The Verdant Gospel: A Hispano Moresque Charger and its Correlation to the Gospel of John

Abstract: 

The Hispano Moresque charger located at the Meadows Gallery of Southern Methodist University is a unique and challenging work of art. The charger’s significant features are analyzed in their artistic, cultural, historical, and especially religious context. Focusing on the Islamic art historical context, the function of the charger is examined in light of its extensive vegetative ornamentation. The treatment of its script is analyzed in terms of affinities with a tradition of Islamic calligraphy. I argue that the charger presents an image of creation that echoes the gospel inscription from John. Reflecting the core tension of identity in Spanish art, the artist used every facet of the charger to evoke a spiritual significance and create a piece that is not only beautiful, but encourages individual contemplation and spiritual growth.

Table of Contents: 

    Introduction

    The Hispano Moresque charger, located at the Meadows Gallery of Southern Methodist University, is a unique and challenging work of art. The charger, shown in Figure 1, is dated to approximately the end of the fifteenth or early sixteenth century—a tumultuous time in Spain that saw the decline of Muslim culture and the defeat of the last Muslim ruler in 1492. Nonetheless, the charger draws heavily from Islamic artistic tradition. It consists of earthenware pottery approximately 16 to 18 inches in diameter that was treated with a metallic glaze. The charger is not composed of a single planar surface; rather, it is composed of two concave bands that telescope in toward a central convex dome.

    Figure 1. Hispano Moresque Charger, Meadows Museum, Southern Methodist University. (Photo taken with permission by the author, 2004.)

    The charger is decorated overall with vegetative ornamentation that includes two bands of Latin inscription quoting the opening lines of the Gospel of John. In what follows, I will discuss the cultural influences on the object, its function, the symbolism of plant forms used to decorate it, and the treatment of script. I hope to demonstrate the correspondence between the charger and the Gospel writing of John. On the basis of this correspondence, I will argue that the Christian message that resonates in the inscribed charger is that of creation, while the Islamic features of its composition reflect the cultural tensions surrounding identity in the Spanish kingdom during this period.

    Description

    The influences on the piece must be examined in some detail. The surface medium is lusterware, which is an Islamic innovation (Irwin, 1997). Originating in Iraq during the ninth century and initially applied to glass, lusterware is designed to make dishes glow and appear golden. The technique apparently was difficult to achieve and consisted of applying luster—a mixture of sulfur, silver oxide, copper oxide, and ochre suspended in vinegar—to tin glaze and then firing the pottery. Lusterware was used not only for dishes, but also for tiles to decorate homes and mosques. According to Stokstad (1988), “Islamic artists lavished more attention on secular art and architecture…than did their Western contemporaries” (p. 165). Stokstad argues that the use of earthenware pottery, although impermanent, nevertheless was favored by Islamic artists because of an “ideal of physical comfort and immediate rewards” (p. 165) that celebrated the here and now of beauty instead of emphasizing eternity, a quality notable in Christian art.

    It is the decoration of the charger that relates especially to Islamic tradition. On the exterior, the three ornamental motifs—a geometric layout, vegetative design, and calligraphic script—are the three predominant motifs used as ornamentation in Islamic art (Clévenot, 2000). According to Baer (1983):

    We often forget that before decorating the surface of an object with vegetal or other motifs the artists generally set up a geometric scheme into which these motifs were to be fitted. The decoration of a bowl, dish, or basin, for example, may be set in concentric bands, roundels, or octagonal compartments, which, even if they do not immediately strike the eye as geometric patterns, are based on the same principle and perform a similar artistic function. (1983, p. 120)

    The charger is, in fact, divided into three concentric bands; each grows wider the closer it is to the center and each is separated from the next by a thin copper band. The back of the charger is not without ornamentation—it is also divided into concentric bands, although these are not delineated by the thin copper lines. The bands are identical in ornamentation—each has precisely reproduced lozenges with a single oval inside. Thus, the geometric division of space applies to both the front and back of the object.

