The Medieval Review 10.05.04

Robinson, Cynthia and Simone Pinet, eds. Courting the Alhambra: Cross-Disciplinary Approaches to the Hall of Justice Ceilings . Leiden: Brill, 2008. Pp. vi, 264. . $117.00 ISBN 978 90 04 17342 2.

Reviewed by:

Pamela Patton
Southern Methodist University

The eight articles contained in Courting the Alhambra, a special issue of the interdisciplinary journal Medieval Encounters, shed welcome light on the culturally freighted ceiling paintings of the so-called "Hall of Justice" in the Alhambra. Painted on a ground of gesso-covered leather joined with bamboo and glued to the oblong vaults of the hall's three main spaces, the paintings present a diversity of figures, from a series of seated Muslim figures in the central vault to scenes of chivalry, hunting and courtly love in the lateral ones. Their combination of a painting technique drawn from the Islamic world with a stylistic and iconographic repertoire traditionally associated with European Christian culture has long provoked scholarly interest. So too has the seemingly chaotic layout of the figural groups, which have been understood as evoking contemporaneous chivalric literature but cannot easily be forced into a correspondingly narrative organization. The paintings thus have tended to be explained and taught--when indeed they are addressed at all--as an exemplary instance of artistic convivencia, in which Muslim artists attempted, more or less uncomprehendingly, to absorb and reproduce fundamentally Gothic visual models in a dynamic more or less paralleling the dependency of the Nasrid sultan upon an increasingly dominant Castilian state.

This model is much in need of review, and the paintings much in need of the attention that they are accorded in this collection. Their distinctive appearance and curious subject matter admit few parallels in the medieval world and raise important questions about how the artists, patrons, and viewers of medieval Iberia interacted, as well as how ideas and motifs originating in discrete religious cultures were exchanged or brought together. They also prompt questions about the relevance and accuracy of the models of cultural exchange that have pervaded scholarship on medieval Iberia. This point is emphasized in the editors' introduction, which critiques past scholarship on the paintings as shaped too heavily by the assumption that the perceived gap between their "Gothic" style and "Islamic" setting could only be bridged by a self-conscious borrowing between two essentially foreign cultures. The alternative proposed here, which is taken up in most of the subsequent articles, is a new model in which the paintings pertain to a more broadly universal visual culture that was drawn on by Muslims and Christians alike in late medieval Iberia. Such a perspective owes much to current trends in the scholarship on medieval Spain, which recently has shifted away from the temptingly reductive ideals encouraged by a popularized concept of Iberian convivencia and toward more attentively modulated studies of individual monuments as they relate to wider scholarly questions.

The present collection responds strongly to two earlier publications on the Alhambra paintings and their setting. The first, published by Jerrilyn D. Dodds in The Art Bulletin 61/2 (1979), 186-197, identified the courtly scenes of the lateral two vaults with French Gothic representations of Arthurian tales. These presumably were known to the Alhambra painter(s) through the migration to Granada of Gothic luxury objects, including several ivory caskets, that present comparable iconography. The more recent study, published by Juan Carlos Ruiz Souza in Al-Qantara 22 (2001), 77-120, offers a new and frankly hypothetical reading of the Palacio de los Leones, of which the Hall of Kings is a part, as a madrasa, the predominantly scholarly function of which opens the way to multiple new readings of the paintings' imagery. A near-unanimous interest in engaging the respective claims made in these two works threads strongly throughout the present collection, although the substance of the two scholars' arguments is never presented in full. The reader desirous of engaging fully with the arguments presented in this collection thus would be well advised to review the two earlier works in addition.

