Olga Bush


“Designs Always Polychromed or Gilded”: the Aesthetics of Color in the Alhambra

To present-day visitors to the Alhambra (the palatial complex of the Nasrid dynasty in Granada), the carved stucco panels that form the primary architectural embellishment of the precincts appear devoid of color. This was not the case at the time of its construction and occupation by the Nasrid court. On the contrary, the vast parietal expanses of carved stucco were painted in vibrant colors, whose pigments were made of such precious substances as lapis lazuli and gold. Raman and optical microscopy of the stucco in the Alhambra confirms that the architectural drawings of Owen Jones and William Harvey are fairly accurate with regard to the original pigmentation, and thus can serve as a point of departure for the reconstruction of the aesthetics of color in the Alhambra.

This paper focuses on the kineticism already described by medieval observers as a “vibration,” a perception that brings to the fore questions regarding the understanding of optics during the medieval period. Theoretical postulations of color perception, such as “the proportionality of colors” mentioned by the Ikhwan al-Safa’ in their Rasa’il and the more complex analysis of luminosity, hue and saturation by Ibn al-Haytham in his Kitab al-manazir (“Book of Optics”), will provide a historical grounding for the discussion of the aesthetic principles that would have informed the practice of medieval architects and craftsmen. I will also draw on recent confirmation of and theoretical advances over medieval optics, turning to neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone’s study of modern painting, to further the understanding of the use of color in the Alhambra.

OLGA BUSH received her Ph.D. in Islamic Art and Architecture at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University in 2006. Dr. Bush is currently a visiting professor at Vassar College, and was formerly the Sylvan and Pamela Coleman research fellow in the Islamic Department, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has taught Islamic Art and Architecture at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and she specializes in the art and architecture of medieval Muslim Spain. Her essay titled “The Architecture of Jewish Identity: The Neo-Islamic Central Synagogue of New York,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (2004) received The Society of Architectural Historians’ Scott Opler Award for Emerging Scholars, and her paper titled “A Poem is a Robe and a Castle: Inscribing Verses on Textiles and Architecture in the Alhambra,” presented at the 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, was nominated for the Textile Society Of America Founding Presidents Award (2008). Dr. Bush’s most recent article, “The Writing on the Wall: Reading the Decoration of the Alhambra,” was published in Muqarnas 26 (2009).

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