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Saracenic Architecture

( Originally Published 1915 )

This style is sometimes called Moslem or Mohammedan, because it was produced by the followers of Mohammed. It is also called Moorish. The Moors were a well-formed race, with fine oriental features and expression of countenance. Formerly the inhabitants of Northern Africa, they had conquered and overrun Spain and were not finally expelled until after 1492. In the meantime, they had built up a civilization of luxury. Granada was their city; the Alhambra was their strong-hold. The Mohammedan Kings of Granada for many years fought the Christian Kings of Castile and, when finally driven out, they founded the states of Algiers and Tunis, in Africa, now so familiar to tourists.

The architecture of the Alhambra is the architecture evolved by the Mohammedan races. Mohammed was born in 569 and died in 652. His followers made such conquests as the world had seldom known. Persia, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Arabia, and Northern Africa fell under their influence, and, with it all came this new architecture, quite distinctive in its features, so that we may know it wherever we see it. It was chiefly an architecture of temples and mosques, for the Arabs and Moors were nomadic; roaming the desert and living in tents. But, in some places they built cities, and tombs, such as the tombs of the Caliphs, and their palaces.


The Saracenic was very different from any style that Its chief characteristics are in the use of the pointed or horseshoe arch, in the forms of its domes and minarets, and, more than all, in its decoration with the geometrical designs, and the coloring in red, blue, green, and gold, brilliant but raw. It does not show great differences in structure. Sculpture and pictures were omitted. They forbade the use of animals for decoration and substituted the arabesque or interlaced pattern.

Tiles were used lavishly, and stained glass is also a feature of their decoration. It has been called a triumph of the decorator's art.

Two of the elements of beauty in buildings, given in our table, are color and texture. In the buildings of the Saracenic style, the color is so different from the colors used in other styles (except occasionally in the Byzantine), that we should not need to see the whole form and outline in order to know that we were looking at a richly colored. Spain.

In the buildings of our day, we seldom see much color, so that the profusion of color in oriental countries is one of the charms and wonders of travel. The sunlight itself seems to brighten and intensify color, and if we have not seen them, we can scarcely imagine the degrees of whiteness and pinkness and greenness of the buildings of the Moorish or Saracenic architecture.

There is a great deal of pleasure in the soft grays or rich browns of the monuments of the art of our northern countries. A gray picture appeals to many people more than a highly colored one. In the monuments of the North with their many projections there is much pleasure to be derived from the mere play of light and shade along the buildings. The architect thinks of this in planning the arrangement of windows and cornices and the depth of doorways. The photographer waits for a time of the day when the sun will throw fascinating shadows upon the sides of buildings. But these variations cannot rival the color effects of Northern Africa where so many Saracenic buildings are to be found. I do not mean that there are no colors in northern buildings, for we often find colored stones and marbles and colored bricks and red and yellow terracotta trimmings. But compared to the startling colors of oriental buildings they are like a sober New England gown to a fancy-dress costume.

Another thing we should think of in viewing a building is the texture of the material. Texture ordinarily has to do with the art or process of weaving. We speak of the texture of a piece of cloth as being fine and smooth like silk or fine linen, or rough like burlap. In the fine arts, texture is also the surface quality of objects. The rough texture of quarried stone is very different from the smooth texture of polished marble. Between the two there is a great variety of difference which we feel in our minds very much as we would with our fingers.

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