Crafting Medieval Spain: the Torrijos ceilings in context

Mariam Rosser-Owen, Curator Middle East, Victoria and Albert Museum,, @mrosserowen

Anna McSweeney, Lecturer in History of Art and Architecture, Trinity College Dublin,

This session will explore the legacy of Islamic art in Europe through its medieval ceilings, many of which are dispersed as architectural fragments in contemporary museums. It will focus on the case study of the Torrijos ceilings, four monumental wooden ceilings that were commissioned in the 1490s by a couple close to the Catholic Monarchs, for their palace in Torrijos near Toledo (Spain). The ceilings were separated in 1904 when the Torrijos palace was dismantled, and they are now dispersed across collections in Europe and the USA. Despite their significance to histories of both Islamic and European art, these important objects remain under-explored. As objects made using techniques and motifs associated with Islamic craftsmanship, the Torrijos ceilings are not considered European enough to sit within western art history; on the other hand, their commission for a Christian-owned palace using a style adapted to Gothic taste means that neither are they considered within Islamic art history.

Drawing from a new interdisciplinary BA/Leverhulme funded research project with these ceilings at its heart, this panel invites papers that more fully contextualise the ceilings and their role in understanding the complex history of Islamic art in Europe. We seek to discuss the circumstances of the ceilings’ original making and decorative choices; the relationship of their carpentry techniques to earlier traditions, especially in the wider Islamic world; their fragmentation and acquisition, in the wider context of the dispersal of Spain’s cultural heritage in the late 19th and 20th centuries; their modes of display, and the potential for these ceilings to foster a new understanding of Spain’s medieval craftsmanship among contemporary museum-going publics.

Instagram: @craftingmedievalspain

Speakers & Abstracts

The Torrijos Ceiling at the V&A: technical peculiarities and conservation of an Islamic inspired ceiling

Victor H. L. Borges (Victoria and Albert Museum. London)

The Torrijos Ceiling at the V&A is a unique example of Spanish art in the 15h century. A good representative of ceiling woodwork or “Carpinteria de lo blanco”, a compendium of design, carpentry and artistic techniques from a period of cultural transition in Spanish art when Islamic traditions are still very much present and in vogue but interestingly blending with more western artistic influences. 

The conservation works where very much determined by a minimal intervention principle but also by its imminent reconstruction in the V&A Storehouse, an open storage being developed by the V&A in the East End of London. The conservation was guided by the condition of the different components of the ceiling but most importantly by the complexities of its construction and materiality. It was key to survey and comprehend how the different parts were put together and why. The complexity of its decoration and the Islamic influence of its ornamentation principles made it particularly challenging but also a unique case study. The ceiling also presented the additional challenge of evident interventions and alterations, some of which contemporary to the ceiling itself but others more modern relating to its dismantling, transport to England and reconstruction at the V&A in the early 20th century.  

This paper will highlight the technical peculiarities, oddities and slight mysteries and some of the conservation solutions. It will provide also an insight on how the craftsmen behind the creation of this ceiling might have worked introducing us to a type of Spanish art that represents cultural diversity and inclusion, a type of Spanish art not yet well known by the British audiences. 

“To see the ceiling of his Moorish palace”. Creation, reception and (re)use of wooden ceilings in the Iberian Peninsula (14th to 16th centuries)

María Teresa Chicote Pompanin (Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia)

In the 1520s, the Emperor Charles V visited the Palace of the Dukes of the Infantado in Guadalajara. According to a sixteenth-century manuscript, he was fascinated by the ceilings that adorned the palace and asked to be given a stair and a torch to study them in detail. Starting off with this anecdote, the aim of this paper is to investigate the ways in which decorated wooden ceilings were understood in the Iberian Peninsula in the centuries that marked the transition from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period.

Relying on archival sources, chronicles and artworks, this research will delve into the world of lavish palaces and religious buildings in an attempt to uncover what people thought when they saw, displayed or created these truly magnificent structures that lived in the borderline between sculpture, painting and architecture.

Castilian Nobility and the Concept of Antiquity in the Fifteenth-Century (or How to Read Modernity in the “Medieval”)  

Maria J Feliciano (Independent Scholar)

The ceilings that survive from the Palace of the Dukes of Maqueda in Torrijos (Toledo) fit squarely within the corpus of noble Castilian compounds erected during the late fifteenth century. Powerful families in the inner circle of the Catholic Monarchs such as the Velascos, Mendozas and Pachecos (to name but a few) also had developed complex architectural vocabularies that tied them to the seats of their power and furthered their claims of nobility, antiquity, and legitimacy. The reuse of architectural components from earlier family endowments and properties played an important role in their construction of legitimacy, as did new antiquities collections, a developed court ceremonial within their palatial environments, and experimentations with classicizing vocabularies. My contribution centers on the modernity, rather than medieval nature, of these expressions. I propose to read the process of selection of wooden ceilings and Islamic antiquities within the context of a moment of intense cultural and artistic transformation in the Iberian Peninsula that can hardly be called medieval.

Constructing Cultural Memory: Itinerant Ceilings in Twentieth-Century California 

Sandra S. Williams (University of Michigan)

In 2014 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) received a gift of thirty six wooden ceiling panels from medieval Spain. Through archival research, it was discovered that the panels, composing two incomplete ceilings that were relocated to California in the early twentieth century, were once in the possession of the American media mogul William R. Hearst (1863-1951) and postmodern architect Charles W. Moore (1925-1993). A close examination of these moments in the itinerant ceilings’ lives, especially modes of collecting and display, reveals the ways in which the ceilings were subsumed in the formation of a modern American identity rooted in a legacy of Spanish imperialism. This paper provides an opportunity to assess how such ceilings, removed from their original contexts and stripped of their historical specificity, played a distinct role in this non-European context and bolstered the construction of Californian cultural memory. 



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