The Alhambra: Court of the Lions

It is popularly believed that the Court of the Lions (Patio de los leones), the innermost and most private courtyard of the Nasrid Palace, was reserved for the ruler and his harem.

There is no evidence that this was so, although it is a plausible supposition since, of all the courtyards in the Alhambra, this is the most “feminine” in its intimacy, beauty, delicacy and proportion; it is the most romantic part of a much romanticised palace complex.

The Court of the Lions.

During the Nasrid dynasty, the Court of the Lions formed a separate unit, and was united to Court of the Myrtles by a corridor only during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. From the corridor, you pass through a modest side door to the small Hall of the Mozarabs (Sala de los Mozárabes) which then opens into the rectangular Court of the Lions with its adjoining side rooms and upper galleries.

In the centre of the courtyard water sparkles from a fountain basin to fall through the mouths of twelve stylised lions into four streams that run towards the colonnaded sides. The pillars –light, slender trunks– gather together in a pavilion at each end of the patio around tiny fountains. Here they support, like a canopy, filigreed, muqarna (honeycomb) arches that echo the protective role of the palm leaves around oasis pools in the desert.

Muqarna detail.  ©  Casselman.

These muqarnas break up the contours of the arches into small, three-dimensional, decorative elements which merge with the surrounding geometric, vegetal and calligraphic ornamentation. Through these stylised palm forests, light filters in patterns that imitate the water in all but sound.

Nineteenth-century sketches show that much of the patio was also filled with flowers and shrubs, more like a garden fulfilling the Koranic description of paradise (an observation often made). However, neither the German humanist, Hieronymous Munzer, nor the Venetian ambassador, Andrea Navagero –two early Christian visitors to the Alhambra following its conquest in 1492–, records the presence of vegetation in the Court of the Lions. But both do comment approvingly on the amount and beauty of the marble in the palace. 

Still, the image of shrubs and aromatic flowers is tantalising and, not surprisingly, of all the spots in the Alhambra, it is this courtyard that most weaved its magic over Romantic writers and artists, evoking exotic images and oriental fantasies more appropriate to legend than to history.

One legend concerns the Hall of the Abencerrajes (Sala de los Abencerrajes), to the right as you look from the Sala de los Mozárabes. It became notorious as the scene for the massacre of the Abencerraje family whose leader evidently dallied with the beautiful Zoraya, the king’s favourite, which subsequently led to the downfall of Granada.

The oxidised smears in the fountain, guides will add cheerfully, are bloodstains still visible from the severed heads of the victims said to have been piled in the basin. It makes for a good story as the background to the fall of Granada, something like the Christian tale of Rodrigo’s uncontrolled passion that accounted for the collapse of Visigothic Spain and the rise of al-Andalus.

However, if we pay too much attention to the fountain, we might miss the literal highpoint of this room, the beautiful, honeycombed ceiling framed by an eight pointed star and illuminated by the light that filters through 16 latticed windows.

Opposite the Hall of the Abencerrajes is perhaps the most extraordinarily sumptuous and elaborate of all the rooms in the Alhambra. Called the Hall of the Two Sisters (Sala de las Dos Hermanas) after the plain twin slabs of marble on the floor, this two-storied hall is breathtaking.

Hall of the Two Sisters. Ceiling.

Like the Hall of the Ambassadors, its walls are totally covered: bright azulejo tiles running along the bottom to waist level, and then upwards floral and vegetal motifs in endless permutations, and multisided stars, all interspersed with calligraphic borders.

But what is remarkable is the change from the basic square to an octagonal shape about half way up thanks to the intricate play of muqarnas that overhang the corners and line the walls. These honeycomb cells, in turn, prepare us for the climax of the room, the muqarna dome, the cells of which –there are said to be over 5000– burst out from a central star and hang, suspended, in the ring of light that filters through 16 latticed windows at the base of the octagonal dome.

Looked at from the tiny fountain sunk into the floor directly below, the dome looks like a giant exploding star, whose downward movement pauses at the light from the windows before finally cascading down in one last burst via the muqarnas lining the walls and corners.

