Of ceiling-makers and ceilings prior to the Reconquest few written notes are to be found.
We know that the Moors were proud of their gilded ceiling at Cordova, for they likened it, when sparkling above the thousand lamps of the mosque, to “the kindled flame or the lightning flash that darts across the heavens.”
If the original mosque covering that evoked the hyperbole of the Arab poet had not been replaced before the late sixteenth century (and there is no record of its deterioration), then we have a saner description of it from the pen of Ambrosio Morales who, by the king’s order, traveled about Spain examining the great architectural monuments.
His observations were published in the volumes entitled Antigiiedades de las Ciudades de Espana, where he says of the Cordova ceiling:
“The roof of the whole church, made of wood painted and adorned in diverse ways, is of incredible richness. . . . It is of larch throughout, odorous, resembling that pine which is not found in any part but Barbary, whence it is brought by sea. And every time that any part of this mosque has been demolished in order to add new construction. The wood removed has been sold for many thousands of ducats to be used in making guitars and other delicate objects.”
Morales was probably wrong about the larch from Northern Africa, for if the ceiling he saw is the one that underwent reconstruction, it is of an indigenous pitch pine (pino alerce) said to have once abounded around Seville.
In spite of the failure to keep more generous records of the men who embellished Spanish buildings with beautiful wooden ceilings, the actual carpentry itself was appreciated, if we are to judge from the eulogies’ found in the ordinances of Seville for the sixteenth century.
In one it is spoken of as “a noble art complete in itself and, when carefully considered – as it should be, it increases the nobility of the King and the Kingdom.”
The Trough or Coffered Ceiling
Spaniards usually refer to their ornamental wooden ceilings as artcsonados. The literal meaning of this word is troughed or trough-like, an artesa being the ordinary oblong trough that, in Spain, animals are fed from, or that laundresses use — flat-bottomed, with inclined sides.
Some consider the term as referring to the shape of the entire ceiling when this is a huge inverted trough; others take each separate coffer or artesonto be the form from which the whole derives its name. However this may be, in actual practice the word artesonado is applied to all worked wooden ceilings regardless either of general shape or that of the separate units.
Among the more specific terms is techumbre, augmentative of techo, a plain ceiling of any material.
A techumbre is the ornamental wooden covering over a lofty hall. Such a feature would be the decorated underside of the roof construction as opposed to the artesonado, which is the underside of the floor above.
Elaborate wooden ceilings over stair-halls are also called techumbres unless domed, when they are known as media naranjas or half- oranges .
This latter was a form for which the Moors had a greater predilection than their Christian successors, perhaps because they were so much more skillful in surmounting the difficulties of its construction.
Another word found in ceiling lore is alfarje, to designate Moorish interlacings. Its derivation is disputed; if traceable to al farx, — Arabic for a carpet or covering of any sort, — its application to the whole ceiling is exact enough; but if, as others claim, the word be derived from alfarjia, Arabic for dimensioned timber, then the term would be more accurately applied to the framing alone.
Spanish writers use it as elastically as they use artesonado.
Laceria or interlacing was the form of carpentry in which the Moor positively revelled. Anyone interested in the scientific manner of such construction will find it fully described in Don Antonio Prieto’s book, El A rte de la Laceria.
Without going into the technique of the system it may be said that the general principle was to make a great covering out of innumerable little pieces.
Laceria is sometimes constructive as in the ceiling of the Cabildo Antiguaof Granada ; that is, the rafters interlace and lock together to form a framing on the back of which is nailed the boarding.
In other cases the laceria is simply light strips nailed to a board backing, as is clearly seen in the ceiling over the entrance to Seville Cathedral from the Patio de los Naranjos
Rarer is a third process: a structural interlocking as described in the first case, with board fill in the interstices and nailed flush to the face of the laceria. The two elements are differentiated by their decoration — scoring on the interlacing, inlay or painting on the boarding.
Laceria was not the earliest form of Moorish ceiling carpentry, but once introduced, it became the most popular.
Mensula, or zapata, is the Spanish term for a corbel or bracket. This was generally a typically Eastern concept quite unlike the Gothic corbel of the North. Of ancient ceilings that have fallen piecemeal or been burnt, it is often the only surviving member, and hence the one most frequently encountered in the small provincial museums.
The mocdrabe is the pendant or stalactite form; the vigas are the main beams, and the friso, the frieze.