Exploring The Historical Architecture Of Southern Spain

Granada, southern Spain.
Granada, southern Spain. | © Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Costanza Beltrami
5 September 2018

The historical architecture of southern Spain reveals the rich web of political, religious and cultural influences which have swept over the region. The hybrid styles created by these overlapping influences are unique, as Costanza Beltrami discovers when she explores Toledo, Cordoba, Granada and Seville.

Toledo Cathedral | © Costanza Beltrami

Before my summer trip to the South of Spain, I had never been to the country before, and hardly knew a word of Spanish – and yet, the architecture of the region’s historic past was deeply ingrained in my mind from so many textbook images. Ingrained, but never truly imagined how can one imagine the vastness of Cordoba’s mosque before walking through that shadowy space, surrounded by arches which seem to expand and replicate in all directions?

And walk there I finally did, thanks to a generous travel grant established by the late art historian John Hayes. For ten days, I explored the cities of Toledo, Cordoba, Grenada and Seville, rolling my suitcase along the platforms of so many Renfe stations, squinting at the parched landscape, and pressing my ear to the windowpanes of wondrous palaces to catch the sound of water running in the gardens outside. Ten days to spend retracing the history of Spain’s reconquista through its mudéjar architecture.

The term mudéjar is widely used in Spain to describe artworks produced after the reconquista, using Moorish materials and techniques. Linked to the Arabic term for ‘one left behind,’ the very word mudéjar presents such art as an exotic relic created by a vanquished population to fulfil the conquerors’ desires for lavish decoration. Yet, to be ‘left behind’ was also to be amongst a sizeable population of Sephardic Jews, and the Christian Mozarabs. These were both recent converts and ancient Christian families who had been living under Islamic rule and therefore developed a liturgy and ecclesiastical hierarchy independent from the papal Church.

They were Christians, but they could not easily merge with the conquerors. Rather, they were bound to Muslims and Jews in a partially Islamised culture. And indeed, the Christian kings knew and appreciated this culture, whose artefacts they would have received from military alliances with this or that small Moorish kingdom at war with its neighbours. Surprisingly, they not only used the mudéjar as a cultural spoil or for propaganda, but also selected it to decorate their palaces’ most intimate rooms. There is therefore no simple opposition between winners and losers.

Puerta del Sol | © Costanza Beltrami


The complex interconnection of different cultures in the early years of the reconquista was strikingly evident as I entered the historical centre of Toledo through its iconic Puerta del Sol. Crenelated and flanked by strong ramparts, this city gate follows a common European design. Yet, it is decorated with the interlacing arches typical of Moorish architecture. And to complicate the equation, the whole structure was commissioned by the religious order of the Knight Hospitallers in the fourteenth century.

This came as a surprise, as I expected the Moorish past to be subdued in this city, the first to be conquered in 1084. However, I soon realised that the city’s early conquest allowed for a deeper contact between the new conquerors and the surviving Islamic heritage. Deeper not only meaning more prolonged, but also more personal, at least for the city’s first Christian king Alfonso VI, who had been exiled at Al-Mamun court before defeating his brother Sancho, and conquering Toledo as the undisputed king of Castile and Léon.

Such deep contact is manifest in a number of mosques that partially retain their Islamic architecture, despite having been turned to Christian use. Sometimes, their Moorish features are emphasised, as if the pre-existing buildings were but prized war booties. The twelfth century apse attached to the tiny Bab-al Mardum mosque has just this effect. Looming over the mosque’s elevation, the apse’s tall blind windows contrast with the openness of the hypostyle prayer-hall. The asymmetry visually propagandises the solidity of the Church against the mosque’s fragility. Inside, the church’s triumphal arch is decorated with awkward Arabic calligraphy, possibly realised by a Christian craftsman and probably part of the overall symbolism of appropriation.

Bab-al Mardum | © Costanza Beltrami

Elsewhere, similar strategies of appropriation created buildings of greater visual unity. In the thirteenth century church of San Román there is for example no discord among the Apocalypse cycle, the Arabic calligraphy, and the Mozarab saints who decorate the arches. Constructed by the zealous and crusading archbishop Rodrigo, San Román is an attempt to impose a new cultural unity. The Christian king and his bishop head this unity as direct heirs of the ancient Visigothic kings, whose idealised Christian empire is evoked in the church by the use of Visigothic spolia as capitals.

