern Christian church-building practices coupled with the Islamic architecture of al-Andalus. But the Christian-Muslim intersection is equally evident in one-dimensional works that were produced when San Baudelio underwent a makeover in the early 12th century by a workshop of painters from northeastern Spain who covered the monastery’s walls with frescoes. These images bear the distinctive traits of Romanesque and Byzantine art, and reveal their acquaintance with Islamic art.

From among these Baudelio frescoes (later transferred to canvas and part of the Met collection) dating from the first half of the 12th century are a pair of paintings depicting two 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 from these paintings, the Romanesque style is evident both in the treatment of the figures and their garments, and the almost cartoonlike, side-by-side scenes are at once presented with directness and restraint. These events do not occur sequentially in St. John’s Gospel; however, the artist has chosen to communicate the overarching themes of rebirth, redemption, and resistance to evil suasion.

Also from San Baudelio monastery is a fresco (later transferred to canvas) of a one-hump camel (dromedary), 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, notably North Africa. In addition to the creature’s deeply dipping neck, saucily upturned hooves, and gentle expression, there are on this work dating from the first half of the 12th century faint yet distinctly Islamic motifs along the picture’s outer edges. They all combine to offer a strong visual testimony to Christian-Muslim mutual awareness and contact.

Islamic architectural elements, such as stepped crenellations, vegetal motifs, and the horseshoe arch, are strongly discernible in a hefty marble gravestone from Almeria, Spain, 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, and, inside the horseshoe-shaped arch (an indigenous form that would be embraced by all faiths), 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 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 the practice of medieval patrons and artists to alternate between visual languages. Almost perfectly intact and splendidly adorned, the Bible is quiet yet powerful evidence of shared artistic tastes that transcend cultural and religious biases.

There is the exquisite Bifolium from the Andalusian Pink Qur’an, dating from the 13th century, so called after the hue of paper, and believed to have come from the town of Javita in southwest Valencia, reportedly the site of the earliest paper mill in Spain. The 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 manuscript.

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 strong intellectual milieu of monastic culture in that city. And the 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 media, 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 there are a variety of small objects, many for private use, which 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, almost come to life, and an otherwise quotidian object serves as a means to commemorate a legendary figure.

Spain, 1000-1200 offers a number of carved stone, monumental objects. But the imposing apse (the rounded eastern end of a church), painstakingly dismantled stone by stone in 1957 from the ruined Romanesque church of San Martin in the Spanish village of Fuentidueña, located about 75 miles north of Madrid, 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, opened up by 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. The large Spanish crucifix, hanging from the vault directly in front of the Virgin and Child, complements the Virgin and Child fresco, and dates from the second half of the 12th century. The figure of Christ, one of the finest surviving examples of Romanesque sculpture, wears the golden crown of the King of Heaven rather than the crown of thorns, and exudes a resigned and dignified acceptance of his suffering, while heightening the chapel’s mystic ambience.

Intelligently conceived and carefully organized, Spain, 1000-1200 is accessible and unencumbered by an excess of information. Bilingual wall labels enable Spanish-speaking visitors to fully engage with the stories behind the objects, and clearly designed maps provide the geographical context in which this period developed. That the majority of the objects in the exhibit 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.


Pamela A. Lewis is a member of Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, in New York City. She writes on topics of faith.


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