This is a work in progress initially prepared for a conference in September 2000 at VCU. The primary purpose here is to sketch the general outlines of the development of this unusual art in Spain and its subsequent transmission into the New World.
With the exception of a few diagrams and old photos from books and some images my brother has kindly made available - clearly identified in the captions - all of the following images are my own from on site fieldwork. These are now in the collection of the Inter-American Institute for Advanced Studies in Cultural History, and are available to scholars upon inquiry. Over the years I have also accumulated a number of images from works published long ago, now in the public domain. These images are often useful for studying buildings as they were before modernization, demolition, or other impediments to photography.
Scattering Seeds from the Garden of Allah
Mudejar Art and Architecture in the New World
For presentation at Virginia Commonwealth University, October 2000.
Revised 21 October 2000
As we are about to see, there are many examples of Mudejar art and
architecture in the New World in areas conquered and colonized by Spain. This
Mudejar style originated in Spain during the middle ages amid the long
political, military, and ideological struggle for domination of the Iberian
peninsula waged between Muslims and Christians that came to be called the Reconquista.
But to understand the full significance of the examples of this art form that
were created later in the New World, we must first begin our study in Spain at a
time after Roman Imperial authority in the West had disintegrated. Euric
the Visigoth became, by default, the first Germanic ruler of Hispania and Gaul
from 466-484, a time when there were no longer Imperial armies or officials in
Islam entered Spain in 711 AD and completed the
conquest of the Iberian Peninsula within a few years. The prophet Mohammed lived
from 570 to 632. His followers established themselves in Spain in what became Al Andalus
less than 100 years after his death. During those years, as a direct result of
his teachings, a new Islamic culture and civilization was being born of a
selectively synthetic process of appropriation, adaptation, and invention.
Islamic practice, which in the Arabian heartland replaced traditional tribal
forms of pagan idolatry, discouraged the depiction of the human form.
Consequently motifs derived from agriculture and abstract geometry became
important building blocks of Islamic art. In Spain Islam gradually assimilated
and transformed the remnants of late Christianized Roman civilization the
Visigoths had managed to preserve and mingle with their own heritage
Muslim political domination of the Iberian Peninsula reached its zenith by about 1000 AD. Abd Al-Rahman III (Caliph 929-961) is remembered as the greatest of the Caliphs who ruled from Cordoba, exercising temporal and spiritual leadership over what came to be called Al Andalus. A decline in centralized authority followed the reign of his son, al-Hakam II (961-976), eventually resulting in a brief period of local dynasties (1031-1086), known as the Taifa Kings. In their relaxed provincial courts there was a a taste for luxury and a flowering of the decorative arts. But like the contending Visigothic kingdoms that followed the gradual eclipse of Roman Imperial authority in Spain, the Taifa kings fought among themselves even as the Christian heirs of the Visigothic kings organized themselves with increasing unity of purpose to expel the Muslim “infidels.” The reign of the Taifa Kings ended with the arrival from North Africa of a new, more conservative dynasty, the Almoravids, who quickly established centralized rule of Islamic Spain from their capital at Marrakesh. Before long, however, their rule ended with the rise of Berbers from the southern Magrib led by the Almohads, who made Seville their seat of government in Spain after 1150 while holding Marrakesh in Africa. During their rule the centuries-long armed struggle between the Christians and the Muslims, called by the victors la Reconquista, intensified. One by one the great Muslim centers fell to the Christians. In 1212 the Almohads suffered a shattering defeat at Las Navas de Tolosa. Thereafter, by means of heavy tribute and subtle diplomacy, only Granada survived as a sovereign emirate.
Last among the Muslim rulers was Muhammad XII, Nasrid Emir of Granada, known to the Spanish as Boabdil. After a protracted siege he was finally forced to surrender and was expelled in January 1492 by the forces led by Isabella and Ferdinand, whose marriage in 1469 had united the crowns of Castile and Aragon. His departure marked the end of nearly eight hundred years of experiment and evolution in Islamic art and architecture in Spain, culminating in the exquisite refinement we may still appreciate in the justly famous Alhambra Palace in Granada, long the seat of Nasrid authority, and subsequently appropriated for a royal residence by Isabella and Ferdinand, and Charles V himself , who greatly admired its unique beauty and luxury.
