In the center and south of Spain an imposing amount of architectural carpentry — cornices, wide eaves, corbels, balustrades, doors, and the like — may still be seen. Even more is this true of Granada where the Moors kept their own court until the end of the fifteenth century.
Every kind of wooden covering was built, from the simple and universal arrangement of beams to the most elaborate Eastern conception of interlacing, stalactites, or coffers.
By no means were they all treated in polychrome, however; some of the most beautiful Mudejar ceilings in the land went entirely unpainted, the pine being merely oiled until it took on a rich deep tone.
As a craftsman, the Mudejar was very versatile . Some of his ceilings can be found where the workmanship is as delicate as on a fine vargueiio, or cabinet; others, and far more numerous, where it is as coarse as on any bit of ordinary carpentry. Where something fine was to be executed the masters of the land were summoned; in other cases the work fell into the hands of local talent.
It would appear that the inferior execution, where it is inferior, was quite deliberate, as if the Moors relied on the height at which the work was to be placed, and the extent of it, to render crude methods unapparent.
Moreover, the long and tedious system of assembling innumerable small units almost inevitably invited to slackness, and it is extremely doubtful whether the effect in the last analysis would have been much different had the actual carpentry been finer.
From below it is hardly discernible that massive-looking pendants are in reality built up of many small sections fastened to a central box-core, that coffers are made exactly like any drinking-trough and then covered with applied moldings,or that no attempt was made to sink the profusion of nail-heads.
More evident is the fact that soffits are of butt-joint boarding with cracks scarcely concealed under the ever present rosette, and that this is separately carved and nailed into place.
As to assembling the ceiling, it was built up piecemeal in situ. Beginning with the heaviest timbers, the process of framing continued, passing on to the building up of the coffers and ending in the nailing on of all superficial molds, rosettes, mocrabes (small pendants), and the like.
In the case of laceria, or strips interlacing so as to form polygons, the process was the same, the flat strips being nailed to the planking.
The wood most often used was the pino alerce, or pinus laricio, inaccurately called Spanish cedar but closely resembling our common pine, only more reddish in color. This is still abundant or relatively so in Spain’s scant forests, and is said to have been very plentiful centuries ago in the now treeless environs of Seville. Chestnut is occasionally employed. Walnut, the chosen wood of the furniture makers, is seldom encountered in ceilings.
The painted decoration of the Spanish ceiling was of infinite variety.
The frieze of yeserla. Yeso (Italian, gesso) is the adamantine white plaster which the Moors incised into a running pattern after setting it, using it plentifully in their own architectural work.
The yeseria frieze on which the Moorish ceiling generally rested was retained in Christian houses, making a most effective accompaniment to the wooden ceiling.
Even where a painted frieze-board runs round the room the yeseria band beneath is often seen, until it fell into disuse in the latter part of the sixteenth century.
Among architects there has long existed an aversion to anything that smacked of the Moorish. The style is considered too bizarre in decoration and too superficial in construction.
We have been content to accept Fergusson’s statement that “The Arabs had no architecture, properly speaking, when they came to Spain”; but the truth is that the Arab at that time, through his contact with Sassanian civilization, was far advanced in the sciences and arts, and brought with him Persian constructive principles.
If these sound principles were better known, we would have to readjust our ideas concerning the Arab contribution to Spain.
So far as ceilings are concerned, those who dread everything Moorish as being too complicated and fantastic but are usually nothing more than a flat boarded surface decorated.
The extravagant oriental type worked out in stalactite or honeycomb and interlacings is not urged on anyone as a model (though some of the interlacings are simple enough); but where Moorish constructive skill is combined with the simpler decorative themes, the result is both practical and admirable.