Most of the articles in the collection derive from papers presented in two sessions at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo in 2005. They mingle offerings by scholars in the history of art and the history of literature with one contribution by a historian. The collection opens with Cynthia Robinson's article, "Arthur in the Alhambra? Narrative and Nasrid Courtly Self-Fashioning in the Hall of Justice Ceiling Paintings." Robinson contests the traditional understanding of the imagery on the two lateral vaults as derived from French chivalric literature and imagery, arguing that it reflects instead specifically Iberian courtly variants of such tales such as Flores y Blancaflor and Tristán de Leonis. This claim has many layers, some more easily accepted than others. It seems logical indeed that the painters of the Alhambra ceilings were more likely to have encountered the tales in some Iberian form than in French ones, and certain details of the paintings, as they author shows, do seem to correlate best with Iberian texts. The style of the paintings, which resembles that of contemporaneous Castilian imagery as found in the Crónica Troyana (Escorial, MS H.1.6) and the castle-fortress of Alcañiz, likewise suggests an Iberian orientation. Yet by comparing the paintings almost exclusively with Iberian narrative texts rather than with Iberian narrative images (which admittedly are scarce), Robinson leaves open the question of their iconographic sources. It remains unclear, in the end, why the French ivories cited by Dodds might not have played a role in the paintings' development as well. More consequential is Robinson's proposition that the seeming illogic of the figures' presumed narrative relationships results not from a passive misunderstanding of an essentially foreign visual idiom, but from the deliberate adaptation of the imagery to the political and ideological priorities of the Muslim patron, whose agency in a project of this scale should, after all, be expected.

In "Painting Politics in the Alhambra," Ana Echevarría offers new historical evidence that favors Ruiz Souza's identification of the hall as a madrasa, allowing this more specific spatial function to facilitate her reexamination of the seated, turbaned figures that appear in the hall's central vault. Her close reading of these men, described in prior literature as everything from judges, sages, and literary figures to ancestral kings, permits their identification instead as the sultan's courtly companions, perhaps a reflection of the scholarly gatherings that would have taken place in a newly built madrasa. Arguing that historical circumstances would have rendered likely a somewhat later date for the paintings than ordinarily has been surmised, Echevarría reads the Order of the Band worn by two figures in the ensemble as still later additions added either by a sultan intent upon signaling his dynastic legitimacy or by Christians following their conquest of the Alhambra in 1492.

A substantial article by Rosa María Rodríguez Porto, "Courtliness and Its Trujumanes: Manufacturing Chivalric Imagery Across the Castilian-Grenadine Frontier," articulates with exceptional deliberateness an argument implicit throughout the collection: that the paintings of the "Hall of Justice" cannot be understood until the artificial boundaries created by terms such as "Gothic" and "Islamic" are replaced by modern acceptance of "a common concept and ideal of courtliness which was open to negotiation between al-Andalus and Castile" (68). In this light, she argues, the paintings can be seen as constituting a "translation" of a medieval courtly ideal that responded directly to a Castilian visual and literary counterpart. Her broadly interdisciplinary study frames analysis of works such as the Crónica Troyana, the stucco decorations of the Alcázar of Seville, and the virtually lost paintings of the Palace of the Partal in the Alhambra itself within the tightly enmeshed, complex relationships between Castilian and Nasrid rulers of the early to mid-fourteenth century. In doing so, she persuasively substantiates the model of an "Iberian courtly interculture" (264) that is consistent with recent scholarship by Ruiz Souza, Robinson, and others. As a backdrop to the sultan's interaction with his cultivated inner circle, the Alhambra paintings thus are understood both as presenting "formative elements of the courtly ethos" (255) and as a complex field for the negotiation of cultural identity.

Jerrilyn Dodds' "Hunting in the Borderlands" extends her 1979 study of the Alhambra paintings by examining how their images of the hunt express meanings intelligible to both Christian and Muslim viewers. While standing by her earlier linkage of the ceilings' chivalric motifs to Gothic visual sources, Dodds also finds in their images of the hunt a universally intelligible network of symbolic references to the military and feudal relationships between Muslim and Christian polities and their rulers. Citing the long, pan-Mediterranean history of hunting rights and imagery as expressive of medieval sovereignty and territorial control, she reads such motifs in the Alhambra, where victorious Muslim hunters frequently are juxtaposed with less successful Christians, as a defiant visual response to the realities of Castilian control over the vassal kingdom of the Nasrids. Such an argument offers an important reminder that even in a "courtly interculture," shared visual forms did not necessarily reflect shared ideologies.

