Mozarabic Pre-Romanesque Art

Map of Al-Andalus and the Christian kingdoms around 1000 AD.

A different artistic style prevailed in 924 when Christians advanced across the Cantabrian mountains and changed the capital from Oviedo to León. This new style, mainly applied to churches, has been called Mozarabic and it was different from the monuments of the Asturian pre-Romanesque art, although it had also a strong Visigothic influence. The word Mozarabic relates to the Spanish Christians who remained in Moorish-ruled land and who retained their language, faith and traditions between a mainly Muslim population. Thus, the Mozarabs were Iberian Christians who lived under Moorish rule in Muslim conquered Spain (called al-Andalus). Their descendants remained unconverted to Islam, but did adopt elements of the Arabic language and culture. The Mozarabic churches built in Castile and León had a basilica floor plan and horseshoe arches. The layout of their arches gives them some Islamic look. The Mozarabs used this type of arch in churches built in territories under Muslim rule, where they lived as Christians, because at first the Muslims were tolerant and allowed them to practice their Christian religion.

Santa María de Melque (Toledo, Spain), 7th or 8th centuries.
Interior of Santa María de Melque (Toledo).

But in the tenth century Christian monks from Cordoba, a city where they were numerous, had to migrate from the Caliphate of Córdoba (dominated by Muslims) as a result of the persecutions against their anti-Islamic ideas. As refugees in the northern kingdoms of Castile and León, they built churches using new styles we now call Mozarabic because of their Muslim influence. They are tall, white, with three naves and sometimes with two rows of columns supporting horseshoe arches on top of which the wooden ceiling rests. When these churches are covered with vaults, they tend to be smaller and with a single nave. Mozarabic churches don’t have sculptural decoration, only the capitals show ornamentation employing some type of a degenerated Corinthian style so in vogue during the Visigoth period.  In Mozarabic monuments, the horseshoe arch is more stilted than the Visigothic horseshoe arch, thus showing the typical elevation of the Moorish arches. If we ignore this detail, the Mozarabic buildings are very different from those built by Muslims in Spain.

San Miguel de Escalada (León, Spain), consecrated in 951.
Inner view of the porch of San Miguel de Escalada.
Church of San Cebrián de Mazote in Valladolid, (Castile and León, Spain).
Interior view of San Cebrián de Mazote.

Many Mozarabic churches are dated from the late ninth or tenth centuries. The best preserved are: San Cebrián de Mazote, Santa María de Melque, San Román de Hornija, Santa María de Bamba, San Milán de la Cogolla, San Miguel de Escalada, etc. Santa María de Melque (in Toledo) was built under Muslim rule. It has horseshoe arches and a barrel vault, has a Greek cross floor plan, and its apse, though squared in the outside, has a horseshoe floor plan inside. The other aforementioned churches were built by Mozarabs who migrated to the Christian kingdoms. One of them, San Miguel de Escalada (in León), is recognized as the best example of the Mozarabic style. This church has a small gate that separates the presbytery* from the rest of the church, like the iconostasis we saw in Santa Cristina de Lena. Its decorated parapets also recall the old Visigothic style. On the outside it has a lateral portico forming an impressive row with twelve horseshoe arches.

The Hermitage of San Baudelio de Berlanga, early 11th-century (Caltojar, province of Soria, Spain).

Among other Mozarabic churches in the Castilian-Leonese region are particularly noteworthy: San Cebrián de Mazote (in Valladolid) with basilical floor plan with three naves separated by two rows of horseshoe arches holding a wooden ceiling with two slopes, and San Baudelio de Berlanga (in Soria) with a squared floor plan covered by a cloister vault* whose arches converge on a central pillar. In the twelfth century this vault was decorated with some famous Romanesque paintings some of which are exhibited in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

Interior of San Baudelio de Berlanga.
Camel, fresco of San Baudelio de Berlanga now at the Cloister Museum in New York, ca. 1120-1140.
Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, fresco from San Baudelio de Berlanga, now at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
The Monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll from 888 (Catalonia, Spain).
Porch in the monastery of Santa María de Ripoll in Catalonia, Spain, ca. 888.
Santa María de Marquet (Rocafort y Vilumara, Barcelona, Spain), from 956.

Some Mozarabic fugitives migrated to Catalonia, where they built Caliphate-type capitals found in the monastery of Ripoll and in the crypt of the cathedral of Vich. In the tenth century, Mozarabs also built several small churches of a single nave with triumphal horseshoe arches (Santa María del Marquet, Sant Julià de Boada) and part of the two great monasteries of Sant Miguel de Cuixá (Roussillon) with its church consecrated in 974 although modified in the eleventh century, and San Pedro de Roda (Gerona) whose parabolic apse, ambulatory* and crypt are probably Mozarabic and completed in 958 although the church was not consecrated until 1022.

Interior view of Santa María de Marquet.
Sant Julià de Boada concecrated in 934 ( Palau-sator, Gerona, Spain).
The abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa (Pyrénées-Orientales department, southwestern France), ca. 840.
Porch at Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa.
San Pedro de Roda (Catalonia, Spain) from the ninth century.
Biblia hispalense (The Seville Bible) folio 278r, also known as the Toletanus Codex, from the first half of the tenth century (National Library, Spain).

