Court of the Lions
The Courtyard of the Lions (Spanish: Patio de los Leones - Arabic: بهو السباع) is the main courtyard of the Nasrid dynasty Palace of the Lions, in the heart of the Alhambra, the Moorish citadel formed by a complex of palaces, gardens and forts in Granada, Spain. It was commissioned by the Nasrid sultan Muhammed V of the Emirate of Granada in Al-Andalus. Its construction started in the second period of his reign, between 1362 and 1391 AD. The site is now part of the UNESCO World Heritage List and minted in Spain's 2011 limited edition of 2 € Commemorative Coins.
Background and architectural influences
The Palace of the Lions, as well as the rest of the other new rooms built under Muhammad V, like the Mexuar or Cuarto Dorado meant the beginning of a new style, an exuberant mixture of Moorish and Christian influences that has been called Nasrid style. During the period that Muhammad V was ousted as sultane of Granada by his stepbrother, Abu-l Walid Ismail, he discovered in exile a host of new aesthetic influences that were not in the language of his predecessors, not even in his own first contributions to the enrichment of the Nasrid palaces of the Alhambra. In Fes he saw the Almoravid mosque of Qarawiyyin, built by Andalusian architects. The splendor of the decorations, specially the profuse use of the muqarnas that had once decorated the palaces and mosques of Al-Ándalus, stunned the ex-sultan, as did the ruins of the Roman city of Volubilis, where he could directly examine the classical orders, Roman ornamentation and, above all, the disposition of the Roman 'impluvium'; the Roman ruins at Volubilis were particularly well preserved since they had been abandoned for a period of time in the Middle Ages and later constructively re-used as a necropolis. Muhammad became an ally of his personal friend, the Christian king Pedro I of Castile, who helped him to regain the throne and defeat the usurpers. Meanwhile, he was also astonished with the construction of the palace of Pedro I, the Alcázar of Seville, built in Mudéjar style by architects from Toledo, Seville and Granada. The influence of this Mudéjar style of King Pedro in the future Palace of the Lions was going to be decisive, especially the structure and disposition of the Qubba rooms along two axis of the 'Patio de las Doncellas' ("Courtyard of the Maidens").
The Courtyard of the Lions is an oblong courtyard, 35 m in length by 20 m in width, surrounded by a low gallery supported on 124 white marble columns. A pavilion projects into the courtyard at each extremity, with filigree walls and light domed roof, elaborately ornamented. The square is paved with coloured tiles, and the colonnade with white marble; while the walls are covered 1.5 m up from the ground with blue and yellow tiles, with a border above and below enamelled blue and gold. The columns supporting the roof and gallery are irregularly placed, with a view to artistic effect; and the general form of the piers, arches and pillars is most graceful. They are adorned by varieties of foliage, etc.; above each arch there is a large square of arabesques; and over the pillars is another square of filigree work. In the center of the courtyard is the celebrated Fountain of Lions, a magnificent alabaster basin supported by the figures of twelve lions in white marble. At present, the fountain is under restoration in an effort to preserve its integrity. The lions surrounding the basin have been temporarily removed for their accurate restoration, and a large wooden and glass structure has been erected around the fountain to shield it from the elements during the process.
Meaning of the structure
The structure of the courtyard, has, as it has been said, a direct influence of the Sevillian Patio de las Doncellas, but its meaning and origins connect with the Persian gardens that is root of the Islamic gardening, the courtyard divided in four parts, each one of them symbolizing one of the four parts of the world. Each part is irrigated by a water channel that symbolize the four rivers of Paradise. This courtyard is, therefore, an architectural materialization of Paradise, where the gardens, the water, and the columns form a conceptual and physical unity. The slender column forest have been said to represent the palm trees of an oasis in the desert, deeply related with Paradise in the Nasrid imagination. In the poem of Ibn Zamrak on the basin of the fountain, a further meaning is stated clearly: "The fountain is the Sultan, which smothers with his graces all his subjects and lands, as the water wets the gardens."
Nowadays the flower garden has been substituted by a dry garden of pebbles, in order not to affect the foundation of the palace with the watering. In Nasrid times, the floor of the quartered planting beds was slightly lower than the general level, and the visual effect was like a tapestry of flowers, as the top of the plants were cut to the same level of the courtyard, and these were carefully chosen to cover a host of color nuances.
Some research suggests that the 11th century lions of the Lion Fountain come from the house of the Jewish vizier "Yusuf Ibn Nagrela" (1066). It is not known if they were made before his death, and at the time, he was accused of wanting to build a much bigger palace than the king's. They are large for sculptures of animals in Islamic art, but as in other sites of al Andaluz such as the earlier Medina Azahara near Cordoba, that there are multiple animals and that they are shown in a subordinate position, as carrying the bowl of the fountain, helps to dispel any possibility of an idolatrous intention, which was the concern of Muslim clergy. The Pisa Griffin is even larger.
An almost exact description of the original fountain is still kept, written by the poet "Ibn Gabirol" (11th century): they represent the 12 tribes of Israel, two of them have a triangle on the forehead, indicating the two chosen tribes:" Judá" and "Leví". The Lions have recently been removed from the fountain for restoration, but will soon be back where they belong.
The poet and minister Ibn Zamrak wrote a poem to describe the beauty of the courtyard. It is carved around the rim of the basin:
Excerpt of Ibn Zamrak's poem on the basin
- "...Such a translucent basin, sculpted pearl!
- Argentic ripples are added on it by the quiet dew
- And its liquid silver goes over the daisies, melted, and even purer.
- Hard and soft are so close, that it would be hard to distinguish
- liquid and solid, marble and water. Which one is running?
- Don't you see how water overflows the borders
- and the warned drains are here against it?
- They are like the lover who in vain
- tries to hide his tears from his beloved..."
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- official site