Media only: Irene Nemitsas: 202.633.0521
Barbara Kram: 202.633.0520
Public only: 202.633.1000
Media Preview: Tuesday, May 4 at 9 a.m. R.S.V.P. (202) 633-0519
Boldly painted ceramics, sumptuously patterned textiles, medieval maps and navigational instruments; finely illuminated Islamic, Christian and Jewish manuscripts and gold and silver coins are some examples of the enduring artistic and cultural legacy of Islamic Spain (known as “al-Andalus” in Arabic) that will be on view from May 8 through Oct. 17 at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. “Caliphs and Kings: The Art and Influence of Islamic Spain” presents 89 rarely exhibited objects from the collection of the Hispanic Society of America in New York—considered to be the finest holding of decorative arts from Islamic Spain in the Americas—with key additions from the Freer Gallery of Art and the National Museum of American History.

“This exhibition highlights the extraordinary artistic inventory produced during the great civilization that flourished in medieval Spain,” says Freer and Sackler director Julian Raby.

“The Mosaic Foundation of Washington is delighted to be the principal sponsor of ‘Caliphs and Kings;’ the centerpiece of the Mosaic Al-Andalus Festival celebrating a period in history when extraordinary accomplishments sprang from harmonious interactions between people of diverse religious and cultural viewpoints” says Nermin Fahmy, Chairman of the Al-Andalus Festival.

In the early eighth century, an army led by Berber allies of the Umayyads (661–750)—the first Islamic dynasty based in Damascus—conquered most of the Iberian peninsula. For the next seven centuries, a succession of Muslim rulers governed this fertile and economically strategic region. Inhabited by Christians, Muslims and Jews, al-Andalus flourished into the most sophisticated culture in the Mediterranean, and became one of the principal centers for the dissemination of Islamic literature, sciences and the arts throughout medieval Europe.

Throughout their rule, the Muslim rulers of Spain withstood continuous attacks from both their Christian neighbors to the north and Muslim rivals to the south. By the mid-13th century, their territory was confined to the southern kingdom of Granada. In 1492, King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella finally defeated the Nasrids (1232–1492), the last Muslim rulers of al-Andalus and the patrons of the celebrated fortified palace of the Alhambra, reuniting the Iberian peninsula under Christian rule.

The Muslims who remained in Spain, however, continued to contribute to its artistic, literary and scientific legacy. Transcending social, religious and political boundaries, Christian kings and nobility, as well as the Church, remained enthusiastic patrons of Mudéjar (Muslims living under Christian rule) artists and craftsmen, and later of the Moriscos (Muslims converted to Christianity) until their expulsion in the early 17th century. The works on view at the Sackler bear witness to the enduring creative interaction that took place between Muslim artists, Jewish scribes and their patrons in medieval Spain.

This exhibition marks the centennial of the Hispanic Society of America, which has never before loaned in a significant way to another institution. The Society’s collection was assembled by the American scholar and philanthropist Archer M. Huntington (1870–1955). The unusually broad variety of objects on view, some of which are described below, fall into five categories:

  • Textiles
    Five important Islamic textiles spanning the 13th to 15th centuries—some made specifically for Christian patrons—are represented in the exhibition. The earliest, a fragment excavated from the tomb of the Infante Felipe, brother of Alfonso X of Castile and León, was probably made in Granada and illustrates the importance of Islamic textiles in the Christian courts in Spain. Another is a splendid example of a type of 15th century compound-woven silk textile known as “Alhambra silks” because their intricate geometric design recalls the tile work patterns at the Alhambra Palace. Three examples of Mudéjar textiles include a rare armorial carpet woven for María de Castilla, queen of Aragón that combines Islamic decorative motifs with Christian coats of arms.
  • Ceramics
    In the early 14th century, Mudéjar potters from Murcia established lusterware workshops in Manises, outside Valencia, where they created a variety of vessels decorated with heraldic blazons of Christian patrons and complex geometrical and foliate motifs inspired by Islamic models. Employing cobalt-and-luster-painted designs—a technique first used by ninth- century potters in Iraq—these ceramics were commissioned for local use and export throughout the Mediterranean, influencing the development of Italian majolica ware.The imposing, tin-glazed “Alhambra Vase” from the Freer collection that will be on view is one of a few to have survived from the Alhambra Palace. It is decorated with an autonomous poetic inscription, asking the viewer to contemplate its beauty and workmanship. This poetic device is commonly found both on the walls of the Alhambra Palace, and on other objects on view, such as the exquisitely carved 10th century ivory pyxis from Madinat al-Zahra—the Umayyad palatine city outside Cordoba—which was commissioned as a royal gift to hold perfumes.

    The colorful, geometrical, glazed tile and two plates on view are examples of the “cuerda seca technique. The tile may have originally belonged in the Transito Synagogue in the city of Toledo, home to the largest Jewish community in Spain until their expulsion in 1492.

  • Maps
    Among the works that will be on view is a 1468 portolan chart containing information about the locations of ports and direction of the winds. The map on view was drawn by the Mallorcan cartographer Pere Rosell, who like many Mallorcan cartographers, was of judeo-converso origin. Rosell was one of the most prolific cartographers of the Catalan school, producing 14-15 of the surviving charts from 1447–1489.Another map by the Florentine cartographer Juan Vespucci—nephew of Amerigo Vespucci—is a copy of the official master map of the world that was based on current information provided by returning sea captains. Mallorcan mapping conventions show compass roses to signify wind direction, while cities are designated by castles, and mountains are snake-like lines. The Red Sea is colored red—a biblical convention—while the oceans, which are dominated by images of Spanish galleons, are left uncolored.
  • Manuscripts
    Manuscripts on view include folios from a 13th century Qur’an, an antiphonary or Christian choir book used by Franciscan monks in late 14th-century Cordoba and two Hebrew bibles. These are evidence of the religious traditions that flourished in al-Andalus and Spain. The Qur’an’s square-framed illuminations enclosing geometrical devices based on a rosette in the form of a twelve-pointed star are typical of 12th-century Islamic manuscripts and also influenced the late 15th-century Christian and Jewish manuscripts on view.
  • Carpentry and Marquetry
    Mudéjar craftsmen also specialized in woodworking. Works on view include two doors: one in a Nasrid style, the other bearing a Eucharistic inscription that was clearly made for a church. Corbels from domestic contexts in Toledo and an elaborately ivory-inlaid walnut chest illustrate the refinement of Islamic marquetry in medieval Spain and its continuity into the late 15th century.

“Caliphs and Kings: The Art and Influence of Islamic Spain” is made possible by a generous gift from the Mosaic Foundation. Additional support has been provided by the Latino Initiatives Pool of the Smithsonian Institution, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports of Spain, the Embassy of Spain, ChevronTexaco, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, General Motors, Lockheed Martin, Marathon Oil, Occidental Petroleum, Riggs National Corporation, Saks Fifth Avenue, Saudi Aramco, Shell International, and The Boeing Company.

BOOK: a color-illustrated, 178-page book by Heather Ecker accompanies the exhibition. Published by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution and distributed by University of Washington Press, the book is available from the museum shop at

For additional information about the Mosaic Foundation’s Al-Andalus Festival, which will be held in Washington, D.C. from May 7 – May 18, go to

The Freer and Sackler galleries together form the national museum of Asian art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day. Admission is free. This summer from June 24-July 29, the galleries remain open on Thursday evenings until 8 p.m. for “Art Night on the Mall.” The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 357-1729, or visit the special, exhibition-related section of the galleries’ web site at

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