Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 22, 1999
Jonathan M. Bloom The Minbar from Kutubiyya Mosque New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Ediciones El Viso and Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Kingdom of Morocco, 1998. 124 pp.; 80 color ills.; 28 b/w ills. Cloth (0300086377)

This splendidly illustrated book provides a meticulous documentation of the restoration of one of the finest works of medieval Islamic woodwork surviving today. Restoration began as a result of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1992 exhibition “Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain” in which the minbar (pulpit) of the Kutubiyya Mosque in Marrakesh was featured in the catalogue but, due to its fragile condition, could not suffer transport for display in New York and Granada. In 1996–97 the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in collaboration with the Moroccan Ministry of Cultural Affairs, assembled a technical team to clean, stabilize, and support the object on a new steel frame and base. The project provided a rare opportunity to analyze the history and craftmanship of the minbar, and the result is this publication with historical essays by Jonathan Bloom, Ahmed Toufiq, and Stefano Carboni, with reports on the structure and restoration procedure by Jack Soultanian, Antoine Wilmering, Mark Minor, Andrew Zawacki, and El Mostafa Hbibi.

The cleaning of the wooden surface inlaid with colored wood and bone marquetry revealed an inscription providing the date 1137 as the year that the minbar’s manufacture was begun in Cordoba, under the command of the son of Yusuf ibn Tashfin, the Almoravid ruler of Morocco and al-Andalus. It was made in pieces and reassembled in Marrakesh, where it graced that city’s congregational mosque. Although the mosque was destroyed during the Almohad conquest of Marrakesh in 1147, the minbar was saved and eventually moved to the new Almohad congregational mosque, known as the first Kutubiyya Mosque. This mosque proved to be incorrectly oriented and a second was erected adjacent to it in 1162. Here the minbar remained until 1962 when it was moved to the Badi Palace and was thus transformed from an object serving religious ritual to a work of art in a museum context.

The Kutubiyya minbar is the earliest surviving example of Spanish marquetry; historical sources wrote that the Cordoba Mosque had a handsome inlaid minbar (destroyed in the 17th century), and this must be regarded as a lost 10th-century prototype for a flourishing tradition. In the absence of surviving Spanish woodwork from this period, the carved ivory vessels made for the Umayyad court in the late 10th century provide the closest parallel. The ivories and the carved wooden panels of the Kutubiyya minbar share similar technique and designs that consist of lightly modeled vegetal ornament standing out in deep relief against a flat ground. Bloom suggests that both emerged from a “similar milieu” (p. 21) and that the Kutubiyya minbar is proof that the tradition of fine carving continued in Cordoba after the civil war in 1010–11 that led to the fall of the Umayyad dynasty and dispersal of power to regional taifa centers. (p. 23) The ivory center shifted to Cuenca and declined, but the dozen or so carvers in wood who remained in Cordoba continued to produce fine work.

The minbar is copiously inscribed and Bloom notes that “The extreme fluidity of the calligraphic line in these angular inscriptions seems almost cursive in intent, which is not surprising since this was exactly the moment when cursive scripts began to be used for monumental inscriptions” (pp. 15–16), citing for comparison the inscriptions of the Almoravid Qubba in Marrakesh.

According to Bloom, the stylistic originality and beauty of the minbar’s inscriptions and ornament show that the Almoravids had superb artistic taste and were the originators of many of the artistic innovations previously attributed to their Almohad successors. (p. 23) He sees the influence of Baghdad in the blurring of figure/ground distinction, pushing the date for that artistic link back by about forty years. While the figure/ground ambiguity reveals the influence of Baghdad in the East, the specific device of geometrical strapwork in which stars, hexagons, and octagons are formed by radiating and intersecting bands, has a more regional forerunner; Bloom points to examples of stone grillework from Umayyad Cordoba in the 10th century.

Bloom’s essay takes on the minbar point by point, dexterously arguing against prevailing interpretations in the field of the history of Islamic art. Thus, careful observations of inscriptions and ornament lead to conclusions regarding the transmission of artistic motifs in the Islamic Mediterranean and the relationship between visual forms and political ideology.

Toufiq’s essay treats the history of Islamic Morocco and the struggle between Almoravids and Almohad, Sunnism and Shi’ism, and Arab and Berber. His vivid narrative explains that the foundation and construction of the Almoravid mosque of Marrakesh occurred in a “context of cultural fusion, doctrinal ferment, and political upheaval” (p. 34). He attributes the fortunate preservation of the minbar, when the mosque that housed it was razed by Almohad zealots, not to mere chance, but the wise reuse of beautiful objects.

Carboni’s essay discusses the ritual use and typological development of minbars. The Qur’an did not describe the ritual setting of prayer and thus does not refer the prophet Mohammed’s minbar. Instead it is the Hadith (the traditions concerning Mohammed’s words and acts) that describe the first minbar of Mohammed and explain the political and religious symbolism of minbars that led to their use in most congregational mosques by the second half of the 8th century. The essay provides a chronological history of Maghribi minbars from the Great Mosque of Kairouan, whose 9th-century fixed minbar is the oldest in existence, to the Qasba Mosque in Marrakesh, the Mosque of the Andalusians in Fez, and continuing to the 14th-century minbars of the Merinid dynasty.

Carboni reminds us that at the time of the Kutubiyya minbar’s manufacture, the minbar of the Mosque of Cordoba was still in use. If the Kutubiyya minbar was its shadow, one can only wonder at the lost splendor of the Cordoban original. Of surviving works, the Qarawiyyin minbar (fin. 1144) appears closest in technique and appearance to the Kutubiyya minbar; however, it is still in active use and thus unavailable for close examination. Although no visible inscription confirms that it was made by the same Cordoba workshop, such a provenance seems likely.

Finally, the essays on restoration explain the techniques of manufacture and tools: straightedges, compasses, steel-edged chisels, and a fret saw (not used in Europe for another 400 years). The backrest was shown to be original with the rest of the structure. The woods used were Atlas cedar for the structure and body with inlays of African blackwood (a cheaper substitute for ebony), boxwood and others.

If the book has a flaw, it is its scattered catalogue structure. The separation of historical discussion from technical analysis of the restorers makes perfect sense. But dividing the historical material according to decoration (Bloom), socio-historical context (Toufiq), and typology (Carboni) leads to unnecessary repetition. More importantly, the reader is forced to draw parallels between the three essays when a single lead essay would have offered a more disciplined cohesive presentation. The catalogue format of today’s museums is a mixed blessing: although it offers superb visual documentation of objects accompanied by in-depth scholarly analysis, the discipline of the monograph is sacrificed for the multiple voices of the team of experts, in which no one has read the essay produced by the others. In the case of the Kutubiyya Minbar, each essay is well written and offers important new information and insights, but one wonders if an even better book might have emerged if the museum had temporarily set aside its cataloguing approach and asked the three principal authors to work in one voice, writing a single cohesive essay.

D. Fairchild Ruggles
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign