"The world is not a rectilinear world, it is a curvilinear world. The heavenly bodies go in a curve because that is the
natural way..."

-- George Bernard Shaw

"I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein."

-- Oscar Niemeyer

Saturday, 26 March 2016

39. The Great Mosque of Córdoba: The Sacred and the Profane (Part II)

Nothing says "mosque" quite like a wooden Jesus on a cross. Or an ostentatiously gold-framed painting of an angel smiting a heathen:

Actually, pretty much everything says "mosque" more than a wooden Jesus or a smiting angel. But when the Spanish Christians recaptured Córdoba from its Muslim occupiers in 1236, the last thing on their minds was preserving the Great Mosque as an Islamic monument.

Still, if there's one thing I've learned about Roman Catholic Church leaders, it's that they have tremendous respect for religion -- as long as it's their own. Anyone else's is fair game for persecution, degradiation, desecration, and a dozen other nasty things brought to you by the same fine folk who would later launch the Spanish Inquisition.

A tip-off as to the architectural rape that the Mosque would endure under the so-called "custodianship" of the Catholic Church, can be found in the official name of the building: the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. No one actually calls it that, of course, except for the Vatican and the Spanish Church. Your average Cordoban just refers to it as "the Mosque-Cathedral".

The Mosque was re-consecrated as a cathedral after the reconquest, and the DIY crew started in almost immediately. Under muslim rule, the Mosque had been enclosed only on three sides. The fourth, opened out into the Patio de los Naranjos (Patio of Orange Trees). The net effect was two-fold. The orange trees aligned with the Mosque's red and white arches, creating the image of a large forest. And the sun pouring in made the Mosque a very light and open place to be.

When the Catholics took over, they built a fourth wall and sealed the windows, making the cathedral a rather dark and gloomy place, which it still is today. But then the Catholic clergy prefer their flock to be in the dark -- both literally and metaphorically.

The most visible sign of the desecration of the Mosque -- one that can be seen from the other side of the city across the Guadalquivir River -- is a baroque belfry that was built to cover up the former minaret. It serves as a beacon signalling to the world that the Mosque is "Under New Management". Not that it's an ugly belfry. It's actually quite an attractive 16th-century structure:

But -- and this is a crucial point -- MOSQUES DON'T HAVE BELLS!!!

Other crimes against architecture committed by the Church pretty much fit into the same category as the belfry: eye-catching, in a gaudy sort of way, but wholly inappropriate. Perhaps the greatest abomination -- both in an architectural and religious sense -- was the 1523 insertion of a Renaissance cathedral smack dab into the middle of the Gothic mosque. This was, of course, facilitated by first tearing out the heart of the Mosque and then sticking in a very random-looking selection of naves:


and altars:

There were, however, some attractive additions like the beautifully crafted mahogany choir stalls, pilfered...err...liberated... from the finest trees that the American rainforests could provide:

And the lovely organ just above the choir's heads:

Both would look splendid in a building of their own era, instead of being thrown in to survive amongst a mish-mash of architectural styles and a handful of ornamental do-dads that would look more at home in a pagan temple than a Catholic Church:

I knew, for example, that eagles were regarded as birds of "prey". But I didn't know that they were also considered birds of "pray".

Adding insult to injury, the Spanish Diocese banned Islamic prayer within the building -- an edict that remains intact to this very day -- despite appeals all the way up to and including the Pope. To make doubly sure that no Islamic prayers were offered, the Muslim Mihrab (prayer niche) and nearby chambers were blocked off by metal fencing. And to make triply sure, the Spanish monarchy, which had so enjoyed turfing out the country's Jews in 1492,  also gave the boot to Spain's Muslims in 1609. 

Still, I wouldn't want to make it sound as if the Muslims were all pure-as-the-driven-snow good guys. There is the story of Al-Mansur, the fearsome warlord who led a bloody raid in the late 10th-century that penetrated as far into Christian territory as Santiago de Compostela. There, he rode his mighty steed into the cathedral and let it drink from the font of holy water, both quenching it's thirst and pissing-off the Catholic Fathers no end. Al-Mansur proceeded to have the Church's bells carried 500 miles southwest to Córdoba where they were melted into lamps for the Great Mosque. But don't expect to see them if you visit Córdoba -- following the re-conquest of the city, the Castillian King Ferdinand III had the lamps carried back to the shrine of St. James, where they were converted into molten form and again shaped into bells.

Let's give the final word on the Mosque-Cathedral to King Carlos V. It was he who gave the final order for the big 1523 renovation/desecration, without ever having been to Córdoba or understanding the impact it would have on one of Islam's greatest monuments. When he finally saw the damage that had been committed by his minions in his name, he is said to have proclaimed, "You have built here what you or anyone else might have built anywhere else, but you have destroyed what was unique in the world."