Saturday, 30 April 2016

#7: Tissue box and Cordoba's Grand Mosque

It may seem a long stretch from this tissue box to the Grand Mosque at Cordoba, but they seem to me to share elements of their design. Each includes a repeated pattern – the mosque with its row upon row of double arched pillars, the tissue box with its interlocking not quite-teardrop, not quite-flower design. I associate these repeating patterns with Islamic art, such as the wall tiles at the Alhambra.

Cordoba's Grand Mosque

tile design from the Alhambra

These repeated patterns, it seems to me, invite you to lose yourself, become less self-conscious, as you look at them. They don’t invite you to struggle to understand or to achieve some kind of insight, aesthetic or otherwise. Keats’s phrase ‘tease us out of thought’, from Ode to a Grecian Urn, comes to mind. So does Bach’s music, say the cello concertos, which again seem to me to invite loss of self-consciousness, rather than encourage emotional highs or lows. Words which spring to mind are continuity, community, normality.

The design of the mosque also speaks to me of an everyday, communal attitude to religion and to life compared to, say, the emphasis in sculptures and paintings in Catholic churches on one’s own individual state of mind or body and on extreme and exalted experiences. 

The mosque’s squat pillars and the rectangular shape also go with this way of thinking, in contrast to cathedrals struggling skywards. This architecture seems to offer a glimpse of a different form for life and thought, one not based on individual striving and moving forward. How far this really does reflect strands of thought within Islam I would not like to say.

In fact (my Rough Guide to Spain tells me) the Grand Mosque’s double-arched pillars were a solution to an architectural engineering problem. The mosque architects used columns from Cordoba’s old Visigothic cathedral and from other Roman buildings. These were sturdy but not tall enough. So they added a second row of square columns on top of them, to support the arches which support the roof. For extra security another arch was added between the bottom pillars. The mosque was eventually completed at the end of the 10th century. It is a beautiful building which I return to fairly often in my imagination.

Picture credit:
Grand Mosque, Cordoba

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