Archaeological Dig in El Patio de los Leones in La Alhambra. Photo by M. Zarza.
The Forbidden Drawings of La Alhambra
A restoration team discovers 80 polychrome pieces hidden under the wood and plaster which include figures of animals and humans that were prohibited in Islamic art of the era
El País: Los dibujos prohibidos de la Alhambra
Fernando Valverde reporting from Granada, Spain May 5, 2011
In 1959, during the restoration of the Ambassadors’ Salon of the Palace of Comares in La Alhambra, some paintings were discovered behind the wood which covered the ceiling. At the time, little importance was assigned to them. It was thought that they were anecdotal or that some floral motifs had been sketched so that the artisans would know the order of the pieces.
Some months ago, the restorers of the site discovered a new surprise. During their work in the Balcony of Lindaraja, after taking down the wood and plaster, they found a collection of over 80 drawings by the artisans who worked on the decoration of the Nasri palace. “The Alhambra has been restored many times and has suffered many changes. Yet these drawings that remained hidden and have been found in their original state. They are totally authentic, and they are very valuable,” explained María del Mar Villafranca, the director of the Alhambra and Generalife Trust.
There are many kinds of drawings, and their pigments are original and have never been retouched. Vegetables, fantasy animals, verses of the Koran which haven’t yet been translated, mounting instructions for the artisans…and an authentic jewel for scholars of Nasri art. On the reverse side of a patterned ceiling star in the Patio de los Leones, there was a figure of a man with a white beard and turban. It is anthropomorphic. The head is drawn on the body of an animal that could be a dog or a cat. The design is perfect, and the image could be enjoyed as if it were made yesterday, unaffected by the centuries of humidity that have worn down the wood of the palace.
“It’s very difficult to know what they belong to, but we think they were spontaneously made for fun and were never meant to be part of the palace decoration,” clarified Elena Correa, chief of the Restoration Department, which in recent years has found many different treasures hidden in the walls of the Alhambra, which seems to be an inexhaustible source of history and curiosities.
The discovery of the representation of a human is not insignificant taking into account that such work was largely prohibited in Muslim lands. “We have to break Islamic art into different eras. When the Koran was interpreted literally, such content was prohibited, so we habitually don’t find any. This is a very rare and original discovery which shows that in the Nasri era, there were artists who defied the prohibition and represented animals and people,” said Villafranca. The Koran says it is impossible to have an image of God, but it also suggests that no artist can compete with the Divinity in the creation of living beings. This reflection has had massive repercussions on the history of Islamic art, to the point that the use of any image related to the human body was avoided or persecuted, except for works expressly made for private homes. From this came the attraction to geometric forms with their characteristic gold and red tones.
“During the decoration of the Alhambra, without a doubt these figures would not have been well received. Their authors would have been persecuted, so there must have been an element of fear for their creators. All these drawings were undercover; they were simple pranks,” Villafranca thinks. She does not rule out that they were a “form of exercise” for the artisans, but there is no relation whatsoever between the drawings and the pieces found on top of them.
These “pranks” were on the up and up in some regions because there was greater tolerance. In the Palace of Msatta, built in the Syrian desert in the beginning of the 8th century, one can clearly distinguish between art commissioned by lay people and clergy. In the former, there are anthropomorphic representations with a uniquely decorative finality. The drawings of the Alhambra have some similarities, but they were much more spontaneous and their brush strokes more urgent, which suggests that they were realized clandestinely.
“There’s not a fixed guideline. They’re very spontaneous, and this obliges very careful study. We don’t want to convert them into a mere reference point in an art history book; rather, we want to do the most scientific work possible on them,” signaled Elena Correa.
In addition to human representation, some of the drawings were signed, something else which is very rare in Islamic art. “The Nasri artisans didn’t leave their names; they worked anonymously. It’s possible that this was someone very important to the decorative work. We have to keep in mind that the idea of the artist we have today would be inconceivable in their worldview. Those who made the artists were simply workers, craftsmen in a workshop,” the restorer explained.
Many are the mysteries about the drawings are and many are the answers which will proceed from those studying the works in the Alhambra’s wood restoration workshop. One possibility that has already been completely discarded is that the figures were drawn during later elaboration and ornamentation of the rooms in which they were found. “They were not made by Christian artists; they were the work of the same people in charge of the decoration of the palace,” María del Mar Villafranca affirmed.
It’s moving to imagine men capable of emptying all their geometric knowledge into astonishing architecture secretly drawing these small figures, and these quasi-infantile pranks abiding under impressive Quranic calligraphy, behind the solemn works which they aspired to make great.