From Legible Text to Magical Pattern: Arabic Inscriptions in Muslim and Christian Spain
Lecture by Abigail Balbale
Given at The Material Text in Pre-Modern and Early Modern Europe Symposium, at Bard College, on March 5, 2014
Introduction: As a senior in college I studied a church in Toledo called San Román. The church’s walls are adorned with a colourful set of apocalyptic paintings, its nave is divide by two rows of columns exfoliated with Visigothic capitals, and its arches painted with alternating red and white squares that recalled Cordoba are framed by Arabic inscriptions. When I visited the church, I asked its caretaker why there were Arabic inscriptions in a church, he replied it once was a mosque. This answer, or its variant that Muslim craftsmen had snuck in Arabic inscriptions into a Christian structure, once ubiquitous explanations of medieval Iberian structures, is far less interesting than the truth.
In fact San Román was never a mosque. It was painted and reconsecrated by the Archbishop of Toledo to commemorate the Christian victory over the Muslim Almohads in the battle of Los Navas de Tolosa in the first quarter of the thirteenth-century. The Arabic inscriptions in this building fascinated me, and led me down a long path of research that continues today over a decade later. Today I will present some of that research, showing you some of the other structures and objects that are adorned with the same inscription.