What do you think when you think about art? What does it include for you?
If we go by the book, art is a form of expression. It is a discipline that uses skill or imagination to create aesthetic (or not) objects, environments, and experiences that can be shared with others. There are eight types of art: visual arts (including paintings and drawings), architecture, literature, plastic arts, graphic arts, decorative arts, and performing art (Britannica).
If you are an art lover like me, you’ll love this article because it will take you on a journey through the great history of Spanish art and its most influential periods.
Stay open-minded and curious about what is coming next!
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So, before Spain became Spain, it was divided into kingdoms; before that, it was called Al-Andalus; before that, it was called Hispania; and before that, it had no established name. Instead, the peninsula was occupied by the native Iberians on the eastern side of the country and by Celts in the western part of the territory.
This group occupied the territory from 1,000 BC to 1 AD and developed a religious, artistic style later expressed in their pottery and cave paintings.
The ancient Iberians’ uncovered sculptures reflect their contact with other advanced civilizations like the Greeks and Phoenicians. Remarkable pieces of art from this period are the Altamira Cave, the Lady of Elche, and the Bicha of Balazote.
The Altamira Cave
The Altamira Cave is located near Santillana del Mar in the autonomous region of Cantabria. The painting of this cave belongs to the Magdalenian period and is approximately 20,000 years old.
A local hunter discovered the cave, but Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and his daughter noticed the painting and ancient tools from that period.
This breathtaking space is 270 meters and 6 meters in height, and the artist who created the paintings used ochre and charcoal to depict bisons and horses. The rupee paintings are considered naturalist, abstraction, and symbolism. The Altamira Cave was declared a World Heritage Site in 1985.
Have you been told to stare at Monalisa and see how her gaze follows you?
Something similar happens with the sculpture of the Lady of Elche. This bust is way younger than the Altamira Cave, as archeologists have determined it is 2,500 years old, belonging to the 4th century BC. This statue has a delicately carved face, a contemplative gaze, and an extravagant headdress. The unknown artist used limestone to create this piece, and it used to be painted with very bright colors, but time washed them off. The Lady of Elche’s height is 56 cm, 45 cm in width and 37 cm in depth.
In the period the Lady of Elche was sculpted, the Iberians were sharing territory with Phoenicians and Greeks, and archeologists determined the sculpture hasd a Hellenistic influence.
Some people thought this Iberian masterpiece was a forgery, but research proved that it wasn’t made of new materials and that the hole in the back of the statue had remaines human bodies. Therefore, archeologists concluded that the Lady of Elche served as a funerary urn. In addition, people thought that the rodettes of her hair were too elaborate to belong to the Iberians. However, between 1971 and 1981, archeologist discovered the Lady of Baza and the Lady of Guardamar, statues that share the same characteristics as the Lady of Elche, bright colors and richly adorned pieces.
You can see this incredible Iberian statue in the National Archeological Museum of Madrid.
The Lady of Elche was found by Manuel, a 14 year old from Valencia, who was playing around a private property.
Bicha of Balazote
Just like the Lady of Elche, the Bicha of Balazote is an Iberian piece of the art 2,500 years old. This statue was carved on limestone, it is 73 centimeters tall and 93 centimeters long. It represents an androcephalic bull (the head of a man and the body of an animal) meant to protect the tombs.
The Bicha of Balazote was found at the end of the nineteenth century by the archeologist Antonio García y Bellido. And, you can see this ancient sculpture in the Archeological Museum of Madrid.
These three pieces fit Picasso’s quote, “Painting is an essential function of human life. Wherever human beings live, painting has existed and exists. Painting is a language, as words”. Either painting or sculpting, what is left of Iberian art tells the story of Pre-historic Spain and what our ancestors found fascinating.
I mentioned earlier the several types of art that humankind has created. Briefly, we’ll jump into Muslim and Mozarab art, but before we do, I want to comment on the periods that preceded the Al- Andalus.
From 218 B.C. to 19 A.D, the Romans dominated the Iberian peninsula and left behind several ancient cities with remarkable pieces of architecture. Merida is the capital of the autonomous region of Extremadura and the best conserved Roman town in Spain. There you see the Romans’ technology for building and visit the National Museum of Roman Art to see sculptures, mosaics, and paintings that reflect the culture this person experienced while staying on the peninsula.
You can read more about cities from Hispania right in the link below!
After the Roman Empire fell, the Visigoths took over, but we only have so many art pieces from that period. The Germanic kingdom adapted to the culture in Hispania, and whatever they created was a combination of Roman and Byzantine styles. In their former capital, Toledo, people can see the Museum of Visigothic Councils and Culture, which displays paintings, documents, precious metalwork, and funeral offerings from the Visigoths.