Mozarabic miniatures are of special interest in the history of medieval art because they created a series of themes and iconographic types later adopted by the Romanesque painting. These miniatures  reflected a strong independent personality in the Seville Bible or Biblia Hispalense from the first half of the tenth century. But the masterpieces of Mozarabic miniature are found in the illustrations of the Commentary on the Apocalypse written in the ninth century by a monk called Beatus from the Liebana Monastery, reason why these manuscripts are known by the name of Beatus, after the name of its author.

Morgan Beatus, folio 112: “The opening of the Sixth Seal” (Pierpont Morgan Library, new York).

This book was a great success in the tenth century, many of its copies were produced and almost all of them had copious illustrations. Of the 27 manuscripts that still remain today, only three don’t have miniatures. Apparently, all miniatures came from a single model. A single artist created the extraordinary series of fantastic compositions, that continued the tradition of the Visigothic style found on the illustrations of the Ashburbham Pentateuch discussed in a previous essay. The oldest Beatus manuscript is from the year 926 with lots of miniatures of great character. It was signed by Magius and is stored at the Morgan Library in New York. This same Magius begun the illustrations of the Beatus of the Távara monastery now in the Cathedral of Girona, which was continued after his death by his disciple Emeterius with brilliantly colorful and highly expressive figures. Emeterius and a female painter called Eude or Ende signed in 965 the Beatus of the Cathedral of Girona, one of the most famous thanks to the great imaginative fantasy of its illustrations (many of them in full-page and some in full double-page) and for the passionate expressionism of their figures combined with a range of warm colors: red, orange, brilliant green, and a beautiful lemon-yellow. The figures of the Beatus see the world with sad eyes as if they wanted something impossible.

Tavara Beatus, also known as Gerona Beatus, folio 164: “The two witnesses”, (Museum of Girona Cathedral, Catalonia, Spain).

No work dealing with the mentality of the European peoples at the times preceding the year 1000 can possibly neglect the study of the illustrations of the Beatus. They are a testament to how Western European peoples were concerned about cosmic cataclysms and punishments applied by vermin and demons, all acting as agents of Divine wrath, as it was foretold in the Revelation of St. John. In addition, the Spanish art has never produced anything as Hispanic as the miniatures of the Beatus’ Commentary. Therefore, these miniatures have a double interest of representing both the emotional state of all Christendom threatened by the imminent arrival of the millennium and to express in the most blatant and resounding emphasis the Hispanic soul, externalizing its deepest feelings.

Escorial Beatus, folio 108v: “Worship of the beast and dragon” (Real Biblioteca de San Lorenzo, Spain).

The period of the Reconquista (“reconquest”) was a period of approximately 781 years in the history of the Iberian Peninsula (between the Islamic conquest in 711 to the fall of the last Islamic state on the peninsula -Granada- in 1492) which ended right before the discovery of the New World and the consequent period of Portuguese and Spanish colonial empires. Traditionally, the beginning of the Reconquista is marked with the Battle of Covadonga (718 or 722), in which a small army led by the nobleman Pelagius, defeated the Umayyad Muslim army in the mountains of northern Iberia and later established a small Christian principality in Asturias as we have seen when talking about Asturian Pre-Romanesque art in the previous essay.

Santa María la Blanca (Toledo, Spain), erected in 1180 and the oldest synagogue in Europe still standing.
Interior view of the Synagogue of El Transito (Toledo, Spain), famous for its rich stucco decoration, ca. 1356.

Much later, with the advancing of the Reconquista, Muslims who had remained in Iberian liberated territories produced a hybrid style used in Christian buildings and known as Mudejar*. This new Mudejar style originated by the collaboration of Christian master architects and Muslim workers and artists who did not leave the country despite the Iberian Reconquista. These works are magnificent buildings of brick, adobe and stucco, and often decorated with tiles. Therefore, the Mudejar style and the Mozarabic style should not be confused. The Mudejar is the style of the Arabs who remained in Christian land, while the Mozarabic is the style of Christians who came from Muslim occupied territory. They are two very different styles separated by an interval of three centuries.

Detail of the stucco decoration inside the Synagogue of El Tránsito.

For the Jewish population in Iberia there were some synagogues in Mudejar style that later were adapted to Christian worship, such as Santa María la Blanca and San Benito or Church of the Transit of Our Lady, both in Toledo, two great examples of Islamic art because of their characteristics and ornamentation.


* Presbytery: Also called chancel. In a Christian church it is the space at the liturgical east reserved for the officiating clergy and where the main altar is located, it sometimes includes the place for the choir. The presbytery often terminates in an apse.

 *Cloister vault: A vault formed by four concave surfaces which meet at a point above the center of the vault. It is also called domical vault.



* Ambulatory: Covered passage around a covered walk or cloister located at the east end of a large church and right behind the altar.


*Mudéjar: Mudéjar (from the Arabic, meaning “tamed”, “domesticated”) is the name given to individual Moors or Muslims of Al-Andalus who remained in Iberia after the Christian Reconquista but were not converted to Christianity. Mudéjar also denotes a style of Iberian architecture and decoration, specially of Aragon and Castile strongly influenced by Moorish styles. The Mudéjar style, a symbiosis of artistic techniques from Muslim and Christian cultures, emerged as an architectural style in the 12th century on the Iberian peninsula. Mudéjar did not create new shapes or structures, unlike Gothic or Romanesque, but it reinterpreted Western cultural styles through Islam. The dominant geometrical character, distinctly Islamic, emerged conspicuously in the crafts: elaborate tilework, brickwork, wood carving, plasterwork, and ornamental metals.