Islamic Polychromy

A Colourful Architecture

The Islamic architecture of al-Andalus was distinguished by its pronounced polychromy, based on the use of differently coloured building materials, colouring of the masonry and structural units as well as diverse techniques of casing (Fig. 1). Corresponding colour remnants can be traced on the capitals, which have been painted in colour as early as in the Cordobese Friday Mosque (8th-10th century). Today’s white column shafts and capitals of the Court of Lions (1360-1362) had been colourfully painted: a fact lost to misdetermination in monument conservation. As the shafts had sported a polychrome frieze with inscriptions above the annulet, the capitals had been equipped with multi-colour painting. Blue had been the main hue, accompanied by red - often as background tone - traces of which could be attested together with white, gold and black (Figs. 2-3). – FG

Ewert 1968. Marinetto Sánchez 1985. Marinetto Sánchez 1996.

Polychrome Stucco Decoration

Today’s colourless stucco decorations, which became gradually more important from the 10th century, erstwhile have been painted in polychrome as well, as demonstrated by remnants of original painting in Córdoba, Zaragoza, Balaguer, and Granada (Fig. 4). The bad state of preservation is primarily due to the employed secco-technique, in which possibly water-soluble paints are applied to the stucco surface only after drying, therefore being exposed to weather. More recent studies have shown that the common range of colours such as blue, gold, red, and black - in the 11th century complimented with green, and later silver as well as purple - was strikingly rich. – FG

Ewert 1968. Ewert 1971. Marinetto Sánchez 1985. Fernández-Puertas 1997. Ewert/Ewert 1999. Pavón Maldonado 2004. Rubio Domene 2010.

Geometric Colour Plays

The faience mosaic works (alicatados), employed in al-Andalus since the Almohad period, add one more dash of colour. They cover the dado just under the stucco decoration and reached their climax in the Nasrid architecture of Granada. Distinguished by their purely geometric structure, the Alhambra’s oldest extant faience mosaics in the Torre de las Damas (1302-1309) follow their early-Nasrid models in the Cuarto Real de Santo Domingo. The alicatados in the Salón de Comares (1333-1354) as well as those in the Sala de las Dos Hermanas (1362-1391) have a closer netting of lines, more complex braiding patterns and a richer colour palette (Figs. 5-6). Blue, green, black, and white in different hues dominate; even from the 14th century still, where honey-colour (melado) and violet (morado) emerge. – FG

Pavón Maldonado 1975. Donaire Rodríguez 1986. Martínez Caviró 1991. Martínez Caviró 1997. Fernández-Puertas 1997.
Fig. 1 (en)

Fig. 1. Reconstruction of the original polychromy in the Mirador de Lindaraja (Monumentos 1859-80, case 4, cuaderno 18).

Fig.2 (en)

Fig. 2. Reconstruction of the original polychromy of the Alhambra capitals (Girault de Prangey 1842, Pl. 19).

Fig.3 (en)

Fig. 3. Reconstruction of the original polychromy of the Alhambra capitals (Goury/Jones 1836-45, vol. 2, Pl. XL).