"The Forested Frontier: Commentary in the Margins of the Alhambra Ceiling Paintings," by Jennifer Borland, explores the potential multivalencies of the fauna and flora that populate the hall's two lateral vaults, a highly diverse assortment including bees, hares, magpies, monkeys, and beavers, as well as various clearly identifiable plants. The author's contention that meanings drawn from both Christian and Islamic iconographic traditions would have enhanced their role within the paintings offers a widened potential understanding of their meaning while it mitigates the tendency to understand such "marginal" motifs as passively adopted ornamental forms. Borland's argument relies mainly on the evidence provided by Gothic bestiaries, arguably gaining popularity in Iberia at this time, whereas that offered by Islamic imagery, especially the richly symbolic, anthropomorphic beasts of Kalila wa-Dimna, receives comparably short shrift. This somewhat lopsided treatment complicates the subsequent effort to correlate the symbolic properties of the paintings' beasts with a specifically Muslim perspective consistent with their presumed scholarly setting.

An admirably substantive offering is made by Amanda Luyster's "Cross-Cultural Style in the Alhambra: Textiles, Identities, and Origins," which argues that the Alhambra paintings reflect their artists' encounter with the northern European figural textiles that were actively admired, imitated, and collected by both Christian and Muslim rulers in Iberia from the thirteenth century onward. Citing a shift in Andalusi trade patterns from the east-west trajectory of the earlier Middle Ages to a north-south engagement with Gothic Europe, Luyster cites documentary and material evidence of a Nasrid appetite for such works that places them within an Alhambra rich with movable, imported objets de luxe. Beyond identifying a potential visual source for the Alhambra paintings, Luyster argues persuasively that the paintings' visual resonances with luxury textiles, like the display of such textiles themselves in the Alhambra and elsewhere, served as expressions of the sultan's authority, sophistication, and international stature. In emphasizing the cultural agency of the Nasrids in this process, Luyster's argument plays smoothly into the broader agenda of the collection as a whole.

The collection ends with two offerings less directly focused on the Alhambra paintings than on the literature of their era. Simone Pinet's "Walk on the Wild Side" examines the motif of the Wild Man, who appears in one of the lateral ceilings of the Alhambra, as exemplary of the multivalency claimed repeatedly in the collection for the paintings' visual motifs. Her knowledgeable survey of the many roles played by the Wild Man in medieval Spanish literature does indeed offer a strong sense of its multivalency in this context. Yet the article ends without drawing the specific connections between these meanings and the visual models, whether Iberian or foreign, from which the Alhambra Wild Man was likely drawn, and without fully addressing the role of the Wild Man in Muslim visual and literary culture. A more marked disjunction between textual and visual affects Oscar Martín's "Allegories of Love: The Alhambra Ceilings and the Evolution of Sentimental Fiction," which argues that an understanding of the paintings as a form of political allegory, as posited earlier by Robinson, is enriched by its contrast to literary allegorical forms developed a century later. Martín's examination of such mid- to late fifteenth-century works as the Siervo libre de amor and the Cárcel de amor draws suggestive conclusions regarding the transformed role of allegory in Spanish literature of this period; however, it offers relatively few new claims regarding the paintings themselves.

One of the greatest challenges faced by those who study the Alhambra paintings is their sheer uniqueness. Whether inherently or by accident of survival, the paintings simply do not look much like anything else in the history of medieval Iberian art, or medieval art generally. This fact deprives medievalist scholars of one of their most valuable tools: the comparative context so critical to parsing a visual culture in which authority and tradition remained central to image-making and reception. As several authors in this collection themselves acknowledge, further material and documentary study will be needed to test and support the innovative arguments that have been made here. Yet even at this stage, the essays in Courting the Alhambra offer a valuable and timely contribution through their exposure of the Alhambra paintings to new and interdisciplinary scrutiny, as well as through their encouragement of a more flexible understanding of Iberian visual culture broadly conceived.