Medieval Architecture in Spain.

Variety of Medieval Architecture in Spain

Perhaps no European country has such a rich variety of medieval architecture as Spain.  Romanesque and Gothic structures (with all their regional and chronological variations) are plentiful in Spain, but thanks to the Muslim presence, Spain can also boast an unrivalled number of buildings that proclaim a totally different culture. 

Still, living in close proximity for approximately 800 years, neither Christians nor Muslims (or Moors as they are commonly known in the Spanish context) could be indifferent to each other, nor to the Visigoths who preceded them, nor indeed to the earlier Romans.

Some degree of cross fertilisation was always going on, and hybrid forms such as Mozarabic and Mudéjar architecture (see below) enrich the landscape, not to mention the more localised so-called Asturian architecture in the North West.

Asturian Church: Sta Cristina de Lena.

Most of the individual buildings that remain were meant to last: houses of worship, castles and some palaces, both Christian and Muslim. However, next to nothing remains of the Jews, despite the significant role they played in Medieval Spanish history, not even in Toledo, so intimately linked with their fate in Spain.

True, there are plenty of Jewish quarters (juderías, sometimes called aljamas, although an aljama could also refer to a Moorish quarter), in ToledoSevilleCórdoba, Gerona (Girona in Catalan), and lots of smaller towns but these look much like the quarters of Christians and Moors.

What identified the Jewish quarters in the past was their designation as such, their synagogues, and the fact that they were often walled off.  Unfortunately only three medieval synagogues escaped destruction in Spain (two in Toledo, and one in Córdoba), and even they convey little  particularly Jewish in their form.
Córdoba Synagogue. Women’s gallery above the entrance. The three arcades are decorated with words from the Psalms.

Of the three, the 13th-century Sinagoga de Tránsito and the 14th-century Santa María la Blanca in Toledo look much like small mosques with their pronounced horseshoe arches and arabesque patterns, while Córdoba’s 14th-century Synagogue –although it has no horsehoe arches– has Mudéjar decoration on its walls.

December 2012: Restoration work in Ubeda (Andalusia) has recently unearthed a medieval synagogue —Sinagoga del agua: Synagogue of the Water– to add to the few medieval synagogues left in Spain. See article in Spanish in El Pais

Contrasting Christian and Moorish Architecture

The Moorish conquest of the peninsula following the invasion of 711 brought with it a new concept of art and a new way of looking at architecture which contrasted with the Western European tradition.  For the next 800 hundred years or so countless mosques, castles, residences would reflect the Moorish perspective, making Spain the best country in the world where a comparison of its architectural wealth offers valuable insights into the way the two major religious communities viewed the world.

It so happens that the three most famous Muslim buildings in Spain, the Great Mosque of Córdoba, the Giralda tower of Seville and the Alhambra Palace of Granada are amongst the best places to see that difference.

Cordoba. Mosque from the air. The Christian cathedral rises from the middle of the mosque.

The Great Mosque has within it a Christian church, each structure encapsulating its creators’ relationship with the Divine. The Mosque is low lying and deferential, reflecting the Muslim emphasis of submission before Allah; the Church reaches upwards as if in search or praise of God.

The Alhambra of Granada encloses a 16th-century Renaissance Palace.  Both are secular buildings, the Alhambra enchanting us the impression of lightness and grace, the Renaissance Palace impressing with its solidity and grandeur.

The Alhambra from the Plaza de San Nicolás in the Albaicín

The Giralda was originally the minaret of a mosque and then a belfry when the mosque was dedicated as a church after the conquest of Seville in 1248. 

The Giralda. Now the bell tower of the Cathedral of Seville.

It survived when the mosque was torn down and replaced by the present cathedral in the 15th century. Exquisitely decorated, the Giralda rises elegantly over the cathedral which –despite its ornamental details—looks weighty alongside the tower.

Buildings not only reflect different perspectives, their locations also confirm the identity of different groups.  For example, it is difficult to find any Moorish buildings in Galicia or Asturias or along the north coast because the Muslims did not settle there. Nor will you find Moorish remains in Spain’s two largest cities: the capital, Madrid, and its fierce rival and capital of the autonomous region of Catalonia (Cataluny in Catalan), Barcelona.

Madrid was settled by Moors, but it fell to Christian forces in 1083 and its ancient past was erased by renovations and expansion, especially after it became capital in 1561. 

Barcelona was retaken by Christians as early as 801, which means that there was virtually no time for the Moors to have established themselves there. Not so far from Barcelona, however, in those areas where the Moors hung on to power there is plenty of evidence of their presence. 

In the autonomous community of Aragón and eastern Castile, there are numerous castles, mosques (converted into churches after conquest), and palaces that betray their Moorish origin (e.g. the Aljafería Palace of Zaragoza, the immense castle of Gormaz).

The castle of Gormaz.

In Andalusia, where the Muslim presence extended over 800 years, Moorish buildings are everywhere.  Conversely, the Christian  conquest of al-Andalus (Moorish Spain) can be traced following, for example, the construction of churches as the Christians moved south. 

Romanesque churches (constructed roughly from the late 10th century to1200) are found mainly in the northern half of the peninsula, with expansion south being prevented by the presence of the Moors. Gothic churches (roughly 12th century up to the 16th in Spain) expanded into the southern half of the peninsula as the Reconquista gathered momentum in the 13th century with the capture of Córdoba, Valencia, Seville and Murcia.  The one region where there are very few Gothic churches is the old Moorish kingdom of Granada (extending from roughly Almería to Algeciras) which Muslims retained until 1492.

Mozarabic and Mudéjar Architecture

One of the architectural characteristics associated with Moorish architecture is the horseshoe arch, which features so prominently in the Grand Mosque of Córdoba. However, if you visit some small churches in the north of Spain, e.g. San Miguel de Escalada or Peñalba de Santiago in León, or the hermitage of San Baudelio, near Soria, you might understandably be puzzled to find the horseshoe arch widely used.

San Miguel de Escalada.

These churches, however, were not built by Moors, but by Mozárabes, Arabised Christians fleeing al-Andalus during the late 9th and 10th centuries and taking with them influences from their al-Andalusi experience. (Complicating the picture is the fact that the Visigoths had also used the horseshoe arch in the peninsula before the Moors, although the arch was less pronounced. See example of San Juan de Baños.)

Similarly, as the Christian reconquest moved further south, many Moors chose to remain under Christian rule while retaining their religion.
Teruel. Mudejar tower of the church of San Martin.

These we know as Mudejars and were especially numerous in Aragón and Valencia. Skilled artisans, craftsmen, carpenters, masons, the Mudejars were often contracted as builders in response to the shortage of Christian workers in the rapidly expanding Christian areas. Naturally they used materials and techniques they were acquainted with: brickwork with e.g. geometrical patterns, glazed tiles (azulejos) and elaborate stucco work. Examples of Mudéjar work can be found from Seville to as far north as Sahagún, Burgos or Teruel (Aragón).

Both Mozarabic and Mudéjar architecture are good examples of how cultures influence each other and are never static but in constant evolution.
Image of Córdoba Cathedral/Mosque from the air: By Toni Castillo Quero – Flickr: [1], CC BY-SA 2.0,

Image of Santa Cristina de Lena by Jose Luis Martinez Alvarez: