The Alhambra and its Resplendent “Hall of the Two Sisters” Dome, Explained

Image: “The Hall of the Two Sisters” Muqarnas Dome. 14th century. Source: Pixabay. 

Built by the Nasrids, the last Moorish dynasty in Iberia between 1238 and 1354, the Alhambra is a sprawling, opulent palace and fortress overlooking the Spanish city of Granada. Dubbed “the red castle” for its blush-toned ramparts, this architectural gem is still attracting millions visitors per year with its exquisite geometrical design work and fascinating history.

At the time of its founding, Christian forces were fighting to consolidate Spanish power under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella as part of the Reconquista. Granada was the final holdout. It fell in 1492 and the Alhambra soon became the famed couple’s Royal Court. Christopher Columbus received the money needed for his journey to the New World here. In 1526, Holy Roman Emperor Charles I commissioned architect Pedro Machuca to rebuild several sections of the palace in the new Renaissance style (“Alhambra” 1).

One of the most beautiful rooms in the Alhambra is the Hall of the Two Sisters, so named for the twin slabs of Almeria marble making up part of the floor. Commissioned by Mohammed V in the 14th century, this square reception hall rises into a domed ceiling in the shape of an eight-pointed star (“Hall of the Two Sisters” 1). Its honeycomb arches or muqarnas are made of stucco and resemble stalactite or melting candle wax.

Although this dome and many other aspects of Islamic art are meant to represent divinity, you will not find any figurative representations of God here due the belief that the human mind will never be able to fully grasp the grandness of the creator and therefore it is unwise to try and depict this all-powerful force in images. The best human beings can do is evoke the divine through metaphor and elaborate patterns found in nature and the cosmos. The design and structural integrity of this sublime muqarnas dome reIies on precise mathematical equations. The Moors were quite advanced in that regard during the Middle Ages as they were the ones seeking out and preserving the great texts from the ancient Greeks. They even invented algebra. The Moorish courts were filled with artists, poets, philosophers, astronomers, and mathematicians, producing a golden age of enlightenment (Shubert et al. 1) This medieval palace and its signature dome represent the height of that power, where science, the arts, and religion coexisted and learned from each other.

References

“Hall of the Two Sisters.” AlhambraDeGranada.org. 13 May 2017. <https://www.alhambradegranada.org/en/info/nasridpalaces/hallofthetwosisters.asp>

Shubert, Adrian, Ginés, Juan Vernet, et al. “Spain.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 21 February 2017. 13 May 2013. <https://www.britannica.com/place/Spain/Culture-of-Muslim-Spain>

The Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica. “Alhambra.”  Encyclopedia Britannica. 13 May 2017. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Alhambra-fortress-Granada-Spain>

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