Uwe and I spent a recent holiday in southern Spain. My first trip to Andalusia took place when I was barely 17, and the memories that flooded me so many years later are all from deep recesses in my senses.
We traveled by bus between Granada and Córdoba, and later to Sevilla. I didn’t remember a thing about what Sevilla looks like. Memories came back anyway. In Granada they involved spatial proportions; in Córdoba, infinity and water. In Sevilla, my recollections arrived with sound.
We strolled through the lovely Parque de María Luisa to the Plaza de España.
The Plaza was constructed in 1929 when the city of Sevilla hosted the Ibero-American Exposition World’s Fair. A building façade curves, with lovely tilework depicting each Spanish state. Uwe took photos while I admired the details.
I heard an insistent, rhythmic clacking: a young man with castanets stood in the plaza. Near him a guitarist played as a dancer’s heels pounded out a hypnotic dance.
She was astonishingly poised, with the self-confident grace required of flamenco dancers. Her skirts swirled as she dipped and turned. Her dance in the square the pluck of guitar strings the click clack click clack clack clack clack of castanets…. I was thrust back in a relived moment so deeply entrenched that I cannot tell you when or where it first occurred.
For as long as I recall, flamenco always moves me to the edge of tears. I never understood why until my mother told me that she’d developed a short-lived taste for flamenco guitar music when she was pregnant with me. After I was born the craving promptly disappeared. So do these relived audio memories come from the womb? From that first trip abroad so long ago?
I had my coins out and ready when the dancer came around with a hat. I was surprised to see how young she was under her make-up. She might have been 17… just the age I was when I first visited this beautiful region.
We began our trip to southern Spain in Granada. When I stood inside Granada’s Cathedral, I suddenly – and very vividly – remembered what and how I’d seen it 40 years earlier. At the Alhambra, my memories were blurry remembrances of running water.
A few days later in Córdoba, I had a further experience with spatial imprinting. We spent a half day in the Mezquita, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Mezquita was first built in the mid-6th century as a Visogoth church, built up in the 780s as The Great Mosque of Córdoba, and finally re-dedicated as the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption (Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción) in 1236. The Mezquita’s altar incorporates and blends Catholic iconography and design into the original Moorish structure.
The early Muslim prayer hall is filled with rows of arches in colored bands of stone. They seem to stretch into Eternity.
This hypostyle hall (meaning that the roof rests on pillars) contains a grand 856 columns of finest jasper, marble, onyx and granite. These columns are topped with the arches, which are futher topped with more arches.
If Granada’s Cathedral is all soaring heights, the Mezquita in Córdoba is an endless repetition of forms. Gaze in any direction and turn your body in a slow circle. The repeating arches always bring the viewer back to the beginning again.
The repeating patterns are beautiful. They’re haunting, too; it’s no accident that what I recall best from my first trip to Andalusia are deeply buried memories of graceful forms in plaster, stone and tiles.
What would I say if you were to ask me to select one thing I remember most after my first visit to the Mezquita as a teenager, all those years ago? I’d say: A sense of wonder.
Islamic architects and artists are masters of geometric decoration. Their patterns’ deeper purpose is to bring visitors and viewers to a sense of another, underlying reality. Maybe it’s just the beauty in the world. Perhaps it’s the presence of God. I’m perfectly fine with either explanation.
I rediscovered the whimsical and the wondrous as I gazed at repeating, interlocking, intertwined squares, circles, triangles, flowers, tessellations and stars.
Artwork both secular and sacred is woven into every stroke of calligraphy that embellishes gorgeous walls and doorways and niches at both the Alhambra and in Córdoba. The effect is one of standing in a house of mirrors or an echo chamber with lights and patterns extending on and out into Forever.
No single detail stayed. Just… a fleeting glimpse of the Divine.