Another image of cupola of the Two Sisters

It is an extraordinarily poetic image in plaster of the heavens caught in a moment of creative activity. Here, perhaps, is Islam’s answer to those heaven-storming Gothic cathedrals

Muslim buildings might have been earthbound, but their architects –following a Near Eastern tradition– brought the heavens down to earth, as it were, recreating them within their cupolas but without challenging God, whose presence and power is constantly evoked in the calligraphic inscriptions on the walls.

It is a poetic solution to a theological matter, the poetry here being lyric where Gothic churches evoke epic.  Both are in praise of God, but the approach taken –as we can see in the Great Mosque of Córdoba— tells us something about the world view of Christians and Muslims.

At the far end of the Court from the Sala de los Mozárabes is the Hall of the Kings (Sala de los Reyes), also known as the Hall of Justice, after the Catholic Monarchs used it as a court room. The most surprising feature here is the ceiling, divided into three vaults by muqarna arches, each vault containing scenes painted on leather.  The middle vault shows ten seemingly Islamic dignitaries –possibly writers, or wise men — seated in council. Given the Islamic strictures on figural paintings, this is quite remarkable.

Alhambra. Hall of the Kings.

Even more startling, however, are the two side panels: they contain hunting scenes, with men and women involved in chivalric activities more in tune with Christian traditions.

The very presence of these three paintings clashes sharply with the honeycombed arches and the abstract floral and vegetal arabesques surrounding them. Naturally, their sources of inspiration and what they represent have provoked considerable debate.  Possible sources include French Gothic ivory caskets containing scenes from Arthurian tales, native Castilian chronicles or sentimental romances, or luxury textiles that found their way from northern Europe into Christian Spain and al-Andalus from the 13th century on.

The paintings have been interpreted as an example of Muslim/Christian coexistence (convivencia), whereby Christian painters were commissioned –around 1400– to do the work.   On the other hand, that Christians painted these works is not as implausible as it may sound, since exchanges between Christians and Moors was not unknown at the time. For example, Peter (Pedro) the Cruel, king of Castile from 1350-1369, used Moorish artisans from Granada in the rebuilding of the most famous parts of the Reales Alcázares of Seville, and Muhammad V (ruled Granada 1354-59; 1362-91) sought temporary refuge in Peter’s court in Seville.

It has also been argued that these paintings are an instance of “Iberian interculture” whereby figural representations would no longer be alien to Muslims because long interaction with Christians would have accustomed them to figural art.  But, whatever their provenance and meaning, they are a unique and tantalising exception to the art of the Alhambra.

There is now an intriguing theory that the Hall of the Kings formed part of a madrasa, a centre for learning and scholarly gatherings. The madrasa itself consisted of the Court of the Lions with its adjoining rooms and upper galleries.

The argument is based on contemporary courtyards in Morocco which were very similar in style to the Court of the Lions and were known to be madrasas.  A lengthy quote from Irwin gives a good idea of that similarity: The typical Moroccan madrasa was usually quite small and was built around a central patio paved in marble or tiled and overlooked by galleries. It usually had a fountain or a pool at its centre.  The upper storeys of the galleries contained cell-like rooms for the accommodation of students and teachers.  What is unusual about Moroccan madrasas, as compared to their Eastern counterparts, is their elaborate decoration, which gives them a rather secular look (Irwin 90).

So, the Court of the Lions: an exotic private space for the king and his harem or a centre for studies and contemplation?  It doesn’t really matter which interpretation you opt for (including your own) as you look around , you can still enjoy this aesthetic tour de force.

Barracund, Marianne and Bednorz, Achim Moorish Architecture in Andalusia Cologne 1992

Danby, Miles    The Fires of Excellence: Spanish and Portuguese Oriental Architecture Reading 1997
Irwin, Robert    The Alhambra  Cambridge: Mass 2004
Jacobs, Michael     Alhambra London 2000 (paperback 2005)
Meri, Josef W & Bacharach, Jere  Medieval Islamic Civilization  Vol I New York  2006
Munzer, Jeronimo     Viaje por España y Portugal   Madrid 1991 (Transl Ramon Alba)
Navagero, Andres     Viaje por España  Madrid 1983 (Transl Antonio Maria Fabie)
Sullivan, M A
A very useful map of the Alhambra can be found in: Scroll to the bottom of page.
The books by Irwin and Jacobs are particularly recommended for anyone visiting the Alhambra.