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A tourist takes a photograph with his mobile phone of the central painting in the Sala de los Reyes in the Alhambra. Pepe Marín
Photo special: The unique works of art in Granada seen by six million eyes
Culture

Photo special: The unique works of art in Granada seen by six million eyes

The Alhambra has completed conservation work on the pictorial representations of the palace's Hall of the Kings

Jorge Pastor

Granada

Wednesday, 17 April 2024, 09:21

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The history of royalty in Granada includes several important names, both Muslim and Christian. Alhamar, Ismail I, Yusuf I and the Catholic Monarchs Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. They have all left their mark on the province one way or another.

But none of them can compare with the mark left by Muhammed V. So much so that arguably Granada would not be the Granada we all know today without the legacy of this king of two phases of Spain's Nasrid empire.

In the second phase, between 1362 and 1391, he undertook works such as the Patio de los Leones in the Alhambra, where there are three paintings that are seen every year by a whopping 2.9 million people.

These unique works of art are on the ceilings of the Sala de los Reyes next to the Patio de los Leones. They were made between 1370 and 1380 and now, 650 years later, the Patronato de la Alhambra has spent two and a half months carrying out maintenance work so that they can be observed in all their splendour.

It was an intervention carried out at a height of six metres and directed by the Alhambra's head of conservation Elena Correa who said, "Since the great restoration was done, between 2001 and 2018, a conservation programme has been carried out that will be maintained forever".

The latest maintenance work lasted two and a half months.
The latest maintenance work lasted two and a half months. Ideal

These are three pictorial representations - an assembly of kings and two chivalric and hunting scenes - which are in an open space rather than inside the building. In other words, the organic materials with which these jewels were made: basically a wooden base that covers each of the domes, animal skins and the dyes that were made with a mixture of binder and egg, are exposed to the cold and heat and to the humidity caused by the rainfall, fountains, ponds and pipes of the Alhambra.

The paintings attract the attention of tourists.
The paintings attract the attention of tourists. Pepe Marín

"The environmental conditions can cause deformations and wrinkles which, in turn, have an effect on the possible loss of colour," says Correa, who adds that this work has also allowed for a general inspection checking for any anomalies and reviewing the fixings between the support and the skins used as a canvas. "The state of some of the pigments, which are perfect after more than six hundred years, is surprising," Correa acknowledges.

Experts have also carried out several repainting operations. Why? To understand this, we have to go back to the 1960s when the restorer Gudiol used resin wax fillings whose behaviour is different from that of leather, paint and wood. One of the objectives of this latest repainting operation was to eliminate the paste left by Gudiol's work in order to tackle one of the causes of degradation.

Despite their good intentions these previous restoration projects have not been conducive to the preservation of the paintings in the Hall of the Kings. Rafael Contreras, director of the Alhambra in the mid-19th century, took the decision to modify the roofs to create a continuous space above all the vaults and also to undertake a longitudinal gutter that caused leaks which had a great impact on the paintings themselves.

There are still many questions to be answered about these marvels in the Hall of the Kings. These questions are the subject of interesting research, including those centred on the original building of the Alhambra. According to Elena Correa, the characteristics of the structure point to the Muslims, an argument that seems more than plausible given the discovery of a calligraphy on one of the ten figures that make up the building.

The work lasted two and a half months.
The work lasted two and a half months. Ideal

As for who the executor was, there is no documentary source that sheds any light on the matter. "It could be from the Nasrid court or also from outside because, contrary to what has been said on some occasions, the Alhambra was always permeable to outside influences," says Jesús Bermúdez, curator of historical heritage and member of the Alhambra's Protection and Conservation Service.

Painting of one of the lateral vaults.
Painting of one of the lateral vaults. Pepe Marín

The point is that, according to Bermúdez, these are unique pieces. There are no others like them anywhere on the planet. "There are no paintings made on animal skins with a miniaturist technique located in such an unexpected place," says Bermúdez.

Of the three prints in the Hall of the Kings, the best known, which is located in the central vault, shows ten bearded gentlemen apparently communicating with each other -by hand and arm gestures.

Who are they? There are different theories. One is that these bearded lords were Nasrid monarchs. Then some dismissed this idea and decided it was a meeting of judges before going back to the idea that they were sovereigns from Granada. "I am quite convinced that it is the latter," says Bermúdez.

And it is so because it was ordered by Muhammed V who, in Bermúdez's opinion, ordered that his seven predecessors, the two illegitimate ones and himself be portrayed, dressed in a green suit and placed in the main position, in front of the majestic Patio de los Leones and its 124 columns of Macael marble. "It was a way of showing his power," Jesús Bermúdez concludes.

Paintings and muqarnas.
Paintings and muqarnas. Pepe Marín

The general interpretation of the artwork is related to astral and literary symbolism according to the fashions of the time as well as to political symbolism. We can see swords that suggest these people had power. All of them wear turbans, a headdress that is connected to the meaning of the crown and their clothing is also indicative of their power.

Each one of them is above a small shield and finally the background - made with gold leaf - and a line of stars that is also linked to the discourse of the environment. Everything is related, everything is done with an intention, everything is designed and interconnected and this is another greatness of the Hall of Kings.

Greatness

Muhammed V left signs of this magnanimity not only with the Hall of the Kings, but also with the construction of the palace we know today as the Palace of the Lions, but which was always the Palace of the Happy Garden - at the time the name described what the place was like and what it evoked.

You only have to walk around the Patio de los Leones to realise that, indeed, living in such a place is a guarantee of happiness. It was built between 1370 and 1380 and was actually intended by Muhammad V as an extension to the citadel of his father, Yusuf I - he was the son of Yusuf I and Butayna, a slave girl.

Visitors in the Hall of Kings.
Visitors in the Hall of Kings. Pepe Marín

Muhammad V, who had a sister, Aisha, succeeded his murdered father at the age of 17. He was tutored by the vizier Ridwan until he was overthrown by Muhammed VI. After a stay in Fez, he returned to Granada and managed to regain the throne between 1362 and 1391, when he died. During this period he not only ordered the building of the Palace of the Lions, but also the façade of Comares and the Golden Room. Outside the Alhambra he also promoted the Hospital del Maristán and the Corral del Carbón.

The Alhambra is not only an important historical landmark, but a real economic engine for Granada. And the man in the green djellaba in the central painting of the Hall of the Kings, whose name was Muhammed V, is largely to blame for this.

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