Sacred geometry in a mudéjar-style ceiling

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)

*1492 marked the fall of the last Muslim stronghold in Granada. It was also the year that Jews were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. The video notes that this was also the year that Muslims were expelled, but this is incorrect. What did begin to occur after 1492 was the outlawing of Islam, and with it there were forced conversions of Muslims. In 1609, moriscos (former Muslims and their descendants) were expelled.


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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] 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.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:17] 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.

Dr. Zucker: [0:30] It’s like a three-dimensional carpet. It’s incredibly complex. It’s a geometry that’s gone wild.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:36] This artesonado ceiling was common in late medieval and Renaissance Spain.

Dr. Zucker: [0:42] 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.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:51] Now, this ceiling is sometimes called the mudéjar ceiling. That word, “mudéjar,” can mean two different things. It can refer to artists, or it can refer to the style. When it’s referring to the artists, 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.

[1:15] The other meaning of the term “mudéjar” is referring to the style of the ceiling, this Islamic-inspired style that becomes so prevalent across the Iberian Peninsula, where we see things like vegetal forms and complex geometric patterning.

Dr. Zucker: [1:30] 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.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:43] 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 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.

Dr. Zucker: [2:06] 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.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:17] Ceilings like this were incredibly common across medieval and Renaissance Spain. So much so that, when the Spaniards go to the Americas and conquer 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.

Dr. Zucker: [2:32] Because its geometry is so overwhelming and so beautiful, but also so complex that it requires careful looking.

[2:38] The principle motif seems to be a starburst, but when you look closely, those starbursts are actually constructed by laths, that is, planks of wood, which are woven together, creating an unexpected sense of depth since one piece of the lath might go over and then under other sections.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:54] We don’t know where this was originally installed, but we do know that when it was created, it would’ve had perfect mathematical harmony. 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 this sense of sacred geometry.

Dr. Zucker: [3:14] Well, we are looking up at a ceiling and we’re reminded of the ideal geometry of the heavens.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:20] 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 that’s applied to the wood as well.

Dr. Zucker: [3:33] It reminds us of the kind of geometries that we would see in tile work or in carpets. The ceiling should not be seen in isolation, but just one part of a larger architectural ensemble.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:43] 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.

Dr. Zucker: [4:03] 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.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:25] 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. Here we have a very different type of ornamentation.

[4:35] We have scrolling vines, we have animals. It looks very different than the mathematical harmony that we’re finding on the ceiling itself.

Dr. Zucker: [4:45] 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.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:02] 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.

[5:15] 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.

Dr. Zucker: [5:31] 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.

[5:41] [music]

Read about this ceiling on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website

Learn more about mudéjar architecture in Aragon, Spain from UNESCO, and here on Google Arts and Culture

Learn more about the legacy of the Reconquest and the term mudéjar in Latin America from Unsettling Journeys

Borrás Gualis, Gonzalo M. 2006. Mudejar: An alternative architectural system in the castilian urban repopulation model. Medieval Encounters 12 (3): 329-40.

Shtrum, Batyah, Melanie Brussat, Miguel Garcia, Timothy Hayes, and Stephanie Massaux, “The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s ‘Spanish Ceiling’ Project: Interpretation and Conservation,” Journal of Architectural Conservation 16, no. 3 (2010). pp. 29–50.

Sheren, Ila Nicole, “Transcultured architecture: Mudéjar’s epic journey reinterpreted,” Contemporaneity: Historical Presence in Visual Culture 1 (2011): 137.

Important terms to know:

  • mudéjar
  • artesonado
  • “Reconquest”
  • lath
  • transculturalism
  • muqarnas
  • Iberian Peninsula

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Sacred geometry in a mudéjar-style ceiling," in Smarthistory, November 9, 2020, accessed June 15, 2024,