A carved and polychrome wooden panel in the David Collection appears to be from the same structure as this beam. Consisting of three arches of alternating form filled with scrolling arabesques it shares with this beam many of the floral terminal forms. In addition to this, it retains similarly painted polychrome decoration on a red-brown base colour, has a white band along the base, has an upper band of alternating white and yellow rosettes and, if one allows for its slight loss along the upper edge, is of basically the same height.
Stylistically both also share an openness and strength of simplicity when compared to most works of art produced in Spain and Morocco at this time. The carver, instead of filling every available space with exquisite detailing, has allowed the individual leaves and floral forms powerfully to fill the ground. This elegant and austere effect is even more marked on the present inscription beam than on the floral arcade panel.
There are three main floral elements in the background scroll; a bifurcating leaf with two approximately even ends, a pair of base petals issuing a long usually curling tapering "tongue", and a similar but shorter conical bud-like form. These three together are found in a number of Spanish and Moroccan designs, mostly attributed to the Almohad and Almoravid periods, and also continuing into the Merinid and Nasrid kingdoms. They are found in the inlay on the steps of the Kutubiyya minbar in Marrakesh, on the great gates of the Almohads in Rabat and Marrakesh and on the spandrels of the Salon de Comares in the Alhambra, Granada. They appear in great contrast to the earlier serrated and angular floral styles, sometimes in adjoining panels and sometimes overlaying the earlier style in the same panel. It is in the buildings of the Almohads however that these elements are combined closest in form to the present beam.
The Almohads, of Berber origin, emerged in the early 12th century with a puritan religious fervour with which they managed to conquer the lands in present-day Morocco and Spain previously controlled by the Almoravids, a rival Berber group. As a result of their religious convictions they were prolific builders. Quite happy, as at Marrakesh, to destroy the recently built Almoravid Kutubiyya mosque for the reason that it was slightly out of alignment, they then built not one but two mosques, the first of these apparently failing on the same count as its predecessor. Their architectural decoration is typified by a pure simplicity. The two different types of interlaced arches for example on both the Seville minaret and the Patio del Yeso in Seville are in marked contrast to much of the Islamic decoration in Spain. The scrolling designs in the spandrels of the al-Ruwah and Oudaia gates in Rabat and the Agna gate in Marrakesh are all powerfully worked but on only a single plane. The inscription bands on these gates also provide similarities with the kufic here. While not as elegantly worked, the script on the Bab al-Ruwah for example is also against a simple floral scroll as here.
When discussing the role of calligraphy in Almohad art, Henri Terrasse notes: "il n'est pas de monuments moins riches en épigraphie que les sanctuaires almohades" (L'art hispano-mauresque des origines au XIIIe siècle, Paris, 1932, p.340). Part of their religious fervour insisted that the interior of their mosques should be extremely plain, showing the same austerity as the contemporaneous Cistercian monks further north in Europe. Exactly which building this beam comes from is not clear. It is probable however that it formed one of three inscription panels flanking an arch, and that the upper inscription panel was surmounted by the beam of which the David Collection panel is a section. A very similar arrangement using similar wooden beams is to be seen in the al-Sahrij madrasa in Fez (Marçais, Georges: L'architecture musulmane d'orient, Paris, 1954, pl.p.334). Bearing in mind the strictures against decoration inside mosques, it is probable that this inscription panel decorated an archway such as an entrance to a madrasa.
Whatever the original position of this beam, it remains one of the largest and most impressive pieces of calligraphy to have survived from this period. Its size coupled with the excellent condition make it a remarkable survival from this dynamic period of creation in the Islamic West.
The inscription is religious but not from the Qur'an. A complete reading is difficult to achieve.
loom, Jonathan M. et al.: The Minbar from the Kutubiyya Mosque, New York, 1998.
Crespi, Gabriele: L'Europe musulmane, Milan, 1982
Dodds, Jerrilyn D. (ed.): Al-Andalus, The Art of Islamic Spain, New York, 1992.
Fernandes Puertas, Antonio: The Façade of the Palace of Comares, Granada, 1980.
Gómez-Moreno, Manuel: El Arte Árabe Español hasta los Almohades, Arte Mozarabe, Madrid, 1951.
Marçais, Georges: L'Architecture musulmane d'orient, Paris, 1954 Terrasse, Henri: L'art hispano-mauresque des origines au XIIIe siècle, Paris, 1932.
von Folsach, Kjeld: Art from the World of Islam, Copenhagen, 1991, no.437, p.271.