Like so many other European churches, it’s built on the remains of an old pagan temple from the Roman times. The first Christian building on the site was founded by James I of Aragon (ruled 1213-1276) and donated to the Dominicans.
In the 15th century, the church was greatly refurbished, taking on a Gothic style and the addition of a rose window.
When I visited a couple of weeks ago, I barely noticed those medieval elements. They’re almost invisible next to the flamboyant Baroque frescoes covering the entire vault. Painted between 1690 and 1693 by Juan Pérez Castiel, these frescoes have been brilliantly restored in recent years.
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.
As I mentioned in my last post, I got to explore Florence for a few days, absorbing as much of the Italian Renaissance (and modern pizza) as I could.
So of course I went to the Uffizi Gallery, one of Italy’s most renowned museums. While I knew I would be seeing a treasure trove of Da Vincis and Caravaggios, I didn’t realize that portions of the building itself are a work of art.
Specifically, the ceilings of the upper Eastern Corridor. These are decorated with bright, lively frescoes painted by Alessandro Allori in 1580 and 1581. Each section is a different theme or subject such as military affairs or exploration, and taken together they act as a window into the thoughts and imagination of Florence in the late Renaissance.
My wife was giving a seminar at Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory in Florence last week and instead of staying home and writing like I probably should have, I decided to tag along. It was my fourth time in Italy and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Four days in Florence didn’t change that.
The birthplace of the Italian Renaissance is a visual overload of beauty, so much so that when I gave a talk yesterday on using setting in writing, I gave Florence as an example of a place that’s impossible to describe without having an intimate knowledge of it. The entire trip I suffered from Stendhal Syndrome, a condition named after the 19th century French author who fell into a swoon from all the beauty he was exposed to in Florence. It was impossible to take it all in.
The heads and hands of two apostles, c. 1519–20.
Black chalk with over-pounced underdrawing
with some white heightening.
One of the highlights of my regular stays in Oxford is visiting the Ashmolean Museum. With its fine collections of all periods, especially Medieval Europe and Ancient Egypt, it’s a place I and my family keep going back to. It also has excellent special exhibitions. I wrote up last summer’s exhibition on Underwater Archaeology for Black Gate, and this year we got to enjoy the treat of studying some little-seen drawings of an Italian Renaissance master.
Raphael: The Drawings brings together 120 rarely seen works by the Italian master, including 50 from the Ashmolean’s collection, the largest and most important group of Raphael drawings in the world. They came to the museum in 1845 following a public appeal to acquire them after the dispersal of the collection of the portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830), who had amassed an unrivalled collection of Old Master drawings. A further 25 works are on loan from the Albertina Museum in Vienna, which will show the exhibition in autumn 2017. The remaining drawings come from various international collections.
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.
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.
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.
In a previous post about Salamanca, Spain, I talked about Salamanca cathedral’s rich collection of Medieval and Renaissance art, inlcuding a splended retablo and some rare wall paintings. Like many cathedrals in this country, it also houses a small museum of some of its treasures. One of the most unusual items is the Altarpiece of the Virgin of the Milk.
It dates to the second half of the 16th century and was produced by an unknown artist. At its center is a breastfeeding Virgin, “La Virgen de la Leche,” part of a tradition of such depictions dating back to at least the 12th century. She is surrounded by other images detailing her Bible story and also related religious figures. Above is her Coronation. On the upper left is the Annunciation, and to the upper right the Archangel Gabriel. To the left is the Assumption of Mary, to the right the Birth and Adoration of Jesus.
It gets weirder in the lower register, with Saint Agatha on the lower left offering a plate of breasts to Saints Cosmas and Damien. On the lower right Saint Margaret rounds out the picture.