An Embarrassing Legacy and a Booty of Luxury: Christian Attitudes towards Islamic Art and Architecture in the Medieval Kingdom of Valencia

Torres de Serranos, Valencia, Spain. Photo by

Torres de Serranos, Valencia, Spain. Photo by

An Embarrassing Legacy and a Booty of Luxury: Christian Attitudes towards Islamic Art and Architecture in the Medieval Kingdom of Valencia

Amadeo Serra Desfilis

Global Encounters European Identities, edited by Mary N. Harris with Anna Agnarsdóttir and Csaba Lévai, Pisa University Press (2010)


This chapter examines the relationship between Islam and Christianity in medieval Spain as far as art and architecture are concerned, bearing in mind the length and variability of cross-cultural contact in this historical territory. Christian attitudes towards Islamic art and architecture are interpreted as a peculiar blend of admiration, reactive adaptation, rivalry, emulation and positive transfer of knowledge between two cultures living together in medieval Iberia for eight centuries. In the light of recent research, the role of art and architecture in the process of self-differentiation and self-adscription within both communities must be reconsidered. An imaginary boundary appeared between the two societies, regulating social life and, therefore, conditioning attitudes about objects, buildings and their uses, but this never prevented cultural or technical exchange. From the study of the art and architecture in the kingdom of Valencia (1232- 1500), we have come to the conclusion that ethnic and religious differences were not the most relevant factors in the filtering of artistic exchange and assigning new functions to forms, objects or techniques. Finally, the chapter analyses how Spanish historiography has developed narratives, including the appropriation of the Islamic legacy, to construct a national identity in modern times.

It is increasingly evident that Islam was one of the main heirs of late Antiquity and that, particularly from the 10th century onwards, Islamic art was highly diverse. It was also subject to processes of change and adaptation, much in the manner of Western (Christian) art and, on occasions, caused by contact with it1. Encounters between Islam and Christian worlds are o en framed by traditional religious, ethnic and linguistic boundaries that do not take cultural exchange into account and admittedly ignore the contributions of other minority communities, such as the Jews.

The Reconquista [the act of re-conquest, but also the process of ‘restoring’ Christian dominion in Spain] and convivencia [living together] are words also used by non-Span- ish historians to refer to an enduring interface between the Christian kingdoms and Al-Andalus [Islamic Spain] during the Middle Ages3. ese concepts go some way towards understanding cross-cultural relations from the Islamic invasion of the Ibe- rian Peninsula in the 8th century to the Christian conquest of the Nasrid kingdom of Granada in 1492. However, they are somewhat simplistic and are also burdened with historiographical and nationalistic connotations from the times of Américo Castro and Claudio Sánchez Albornoz

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