The new power of the king and bishop was to be fully expressed in the city’s cathedral, also promoted by archbishop Rodrigo. Constructed in the first half of the thirteenth century as Spain’s Primatial Cathedral, it substituted the existing Mozarabic Cathedral, thus conclusively extending papal authority over the Mozarabs. Unsurprisingly, the cathedral was conceived as a celebratory building, a mood aptly emphasised by later additions such as the gleaming Renaissance retablo and the soaring baroque ascent of El Transparente. Yet, this triumphalism may be only a surface. After all, the Mozarabic rite is celebrated to this day in a dedicated chapel; the Treasury room has a spectacular muquarnas ceiling; and the chapter room’s antechamber is decorated with intricate plasterwork of clear Islamic derivation. Thinking back, I can also notice similarities between the cathedral and buildings I visited later. For example, visitors experience the cathedral’s basilical plan as a multiplication of columns reminiscent of the mosque of Cordoba.

San Juan de Los Reyes II | © Costanza Beltrami

Triumphalism and influence merge again in the monastery of San Juan De Los Reyes. Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabel II of Castile founded this monastery to celebrate their victory in the Battle of Toro (1476). Part of a war for the succession of Henry IV, the battle was fought on a completely Christian horizon, and this is apparently reflected in the overall Isabelline Gothic style of the building. Yet, the exterior of the building is polemically adorned with the chains of Christian slaves freed by the Reyes Católicos. Moreover, writing is used as a decoration in both the cloister and the church, evoking Arabic calligraphy and breaking the illusion of a closed Christian universe.


The propagandistic image of a closed medieval universe is dramatically shattered as one sets foot in the Cathedral of Cordoba – so much so that the cathedral is far better known as Mezquita (mosque). This colossal hypostyle hall is all but a limitless succession of horseshoe arches, multiplying in all directions around the viewer. There is here nothing of the longitudinal and hierarchical sweep of a church’s nave. One is lost in the suffused light, in the rhythmical but disorienting succession of white and red voussoirs. Only when entering the central arches church is the illusion of a Christian universe restored – for here one is in a completely different world of soaring proportions and light. Crossing that threshold marks a radical and abrupt break in the visitor’s experience. Yet, the church’s area is diminutive when compared to the building as a whole. Thus, if the idea of war booty may be used again to explain the survival of the mosque’s structure, first-person experience suggests that the appreciation for a fascinating – if foreign – environment is a more important factor here.

The dazzling experience of visiting the Cathedral is difficult to categorise. Yet, the city’s archaeological museum helps to unravel some of the influences that coalesce in that overwhelming space. The visit begins with a chronological exhibition, outlining Cordoba’s history through objects and interactive screens. Encompassing the pre-historical and Roman period as well as the Visigothic and Arab dominations, the chronological galleries emphasise Andalusia’s continuous history, which is too often plotted as a succession of unrelated eras. The attention of continuity is duly reflected in the museum’s thematic displays, which explore everyday life across periods and cultures.

Palacio de Viana | © Costanza Beltrami

And the remains of everyday Moorish life are the best introduction to the archaeological site of Madinat-al-Zahra, a palatial city founded and abandoned in the tenth century, well before the Christian conquest. The city was established to support the institution of the Caliphate of Cordoba by Abd-ar-Rahman III al-Nasir. As a member of the Ummayad family, Abd-ar-Rahman was not a direct descendent of the prophet Muhammad and therefore not strictly a caliph. Proclaiming himself a caliph was however necessary to gain support in a continuing war against the Fatimid empire.

The new city of Madinat was the means to substantiate this claim. For this reason, it was designed lavishly and hierarchically. The chosen hilly location allowed for the Abd-ar-Rahman’s palace to be placed at the top of a steep slope, investing the ruler’s gaze with supreme power over the city of Cordoba below. The road to the palace was a pleasurable but highly controlled ascent through verdant gardens, punctuated by a number of ritual stops carefully staged in the most decorated interiors. At the end of the trail was the reception hall Salon Rico, whose decoration was sure to awe visitors before they finally met the caliph.

Despite its grand vision, the city was abandoned and sacked in the eleventh century, when its master plan was not yet completed and its residential quarters not fully settled. And yet, many of its characteristic features live on in other Andalusian palaces. Looking down to the ruins from the top of the hill, one cannot miss the repeated organisation of living spaces around a central courtyard, which is still to be found in most Spanish houses, such as the fascinating but substantially restored Palacio de Viana, a patrician residence famous for the design of its plant-filled patios.