    The shape of the charger is also important. In both Islamic and Christian art, its shape is an anomaly. Baer (1983) notes that there are only a handful of shapes traditional to Islamic objects: a hemispheric that may be placed on a stem or pedestal; a shallow bowl with “slightly convex, outward flaring sides which converge either to a low straight foot or meet a flattened base” (p. 108); and bucket-like shapes. The charger does not fit any of these descriptions, nor does it fit that of a Christian paten, which Thurston (2005) describes as a “flat open vessel of the nature of a plate or dish” (p. 11541b). During the medieval period, patens showed a more marked central depression than patens of today. Furthermore, as previously discussed, lusterware was a difficult technique to master and therefore it was produced in only a few specialized workshops. Had the shape been the usual format for any particular atelier, it is likely that another example would be available with which to compare the charger at the Meadows Gallery. If we can therefore assume that the shape of the charger is unique, perhaps we can draw some significance from it. With its raised, dome-like center, the charger suggests a mountain rising out of a flat plane. Eliade (1959), a scholar of myth and symbol, explores the theme of the cosmic mountain. He observes that all of the major religions express the same notion, that the believer's world “is holy ground because it is the place nearest to heaven” (p. 39). The symbolism relates also to the center of the world. I believe that whoever created the Meadows Museum’s charger formed this idea in pottery.

    Function

    Regarding the function of the charger, again, it must be noted that there is no documentation on the charger or information regarding the context in which it was discovered. We can, however, use its formal characteristics to speculate on its function. The large and irregular shape makes it difficult to carry or hold the charger, suggesting that its use as a utilitarian object would have been virtually impossible. Insofar as it lacks a lid, it was probably not meant for storage. What also argues against practical use is that the raised, convex center where it meets the sloping side would have caused any contents to be pushed on to the rim. There is also no wear on the piece that would suggest any particular type of use. Perhaps even more telling are the small holes drilled at the top of the charger, which would suggest that the charger was meant to be hung. Indeed this was more than likely the original intent because the glaze on the charger has seeped into the holes, indicating that the holes were created before the charger was glazed. Because the object was clearly not suitable for cooking or carrying, it was not likely that the holes were produced as a means of storage, like some people now hang their cooking pots on a rack. It is my contention that the charger was meant to be hung as a method of display.

    The importance of light is also notable. In medieval art, the reflection of light often refers to the essence of the Christian deity. Here the reflection of light creates an interesting effect insofar as the charger has the shape of a bowl; the shape directs light in toward the center, which is a convex dome. The result is a halo of light that hovers around this center dome. This is, however, only apparent if viewed directly from the front—straight on. Seen this way, the halo of light seems to emphasize the circular nature of the imagery. Thus, both the material and the formal treatment encourage a close and direct study and suggest that this object was meant for individual contemplation.

    Plant Images

    The entire exterior of the charger is decorated with images of plants. Many are represented so faithfully that it seems the charger intends that viewers study them carefully in order to identify their particularities. If we conjecture that the visual representations of the plants facilitate close scrutiny of the charger, then, it follows that we might address, not just the specific identity of each plant, but also how visual representations of particular varieties were used symbolically within a theological context. Although using plant forms as a design is not specific to Islamic tradition, it is within Islamic art that vegetative ornamentation receives the most concentration. Clévenot (2000) states that “virtually all ceramic paneling, sculpted stone, and fashioned objects carry its imprint” (p. 135). Clévenot also argues that as a visual motif, vegetation is connected to nature and to the garden. Indeed, the original meaning of the Persian pairidaesa is “a parcel of land surrounded by walls” or, more simply, a garden (p. 135). The representation on the charger is not that of wild, overgrown plants, but of contained, individuated flowers. The theme of the garden has significance in many religious traditions, but to Muslims and Christians the garden relates to Paradise or the earthly reflection of Heaven.

