Islamic Treasures On Display in Spain

AN exhibition is under way at the Alhambra, the medieval Moorish labyrinth of breathtaking palaces perched on a hill overlooking Granada, that celebrates the rich Islamic heritage of Spain.

The "Al-Andalus - Islamic Art in Spain" show has been mounted 500 years after Spain drove out its Arab conquerors.

Mateo Revilla, director of the Alhambra Trust says, "We're not being nostalgic about history. But this anniversary is a golden opportunity to show the impact and significance of Hispano-Islamic civilization." The trust is co-sponsoring the exhibition with New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition, which opened last month, brings together 130 art treasures from 70 institutions in 15 countries.

"It's an exhibition in which the architecture of the Alhambra is enriched by the exhibits and in which the exhibits regain their meaning because of the Alhambra," Mr. Revilla says.

The sprawling brick-colored Alhambra - the name means red palace - was built between the 11th and 15th centuries as the last great monument in Al-Andalus, the Arab name for the regions it conquered and ruled from 711 to 1492.

A classical palace for King Carlos V was added in the 16th century but never finished. The walled complex also included an imposing fortress and a casbah.

The splendor of the palaces, which features intricate walls carved in minute detail with patterns and prayers, richly colored tiles, and elaborate wooden ceilings, was meant to boost the image of the monarchy as its power began to wane.

"Art in the Hispano-Islamic civilization did not only appear in aesthetic objects," Revilla says. "It was also in functional things. The exhibition lets you see that in the Alhambra there were marble pots, jewels worn by people there, rugs.... You can imagine what the Alhambra would have been like."

A scarlet and gold silk curtain dating from the 15th century and normally displayed in the Cleveland Museum of Art bears similar decorations to some of the Alhambra's stuccoed walls, which historians say would have been adorned with such hangings.

Marble panels with interlacing carvings depict the tree of life, while even the smallest container is engraved with simple and symmetric linear patterns that are repeated over and over to symbolize the endlessness of Allah.

"The objects do not just have a historical value," Revilla says. "In this atmosphere with the light and positioning, the whole of their beauty comes to life."

Visitors pass through keyhole arches from cool, dark palaces onto patios dappled with sunlight and into gardens where fountains murmur and oranges hang from trees.

"The problem with Islamic art in general and Hispano-Islamic art in particular is that small objects are usually stuck in the minor arts section of museums, and they are not usually well displayed," Revilla says.

Exhibits, all astonishingly well preserved, are encased in glass cabinets with controlled light, temperature, and humidity.

One prized exhibit is a gilt, ivory, and enamel-encrusted sword and scabbard that belonged to Boabdil, the last ruler of Granada who fled when the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella recaptured the town for Spain. His golden helmet is nearby, as is a crude yet delicately carved crossbow and embroidered leather shield. Also on display are glazed ceramics, a filigree bronze lamp (the only object known for sure to have belonged to the Alhambra), Koran manuscripts with swirling calligraphy on fine parch ment, coins, filigree jewelry, and copper scientific instruments.

Of particular note is a 40-inch-high bronze griffin of uncertain origin that Christian soldiers are thought to have carried to Pisa in Italy as booty.

The Alhambra's first-ever exhibition continues until June 7, after which a smaller selection of the articles will go on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

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