The Patti Cadby Birch Moroccan Court
Created onsite at the Metropolitan Museum by the Naji family and their company, Arabesque, Inc., Fez, Morocco, 2011
Polychrome-glazed, cut tilework, carved stucco, carved cedar wood, carved marble
Marble, carved; 86 3⁄8 x 15 1/4 in. (219.4 x 38.7 cm); Diam. 63⁄8 in. (16.2 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of The Hearst Foundation, 1956 (56.234.18–21a–d)
KEY WORDS AND IDEAS
Spain, Morocco, Nasrid kingdom, Alhambra Palace, cultural exchange, geometric, marble, stucco, zilij (type of tilework)
LINK TO THE THEME OF THIS UNIT
This tiled courtyard evokes the perfection of geometric design during the golden age of Islamic Spain under the Nasrid dynasty (1232–1492) (see Court Arts of Islamic Spain). The themes of repetition and infinity in particular are embodied in the complex repeating star motifs of the tiled wall panels.
Tilework like this, called zilij, was used frequently in southern Spain (known under Islamic rule as al-Andalus, hence "Andalusia") and North Africa to decorate architectural surfaces similar to ones seen in this courtyard.
The walls are divided into three sections, as is traditional in Moroccan and Andalusian courtyard architecture. The lowest section of the courtyard wall is covered in brightly colored geometric tiles. Just above this is intricately carved plaster, and above that, in the top register, carved wood. The patterns of the tiles decorating the bottom register of the courtyard display all the common characteristics of geometric design. The design begins at the center of each star and radiates out symmetrically in a series of interlacing stars, pentagons, and other shapes. The patterns repeat infinitely outward, creating a harmonious geometric composition. The borders of the tile panel appear arbitrary—the design does not end but is simply cut off, suggesting it continues infinitely into space. Although this particular colorful design is unique to Moroccan and Andalusian architecture, similar star-based patterns can be seen in works from other regions in the Museum's collection.
Courtyards like this were typical of the architecture in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Morocco and southern Spain (fig. 16). This courtyard was inspired by these and built and decorated onsite in 2011 by a team of Moroccan craftsmen from the city of Fez. The aim was to celebrate the excellence and enduring vitality of contemporary craftsmanship in the Islamic world. Morocco is one of the few countries in this vast region that has kept these centuries-old traditions alive and maintained them at the highest level. Every element of the courtyard was created with traditional techniques and materials, including the designs and colors of the tile panels, which are based on the wall panels (dadoes) of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain (see fig. 22), built under Nasrid rule (1232–1492). Tiled dadoes like these are commonly seen in Islamic buildings throughout southern Spain and North Africa.
Fig. 16. Courtyard and fountain, 'Attarin Madrasa, Fez, Morocco, 1323–25
Video: Building the Moroccan Court
RELATED AUDIO FROM THE GALLERY GUIDE
Navina Haidar: I'm Navina Haidar, and I'm a curator in the Islamic Department, and I have been very involved in the creation of this Moroccan court. The court in Moroccan architecture forms a central element. The first thing about a court in Morocco is that it's open to the sky. And it's generally a very tall sort of space, as well. It's surrounded by walls all around, containing rooms. They can be double-storied or triple-storied rooms. But the central point about it is its height and this natural light that comes right down to the center of the space, which usually contains a fountain basin in the middle and often has tilework around the fountain basin, and also on the walls, and the dadoes all around. If you're looking at the walls, you would start with a section of colored tiles, in the zilij technique. This is followed by carved stucco. The stucco takes you up to the next level, which is wood. And you have incredible carved wooden elements, which project from these walls, and narrow the upper level of the light shaft. And then these are finally topped off with green roof tiles, which you usually just see the edge, the profile of the edge, and then above that just the clear sky.
So all of these are essential elements in that particular balance, which create and characterize courtyards in Morocco. So the person living in this space has the opportunity to enjoy fresh air and sunlight from the courtyard, wafting in and out of the rooms and also keeping things cool and capturing breezes.
Sheila Canby: There are two other voices to listen to here, as well: The architect, and the other is the Moroccan chief plasterer.