The permeability of a seemingly hostile cultural
frontier is a fascinating phenomenon and a source of hopeful
optimism. That both the Muslim and Catholic combatants in the centuries-long
struggle for political, military, and spiritual control of Spain saw, across the
militarized frontier, elements in the other’s civilization worthy of
appropriation and experimentation demonstrates a fundamental and transcendent
capacity for appreciation and admiration of beauty, dignity, and achievement.
Moreover, that the appropriated elements went on to enter and enjoy enduring
lives within the form culture of the appropriators on both sides, even after the
final expulsion of the Muslims from Spain, is further evidence that even the
most bitter conflicts can produce lasting positive cultural outcomes that enrich
the lives of the survivors, victors and vanquished. Yet even as this process of
Hispano-Muslim cultural transmission and transformation continued in the Iberian
peninsula its fruits were suddenly introduced into another, totally new arena on
the far side of the Ocean Sea, the pristine New World of Mesoamerica, where
other elements were introduced into an already complex calculus.
The permeability of a seemingly hostile cultural frontier is a fascinating phenomenon and a source of hopeful optimism. That both the Muslim and Catholic combatants in the centuries-long struggle for political, military, and spiritual control of Spain saw, across the militarized frontier, elements in the other’s civilization worthy of appropriation and experimentation demonstrates a fundamental and transcendent capacity for appreciation and admiration of beauty, dignity, and achievement. Moreover, that the appropriated elements went on to enter and enjoy enduring lives within the form culture of the appropriators on both sides, even after the final expulsion of the Muslims from Spain, is further evidence that even the most bitter conflicts can produce lasting positive cultural outcomes that enrich the lives of the survivors, victors and vanquished. Yet even as this process of Hispano-Muslim cultural transmission and transformation continued in the Iberian peninsula its fruits were suddenly introduced into another, totally new arena on the far side of the Ocean Sea, the pristine New World of Mesoamerica, where other elements were introduced into an already complex calculus.
Born on the winds of war and conquest that swept into the New World with the Spanish invasion, indeed even as Islamic art had first entered into Spain itself, Muslim form culture in the service of Christian evangelists soon became deeply rooted in the new civilization being hammered out by Nahua, Mixtec, Zapotec and other indigenous peoples now living under Spanish rule.
In what follows we will briefly review some important examples of Islamic court art and architecture in Cordoba, Zaragossa, Seville, and Granada as a basis for comparison with what was produced when Islamic art and artisans began to serve Jewish and Christian patrons in Spain and eventually in the New World. We will see how Islamic forms of sculptural surface ornament appealed to and were used by Jews in creating two famous synagogues in Toledo. Other images will show Islamic art serving Christian courts and patrons in the remarkable towers of Teruel, a royal residence and in a hospital in Toledo; a university and funerary chapel in Alcala de Henares built by and for Cardinal Cisneros, the Queen’s confessor and sometime regent of Spain; the Church of San Nicolas in Cordoba; and the fabulous Casa de Pilatos in Seville. With these in mind we will set off to the New World, where, as we will see, seeds from the garden of Allah fell on fertile ground indeed.
Defining “Mudejar” in Society and in the Arts
Following the successful Muslim invasion of Spain in 711, most of the peninsula quickly came under Islamic rule. Many former Christians converted to Islam either willingly or forcibly. Following the apogee of Islamic political authority under the Caliphate of Cordoba, the Christian leaders of the northern kingdoms, never conquered by the Muslims, began to assert themselves as the Islamic state began to disintegrate. The process by which the Christian kings sought to regain control of the peninsula was called the Reconquest, or Reconquista, which continued, with ebbs and flows, from the 11th century until the eventual fall of Granada in 1492.
