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August 25th 2008 by Tina
Jesus Christ Superstar of the Mezquita

Posted under Spain

We arrived in Cordoba in mid-morning with a single beautiful day to explore. We settled into our hostel and set out at once for the Museo Julio Romero de Torres, which we were delighted to discover was free on Fridays. The artist Torres (1873-1930) was a respected local painter who specialized in the sensual portraits of Cordoban dames. The small museum housed in a former hospital, exhibited two floors of what could have been Torres’ life’s work.

The mostly female subjects of the paintings all seemed to be bathed in a soft ethereal glow, as if to accentuate both their eroticism and innocence. The artist portrayed everything that is passionate, delicate, and demure about women. He painted their souls onto their faces. I was deeply moved by Torres’ work – I have always been a fan of the portrait – and I was almost saddened when we had seen them all. I wanted more but such is the sentiment regarding all of the brilliant artists of our world. A lifetime is never long enough.

After a casual lunch at one of the ubiquitous outdoor cafés, we made our way to Cordoba’s most impressive sight – the Mezquita, meaning mosque in Spanish. The Mezquita is also commonly referred to as the Cathedral of Cordoba, which seems contradictory until the story of its current incarnation unfolds.

Following the Islamic invasion of Cordoba, the ruling Muslims began construction of the Mezquita in 785 on the site of a razed 6th century Christian church, which had been the center of the community. Some of the church’s columns and materials were incorporated into the new structure. The mosque was enlarged and handsomely embellished in the ninth and tenth centuries, making it one of the world’s biggest and most architecturally stunning mosques. The prayer hall incorporated 1293 columns supporting the Mezquita’s most esthetically striking feature – seemingly endless rows of two tiered red and white striped arches. The completed mosque was an ostentatious display of power, a work of Islamic architecture to be used as a model of reference.

In 1236, Cordoba fell back into the hands of Christians and the Mezquita’s transformation began. Rather than razing the magnificent architectural treasure or adding on to its exterior, the ruling Christians built a cathedral right in the center of the mosque and incorporated as much Christian iconography and artwork into the existing interior as could ever be thought possible. The result is either a gaudy, incoherent contradiction or a beautiful idea of Muslim and Christian faiths converging into a glorious house of God. I can’t decide.

Stepping into the Mezquita for the first time was an eye-popping, jaw-dropping experience. The red and white striped arches were the focal point and seemed oddly festive. The arches continued on further than the eye could see, catching rays of sunlight from the high windows and creating a kaleidoscope effect that was magical to behold. Everyone who walked inside stopped to marvel at them with the same expression of awe.

We walked slowly around the inner perimeter, pausing to admire each of the chapels, with their artifacts and furnishings. The cathedral in the center of the Mezquita, added by the Christian reconquerors, consisted of a main chapel, transept and choir. It was small in comparison to the size of the original mosque. Throughout the Mezquita, Christian embellishments abounded. Biblical-themed sculpture was incorporated into some of the mosque’s beautiful arches. A crucified Christ adorned a wall covered in a masterpiece of Islamic stonework. Saints were sculptured into the molding of the vaulted ceilings and into the tops of the marble columns. Icons graced the walls facing stunning mosaic archways with the traditional Islamic keyhole design. The thought that kept echoing through my mind as we explored the various sections of the Mezquita was that, despite the innumerable Christian “reforms”, it was still a mosque.

Muslims consider iconography to be idolatrous. The symbols used in the decoration of their mosques are lotus flowers (representing purity), stars and Arabic calligraphy, and there is always water within or near a mosque for the ablutions. Christians adore their paintings and sculptures and their treasuries of majestic gold, silver and bejeweled objects. Mosques are generally filled with light from big, arched doorways or open ceilings while any natural light in a Christian church is usually filtered through deep-hued stained glass, accented by dim chandeliers and the flicker of candlelight. The nineteen doors that once filled the Mezquita with light now remain closed. The two styles so defiantly contrasted one another that slapping one style on top of the other created a vulgar and gaudy, though fascinating, effect. Jesus Christ, Superstar of the Mosque. Thankfully, much of the dazzling work of the Mezquita’s original artisans remained untouched by the transformation and the aura of the Mezquita, in its unblemished form, predominates.

Our brief visit to Cordoba was full of interesting contradictions: eroticism and innocence; destruction in the name of God; Muslim and Christian perspectives on the architectural and artistic glorification of God, or Allah as the case may be. We had a lot to contemplate. We left Cordoba with one certainty however: the Mezquita was AMAZING! After a year of traveling the world and visiting many of its most spectacular natural and manmade wonders, we find that it takes a lot to impress us these days. The Mezquita was a simultaneous glimpse into two worlds; an experience that left us in a breathless, awed, controversial state of wonderment.


3 Responses to “Jesus Christ Superstar of the Mezquita”

  1. Bear Mom on 26 Aug 2008 at 3:36 am #

    Isn’t it nice to be surprised regularly by the wonders of God and man? I am happy that you are still amazed by new things after all you have seen.
    Hugs, Mom

  2. Clark Babelson on 14 Sep 2008 at 9:28 pm #

    Spain is a wonderful place,,there is no visiting Sagrada Familia and denying the existance of God. Really glad you guys enjoyed.

  3. Anonymous on 24 Oct 2010 at 9:59 pm #

    Your spain experience is fabulous, it got me really excited as Im moving there next year