Muslim and Mozarab Art
After the Visigoths, the Umayyad Caliphate conquered the Iberian peninsula, and the Muslim dominion lasted 700 years. Art took a slight shift here. Once again, architecture is the primary art expression from this period. If you visit cities in Andalusia or the southern part of the Valencia Community, you will find several fortresses that can transmit the history of the Muslim Empire.
This civilization adopted some characteristics of the Byzantine Empire and Roman technology, such as the two-colored voussoir, columns, and semicircular arches.
Specific characteristics of Mozarab Art art:
The buildings will be on one floor with high ceilings.
The closing system for these buildings will be the vaults and domes.
The unique type of arch they used was the horseshoe arch, although we will also see the presence of semicircular arches, pointed arches, and lobed or poly-lobed arches.
The exterior decoration is simple. But, the interior is the opposite with its varied and rich ornamentation based on tiles, plasterwork, wood, and marble.
The Muslims used different types of decorations, such as vegetal, geometric motifs based on stars, and epigraphic, which is the one using calligraphy.
The most important buildings that reflect all these characteristics are the Mosque- the cathedral of Cordoba, and the Alhambra.
The Great Mosque of Cordoba
The Great Mosque of Cordoba was one of the first critical architectural constructions from the Ummayad Caliphate. Commissioned by Abd al-Rahman I, its construction began in 785 CE and lasted until the 10th century. According to Jerrilynn D. Dodds (1992), the need for a communal gathering encouraged the prince to make it. In addition, its distribution is meant for people to do their prayers individually.
The Mosque was built using recycled Roman columns from a previous temple. The main characteristics of The Great Mosque of Cordoba are the hypostyle hall or the column hall meant for praying. Over the columns, you can notice two-tired, symmetrical arches of stone and red brick. Then, the mihrab, or the prayer niche, is the arch that believers use to identify the direction of Mecca. The horseshoe arch is fully decorated with repeated geometry, vegetal motifs, and epigraphy. Inside the payer niche, you will be amazed by the majestic dome of crisscrossing ribs covered by gold mosaics.
The Alhambra was built a bit later in the Al- Andalus rule. Mohammad the First commissioned its construction, which took over two hundred years to complete. He was part of the Nasrid Dynasty (1232- 1492), the last to dominate Europe. The Red fort is another name given to the Alhambra for the color that the building acquires during evenings. The Alhambra is not one building but a complex with three palaces, one Alcazaba (space for guards), a Generalife (country state), a throne room called “El Mexuar” decorated with complex geometric tiles, and beautiful gardens. One of the most beautiful rooms in the complex is the ceiling of the Hall of the Kings, with vaulted muqarnas (honeycomb-like decorations)
The Muslims created spaces with nature and highly decorated interiors to reflect paradise, an area of heaven on Earth.
The Christian Kingdoms defeated the Muslim Empire by the fifteenth century and brought the Romanesque art style with them. The Romanesque style was the first unified western Christendom form of art. It lasted approximately 200 years, from the 11th to the 13th century. The Romanesque art left in Spain is mainly architecture. Artists from this period used Roman techniques in the name of the new Christian Rome and as an instrument of dissemination of the religion.
The most identifiable characteristic of this architecture is that the churches have a Latin cross layout with the apse facing east—romanesque style mixed architecture, painting, and sculpture. The churches were the most prominent building in medieval towns, with round arches, barrel vaults, and very few windows; the vaults had frescos with moralizing messages that would teach the scriptures to the illiterate population.
An example of the sculpture would be the porticos of particular churches depicting elongating figures of the Bible. The Portico of Glory in Santiago de Comppostela in Galicia. The frescos were usually painted in the vaults of the churches, and the artists made the images without perspective and pure vivid colors—the Wise and Foolish Virgins in Sant Quirze de Pedret and the Christ in Majesty from Sant Climent. The latter is preserved in the National Museum of Art of Catalonia.
There was a period in Spain when the church used art to transmit religious beliefs and attract people.
Did you know that Spain has the largest Gothic cathedral in the world? It is the Cathedral of Seville.
The Gothic period came to be one of the most influential art styles in Spain, and it began its development thanks to “El Camino de Santiago,” which brought pilgrims from France. But, the motivation to have the same or better architecture than the neighboring country.
The Gothic period went from the 12th to the 16th century, and once again, the essential art expression was architecture and sculture. Important characteristics of this period are the pointed arches, external flying buttresses to hold higher towers, massive colored rose windows, and light. In addition, the cathedral had sculptures with elongated figures that represented the faith, and instead of fresco, the Gothic style used altarpieces. The Isabelline Style is an important branch from this period, a vigorous, inventive, and cosmopolitan architectural style created during the common reign of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile.
Here is a list of Gothic Cathedrals in Spain:
Cathedral of Seville
Cathedral of Burgos
Cathedral of Leon
Cathedral of Toledo
Cathedral of Valladolid
Cathedral of Cuenca
Cathedral of Palencia
Cathedral of Girona
Lonja de la Seda in Valencia
The Renaissance began in the 15th century in Italy with the birth of Humanism. However, in Spain, this period is known as the Golden Age due to the innovative developments, new trade routes, and different ideas brought by meeting other cultures. The Spanish Golden Age went from the 15th to the 17th century. Unlike all the previous periods, art from the Golden Age is expressed through painting and plays.
