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The medieval art of Alhambra: how Nasrid art influenced Europe's artists

The visual and decorative art produced by the Nasrids within and around the Alhambra complex has influenced European artists in ways that are only now beginning to be understood

parts of intricate architectural features inside the Alhambra Palace
Waqas Ahmed (s'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) (The Khalili Collections)

The Art of the Nasrids

The Alhambra Palace, standing majestically on the Iberian Peninsula, is one of the crowning artistic achievements of Islamic civilization. Built during the Nasrid dynasty – the last Islamic dynasty in Spain (1230-1492) – this architectural masterpiece has inspired generations of thinkers and creators worldwide. Its alluring muqarnas, calligraphic inscriptions, horseshoe archways and paradisal gardens have continued to captivate tourists and travellers for centuries.

Dawn on Charles V palace in Alhambra, Granada, Spain
parts of intricate architectural features inside the Alhambra Palace

Yet what few draw attention to is the visual and decorative art produced by the Nasrids within and around the Alhambra complex – art that has influenced European artists in ways that are only now beginning to be understood.

The Khalili Collections holds what is widely considered to be the world’s most comprehensive collection of Islamic art and artefacts, spanning 1400 years across all geographic areas of Islamic history and including a wide variety of mediums and artistic expression. Within the Khalili Collections, art relating to the Nasrid period allows us the unique opportunity to shed further light on this enchanting yet enigmatic society – namely its philosophical worldview, spiritual motivations and creative tendencies.

Qur’an in andalusi script, its opening illuminated spread is characteristic of Iberian Qur’ans from the late 12th century onwards. Surah headings are in archaic Kufic but the decoration of the marginal hasps shows the influence of 14th-century Nasrid architectural decoration.

The Collection educates us about a wide variety of Nasrid art forms ranging from coins, plasterwork and jewellery to ceramics, metalwork, textiles and illuminated Qurans.

Stucco tile with ‘wa-la ghaliba illa allah’ on a split-palmette scroll background

Nasrid art was influenced by the cultural and geographical diversity of Islamic civilisation. As such, a unique synthesis of vegetal, geometric and calligraphic motifs is what characterises its creative output, regardless of medium. Moreover the common inclusion of the Nasrid motto wa la ghaliba illa Allah or ‘Only God is the Victorious’ became a trademark of the art of this period. Inscriptions from the Quran, notable poetry and simple expressions such as al-afiyah or ‘Good Health’ are also expressed through exquisite kufic and naskh calligraphy.

Whilst the Umayyad art that preceded it was characterised by a flamboyant opulence, Nasrid art favoured a more subtle approach. Natural materials and techniques such as plaster, ceramics ovens and natural pigments produced a delicate yet profound beauty. The sheer variety of works produced became exemplary of the creative and spiritual pluralism of Nasrid society.

Early 13th century gold plaque with intricate gold sheet and wire designs
The band is decorated with a series of octagons, filled with a lozenge enclosing a four-pointed star and separated by angular cartouches with an inscription, al-‘afiyah (‘good health’) in stylised Kufic. The panel at the top, which may have been sewn on later, bears a pseudo-inscription in naskh, some lines inverted and some the wrong way around. The addition of devices drawn from contemporary Qur’an illumination may suggest that its purpose was talismanic.
Planispheric Astrolabe Inscribed in Judaeo-Arabic brass, cast and sheet, cut and engraved; the rete set with silver studs, some now missing.

Influence on Modern European Art

The Nasrid dynasty fell to the Catholic armies of Spain in the late 15th century, yet much of its art and architecture was preserved through the centuries. The European Romanticism movement of the 18th century revived interest in Alhambra, and by the 19th century saw a ‘neo-Alhambraism’ develop following the Great Exhibition of 1851 when European collectors such and Jean Charles Davillier began to express a remarkable fascination with art and artefacts from that period, and in 1856 when Owen Jones published his seminal Grammar of Ornament which popularised Nasrid design. In turn, Nasrid art began to captivate artists across Europe including the likes of Matisse, Morris and Escher. The term ‘Alhambrismo’ was conceived to describe a genre that generated hundreds of paintings across Europe.

This blog is part of a two series on Nasrid art and its influence on European art. Look out for the next blog on how the art of Alhambra inspired Spanish metal worker and sculptor Plácido Zuloaga.

Alhambra Nasrid Art Islamic Art