As the Reconquest gradually advanced the Christian frontier after the fall of Toledo to Christian armies in 1085, Muslim communities could either flee or remain under Christian political authority. Many thousands fled, but some chose to remain behind. Of course, many, if not most, of these Muslims who stayed behind were descendents of the Christian pre-Islamic inhabitants of Spain, Ibero-Roman and Visigothic. In consideration of the payment of a poll-tax they were permitted to remain and continued to practice their religion and traditional lifeways, although many began to use Spanish rather than Arabic after the 13th century. However, they used Arabic script when writing Spanish, giving rise to their distinctive aljamaido literature. These Muslim people then, of mostly pre-Islamic Iberian heritage, were called Mudejars from the Arabic mudajjan, “permitted to remain.” They lived within a Christian state as a protected minority in distinct neighborhoods under Muslim law administered by local Muslim authorities appointed by the Christian rulers. They continued to work as artisanal carpenters, masons, and stucco artists often serving Christian and even Jewish patrons. The distinctively “Moorish” or Islamic style in which these artisans continued to work, even when serving Christian and Jewish patrons, came, like them, to be called Mudejar.
After 1492 their living conditions began to change as the Christian regime of a newly unified and victorious Spain became increasingly intolerant of the Jewish and Muslim religious minorities among them. The surviving Muslims came to be called Moriscos, or Little Moors, or Cristianos nuevos, new Christians. Forced conversions to Christianity began in Castile in 1502, and in Aragon in 1526. Under increasingly hostile pressure the remaining Muslims along with many of those forcibly converted were finally expelled from Spanish territory in 1614. In all it is estimated that some 3,000,000 Spanish Muslims were forced to leave Spain. But the taste for Mudejar art remained, and it continued to be produced, in spite of the expulsions, to satisfy the lingering demand.
Characteristic Architectural Elements:
Characteristic Ornamental Features:
466 End of Roman Imperial authority
589-711 Visigothic Christian Kingdoms
711-756 Umayyad Governors
756-929 Umayyad Emirate
929-1031 Umayyad Caliphate
1031-1086 Taifa Kingdoms
1088-1232 Berber Dynasties,
1238-1492 Nasrid Emirate
1492-1518 Discovery of "New World" and Caribbean exploration
1518-24 Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, colonization thereafter
1528-34 Discovery and Conquest of Peru, colonization thereafter
I reserve all rights to the following images. They are provided free of charge for educational purposes here, and may be freely accessed for viewing within the context of this website for educational purposes. However, these images are protected by copyright law and may not be copied for any purpose by any means without prior permission. The original slides, or high resolution scans via e-mail are available for academic use to interested scholars upon inquiry at
A complete set of these images, either as slide duplicates or scans of the original images together with metadata in spreadsheet format, is also available, for a fee, to accredited institutions for on campus educational use. See also the listings for other images of Islamic Art and Architecture posted in the Digital Image and Slide Catalogues section of this website. Use the navigation button above on the left to go to the catalogues and galleries.
You may click on any of the thumbnails below to see them full size, use the Back button on your browser to return to thumbnail.
Islamic Art and Architecture in Spain
When we look at examples of Islamic art and architecture in Spain, it is important to remember that at the time of the Muslim conquest of Spain, in 711, only 92 years after the death of the Prophet, Islamic civilization was still in its infancy, even in the Arabian heartland. Islamic form culture was still being invented throughout the Islamic world, drawing synthetically on surviving visible examples of the preceding high cultures. In many cases newly constructed Islamic monuments appropriated and physically incorporated actual architectural elements from previous civilizations. The use of columns and even capitals from Roman buildings is a recurring example of this phenomenon often seen in Spain and elsewhere. These appropriated elements were not, however, used to re-create a style of the past, but rather they were integrated into buildings serving new functions and new tastes in a new style born of experiment and the teachings of the Prophet.
