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Sacred geometry in a Renaissance ceiling from Spain

A conversation with Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker below a mudéjar-style ceiling, 16th century, carved, painted, and gilded wood, 28 x 33 ft., Spain (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Created by Smarthistory and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Steven] We're in the Islamic galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and my neck is starting to get sore, because we've spent a good deal of time looking up at this magnificent ceiling. - [Lauren] We're looking at what's called an artesonado ceiling from Spain in the 16th century. It's a type of ceiling that combines sculpture and painting and woodworking to create this beautiful, geometrically-designed ceiling. - [Steven] It's like a three-dimensional carpet. It's incredibly complex. It's a geometry that's gone wild. - [Lauren] This artesonado ceiling was common in late-Medieval and Renaissance Spain. - [Steven] And it's important to remember that when the ceiling was new, it would have been much brighter than it is now. We're in a room with subdued lighting, but the paint itself has faded. - [Lauren] Now, this ceiling is sometimes called the mudejar ceiling and that word, mudejar, can mean two different things. It can refer to artists, or it can refer to the style. When it's referring to the artist, it's referring to Muslim artists who remained in Spain after the Christian Reconquest and who never convert to Christianity, but who continue to work as carvers, as painters, as other types of artisans. The other meaning of the term mudejar is referring to the style of the ceilings, this Islamic-inspired style that becomes so prevalent across the Iberian peninsula, where we see things like vegetal forms and complex geometric patternsing. - Steven] It's worth remembering that in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella exiled Jews and Muslims from Spain. Before that, there had been a long campaign by Christians to push Muslims out of the peninsula. - [Lauren] In 711, you have the takeover of much of the Iberian peninsula by Muslim forces. This also then kicks off what's known as the Reconquest, which was Christian kingdoms trying to reconquer the Iberian peninsula from the Muslims. And so from 711 until 1492, you have many different campaigns as the Iberian peninsula is constantly shifting in terms of who's in control. - [Steven] But what's fascinating is that we're seeing a ceiling that is clearly coming out of the Islamic tradition, but is then adopted within a Christian context. In fact, ceilings like this were common in churches. - [Lauren] Ceilings like this were incredibly common across Medieval and Renaissance Spain, so much so that when this Spaniards go to the Americas and conquer and much of what we today call Latin America, it's very common to see this type of ceiling brought and put into churches there as well. - [Steven] Because its geometry is so overwhelming and so beautiful, but also so complex that it requires careful looking. The principal motif seems to be a starburst, but when you look closely, those starbursts are actually constructed by laths, that is, planks of wood, which were woven together, creating an unexpected sense of depth, since one piece of the lath might go over and then under other sections. - [Lauren] We don't know where this was originally installed, but we do know that when it was created, it have had perfect mathematical harmony. So all of this complex geometric patterning was actually done in a way, where mathematically, it was so precise, so as to create not just a beautiful and intricate abstract pattern, but the sense of sacred geometry. - [Steven] Well, we are looking up at a ceiling, and we're reminded of the ideal geometry of the heavens. - [Lauren] And this is not just carved, as I mentioned earlier, but we also have elements of the wood that have been painted. We are seeing blues and reds, and we also have gilding, so gold is applied to the wood as well. - [Steven] And it reminds us of the kind of geometries that we would see in tilework or in carpets. The ceiling should not be seen in isolation, but just one part of a larger architectural ensemble. - [Lauren] And something that's so remarkable about this ceiling is it's a great reminder that the Renaissance world was this incredibly complex and dynamic transcultural world, where we have cross-cultural exchanges happening all the time, because this is not something that relates to Renaissance naturalism. This is not oil painting on a canvas. This is something that's unexpected. - [Steven] One of the aspects of the ceiling that is most obviously coming out of the Islamic tradition can be found in the four corners. This is a motif, which is known as muqarnas. It's an architectural motif that is commonly found in the Islamic world and is made of the repetition of a single unit that cascades down and creates a transition from the complex geometry of the ceiling to the corner of the room. - [Lauren] And this is such a complex ceiling that's already a feast for the eyes that it could be easy to overlook the frieze that's at the bottom of the ceiling. And here we have a very different type of ornamentation. We have scrolling vines. We have animals that look very different than the mathematical harmony that we're finding on the ceiling itself. - [Steven] Because the ceiling is pitched, almost as if we were looking at the top of a tent, there is an emphasis on the dimensionality of that space, but also of the intricacy of the carving, because the light is reaching each of these panels at different angles, almost like the facets of a gem. - [Lauren] And I mentioned earlier the issue of transculturalism here. Where that issue becomes important again is this ceiling was actually purchased from somewhere in Spain by William Randolph Hearst for Hearst Castle in San Simeon in California. And Hearst was a very wealthy newspaper magnate. When it was purchased, it was actually expanded. So parts of the ceiling are original, and parts of it were actually extensions that were created to look like the original so that it would fit into one of the ceilings at Hearst Castle. - [Steven] We don't think the ceiling was ever actually installed in Hearst Castle, but we are really lucky to have it installed here in New York, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (gentle music)