Nasrid Palace Muquarnas | © Costanza Beltrami


The Alhambra palace complex in Granada has a hilltop location similar to that of Madinat Al Zahra. However, instead of surveying access roads and an unencumbered plain, the Alhambra overlooks the Albayzín neighbourhood, whose steep narrow streets have been successively populated by Romans, Moors and Christians. Staying in this historic area enabled me to somehow imagine an everyday medieval Spain far removed from the regimentation of the Alhambra’s touristic system. And yet the Alhambra cannot be removed from this fantasy – perched on the ravine of the Darro river, it overshadows the neighbourhood like an intimidating fortress. Clearly the palace and the city are again located in a carefully orchestrated hierarchical relationship. For the fortress is in reality open and permeable, every room resonating with the cheerful noise of the garden fountains. And while the palace seems impenetrable from below, so the city seems small and immediately graspable from the Nasrid palaces’ windows, carefully placed to reveal the most scenic views.

Famous for the beauty of their plaster-work, tiles and muquarnas ceiling, the Nasrid palaces date to Granada’s fourteenth-century splendour as independent sultanate. As in Madinat-al-Zahra, the decoration is here at its most complex in the Ambassadors’ Hall. And the impact of the marvellous sight is furthered by the timed-ticket system and by the imposed circulation of tourists, who are allowed to glimpse but not to linger, leaving with a general sense of marvel more than with any actual memory of the rooms. Different is the management of other nearby palaces, for example the grave Renaissance construction commissioned by Carlos V, accessible without a ticket and therefore perhaps marginalised in its architectural value.

Generalife | © Costanza Beltrami

Around the palaces are the gardens. Around, and not outside, for garden walks are sometimes covered in tiles like corridors, with fountain water running through both. This close interaction is clearest in the Generalife, the Nasrids’ intimate country residence. The palace’s Patio de la Acequia is considered among the better-preserved Persian gardens. However, assessing the original planting of gardens is difficult, and it is perhaps more productive to imagine today’s complex as an environment where gardens and buildings form an interrupted whole.

My visit to Grenada concluded with the Cappilla Real, next to the Cathedral. In this mausoleum lie the Reyes Católicos Ferdinando and Isabella, who chose to be buried here as to eternally celebrate their conquest of the city, the last to surrender to the Christians in 1492.


Arriving in Seville, I first visited the Alcázar Royal palace, whose mudéjar decorations and organisation around courtyards is very similar to the Alhambra. Here too is an Ambassador’s Hall of dazzling splendour, as well as gardens punctuated by pools and decorative pavilions. Some of the gardens are underground and crossed by raised walkways so that the scent of their orange plants more fully permeates the air.

Differently from the Alhambra, the Alcázar has had a vital political importance under Christian rule, and is in fact still used by the Spanish Royal Family. For this reason, it encompasses an even greater variety of styles. For example, there is here a Palacio Gotico, built by Alfonso X shortly after the city’s reconquest. Far under these palace’s ogee arches is a rich decoration in azulejos tiles, realised in the sixteenth century in a Renaissance style. Although tiles are typical of Moorish and mudéjar styles, their use here is but an empty and sophisticated quotation – a move in courtly game. The mudéjar was perhaps no longer vital – an historical style whose decorative excellence was matched by Renaissance innovations.

Palacio de Pilatos | © Costanza Beltrami

For Renaissance and mudéjar are indissolubly joined in many Sevillian masterpieces – among them is the Casa de Pilatos, residence of the Dukes of Medinaceli. In the sixteenth century, the palace was enlarged and re-decorated by Don Fadrique, a deeply religious man who had spent two years on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Traversing Italy, he discovered Roman and Renaissance artworks, which he then displayed in garden pavilions and painting galleries. However, Fadrique decorated other rooms with elaborate azulejos, featuring 150 different designs – the largest and better preserved collection of mudéjar tile-work. How could this deeply religious man appreciate both mudéjar and renaissance decoration, apparently so different? Had the former completely lost its ideological connection to the Moorish past?

These questions are not easy to answer, especially when one is dazed by the awe-inspiring splendour of mudéjar churches and palaces. But be amazed – for only the wide-eyed visitor takes away the simplest and most important lesson: there was no abrupt reconquista, but only slow historical change; no exact dichotomy, but only complex interactions.

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