Portion of a Visigothic sarcophagus, with scenes from the Bible
Enough about the Western Desert of Egypt! Let’s pull the sand out of our teeth, bid the mummies goodbye, and go to Toledo, Spain. You can eat pork, drink wine, and see some historic churches.
One of the most interesting is the Iglesia de San Román.
This church dates to the early 13th century, and like many buildings in town was built atop earlier structures. Before the church there was a mosque, and before that a Visigothic church. There may have been a Roman building before that. Its interior is in the Mudéjar style, a Moorish influenced architectural style that has continued in Spain until the modern day.
The mosque interior, showing the famous series of double arches. The column on the left has a Corinthian capital reused from a Roman building. The one of the right has a Moorish capital.
I am fortunate to live in a country that has preserved remains from a wide variety of civilizations. From Roman cities to medieval castles, Spain’s got it all. One culture that has left an enduring legacy on Spanish architecture, cuisine, and language is that of the Moors. For much of the Middle Ages, large portions of the Iberian Peninsula were ruled by Muslims from North Africa and the Levant, who built one of the country’s most beautiful buildings.
Invading Muslims took Córdoba, then a rather minor Visigothic city in southern Spain, in 711 AD. They destroyed most of it but spared the church, which was then divided and used as a house of worship for both faiths. The city languished until the arrival of Abd al-Rahman I in 756, who took power in Muslim Spain and made Córdoba his capital. In 784 AD he ordered a great mosque to be built on the site of the church. Later Muslim rulers expanded it until 1236, when Córdoba was recaptured by the Christians and the building was converted into La Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption).
The result is an amazing hybrid of various periods of Moorish and Christian architecture.
When we think of Italian art, we tend to think of Ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance, and forget the periods in between. Considering the achievements of those two high points of human civilization, that’s hardly surprising, but the Middle Ages contained the inspiration of Renaissance art, and much of that inspiration came from further east–from the Byzantine Empire.
Byzantium owned parts of Italy until 1071, and left a legacy of beautifully decorated churches and public buildings. These influences endured, and can be found in some of the most famous buildings and art collections of the Renaissance. This interesting article from Oxford University goes into greater depth about specific important influences.
Madrid is famous for its world-class art museums, but residents to this city know of many more, smaller museums that are also worth a look. Some, like the Museo Cerralbo that I covered in a previous post, are private collections in mansions-turned museums. Another of these is the Museo Lazaro Galdiano, which is the product of a wealthy collector of that name from the turn of the last century. His mansion in central Madrid is filled with more than 12,600 works of art.
Last week I blogged about the fantastic Basilica of San Vitale, in Ravenna, Italy. That’s only one of several fine examples of Late Antique art in the city and only one of eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites there.
Another is the Arian Baptistry, built by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great at the end of the 5th century. Theodoric was an Arian Christian, following a creed that believed that Christ was distinct from, and subordinate to, God the Father. This is because Christ did not always exist but was created by God the Father. More orthodox Christians at the time believed that Christ was both human and divine but was one and equal to God the Father. Theodoric had both types of Christians in his kingdom and to avoid trouble, kept them in separate neighborhoods with separate houses of worship
The apse dome of the Basilica of San Vitale shows Christ enthroned, and looking very much like a Byzantine emperor
I’ve been posting a lot lately about my recent trip to Italy. The high point of the trip for me, indeed the travel high point of the year, was visiting Ravenna.
Ravenna has the best collection of Late Antique church art in the world. As the Western Roman Empire crumbled, Ravenna became the refuge for the last emperors and acted as the capital from 402 to 476 AD. Unlike the more exposed city of Rome, Ravenna was protected on all sides by swamps and was also a base for the Roman navy, making it easy to defend. It eventually fell into Germanic hands but became Roman once again when it served as the Exarchate for the Byzantine Empire from 540 to 751 AD. The Exarch was the representative of the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople and ruled over portions of Italy. Ravenna has a rich collection of religious buildings constructed by the Romans, Christian Ostrogoths, and Byzantines.
The museum has a small but choice selection of Renaissance stained glass
Italy is full of medieval treasures. On a recent trip to Bologna, I got to visit the city’s medieval towers and numerous churches. I also made sure to visit the city’s celebrated Museo Civico Medievale. The museum is housed in the Palazzo Ghisilardi-Fava, a noble residence of the late 15th century built on Roman foundations.
Wandering through the museum’s spacious rooms and rambling hallways takes you past some incredible products of the Italian Middle Age and Renaissance, plus samples from other parts of Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Here are a few shots to give you an idea.
Mirror case, France, 1370-1400. Ivory. It depicts a love scene in a
garden where the happy couple hold a heart as cupids hover
overhead holding a shield and a hooded figure looks on.
One of Madrid’s leading private galleries is hosting a major exhibition on medieval art. The Pillars of Europe: Middle Ages in the British Museum brings together more than a hundred objects ranging from 400 to 1500 at CaixaForum’s Madrid branch.
The exhibition aims to show through objects and images how Europe transformed from the fragmentation after the fall of the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages and into the emerging nation states at the beginning of the Renaissance. An excellent map shows how borders shifted over the century, and a slideshow gives period depictions of Europe’s cities as they grew and became more prominent. The objects are grouped into four themes: Royal Power, Heavenly Treasures, Courtly Life, and Urban Life.
An hour’s train ride from Madrid is a small medieval town that’s often overlooked by international visitors. Cuenca has been an important town since the 8th century and has heaps of historic sights as well as natural beauty.
Located in rough hills and on a spur between the deep valleys of the Júcar and Huécar rivers, it’s a naturally defensible position and was fortified by the conquering Moors in 714. There is little remaining from the Islamic era because after it was conquered in 1177 by King Alfonso VIII, the city was extensively remodeled by him and several later monarchs.
King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are shrouded in myth. While stories of their deeds have been popular since the Middle Ages, there’s no hard evidence that they actually existed…
…except that the Round Table hangs in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle!
Well, not really. For centuries it was reputed to have been the genuine article, until archaeologists took it down in 1976 and using radiocarbon and tree ring dating found that it had been made in the 13th or early 14th century, long after King Arthur and his merry knights were supposed to have lived.
The dates vindicate historians’ long-held belief that the table was made by King Edward I (reigned 1272-1307) around the year 1290 to celebrate the betrothal of one of his daughters. Generally a tournament would be held on such an occasion, and since the chivalry of the day loved to hear stories of Arthurian romance and derring-do, a Round Table would be a fitting decoration. Places around the table are set with the names of Arthur and 24 of his famous knights such as Lancelot and Galahad. One wonders if Edward and his knights actually sat around the table for a feast, and which real-life knights were honored with which places.