17 August 2016

The Arts: Mozarabic Manuscript Illumination

Musicians from a Beatus of Liébana ms. from the first half of the tenth
century. Wikimedia Commons 

The complexity of the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages has led to many different terms to refer to the distinct sectors of its multireligious, multicultural society. “Mozarabic” originally referred to the Christians who were allowed to continue practicing their faith under Muslim government, and later expanded to include the Iberian Christians who lived outside those territories as well. The time frame remains strict: it describes Moorish political dominance, from the seventh through the eleventh centuries.

Christ in Majesty from a Moralia in Job completed in
Valeranica, 945.  Wikimedia Commons 
This time frame sets the characters from my Seven Noble Knights, which takes place in 974 and 990, squarely within the Mozarabic culture. I’m fascinated with the distinctive art of this culture because it’s the aesthetic my characters would have been surrounded by.

From a Beatus of Liébana completed in Osma.
Wikimedia Commons 
In the most abundant type of art, manuscript illumination, bright colors, almond-shaped eyes, elongated hands, and disregard for realism are the characteristics that most stand out for me. Perhaps the colors, bright enough to burn modern eyes, are the result of dim lighting in buildings with small windows. The lack of realism may have come about in part because the most popular work of literature at the time was a commentary on the Apocalypse, with all its fantastic creatures and events, by a monk called Beatus of Liébana.

The Monastery "de Suso" at San Millán de la Cogolla is a
rare example of Mozarabic architecture. Jessica Knauss 
It’s assumed that the driving force of Mozarabic art is a blending of older, revered Visigothic styles with adaptations from Arabic sources. However, it’s hard to trace the continuance of Visigothic style due to a general lack of surviving Visigothic sources. Much important architecture constructed during the Visigothic and Mozarabic periods no longer exists because in later generations it was demolished to make way for new styles. Although the Arabic inspirations in Mozarabic art are more obvious, they’re not easy to interpret. Some see a criticism of these borrowings embedded in the borrowings themselves because of the frontier nature of this art and the antagonism between the religions. Others prefer to think Mozarabic artists admired Arabic styles for their elegance as much as they admired Visigothic styles for their heritage.

The Ark of the Covenant in the San Isidoro Bible, 960.
Wikimedia Commons 
In The Art of Medieval Spain, O. K. Werkmeister illustrates that the Mozarabic attitude toward Arabic art sources seems to reflect the current state of the prolonged conflict. These monks were often working on the front lines and witnessed skirmishes and battles firsthand. The San Isidoro Bible of 960 illustrates Philistines riding in a style probably copied from Islamic art. In this way, the Bible story of intense fighting against frightening enemies became an allegory for the conflict the monks and lay people saw all around them.

From the Beatus of Liébana of Girona, 975.
Wikimedia Commons 
Fifty years later, the attitude seems to have flipped. A decorative casket Caliph Hisham II gave to his Sword of the Realm as part of a reward for conquering León was looted in a raid and brought back to a Christian church to serve as a reliquary for the bones of two Mozarabic martyrs. This reappropriation is the ultimate form of adaptation from Arabic sources. The casket could only be accepted as Christian at this exact moment in history, when the Caliphate of Córdoba was in decay and the enemy forces didn’t seem as threatening as before.

The Whore of Babylon in the Girona Beatus.
Wikimedia Commons 
Unique among European manuscript illumination of this period, the frontier monks nearly always left detailed colophons signing their work and stating the reasons and patrons for which it was made. Such signatures likely imitated the way artists claimed their work in the Muslim-governed territories, where artists had considerable social standing. It seems reasonable that the Mozarabic monks had similar artistic and cultural aspirations. Historians thank them for leaving such accurately self-conscious records.

From "Facundus" ms. of Fernando I and Sancha of Castile,
mid-eleventh century. Wikimedia Commons 
The Mozarabic monastic tradition wouldn’t last long after the rise of the Romanesque artistic style. The only example of work attempting to bridge the styles or to absorb Mozarabic sensibilities into international Romanesque are the manuscripts patronized by Fernando I and Sancha of Castile in the mid-eleventh century. For me, these manuscripts happily combine the old surrealism with a new, more complex control of contours. But there were no monastic centers that could juggle the two styles for long.

Noah's ark, painted in Urgell. Wikimedia Commons 
Nevertheless, Mozarabic art was no flash in the pan. Something essential about it, perhaps its severity or its emotional impact, has remained in Spanish art. Many commentators draw a straight line between the San Isidoro Bible of 960 and Picasso’s Guernica.


Jessica Knauss earned her PhD in medieval Spanish with a dissertation on the portrayal of Alfonso X’s laws in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, which has been published as the five-star-rated Law and Order in Medieval Spain. A driven fiction writer, Jessica Knauss has edited many fine historical novels and is a bilingual freelance editor. Her historical epic, Seven Noble Knights, will be published in December 2016 by Bagwyn Books, and she is working on the sequel. Her contemporary paranormal Awash in Talent is now available from Kindle Press. Find out more about her writing and bookish activities here. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, too! 

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