Artisanship in Ancient Cordoba: La Mezquita

IMG_2622After studying a monument or a work of art for semesters and semesters and only seeing what it looks like in pictures, to finally see it and experience it in person is flooring. You read and read about it and imagine what it will be like but when you actually see it to scale, it takes your breath away and leaves you in a state of wonder.

Walking into La Mezquita was like this. I have seen so many pictures of the beautiful architecture and the detailed artwork but to see it with my own eyes was an incredible experience. The tranquility and awe of the place was almost visceral.

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As I wondered at the detail and precision of the artwork, the pressing question that ran through my mind was what inspired the artists and workers? Something as large as the Mezquita and with so much minute detail…what is it that motivated them to construct such an imposing and ornate edifice limited as I assume they were by tools of the 8th century? Was it mainly religion? Fear? Money? Power?

La Mezquita actually started out as the San Vicente Basilica in the 6th century. The Basilica was destroyed after the Islamic invasion and construction began in 785. During the time in which Cordoba was the capital of Al-Andalus, the Mosque was considered the most important sanctuary of Western Islam. However, when Cordoba was reconquered in 1236, King Ferdinand III ordered the Mosque to be purified and turn it into a site consecrated to Christ.

This partially answers my questions. After the reconquest of Cordoba I can almost imagine how incredibly joyful Christians must have been as they regained a site that was technically rightfully theirs. And of the Islams? Did they feel the same when they gained the power in the 8th century and constructed something so stunning? But what of each individual artisan who spent tireless days and nights, backs bent, with low light, carving with such intense concentration the swirling shapes and images that appear to have been carved into a soft wax as opposed to unforgiving stone?

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Though the Mosque is now and has been considered a Christian site of worship and is called The Cathedral of Cordoba, the conflict of Islamic images versus Christian is quite apparent. In one part of the structure you stumble across the mihrab, but turn another column to see an elaborate picture of Christ. I also found it quite disappointing to see the additions of dark wood covering the beautiful stone artwork. The contrast of the colors was unappealing and could not compare to the beauty of the white stone that it was hiding.

In the brochure given to visitors at the entrance, the writers close it with a “reflection”:

The mission of the Church has been to “safeguard and inspire culture and art. The visit to the Cathedral of Cordoba may awake the demand and the quest for greater Beauty that will not wither with time. Because of beauty, as truth and righteousness, are an antidote for pessimism, and an invitation to take pleasure in life, a shaking of the soul that provokes the longing for God.”

Is this possible with the apparent conflict between the two different religions that is embedded within the very foundation of the building from centuries and centuries ago? Or perhaps this is a cynical view and one can argue that because the Mosque hadn’t been completely destroyed there was a certain level of respect and awe for the beauty of a competing religion’s structure?

Do you see it as two competing structures and religions? Or do you see it as two entirely different religions unified in one structure?

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