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Christians Artists Embellished Spain’s Muslim Paintings

The interior paintings of Granada's Madrasah Yusufiyya in Spain date from 1349. Credit: Carolina Cardell.

For nearly 800 years, the Islamic Moors occupied Spain, building extraordinary buildings that still draw hordes of tourists today. Case in point: the Alhambra.

Less well known is the Madrasah Yusufiyya of Granada, the only Islamic university from the Moorish era left standing in Spain. It was built in 1349 and operated for about 150 years, until the Christians conquered the region in the late 1400s.

The lovely Madrasah Yusufiyya was then used extensively by the Christians, most likely as administration buildings, says Carolina Cardell a conservation scientist at the University of Granada.

In fact the Christians liked the building so much, Cardell says, that in the last 500 years they have done a lot of touching up, repainting, restoring and embellishing of paintings covering the stucco and wooden interior walls of the Madrasah Yusufiyya.

Yet art historians haven’t really known the extent of these interventions. So over the past few years, while the Madrasah Yusufiyya has been under restoration, Cardell and her team of scientists took a closer look at the paintings with a suite of analytical technology. She’s just published a paper in Analytical Chemistry

about the interventions to the Madrasah Yusufiyya over the past 500 years.

(As an aside, Cardell was also involved in the discovery of ancient ovens that were used to bake bones in order to create a patina added to Granada’s medieval walls as a strengthening agent.)

But back to the Islamic paintings. Cardell’s team used a technique called micro-X-ray diffraction to distinguish between lapis lazuli, a blue pigment used by the original Islamic artists, and ultramarine, a synthetic version of lapis lazuli, which has been made industrially from 1828 onwards.

Although the blue pigments in lapis lazuli and ultramarine share the same complex chemical formula, the scientists could distinguish between the two by looking at the texture of the paint.

The lapis lazuli originated in Afghani mines, and thus has a potpourri of grain sizes as well as some impurities. Conversely, the ultramarine was made industrially and thus has really tiny, similarly-sized grains.

Cardell’s team also saw evidence of some other blue pigments in Madrasah Yusufiyya’s paintings, including azurite (copper carbonate) which hails from the Islamic era and another called blue smalt, which originated in the 19th century and is made from finely ground potassium cobalt glass.

Gold gilding was added by Christian artists over the original blue paint at Madrasah Yusufiyya. Credit: Analytical Chemistry.

Besides touching up the Madrasah Yusufiyya paintings using the same colors of the original Islamic artists, Cardell’s team also discovered that the Christians did a little souping up. For example, they found that Christian artists added gold gilding on top of certain sections that were originally blue.

Although Moorish artists did paint with gold (there is some in the Alhambra), none was used originally at Madrasah Yusufiyya. Cardell says the artists probably didn’t think it was appropriate to cover the university with gold.

Of course, if the modern day stereotype of the starving student also existed in the 14th century, it could be that the original artists were worried that the students might be tempted to repurpose the gold for a nice lunch.

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