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Wednesday, 17 September 2014

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Cumbria Decorative and Fine Arts Society

AT the October meeting the lecture was given by Gail Turner and the subject was ‘Caliphs and Christians of Southern Spain’.

We were offered a whistle- stop tour of Cordoba, Seville and Granada; what we experienced was a detailed and carefully constructed exploration of the historical forces that shaped these cities.

Southern Italy is characterised by a style of architecture that is loosely called Moorish. The term Moor we were told derives from Mauritania; but the Islamic tribes that arrived in Spain during the seventh century came from areas of the Middle East and included Berber tribesmen. The style of architecture that emerged resulted from a potent mixture of sources. The Visi Goths had introduced arches with ‘nipped-in’ waists. These became the more exaggerated horseshoe arches. The Berber with their tent dwelling origins needed to draw on the Roman remains that surrounded them, notably the arches of aqueducts. These features were assimilated and expressed in a distinctive way. This was a form of architectural recycling. The multi load arches that are distinctive to this style were practical structures to support heavy loads. However they also produced the elegant curves that our speaker described as ‘like forests of petrified trees’.

Cordoba became the focus of a region with a sophisticated cultural and academic life, as early as the eighth century. It was an advanced society with knowledge of philosophy, astronomy and navigation. Artefacts remain as evidence of the developed nature of the Islamic civilisation of that era. There were even records of rather intimidating surgical implements and mentions of cataract operations. The cities occupied were enriched by the beautiful buildings that still remain. However a close and informed observation reveals indications of what remains of the social groups that have lived in Southern Spain in successive historical eras.

The Islamic tribes with their powerful caliph leaders held Southern Spain but eventually the Christians invaded from the north and recaptured the region for the Pope. The buildings bear evidence of this change. Christian Bell Towers were constructed over Muslim minarets. Christian churches were confidently and, in the case of Seville, ostentatiously juxtaposed with mosques. Indeed, in the case of Cordoba, a renaissance cathedral was built inside an elaborate and extensive mosque. The speaker spoke of peeling off the layers of a Spanish onion to show how one tradition built on what had come before. The buildings represent a layering of history.

The time of Islamic domination produced influential leaders with confusingly similar names. Each of these imposed their identity on the culture. Spain also had larger-than- life characters. When Isabella and Ferdinand arrived to reassert Catholic power they marked their identity on buildings with their chosen symbols of the yolk and arrows. These carvings remain on buildings to this day. We were also told of a fascinating, if intimidating, character of Pedro the Cruel who was reputed to have stolen a ruby from the conquered Moors. This ruby was said to have been given to John of Gaunt and was eventually incorporated in the British crown jewels. A good, if unlikely, story. Such details made Gail Turner’s account a lecture to remember, by showing the interconnectedness of history. It was clear that there were many more layers to explore.

The next meeting of the Cumbria Decorative and Fine Arts Society will be held at Hundith Hill Hotel, Lorton Vale, on Thursday, November 18. There will be the opportunity to hear some more larger-than-life characters from history. The lecture is entitled ‘Deadly Rivals: The Earl of Arundel, The Duke of Buckingham and Charles I’. The morning talk takes place at 10.45 and an afternoon session at 2pm. All welcome.

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