Islam entered Spain under the authority of the Umayyad governors who remained in authority until the overthrow of the Umayyad Caliphate in Damascus in 756. Thereafter, the sole survivor of the Umayyad dynasty made his way to Spain where he declared himself Emir Abd al-Rahman I in Cordoba. The great Mosque of Cordoba was begun under his patronage. The court art of the Umayyad Emirate was flavored by a nostalgia for the lost glories of Damascus and the middle eastern heartland of Islam. When, in 929, Abd al-Rahman III proclaimed himself Caliph of Cordoba, this nostalgia blossomed in extensive official patronage of the arts, including the construction under Abd al-Rahman III of the palatine city of Madinat al Zahra and enlargement and embellishment of the great Mosque of Cordoba under his rule and that of his son, al-Hakam II.
Cordoba, Madinat al Zahra
This palace city was built by Abd al-Rahman III after 929. It did not survive the violent uprisings of 1010 at the end of the Caliphate when it was destroyed and plundered. What we see today is an archaeological reconstruction from the surviving fragments.
Cordoba, The Great Mosque
The great Mosque of Cordoba was begun by Abd al-Rahman I and subsequently enlarged by his successors, most notably Abd al-Rahman III in 951, his son al-Hakam II after 962, and finally, in 987, by Al-Mansur, regent of the child king Hisham II, last of the Umayyads. In 997, under Al-Mansur's reign, the great Christian pilgrimage center of Santiago de Compostela in the north was plundered and burned. The bronze church bells were carried hundreds of miles on the backs of Christian slaves to Cordoba where they were hung from the ceilings as lamps. At the order of Al-Mansur, Christian slaves worked in chains on the final expansion of the Great Mosque. Cordoba fell to the Christian King Fernando III, June 29, 1236. Not long after that the Christian Capilla real was constructed within the former mosque in the Mudejar style. The bells of Santiago were returned to their church, long since rebuilt, on the backs of Muslim prisoners.
[The preceding images of the Aljaferia in Saragossa, protected by copy right law, belong to Dr. Clifford A. Kiracofe, Jr. and are reproduced here by his kind permission.]
Following the collapse of the Caliphate centralized political control disintegrated into a struggle among contending local dynasties based in some of the larger cities of Muslim Spain, including Saragossa, Malaga, Almeria, and Seville, among others. Rather than a decent into artistic degeneration, it now seems that the period of the Taifa Kings was a time of great patronage, experimentation and evolution. The most intact surviving example of court architecture from this period may be seen at Saragossa at the Aljaferia where the fantastic interweaving arches move away from purely structural elements. References to the court art of the Caliphate are evident but not limiting in this new permutation. Though much altered over the centuries, the original Islamic construction began about 1050. In 1118 Saragossa fell to the Christians under Alfonso I, the Battler, and the Aljaferia became a luxurious royal residence much appreciated by the new rulers.
Following the collapse of the Caliphate of Cordoba, the Alcazar of Seville became the seat of a local Taifa dynasty until the the Berber Almohad dynasty made it one of their administrative centers after 1147. The Patio del Yeso dates from their occupation. In 1248 Seville fell to Fernando III of Castile, and remained thereafter in Christian hands. The Alcazar of Seville remains to this day a royal residence for the Kings of Spain, as it has since Fernando took it from the Muslims. That it has retained its distinctively Islamic appearance is an indication of how much the Christian kings have admired and respected the art and architecture of their Almohad predecessors. Much of the later remodeling by Christian kings was done in the Mudejar style, even to the extent that Pedro the Cruel's name was worked into stylized Arabic caligraphic carvings in the plaster work in one area.
Seville, La Giralda and Mosque
The Mosque of Seville was built between 1172 and 1176 under the patronage of the second Caliph of the Almohad dynasty, Abu Yaqub Yusuf, (1139-1184) who made Seville his official residence in Al-Andalus. The bell tower of the current Cathedral once served as the minaret for the mosque. A fragment of the mosque may be seen in the walls of the patio.
