Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Tuesday 26 November 2019

Islamic stained glass dating from - when?

When I'm in Western Europe - and I have been for virtually all the 62 years I've been on the planet so far - I like to think that I'm reasonably good at dating many of the artefacts I see around me. Buildings, furniture, handwriting, paintings, book covers, old adverts - if I can't date them to within a century, or even a few decades (and I know this is shocking, but I have been known to get it wrong), I'm a bit grumpy for the rest of the day.

Out of Western Europe, however, I'm disorientated.* The rules I've spent a lifetime learning no longer apply. I can't tell if the objects I see are a hundred or a thousand years old. It's like having to learn the alphabet from scratch. 

On a recent visit to Fez, Morocco, I was struck by the observation that traditional buildings there don't much go in for glass in windows; houses tend to be lit by either a (glazed) skylight or are arranged around an open courtyard, and windows in the walls are very few and very small and tend to be unglazed (they sometimes have wooden shutters or wrought iron grilles). The reasoning behind this is to keep the fierce summer temperatures at bay. 

I visited three madrasas (schools or colleges), two in Fez and one in Meknes (all three now tourist attractions rather than working institutions). Two of them had, so far as I noticed, no stained glass windows, while the third had six. Stained glass is something I like very much and often write about on this blog; I flatter (and maybe delude) myself that I'm fairly knowledgeable on the subject. But I'm completely at a loss in dating these windows.

The six are in the Bou Inania Madrasa, in Fez. This was built in 1351-56, and renovated in the 18th century. Does the glass date from either of those two periods, or from another? I wish I knew. I can't find any information about them on the interweb. Here they are:

Most traditions of Islam forbid figurative** art, and have to rely on abstraction (and calligraphy). This is everywhere evident in the madrasas***; all surfaces are elaborated, revealing an apparently obsessive need to leave hardly a single square centimetre unadorned. The profusion of decorative invention can be seen in the windows. The stone filigree frameworks fill the whole of the windows (whereas in European Gothic windows the tracery is confined to the upper third or so of the windows), and are composed of essentially simple geometrical shapes multiplied to generate complex patterns. Straight lines predominate, but as you can see there are many curves in the fourth photo. 

The stained glass itself consists of small blocks of colour, comparable to the tesserae used in mosaics. No paint is used. The overall effect is very beautiful, simultaneously exciting and restful.

The only other stained glass I came across was in the Palais Glaoui, a decrepit but still sumptuous 18th century building. I believe that it was the home of a Francophile Moroccan family who left the country when it became independent in 1955, and it has been quietly decaying ever since with only very minimal attempts to maintain it. Some of it has already fallen down, and more looks in imminent danger of doing so. As the windows here are similar to those in the madrasa, and as we know that was renovated in the 18th century, I'm tempted to assign all the windows to that era. But this is only a guess.

For some context, here are some more photos, firstly of the Bou Inania Madrasa:

It's the only madrasa in Fez to have a minaret.

A madrasa in Meknes, Morocco, slightly confusingly also called the Bou Inania Madrasa:

I foolishly touched this broken tilework. It wobbled very alarmingly, as if about to collapse. I walked quickly away for fear of causing an international incident.

The Al-Attarine Madrasa, also in Fez:

A view from a typical student's room. Note the wooden shutters on a window opening onto a stairwell which in turn is open to the sky. Nowhere is there any evidence of any fireplaces. Fez gets quite cold in the winter, and the rooms must have been absolutely perishing. Evidently students were much hardier in those days.

An unglazed window, with a friendly cat making the most of the sun.

* Which literally means 'deviated from an east-facing position'. It derives from the Christian (and hence originally western) tradition of churches being built with the chancel and altar at the east end, pointing (though rather approximately) towards Jerusalem, and also the rising sun (symbolising Christ's Resurrection). Hence the 'correct' direction in which to say prayers was to the east; to pray towards any other compass point would indicate confusion, and that you were lacking a sense of direction and not knowing which way to turn. So to say that I'm disorientated out of Western Europe means that when I'm not in the west I can't find the east. There's something rather pleasingly paradoxical and gnomic about that.

** 'Figurative' seems to be changing its meaning. It originally meant, when applied to art, representational, that is, depicting recognisable figures of objects. It is the opposite of abstract or non-representational. (This the only definition in this context offered by the 2004 Concise Chambers Dictionary.)  So a landscape or a painting of a vase of flowers is figurative. Recently the word has often been used to mean depicting the human figure. Language is democratic, and it may be that this will become the widely accepted, and thus 'correct', definition. I'm using the word with its earlier meaning here, however.

*** And almost certainly in the mosques too; however, Moroccan mosques are not open to non-Muslims, so I didn't see their interiors. This is apparently a legacy from when France ruled the country. The French didn't want their European citizens 'going native', and so banned them from mosques. 

1 comment:

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