    It is interesting to note that while the artist used some Islamic varieties, such as the pomegranate, vine, and stylized acanthus, there are additional forms that do not correspond to Islamic tradition. In this case, Christian iconography might be considered to determine their meaning. For instance, the wheat or grain is a Eucharistic symbol used to suggest the human nature of Christ (Ferguson, 1955). The significance alludes to the Passion. The Gospel of John states, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains that and nothing more; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest” (John 12:24) (Oxford Study Bible, 1992, p. 1382). The daisy is a symbol of the innocence of the Christ child. According to Ferguson, during the fifteenth century, the lily fell out of favor because it was too stately; the daisy taking its place seemed a more appropriate expression of innocence. The vine also takes its meaning from the gospel. John 15:1, quoting Christ, reads, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. Any branch of mine that is barren he cuts away; and any fruiting branch he prunes clean to make it more fruitful still” (Oxford Study Bible, 1992, p. 1385). Christ calls himself the “true vine” through which salvation is possible. The clover with its three-component leaves, also represented on the charger, symbolizes the Trinity. Finally, the pomegranate, although discussed before as an Islamic theme, may also be read in Christian terms. According to Ferguson (1955), the pomegranate was appropriated by Christianity to refer to the church “because of the inner unity of countless seeds in one and the same fruit” (p. 75). It may refer also to fertility, which, crucial to my argument, links the pomegranate to the passage from John and its message of creation. After determining the symbolic meaning of the plants, it is my belief that we can associate the plants together, seeing in them a specific program. While the broad theme of vegetation relates to the Garden and consequently to Creation (because in a Christian context the “original” garden was the Garden of Eden), the individual plants combine to describe the complex nature of Christ. He is understood to be both an innocent child and a tragic hero who would make the ultimate sacrifice to become the savior of man.

    Inscription

    The same approach can be taken with the script. The inscription appears to be written in Latin. This is the strongest indication that the charger is, in fact, intended for a Christian audience and not suited for an Islamic or Jewish context (Braziller, 1992). The treatment of the script does, however, confound this identification. Christian textual tradition dictated that there be a distinct beginning and ending to written expression. In the medieval art of manuscript illumination, special attention is given to the initial page and to the initial letter of subsequent pages. Strong emphasis is placed on the readers’ understanding that a new idea is taking place when a separation or division occurs. The script on the charger is treated quite differently. Here, the script scrolls around the charger in wide bands having no initial ornamentation or emphasis. There are no capital letters or letters that stand out from the next. Instead, the script has been rendered in a calligraphic manner that recalls the Islamic tradition of decorative epigraphy. Within the Islamic tradition, handwriting is viewed as the expression of the perfection of Man, who, in turn is God's perfect creation (Fu & Lowry, 1986). Calligraphy, then, is the reflection of God's perfection. This additional layer of meaning inherent in the art of writing itself is not present in traditional Christian art.

    As in Islamic calligraphy, individual characters are seen as malleable and able to take on meaning beyond the words they form. Similarly, the uninterrupted flow of letters around the charger encourages a repetitive study of not the words but the meanings. Rather than having a didactic purpose, as would be the expected intent of a Christian inscription, the treatment of the words as calligraphic script is meant to encourage meditation and contemplation. This type of viewing and responding to the meaning of script has been much more thoroughly explored within the study of Islamic art than that of the medieval West. The script in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, for instance, takes on special significance when examined in light of either its Eastern or Western audiences (Grabar, 1992). The architecture and ornamental properties of this script seem an appropriate encasing for a very holy place of the three major religions; the script, however, is intended to reaffirm the teachings of the Koran and debunk the Christian myth of the Trinity and Immaculate Conception. Script also plays a unique role when placed at the tops of minarets. Being too high to actually read, this particular script was designed to draw the faithful’s eye metaphorically toward the heavens (Clévenot, 2000). Rather than knowing exactly what the script says, the viewer need only recognize that the inscribed word has the power to carry a meaning directly to heaven.