Granada, The Alhambra
The fabulous palace-city of the Alhambra in Granada was the culmination of refinement of the Islamic arts in Spain. Under the Nasrid Emir Muhammad II (1273-1302) work on the palace began. Substantial renovations were undertaken by Yusuf I (1333-54) and his son Muhammad V (r. 1354-91). It is to them that we owe much of what we see today. After their time military pressure from the Christian kings prevented further expansion or embellishment of the palace. When Isabella and Ferdinand took Granada from Muhammad XII in 1492 they were well aware of what a rich treasure they had in the Alhambra. It became a royal residence and they immediately took steps to preserve its beauty and see to its future safety.
Mozarabic Art and Architecture in Spain
Generally the term Mozarab
was used by the Arabic speaking Islamic invaders to refer to the people of the
Iberian peninsula who fell under their power. Some of the Spanish converted to
Islam and some did not. Each group had their own reasons for their decisions:
for those who converted there was the promise of manumission from slavery,
exemption from taxes, and recognition of citizenship, for those who remained
Christian there was a harder path, but one guided by their steadfast faith in
the face of growing adversity. The conquerring Arabs called those newly
converted Musalima, or new Muslims. Those Spaniards born of converted
parents were known as Muwalladun.
and Jews alike were referred to as "foreigners" generally, without, in
the beginning, distinction between the religions. The Christians, both
Hispano-Romans and Goths, came later to be known as "confederate" or
Christian elements survived the invasion and contributed, with the Jews, to the
richness of the new Islamic Iberian civilization brought into being by the
invaders. Three Christian religious centers continued as metropolitan sees:
Toledo, the last Visigothic capital, Seville and Mérida, together with 18
bishoprics. These were permitted to continue functioning and the built
facilities, including churches, monasteries and Cathedrals, could be maintained
but not expanded. Much of the Christian religious infrastructure was eventually
destroyed or converted to Muslim use.
But in the areas where Mozarabic Christians, or Christians living under Moslem rule, persisted, they lived apart in their own juridical, municipal and religious system, though increasingly sharing other conventions of dress, language, craft, aesthetic and custom with their Islamic rulers. As the Reconquista progressed, lead by the Christian kings of the north, Arabized Christian Spaniards of Hispano-Roman or Gothic descent from the center and south of the peninsula migrated north to settle in areas of Christian rule, eventually permeating areas never or only briefly under Moslem rule. With the fall of Toledo to the Christians in 1085 the Mozarabic period came to a close.
San Miguel de Escalada, seen above, was built in two phases, the first begining in 913, the second, which added the the porch, after 940. The first phase was a deliberate attempt by Christian refugees from the Muslim South to re-create in the safety of the Christian North the liturgical environment of the pre-Islamic Hispano-Visigothic Church. The second phase, built after a period of safety and movement from refugee status to integration within a larger Christian community, seems to echo, perhaps nostalgically, elements to which they had long been exposed in the Muslimn South.
Mudejar Art and Architecture in Spain
Toledo: Santa Maria La Blanca Synagogue
This was once the principal synagogue of Toledo, rebuilt in 1250 on the site of an earlier structure. The octagonal brick columns, rendered in plaster are characteristic of Mudejar building technique. The use of the ultra-semicurcular arcade is another attribute of Mudejar taste. The capitals using vegetal ornament, in this case pine cones, again shows how ornamental strategies often seen in Islamic buildings can serve here in a Jewish temple to add beauty that does not conflict with ideological boundries. The use of the multilobular blind arcade above is another example of how ornamental elements commonly found in Islamic buildings of Al-Andalus could be incorporated prominently in a Jewish building. Even though this building has clear similarities with the hypostyle mosque construction of Muslim Spain and North Africa, it nevertheless was built, almost certainly by Muslim artisans, to serve a vibrant Jewish community as a place of worship, no doubt in accordance with their functional and ornamental program. After the forced expulsion of the Jews, the building was later used for centuries as a Christian Church.
