Met Cloisters exhibition shines a light on medieval Jewish Spain – the Forward
In the 900s, a Spanish monk named Maius painted his version of Jerusalem.
Rendered on vellum in precise detail and in bright color, the painting tells a very Christian story, imagining the harmonious city that could emerge after Judgment Day. But with its horseshoe arches, distinctive battlements, and large flying buttresses, this ideal Jerusalem looks a lot like the very real Spanish city of Cordoba.
At the time, Cordoba was the capital of Muslim Spain and was home to some of the most magnificent architecture Maius could see with his own eyes, including its crown jewel, the Grand Mosque with many arches. The Christian metropolis of Maius was probably inspired by a Muslim place of worship.
The manuscript that houses the painting of Maius, a book of commentaries on the apocalypse prophesied by the New Testament, belongs to the Morgan Library. But I saw him far in the upscale neighborhoods, at the Met Cloisters.
Outpost of the Metropolitan Museum, the Cloisters focus on medieval European art – which until now has meant Christian art. But a new exhibition, “Spain, 1000-1200: Art at the Borders of Faith”, which opened at the end of August, aims to reverse this trend. A collection of objects straddling different faiths, the exhibition illustrates the intertwined histories of the Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities in Spain.
I would never have noticed Cordoba’s ties in Maius’ manuscript without the watchful eye of curator Julia Perratore, who specializes in medieval Iberian Peninsula art and has spent the past two years organizing “Frontiers of Faith ”. But once she started reporting them, they were everywhere.
Fragments of Islamic tombstones nearby featured carved arches, this time depicting the mihrab, a prayer niche that directs the faithful of a mosque to Mecca. In a finely crafted incense burner designed to resemble a palace, elaborate battlements signaled the ease and splendor of court life. And an illuminated page from a 14th-century Hebrew Bible showed text surrounded by similar horseshoe-shaped windows. Perratore said the artistic choice may have exemplified “the idea of the Bible as a sanctuary of God,” a concept that would have been familiar to many Spanish Jews.
The period covered by the exhibition was in many ways a bloody one for Spain. Since the Umayyad dynasty conquered large swathes of the Iberian Peninsula in the 700s, Muslim societies have flourished in southern Spain. Now the northern Christian kingdoms were expanding their borders at the expense of their neighbors. In 1236, Cordoba, once a cosmopolitan center of Islamic culture, would belong to Ferdinand III of Castile. As Christian monarchs consolidated their control over Spain, they imposed Catholicism on their subjects by any means necessary, pushing Muslims and Jews in the region into exile or underground.
But while the borders between Christian and Muslim areas could be violent and bloody, in medieval times they were also “places of contact,” Perratore said. Diplomatic relations between the regions enabled Christian artists and their patrons to imitate the sumptuous textiles, architecture and metalwork they encountered in Muslim societies. Non-European animals like camels have appeared on monastery’s frescoes (one of these creatures can be seen at the exhibit), and bustling trade networks mean Islamic artifacts could end up in Christian spaces: jeweled panel created for a Spanish convent and exhibited in the cloisters features a sapphire inscribed in Arabic with four of the 99 beautiful names for God.
Whether living in Christian or Muslim regions, Jews were a minority in medieval Spain, and there is little explicitly Jewish art in the exhibit. This is in part, according to Perratore, because Jewish artefacts have survived the century in far smaller numbers than Christian or Muslim artefacts. It’s also a product of pandemic constraints: most of the artifacts come from the Met’s permanent collection, and Perratore was only able to get loans from other New York-area institutions. (For this reason, she joked, while the show focuses on Spain, it’s also “a nice local show.”)
Along with the 14th-century bible on display, the exhibit also features a letter from the philosopher Judah Ha-Levi, who wrote to a friend in 1125 of his fervent desire to leave exile in Spain and travel to the east of Jerusalem.
Nonetheless, “Frontiers of Faith” is sort of a milestone for the Cloisters. The exhibit is housed in the Fuentidueña Chapel Gallery, a space that features the actual apse of a 12th-century church in Fuentidueña, Spain. (Long-term loan from the Spanish government, the apse was dismantled in Spain and shipped to the institution in the 1940s.) So far, the gallery has exhibited only Christian art. Perratore hopes that “Frontiers of Faith” will more faithfully represent medieval Spain.
“I wanted people to come to this gallery and understand a more complete picture of time,” she said.