An important fact from this context is the Spanish Inquisition, the persecution of Jews and Muslims by the Catholic monarchs of Spain. To achieve the conversion of every single person, the church resorted to the theater and displayed allegorical dramas that taught the word of God.
When it comes to painting, the monarchs of that time, the Habsburg family, commissioned and collected art. At the same time, the church tasked art with religious scenes.
From this context, famous painters like “el Greco,” Francisco de Zurbarázan, and Diego Velazquez emerged. At the beginning of the Spanish Golden Age, artists depicted religious scenes and royal portraits. Some, like “el Greco” painted some landscapes. And by the end of the period, they had moved to ordinary life and still life.
An example of an ordinary scene is “Old Woman Frying eggs” by Diego Velazquez. It is an oil on canvas that the artists completed in 1618, located in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh.
It’s fundamental to highlight that from the 17th century until the mid-18th century, the Spanish crown flourished with the wealth of America. The Baroque art period reflected this abundance of resources in the exuberance of its pieces. The main elements of the Baroque period were drama, movement, theatricality, chiaroscuro, and involvement. Once again, the other main subject is religion, and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo depicted this in many of his paintings.
The Holy Family with a Little Bird is an oil on canvas finished in 1650 that shows the Holy Family in a very typical situation. It’s warming and invites the viewer to the scene.
“Las Meninas” by Diego Velazquez is the most famous painting from the Spanish Baroque. Here VelazqueZ not only portrays the royal family in a particular way, but also includes himself in the picture. This piece is an oil on canvas that was finished in 1656, and nowadays you can see it in the Museo Nacional del Prado.
Neoclassicism & Romanticism
In the 18th century, Neoclassicism inspired by the Enlightenment came from abroad and encouraged the adoption of classical antiquity. The main characteristics are clarity of form, sober colors, shallow space, and strong horizontal and verticals. The French Borbon family’s reinstatement and the Italian artists’ influence shaped Neoclasiscim in Spain.
Romanticism followed Neoclassicism in the 19th century. They were often characterized by loose, flowing brushstrokes and brilliant colors. The themes of this Romanticism were man and nature, wild landscapes, emotion and intuition.
Regarding the form, Literature and art in Spain expressed the previous elements. For writers, we have the Spanish José de Espronceda with poems on love. And in the painting, we have Francisco Goya. Goya began his career with normal portraits and religious scenes. However, as he became older, he became sicker, and his art became dark. His sickness and the French occupation turned his art into intense, emotional pictures.
A painting that transmits the latter is “The Third of May,” an oil on canvas finished in 1814 that nowadays can be found in the Museo Nacional del Prado.
Before modernity, art experience other periods such as Impressionism. However, Spain contributed to two movements, Cubism and Surrealism.
Cubism began in France in 1907 as a response to a rapidly changing world. Perfection of technique had already been achieved and exploited in art history, so modern artists desired to try something new. The Ladies of Avignon by Pablo Picasso (1907) is considered one of the first cubist paintings. It connected the Spanish painter with George Braque, the two founders of the artistic movement.
Cubism scenarios presented abstracted, geometric forms and got inspiration from native cultures such as the Iberians. Also, Picasso and Braque wanted to break from the belief that art should be a window to a realistic scene and instead remain in the two-dimensional faces, including multiple perspectives.
For those who don’t know, Picasso is from Malaga in Andalusia. One of his most famous paintings, “Guernica,” is an oil piece finished in 1937 and found in the Reina Sofia National Museum.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that Surrealism began in 1924 in France. A group of artists inspired by theories about the unconscious self of Freud wanted to depict that visually. Two relevant surrealist artists in Spanish art history are Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró, both from Catalunya.
Dalí painted multiple, and sometimes unrelated, objects with deep symbolic meaning. For example, “Persistence of Memory,” an oil on canvas finished in 1931, uses melting watches and a disturbing face to express decay. Sadly, this painting is not in Spain but in the MoMA museum of New York.
So, we have seen the history of Spanish art in 10 influential periods. All the art movements I have mentioned here have either begun in Spain, by a Spanish or significantly influenced our artist. I am hoping that if you visit our museums, you’ll be able to recognize some of the painters or art periods we just talked about.
I’m looking forward to reading it if you visit the museums!
Jimena Bolívar is a seasoned travel writer with a unique passion for Spanish Food & Recipes. With a background in business and marketing, she brings a strategic and innovative approach to her writing, making her the perfect guide for those looking to truly experience the Authentic Spain. Jimena is also a Mother of 4, and is a huge fan of knitting her own clothes.