Sultans and Saints: Spain's Confluence of Cultures

September 12, 2010 - January 23, 2011

This exhibition brings together works created in Counter-Reformation Spain and the precursory period of convivencia. As a corollary exhibition to the loan of El Greco’s Pentecost from the Prado Museum, Sultans and Saints: Spain’s Confluence of Cultures aims to provide a context for understanding the religious and cultural climate of Spain—and Toledo in particular—during the time of El Greco.

The Toledo of El Greco was a city of Catholic orthodoxy, a city of mystics and of scholarly learning. A significant cultural center, Toledo came to be known by its denizens as the “second Rome.” The rich character of the city owed much to its historically diverse population of Christians, Jews and Muslims.

El Greco ingratiated himself with an interesting cross-section of patrons, including members of the archdiocesan council as well as merchants and bankers of converso, or Jewish, descent. Alonso de Villegas>, a church canon, authored a book in 1578 on the saints’ lives (Flos Sanctorum), in which he specifically praised El Greco’s painting, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586-88), which “portrayed, very life-like, the notable men of our time.”

Having taken up residence in Toledo in 1577, El Greco witnessed the Counter Reformation as it unfolded in Spain. Though technically not the capital of Spain—Philip II (r.1556-1598) moved the court to Madrid in 1561—Toledo was a major Catholic stronghold of Europe and the epicenter of the Spanish church. Toledo’s archbishops promulgated a spirit of sweeping religious reform that radiated well beyond the city walls to all parts of the Peninsula.

Philip II was the most powerful ruler of Christendom, and he sought to strengthen Spain’s unification under Christian rule through strict adherence to the extensive reform taking place within the Catholic Church. Known as the Counter Reformation, this period of Catholic revitalization was an answer to the schism that led to the Protestant Reformation.

The Council of Trent, a series of ecclesiastical meetings held intermittently between 1545 and 1563, effected major changes within the Catholic Church. As a result, doctrine was clarified, questionable practices, such as the selling of indulgences (pardons from punishment), were addressed, and mandates were also placed on artistic decorum. Artistic narrative was to be in firm accordance with the scriptures, while the composition was to be clearly focused and void of ornamental excess.

Reforms initiated by the Council of Trent had particular ramifications in Spain. Before the Protestant “problem,” the Spanish church had had to contend with its dilution of power due to significant populations of both Jews and Muslims, who had resided in Iberia for centuries. In 711, Muslims invaded Spain and conquered the Visigoths, who had converted to Christianity. The invasion marked the beginning of convivencia, translated literally as “coexistence,” when Jews, Muslims and Christians coexisted in Iberia. A period of attempted cultural syncretism, convivencia was characterized by mercurial spells of peaceful interaction among the three religious communities, as well as by murderous violence. At its high points, convivencia resulted in productive collaboration among the diverse groups. This collaboration is manifested in the hybrid style of art and architecture of the epoch.

With the defeat of Muslim Granada in 1492, convivencia officially came to an end. Under Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, Jews were faced with the choice of conversion to Christianity or expulsion from Spain. Suspicious that many of conversos had not truly been converted, Ferdinand and Isabella established the Inquisition in 1478 to pressure and punish individuals and groups suspected of unorthodox beliefs and activities.

In addition to works of art from the Meadows permanent collection, items will be on display from SMU’s Bridwell and DeGolyer libraries. Several books and manuscripts generously lent from Bridwell Library have been selected in collaboration with the library’s curator of Special Collections, Dr. Eric White. The 25 items on loan from Bridwell Library were produced in Spain from the 15th to the early 17th century. These include an indulgence from 1490 promoting the crusade in Granada, cartas executorias (letters of nobility) issued by Charles V and Philip II, and a collection of sermons and scriptural explications by Domingo de Valtanás, a Dominican priest tried by the Inquisition for his Illuminist leanings. A small selection of works providing an introduction to convivencia and its commingling of artistic styles includes a manuscript of Bernardus de Gordonio’s Lilium medicinae, a medical manual translated from Latin into Hebrew for a Jewish doctor in 1466.

Dr. Anne E. Peterson, curator of photographs at De- Golyer Library, has assisted with a loan from a private collector of 19th-century photographs, including images by Juan Laurent, Casiano Alguacil Blázquez and Francisco Almela. These photographs feature the Islamic and Christian ornamentation of the Alhambra the cathedrals of Toledo and Seville.

This exhibition has been organized by the Meadows Museum with assistance from Bridwell Library and DeGolyer Library and funded by a generous gift from The Meadows Foundation.

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