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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking

The Alhambra

Rain pool in a secluded courtyard deep within the Palace

Rain pool in a secluded courtyard deep within the Palace

It’s amazing how a space that would otherwise be a haven of tranquility can have its austerity ruined by ravening hordes of pasty coach-tourists. Its a fact of life that most of mankind’s greatest creations suffer this seasonal defacing – going to the Louvre means visiting only every non-art lover’s favourite painting (“my God, its teeny”), touring Italy means the obligatory stop in Piza to line up this shot.

The Ravening Hordes

The Ravening Hordes

Well the Alhambra suffers the same. The Alhambra and Granada would be just as far off the beaten tourist track as the rest of Spain, were it not for Washington Irving. Decades before the US civil war, the American diplomat found himself in Spain wandering around a forgotten gem and set about writing what became, in effect, its first promotional tourist brochure. Of course Mr Irving did much greater justice to the edifice than the Inquisition could hope to achieve:

“The great vestibule, or porch of the gate, is formed by an immense Arabian arch, of the horseshoe form, which springs to half the height of the tower. On the keystone of this arch is engraven a gigantic hand. Within the vestibule, on the keystone of the portal, is sculptured, in like manner, a gigantic key. Those who pretend to some knowledge of Mohammedan symbols, affirm that the hand is the emblem of doctrine; the five fingers designating the five principal commandments of the creed of Islam, fasting, pilgrimage, alms-giving, ablution, and war against infidels. The key, say they, is the emblem of the faith or of power; the key of Daoud or David, transmitted to the prophet.” Well that’s how he described the subject of this photo:

Arabic style gateway

Arabic style gateway

What the hell is it?

It was essentially the last Moorish Palace of the Nasrid rulers of Al-Andalus (Southern Spain) standing atop a gorge at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the city of Granada. It is broadly divided into the Alhambra complex and its gardens- the Generalife. The complex comprises many areas including the Alcazaba (citadel), Carlos V’s Palace, many shaded courts and gardens, fountains and towers, bath houses and pavilions. There are ruins on the site dating back to a Roman occupation.

Supremely detailed geometric plasterwork

Supremely detailed geometric plasterwork

More stunning examples of the same

More stunning examples of the same

The Alhambra was a refuge for the ruling class who saw the writing on the wall for the Moorish time in Iberia and a refuge for the artists and craftspeople in their employ. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella took the castle the same year they sent Columbus west. Later rulers, in turn, neglected and, even worse, added to the structures. Outstanding among these later “improvements” is Carlos V’s soulessly oppressive Renaissance-styled palace which dominates like a massive bullring:

Bullish Post-Renaissance Spanish architecture in an Arabic palace?

Bullish Post-Renaissance Spanish architecture in an Arabic palace?

Carlos V's palace again

Carlos V's palace again

And again

And again

There is a legend that Napoleon tried to destroy the entire complex, but this is probably a fabrication to demonise the little fellow. The restoration process began in the 1820s following an earthquake.

So its just a palace…

Well, yes, but it stands for much more. Besides being a reminder of a time when Islamic rule extended right into Europe, it is a fitting tribute to the Islamic academics of geometry and science that enabled the master craftsmen to create some of the most fantastic and largely abstract symbolic art. In fact, it is architecture as an art piece. The attention to detail and complexity throughout is so difficult to take in and comprehend that overall it creates an undisturbed visual rhythm. If you can see past the elderly ladies in cloth caps and luridly coloured shorts. It also happens to be a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Engraving by Gustav Doré

Engraving by Gustav Doré

Tales of the Alhambra, Washington Irving, 1832

This article was posted by on Saturday, February 28th, 2009 at 00:13.
It is archived in Art, Culture, Design, History, Myth and tagged .

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