Arts of Spain & Portugal: Hispano-Islamic Art


Arab and Berber invaders overran Visigothic Spain in 711. Their Islamic faith altered the course of Spanish Culture. The literary, artistic and intellectual achievements of the Muslim courts were matched by splendors under the first caliphate centered in Córdoba beginning in 756 and then under the Nasrid kingdom of Granada (1238-1492). The collection of Islamic art from Spain in the Hispanic Society’s collection is the largest and most important outside of Europe.

The Hispanic Society’s carved ivory pyxis, produced for the Umayyad court at Madinat al-Zahra’, stands among the highest artistic achievements of Islamic Spain, and is one of only six with domed lids that survive. An Arabic inscription at the base of the lid includes the name of the artist, Khalaf, who signed other works from the caliphal court, one of which bears the date 966. The inscription also states that the container was intended for musk, camphor, and ambergris. Also from Madinat al-Zahra’ is an intricately carved marble capital that dates to the 960s, as well as another marble capital and column base of the mid-10th century, which are possibly from Córdoba. Other early works in marble include a large carved water basin or fountain of the 11th century, probably from Seville; and a group of 12th-century carved and dated tombstones from Almería, the finest made in the form of a mihrab dates from 1131.

Among the most prized works by Muslim artisans were fine silk textiles of which the Hispanic Society holds several important fragments from the 13th to 15th centuries, including one from a tunic (ca. 1270-1274) from the tomb of Infante Felipe in the church of María de la Blanca in Villalcázar de Sirga (Palencia). Another important textile is a goat-hair armorial carpet (ca. 1416-1458), made at Letur (Murcia) for María de Castilla, wife of King Alfonso V of Aragon. This rare armorial carpet imitates a mosaic floor of octagons with figurative and geometrical designs, incorporating five armorial shields that combine the blazons of Castile and León with that of Aragon, all framed in a border with pseudo-Kufic writing.


Towards the end of the Middle Ages the Nasrid stronghold of Granada emerged as a major center of artistic production in Spain. Among the great treasures at the Hispanic Society is the only known complete example of the textiles known as “Alhambra silks,” whose bands of intricate geometric patterns recall the tile mosaics of the Nasrid palace. The collection also possesses one of the original tiles from the Alhambra, as well as the vase neck from one of the monumental luster-decorated earthenware vases with wing-like handles made for the Nasrid court at Málaga in the 14th century. Originating from Granada, and possibly made for the Alhambra, is a fine marble capital (ca. 1350-1400), as well as a pair of large Nasrid-style carved cedar wood doors (14th century).

Muslims and Christians were joined in medieval Spain by a sizable Jewish population, which is represented in the Society’s holdings not only by two 15th-century Hebrew Bibles and a 14th-century Torah fragment, but also by ceramic tiles from the Synagogue of El Tránsito in Toledo. These tiles, with their Islamic interlace designs, are a testament to the cultural exchange that occurred between Jewish and Muslim communities in medieval Spain. The craftsmen at work on El Tránsito may well have been Muslims living under Christian rule in Toledo given that inscriptions throughout the monument appear in both Hebrew and Kufic Arabic script.


The borders between Muslim and Christian Spain were always fluid. Stylistically, an exchange occurred between the two artistic traditions with Islamic motifs passing into objects made for Christian patrons in a hybrid style known as Mudéjar. The term Mudéjar refers to Muslims who remained in Spanish territories conquered by Christians, but the word also is used to describe a distinct style developed by Muslim—as well as some Christian—craftsmen under Christian rule. Notable objects in the collection made by Mudéjar artisans include a group of ten carved wood corbels (13th-14th century) from Toledo; a large tin-glazed earthenware baptismal font (ca. 1400) from Toledo, one of only five that survive; and a small pair of 15th-century doors, imitative of Nasrid-style doors, originating from a parish church in Seville.

The tin-glazed lusterware produced at Manises near Valencia, Muel, and Catalonia shows the passing of Islamic influence into Christian Spain. Some examples from Manises from the late-14th century decorated with geometric interlace patterns, eight-pointed stars, and the tree of life emblem are almost purely Islamic in design, such as an exceptional bowl in the collection dating from the 1370s. This style gave way to different trends in pottery decoration later in the century, often combining Islamic designs with Gothic and Christian motifs as well as Spanish and Italian coats-of-arms, including that of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. Some wares featured floriated international Gothic patterns and Christian prayers, such as the plate in the collection inscribed “Ave Maria, Gratia Plena” (“Hail Mary, Full of Grace”). Other ceramics in the collection of Islamic influence include a large 15th-century earthenware jar glazed in green, black, and white made at Teruel (Aragon); and two large glazed-earthenware plates from Seville (ca. 1500) with cuerda seca decoration, one depicting a Renaissance-style dragon, and the other a harpy.