    The script on the charger would therefore be seen as an Islamic feature except for the fact that it is a Latin inscription. Relating the opening words of the New Testament Gospel according to John, it begins: “In the beginning the word already was. The word was in God’s presence, and what God was, the word was” (Oxford Study Bible, 1992, p. 1365). The biblical passage goes on to describe the creation of the world. Significant correlations can therefore be drawn between John, his Gospel, and the charger. Just as John recounts the creation of the world, so the charger visually references the creation of the world. According to Eliade (1959), to retell sacred history is “equivalent to revealing a mystery… [it] is to proclaim what happened ab origine. Once told…it establishes a truth that is absolute” (pp. 95–98). I believe that whoever made the charger relates the conviction that the word of God, as told in the Gospel of John, is the absolute truth. Furthermore, by recounting a sacred mythical narrative, the artist may be approaching an even larger theme—the meaning of life. As Eliade (1959) states:

    To tell how things came into existence is to explain them and at the same time indirectly to answer another question: Why did they come into existence? The why is always implied in the how—for the simple reason that to tell how a thing was born is to reveal an irruption of the sacred into the world, and the sacred is the ultimate cause of all real existence. (p. 97)

    On one hand, the meaning of life can be noted as a theme of the charger. On the other hand, the Garden theme becomes significant when considering the charger as a depiction of creation. The Book of Genesis states that God placed man “into a garden, called Paradise and Eden and situated in the east” (Ladner, 1995). The reference to the garden thus places man at the beginning of creation. Even the imagery used relates to a specific verse in the gospel. As explained earlier, the symbolic significance of both the grain and vine come directly from the writings of John. A central point in the Gospel of John is the doctrine of Incarnation. Hamburger (2002) argues, “the whole of Christian art…takes the doctrine of the Incarnation…as its cornerstone” (p. 3). The doctrine was cited as reason to legitimize the use of images in Christian art, and later, to justify the naturalistic tendency. The naturalistic tendency culminated in expressing the humanity of Christ. The charger, by way of the imagery used and the script, clearly draws from this doctrine in expressing the creation of the world (the Word of God manifest) and in describing the Word made flesh, Jesus. The artist profited from the use of naturalistic reproduction of plants in describing Christ's human and divine nature.

    Conclusion

    Studying the charger centuries after its inception, I maintain that it possesses both Islamic and Christian attributes. I would argue, however, that at the time the charger was created, the two would have been nearly indistinguishable. Moorish influence had dominated Spain for 700 years and became part of the vocabulary of all artisans. During the period of Convivencia (tenth–fifteenth century), artisans of the three religions worked side by side to create images for personal and religious use. The charger is dated within approximately 10 years of the end of the Iberian Crusades, an end that was brought about by the Christian defeat of the last Muslim stronghold—Granada. Ferdinand and Isabella were successful in creating a strong centralized government, and with Spain’s new status as a Christian state that had rid itself of its Jewish and Muslim inhabitants, the monarchs sought to create a new artistic style to reflect the new “purified” Christian culture. They looked to the Gothic style popular in France and Germany, and consequently rejected many aspects of their Moorish past (Stokstad, 1988). In this light, the charger with its fusing of Islamic and Christian features reflects the cultural tension of the era. Although the piece closely identifies with Islamic tradition, we must realize that it was created during a time in which Muslims and their rich culture, which had lasted for seven centuries, were being erased from the peninsula.

    The charger is a complicated piece that fuses elements of Christian and Islamic tradition to create a design important in many ways. The artist employed script in a uniquely Islamic way to recount the Christian Gospel and then added related visual imagery. Using Christian iconography and mythology in conjunction with Islamic design and medium, the artist used the entirety of the charger to manifest spiritual significance. It is through the layering of imagery and meaning that individual contemplation and spiritual growth were encouraged, even after the fall of the Muslim empire and the rise of the Christian Gothic style.

    References

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