Art and Faith in Medieval Spain

From October 2021 by Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

“Spain, 1000–1200: Art at the Boundaries of Faith” mobilizes the Met’s exceptional artistic and architectural resources to reveal the cultural forms shared by the three monotheisms of the medieval Iberian Peninsula. These shapes complement each other and show the intertwined roots of these religious cultures. But the exhibition is not an easy claim convivencia; in fact, the word is completely absent here. Between 1000 and 1200 – although some of the exhibited objects are earlier or later than the period indicated in the exhibition title – European Christianity gained increasing importance. By the mid-13th century, the Romance style of Western Europe had suppressed the earlier precarious balance of common visual languages ​​across faith groups.

Pyxis (C.. 950-75), Cordoba. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The cloister is an ideal place to reveal this medieval Iberian dynamic. Overlooking the Hudson River in Fort Tryon Park, it hovers in the green above the teeming plains of New York. It was opened in 1938 and today comprises around seven medieval buildings – chapels, cloisters and halls. What is charming is the lack of cohesion between the parts, which allows visitors to meander and disappear.

“Spain, 1000–1200” is in the Chapel of San Martín de Fuentidueña from the late 12th century. The building was “saved” in the middle of the 20th century – that is, dismantled, transported across the Atlantic from Segovia and connected to the rest of the museum – and opened to the public in 1961 for concerts and performances. The fresco in the half-dome of the apse, transferred to canvas, comes from a church in Lleida in Catalonia. It shows the Virgin and Child in majesty and the adoration of the Magi. In front of it hangs a crucifix from the barrel vault that presides over the open space. Architectural sculptures from the outer walls of the original chapel have been added inside along with other Romanesque sculptures.

The apse of San Martín in Fuentidueña, Segovia, c.  1175-1200

The apse of San Martín in Fuentidueña, Segovia, c. 1175-1200

For the present exhibition, the chapel also temporarily contains several dozen small and portable objects that show how extensive the Met’s collection is: only two of the exhibits are on loan from another New York institution (the Jewish Theological Seminary Library). The exhibition provides a rich, distilled argument for the extraordinary qualities of objects traveling through and between the faiths of medieval Iberia – and for the increasing exclusivity of Christianity and Europe at the end of that period.

Art and architecture, the exhibition argues, were the fundamental means by which religion was asserted and researched among Christians, Jews and Muslims in Roman Iberia. Noteworthy for a medieval exhibit in North America, the architecture itself is an argument for how architectural and artistic styles mark the southern advance of the Christianizing frontier. The Chapel of San Martín has a Nordic-inspired vocabulary, heavy masonry and rounded arches, and Romanesque frescoes and stone carvings. Buildings and their decorations were part of the military occupation of the peninsula by Christianity. The chapel belonged to a fortress on a hill in Castile and its architectural forms and decorations are evidence of its Christian-European affiliation.

While the show makes convincing arguments for interreligious understanding and common cultural forms, the balance of communal diversity was obviously poor. And the objects weren’t immune to violence. The head of a statue of Saint Martin in the chapel was separated from her body and they were only reunited when the building was rebuilt. The head was found in a local’s home, although his journey here is unexplored. A headless figure also appears in the so-called lion relief, a painted sandstone sculpture from the Church of San Leonardo in Zamora, which is attached to the left wall of the chapel. The iconoclasm is a sub-theme that can still be perceived in the objects, but it remains unexplained.

If the framing space can be interpreted as a militarized imposition of the European Christian style and ideology, the objects put together by the curators make an excellent argument that the three monotheisms of the peninsula share a common architectural and visual language. One of the first things visitors see is a triad of objects whose architectural form is inextricably linked to the region: the horseshoe arch. It is a visual motif that is common to the sacred art of Jews, Christians and Muslims. ONE Commentary on the apocalypse from C.. 945 is open on a side depicting the heavenly Jerusalem. The 12 gates of the high city walls are horseshoe arches reminiscent of the facade of the Great Mosque of Cordoba. To the right of the manuscript is an Andalusian tombstone from the 12th century with writing outlined by a horseshoe arch; on the left a Hebrew Bible from Castile from the 14th edition and directly we see the horseshoe arch here not as a border, as the exhibition title suggests, but as a zone of contact and mutual understanding. Such complex objects on the floor run counter to conflicting claims about the historical framework of the chapel museum and its original militarized context.

Ivory box with scenes from the Book of Kings (8th – 10th centuries), Spain.

Ivory box with scenes from the Book of Kings (8th – 10th centuries), Spain. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

It is also worth pointing out the secular art on display, as these objects have overlapping zones that have not been religiously demarcated. For example, an ivory box (8th – 10th centuries) decorated with scenes from the Book of Kings shows the judgment of Solomon on a plaque and on the other side a palace reminiscent of Cordoba – this common motif of the horseshoe arch again. There is no clear declaration of affiliation, as Solomon is an important figure in all three religions. And a small ivory pyxis from Andalusia from the 10th century is covered with a paradisiacal scene of lions, gazelles and parrots, with the birds looming over the mammals incredibly large. One theme of the show is the pan-Mediterranean cosmopolitanism of the Iberian Peninsula, and this object demonstrates the scope of these cultures with its focus on the rare, exotic creatures of the east. They speak unmistakably here of wealth and worldliness, and the owners of the pyxis did not need any defining signs of their one god on it.

Spain, 1000–1200: Art at the Limits of Faith“Is at the Met Cloisters, New York until January 30, 2022.

From the October 2021 edition of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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