Alhambra – Reflecting on Symmetry

“It is a palace in which magnificence is shared
among its ceiling, its floor and its four walls;
on the stucco-work and on the glazed tiles there are wonders,
but the carved wooden ceilings are even more extraordinary;
these were all united and their union gave birth to the most perfect
construction in the place where the highest mansion already stood;
they seem poetic images, paronomasias and transpositions,
the decorative branches and inlays.”

-excerpt from an inscription in the Tower of the Captive

Alhambra Spain Court of the Myrtles

The pool in the Court of the Myrtles provides a wonderful reflection of the Royal Palaces.

It is only fitting, as one used to working with mathematics and “the details,” that I launch my blog with a look at the decorative designs of the Alhambra. This UNESCO World Heritage site, in Granada, Spain, is highly embellished with calligraphic script, arabesque and geometric patterns. The complex patterns used suggest the palaces’ designers and artisans were quite skilled in mathematics. While the elaborate decorations cover most surfaces of the compound’s buildings and gardens, the repetition and symmetry used in the designs establish a soothing sense of order.

Alhambra Spain

Looking through the archway into Patio of the Gilded Room, or Patio del Cuarto Dorado, one sees a beautifully symmetrical façade. Symmetry found not only in the architecture, but also in the patterns of the stucco and tile work.  Intricate fretwork panels cover the windows of the upper chambers. Inscriptions, floral motifs and geometric shapes embellish the walls. Despite the visual symmetry of the architecture, the doors lead to two different areas of the palace.

The photo below shows the variety of decoration covering small areas. Finely detailed floral and fern motifs are combined with geometric shapes, then bordered by flat, intertwining ribbons. An ornately scalloped edge trims the top and bottom of the arch.

Alhambra Spain

Archway at the Alhambra Palace. Photo: Yves Remedis | Flickr

Many inexpensive materials were used to create the Alhambra’s decorative elements. It was the remarkable skill of the craftspeople that transformed the stucco and wood into stunning artworks.

Costly, white marble is found throughout the Patio of the Lions. Over one-hundred white marble columns grace this courtyard. Inscriptions and vegetal motifs wrap the columns’ imposts. The open, lattice-like fretwork creates a sense of fragility and weightlessness. Dripping from the fretwork is a stalactite-shaped border. Surprisingly, detailed translations completed on the inscriptions found throughout the compound show only a small percentage are scripture from the Qur’an. Most are descriptions, slogans, advice to visitors and praises to the monarch in charge at the time of construction.

Photo: Sara Lynne Moffatt

In hundreds of years from now, or even just decades, could you imagine praises being given to our modern-day inexpensive version of wood, MDF?  Arabesque and geometric patterns decorate the intricately carved wooden ceilings and doors seen throughout the Alhambra. The beautifully symmetrical door shown below would have required many hours to plan and hundreds of hours to carve. The outcome is truly luxurious.

Alhambra Spain

The coffered wooden ceiling of the Palacia Carlos V is classic Renaissance style. The square ceiling design echoes that of the newel cap and other staircase elements. Construction on this palace started in the early 16th century. Work on the building was abandoned and only completed in the mid-twentieth century.

Alhambra Spain Carlos V Palace Wooden Coffered Ceiling

In the earlier palaces, star shapes are often used in the ceiling ornamentation, creating a starry night sky within the palace.

Alhambra Spain

Photo: axmiller | Flickr

You will find the octogram-shaped cupola shown below in the The Hall of the Abencerrages. It’s decorated with thousands of muqarnas (Scrabble players take note). Again, complex geometry forms the basis of the design. Another elaborate example of muqarnas is found in the Hall of the Two Sisters.

Movements of light and shadow across the arches and walls bring ever-changing vistas to the Court of the Myrtles (Patio de los Arrayanes). Can you imagine sitting by the pool on a warm summer day, relaxing and reflecting on life’s beauty?

Alhambra Spain Court of the Myrtles

I visited the Alhambra several years ago. It was an unusually cold December day. I arrived at the site as the sun came up. Despite my lack of warm clothing, I stayed until dusk, captivated with the site.

The official La Alhambra y Generalife site provides very detailed visitor information. If you visit the Alhambra, pay close attention to the times printed on your timed-ticket. The site is very strict about adherence to those times during both the high and low tourist seasons.