Toledo: El Transito Synagogue
This synagogue was built in 1357 under the direct patronage of Simon Ha-Levi, who was Treasurer of King Pedro the Cruel. The king later executed his treasurer. Nevertheless, there are inscriptions in Hebrew glorifying God, King Pedro, and Simon Ha-Levi. There are also some in Arabic. The exterior of the building shows a mixed stone and brick construction, often seen in Muslim buildings in Spain. The elaborately worked gesso, or plaster, ornamented with stylized caligraphic inscriptions and floral and geometric motifs is typical of Islamic art of Al-Andalus, as we have already seen. At one time these plaster walls were painted in brilliant colors, and with their lush patterns resembled the fabulously luxurious textiles produced in Al-Andalus. This kind of elaborate surface ornamentation became typical of Mudejar art, or the art of Muslim tradesmen working for Christian and Jewish patrons.
Teruel: San Martin
Teuel was already an ancient city when the Muslims occupied it in the eighth century. Many of them remained after the Christian reconquest of the city in 1171 by Alfonso II, King of Aragon. The Christian churches that began to be built by local Mudejar artisans continued to articulate the architectural idiom of Islamic Spain. Constructed 1315-16, later stabilized with stone base in 1549-51, the tower of San Martin presents an excellent example of the use of fired brick and glazed ceramics in repeating geometrical patterns typical of the Mudejar style.
Teruel, Cathedral, San Pedro, El Salvador
The tower of the cathedral was the first built in the town in 1257-58. San Pedro was built between 1319 and 1392. The interlocking geometric pattern in low relief fired brick work is a typical feature of the Mudejar style. The tower of El Salvador is believed to be contemproaneous or slightly later than San Martin, and was restored most recently in 1993.
The preceding images of Teruel, protected by copy right law, belong to Dr. Clifford A. Kiracofe, Jr. and are reproduced here by his kind permission.
Toledo: San Juan de Los Reyes
Although this monastery was begun by order of the Catholic Kings in 1476 to commemorate their victory over the Portuguese at Toro, the Mudejar atesonado ceilings are part of the Plateresque upper gallery of the cloister built after 1504. This monastery, built under direct royal patronage, was often used as residence by the monarchs. That it included such a striking example of the Mudejar style in an area frequented by the Catholic rulers demonstrates their appreciation of this distinctly Spanish art form, even though its origins were in the Islamic past.
Toledo: Hospital de Santa Cruz
Begun by the Archbishop of Toledo and completed by Queen Isabel, designed by the architects Enrique Egas and Covarrubias, this product of ecclesiastic and royal patronage features prominently a splendid Mudejar artesonado ceiling in the main hall, and a Renaissance permutation in the exquisite artesonado cofferred ceiling in second level of the patio. Both of these ceiling types were built in the New World, and the examples below will illustrate.
Alcala de Henares: San Ildefonso Chapel
This late 15th century chapel houses the tomb of Cardinal Cisneros, confessor to Queen Isabel, sometime Regent of Spain, and most powerful Spanish ecclesiastic of his time. He founded the famous University of Alcala in 1498. That his mortuary chapel is in such a clearly Mudejar style demonstrates, again, how much this art form, born in Islamic Spain, was admired, appreciated, and perpetuated by the highest Catholic Christian officials of the realm.
Alcala de Henares: University
The polychromed wooden artesonado ceiling of the Paraninfo, a ceremonial hall in the University of Alcala, was executed circa 1550. We will see below a similar interlocking geometrical pattern of clearly Islamic inspiration executed, more or less contemporaneously, in fresco in Mexico in the porteria at Atlatlauca, Morelos.
Madrid, Museum of Archaeology
Cordoba: San Nicolas
Seville: Casa de Pilatos
Mudejar Art and Architecture in Mexico
Santa Fe de La Laguna
San Nicolas Obisbo
Tzin Tzun Tzan
Cuilapan, Casa de Cortes
Mudejar Art and Architecture in Peru
Cusco, Santo Domingo
Cusco, House with Mudejar Balcony
Andahuaylillas, Cusco Valley