Córdoba’s Mosque: Muslim Calligraphy and Christian Imagery

Córdoba’s Mosque: Muslim Calligraphy and Christian Imagery.

One of the most striking features of Islamic art or architecture is the manner in which inscriptions in Arabic script form part of larger ornate patterns thanks to its decorative and cursive characteristics.

Appreciation for calligraphy (the art of penmanship) has a long tradition in Arabic culture, and calligraphers were highly esteemed. The reverence attached to calligraphy was based primarily on the primacy of Arabic as the language of the Qur’an. Since the Qur’an contained Allah’s (God’s) final revelation to the world in His words, the written word carried potent meaning.

For Muslims, the Word is the Qur’an, for Christians the Word (logos) is Christ, made flesh as St John (I/ 14) informs us.  For Christians, then, pictures or figural representations of Christ or of His Mother and of saints could inspire veneration and move to prayer. Christ was the message and figural representation an important medium to convey that message to the illiterate.

Muhammad never claimed to be more than the messenger of Allah; he never claimed any form of divinity, and performed no miracles. He therefore was not the message but the messenger, and the last of the prophets. He rejected idolatry, and although the Qur’an says nothing explicit about art and sculpture, the hadith –the traditions or accounts of Muhammad’s life and sayings as handed down by his family, friends and followers- are quite categorical in condemning the artist as creator of idols. 

Any attempt, then, at realistic representations of the world, e.g. nature or human images, was disallowed. This evasion of imitating the exactness of nature is part of Islam’s respect for the Allah’s creative greatness: to attempt to reproduce what only Allah could create was sacrilegious and led to idolatry.

The result is a dematerialised and stylised nature, an abstracted form which in fact is more universal than Christian iconography in that it does not require any prior knowledge to appreciate it.  Compare, say, a picture of a saint –especially a medieval picture– whose identity can be discerned only through an accompanying symbol. For example, St. Peter is identified by the keys (of heaven) that he carries, St Sebastian by arrows piercing him. If we do not know that keys are symbols for St. Peter or arrows for St. Sebastian, then we lose the significance of the image**.

**Even images of Muhammad are discouraged, since they could mislead the faithful to pray to him rather than Allah. This is why the term Muhammadan (or Mohammedan) is rejected by Muslims since they don’t believe in Muhammad as a divine being in the way that Christians believe in the divinity of Christ.

So since Islam rejects figural representation, the message of Islam, the Word, was conveyed in writing, and the written script was its vehicle. Calligraphy, then, became an art form which, from the beginning, replaced the representative, symbolic and narrative forms of early Christian art with inscriptions from the Qur’an. The word instead of the image. These inscriptions developed an ornate quality, and were set in decorative, multi-coloured/ polychromatic surroundings so that altogether the whole produced an aesthetically pleasing configuration, which in its way could move the faithful to veneration.

The inscriptions were placed in prominent positions: e.g. below a dome, around the mihrab (a niche or mark in the wall which identifies the qibla, the wall that faces Mecca) or framing windows or doors, or immediately above the multi-patterned azulejo (tile) wainscoting running around a room.

In the Mosque of Córdoba, the horseshoe entrance to the mihrab and its surroundings are the most sumptuous part of the mosque.  They were built by al-Hakam II between 962-66 as part of the third extension to the mosque, and their splendour befits al-Hakam’s status as caliph** and Córdoba’s claim to the caliphate (first established by his father, Abd al-Rahman III).

**Caliph: successor to Muhammad and spiritual and temporal leader of Islam; however, no caliph claimed to be a prophet.

The entrance is highlighted by rich, rectangular frames (alfiz) enclosing arabesques and lettering carved in marble, stucco and mosaic.  The most prominent feature surrounding the entrance to the mihrab is the inscription in bold Kufic lettering (an older and upright Arabic script) that frames the arch on three sides.

Entrance to the mihrab. Horseshoe arch enclosed in rectangular frames.

The writing is in gold and stands out against the cobalt blue background. Beneath the horizontal section of that inscription, there is a parallel line of writing, this time with cobalt lettering set against a gold background.  Both inscriptions are edged by narrow, ornamental bands. At the very base of the arch, on the two imposts above the slender black marble pillars, there is yet more writing, this time gold lettering on a rich red background.

These Kufic inscriptions contain passages from the Qur’an and historical records identifying the caliph, and supervisors, designers and scribes involved in the construction of the addition. The power and unity of Allah, and His omniscience, are mentioned several times as is the duty of believers to submit themselves to Him.

Polylobed arches in the approach to the mihrab (seen at the bottom right).

But mosques were not simply houses of worship; they fulfilled political functions as well. The inscriptions in Al-Hakam’s addition to the mosque also allude to the caliphal role of the Umayyad dynasty as unifier of the Muslim community, and to al-Hakam as the “instrument through which the structure was built and completed” (Khoury 88). The Grand Mosque of Córdoba annuls “what came before it, and … proclaims the ascendancy of a new world order and the establishment of God’s caliphate on earth” (Khoury 88). And by implication that caliphate was now located in Córdoba and al-Hakam its sanctioned leader.

Cathedral altar from the choir.

The caliphate of Córdoba collapsed in 1031. In 1236 Córdoba was recovered by Christian forces but the Grand Mosque was left virtually untouched. In the 1520s, however, the centre of the mosque was demolished and a cathedral (although it is more like the traditional Castilian choir and chancel with altar) erected at the command of the Charles (Carlos) V.   Its construction contains a political statement but not in words: its location right in the heart of the mosque drives home the message of Christianity’s conquest of Islam in Spain, echoing similar messages in the building of cathedrals in Seville and Granada (where, in both cases, the main mosques had been torn down completely).

Cathedral ceiling.

Part Gothic, part Renaissance, with ornate 18th-century baroque carvings in mahogany on the choir stalls and two pulpits, the church breathes the spirit of Catholic orthodoxy. Here words are superfluous, virtually non-existent. There is a centralised forward focus on the altar, upward movement of the eye through vertical lines and pointed arches, figural representations from the Bible or of saints both in painting and sculpture, a story line everywhere, even on the choir stalls (with Biblical motifs, scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and figures of Cordoban martyrs). Even the ceiling –divided into rectangles, triangles and semicircles– is filled with various religious motifs

Compared to the mosque around it, the church is a very busy place where prayer and meditation are reached not through the serene abstraction of pillars and light and shade but through the emotional pull evoked by the representations and the mass of visual “information” it contains.  We are only a step away from the Muslim architectural tradition in which the cathedral is embedded, but it is a different world

The church is a solid building, where the load of stone is felt even if the stone is not always visible behind the paintings and choir stalls etc. The mosque, on the other hand, thanks to the slender pillars and subdued light, has lightness about it, despite being “horizontally” constructed.

The interior of the Great Mosque, Córdoba’s greatest attraction.

In a way the mosque seems to mirror the insubstantiality of human creation, which in no way can compare to that of Allah who alone is the Creator and Originator, the Modeller and who alone can make things endure. The Christians, on the other hand, seem to have taken literally the Biblical metaphor of Peter as the rock on which the church stands, and the church is built not simply on the rock but of rock and is built to last.  And so far it has, but so too has the mosque!

Sept. 2021. For an interesting use of calligraphy and its relationship to art, and a modern representation of architecture, see https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/sep/21/flipping-the-script-the-dazzling-arabic-forms-of-the-jameel-prize-v-and-a
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