The Mudejar Influence
“The what influence?” I hear you say. Is that an anagram or something? Well actually, no, Mudejar was the name given to Arabs, or Moors, living under Christian rule in mainland Spain during the Middle Ages.
The next question is how to pronounce the word. For us English our first attempt will probably sound something like ‘muddy jar’, which of course it isn’t. ‘Mu’ is pronounced ‘moo’ as in a cow, ‘de’ as in deck, and ‘jar’ as in ‘char’, where the ‘ch’ is pronounced as in a Scottish loch.
For the origin of the name we have to go back centuries into Spain’s history. After the eruption of Islam in the 7th century A.D., the Moors, as the Arabs were called then, invaded Spain in 711 and conquered much of the peninsular, bringing with them an alien civilisation and a high culture that included among other things, ornamental gardens, pools and fountains, and, more practically, a revolutionary system of agriculture with innovations such as new food crops and waterwheels to provide irrigation.
However, nothing lasts for ever; the ruling Moors were defeated and driven out of Spain in 1492. But although they had been defeated and subdued, the influence of the Moors, or Mudejars, remained, one of the most obviously oriental influences being their architecture. The fashion for Mudejar had begun much earlier, during the 14th century under Peter I of Spain, also known as Peter the Cruel, who did not in fact rule all of the peninsular, and who reigned from 1350 to 1369. He reconstructed the Alcazar in Seville in the architectural style of an Arabian palace.
The Spanish Renaissance can be said to have begun in that eventful year of 1492, when the Moors were defeated and Columbus ‘discovered’ the New World. (Interestingly, the last sight Columbus had of the ‘old world’ was Gomera.) After the conquest of the Canary Islands during the 15th century, which ended with the defeat of the Guanches of Tenerife in 1495, the Mudejar architecture was brought to the archipelago, along with all things Spanish.
In my collection of books about Tenerife there is one called ‘Canaries – A Thematic Encyclopedia,’ published by the newspaper ‘El Dia’ in 1995, and it’s well worth reading if you can find it. In the Art section, under ‘Mudejar,’ it lists four features that can still be seen today:
This curious word is the name for an artistic technique in which two layers of differently coloured plaster and sand are applied to the walls of a building. Scratches are then made through the top layer to make a pattern which is shown by the colour of the layer beneath. There is an example of this below the eaves of the church of San Augustin in La Orotava. I wonder why it didn’t catch on in England, say in East Anglia where the timber-framed buildings are coated with coloured render.
‘Twin Arched Windows’
A misleading name this one, implying either two windows side by side, each with an arched lintel over, or one window with two arched lintels, but in fact the term refers to high-level, projecting latticed windows with shutters, on sills or window seats supported by stepped timber corbels, or brackets, in two stages (the twin arches).
The purpose of these windows in Moorish communities, where women were kept away from the public eye, was to allow them to look out onto the street below without being seen.
The most noticeable and perhaps the best surviving example in Tenerife is in La Laguna, at one corner of the enclosing wall of the Convent of Santa Catalina, high above the junction between the streets of Calle Viana and Calle Obispo Rey Redondo (formerly La Carrera), from where the nuns have their only view of the outside world.
Again this is not the most accurate name for this defensive feature. The spiked, upright timber palisades that surround the chapel of San Telmo in Puerto de la Cruz and the tiny little gun battery of San Fernando at La Rambla de Castro are more legacies from the Mudejars. They would have been effective against sword and lance and spear thrusts in warfare of the Middle Ages, but not much of a defence against gunfire and certainly not against cannon-fire. In the end the palisades were probably more of a status symbol, perhaps the equivalent of garden fence to demarcate private property.
Coffered ceilings are intricate, multiple-angled, multiple-panelled wooden ceilings. In churches they are often breath-taking, very ornately carved and sometimes gilded, while in the grand houses of the 17th and early 18th century, although they have the same structure, they are usually less elaborately decorated.
Houses such as the House of Balconies, and at the Museo del Alfombrista next door, which is the fascinating ‘House of Carpets’ (the sand carpets and flower carpets that can be seen in the streets at certain times of the year), at La Orotava, are good examples.
The Mudejar influence on Spanish architecture is only one of many artistic and scientific benefits that were brought to the west. As a small example, how many people know that the numbers we use every day are actually Arabic?
But what strikes me about all this is that the open-minded and harmonious cross-fertilisation of ideas between radically different cultures, particularly the presence of Islamic ideas in Christian churches, could teach us a lesson and could do with being spread around the trouble-torn world that we live in.