A mosque with a cathedral bursting out of its roof. Ever since Lorraine and I went to Spain a month ago, I have been haunted by the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba.
It is not rare for different religions to use the same holy sites over history, although what makes people originally decide a site is holy or not is an interesting question. The building in Córdoba close to the Guadalquivir river has its roots at least as far back as the mid-6th Century, with establishment of a Visigoth Basilica of San Vincente. It became a mosque in 786 and after the dissolution of the Caliphate of Cordoba in 1031, was rededicated as a Catholic temple in 1146, and its strange hybrid life began.
I found the Mezquita exquisite. A forest of pillars, that line up as you walk past them, with the visitors inside flickering between them.
But what held me spellbound, was the the semicircular niche, the mihrab, in the qibla wall, where people orient themselves in prayer. This mihrab, was simply one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life. Lorraine and I spent a long time just looking at this beautiful thing, and returned early a few days later so we could spend more time drinking it in with our eyes.
And looking up…
On my next visit, I wanted to look harder at the Cathedral too.
The effect of a almost vertical shaft of light, which is extremely dramatic when you walk into it from the low light levels of the mosque. Walking into the Cathedral after looking at the patterns of Islamic art, the depictions of Jesus, God, Mary, various saints and angels was a stark difference.
It made me think how the holy art of Islam contrasts with Christian depictions of Christ, Mary, the apostles and so on. For me, these depictions, however beautiful, always have a touch of bathos. They particularise and funnel the imagination towards human likenesses. While I found my first impression of the mihrab made me imagine reaching out to something divine and ultimately indefineable.
To me, imposing a new Cathedral which literally goes through the roof of the old mosque seemed almost a brutality, and inclined me to a political reading of the building, that the Cathedral was triumphalist expression of the overthrow of the Caliphate and the reconquest of Spain.
But after a second visit, I changed my mind. The building’s hybrid nature won me over.
I’ve forgotten where I first bumped into the thought that religions could be considered to be fingers on the hand of God, but this Mosque Cathedral reminded me of it.
Through many centuries people have yearned towards the idea of God in so many ways, including eastwards, upwards or by looking within. What strange things we people are, and what beauty can religions draw out of us.