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Camel from San Baudelio de Berlanga

Camel, first half of the 12th century, fresco transferred to canvas, from San Baudelio de Berlanga, Spain (Met Cloisters, New York) speakers: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Lauren] We're standing here in the Cloisters Museum in New York City, looking at a fresco painting of a camel that has been transferred to canvas. - [Steven] Originally, this would have existed as part of the wall in a hermitage, that is, in a religious community in Spain in Castellon. - [Lauren] And this actually comes from San Baudelio de Berlanga, which is halfway between Madrid and Zaragoza, and it dates to the 12th century, even though the space from which it comes was built a century earlier. - [Steven] And this was part of a frieze, that is, a band of painted animals and hunting scenes that existed, originally, below additional images of the Life of Christ. If you were to walk into this room originally, you would have been confronted with lots of imagery, religious imagery above, and more secular, more playful imagery below. - [Lauren] In a Christian space like San Baudelio de Berlanga, you would expect to see scenes like the Life of Christ, but what is unexpected is that the scenes of animals and hunting scenes, like the camel we're seeing here, were much larger than the scenes of the Life of Christ and closer to eye level. So what are they doing in a Christian space? - [Steven] Well, unsurprisingly, there's symbolic value. These animals mean things. - [Lauren] The location of this religious space is important for why we're seeing things like this camel here. So in 711, you have the conquest of much of Spain by the Umayyads. - [Steven] Now the Umayyads was a ruling caliph, that is, inheritors of Mohammed's religious leadership over Islam. However, the Umayyads were basically run out of town, and escaped to Spain, where they reestablished their caliphate. - [Lauren] In the eighth century, you have the beginning of what's called the Spanish Reconquest, which was Christians attempting to reconquer the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims. And so by the 11th century and the 12th century, many more of those territories had been reconquered by Christians, and the space from which this fresco comes was in a frontier zone-- - [Steven] A contested space at the edge of Christendom and Al-Andalus, that is, the area that was controlled by Islam. - [Lauren] In the 12th century, when these frescoes were commissioned, it was right around the time when King Alfonso here in this area had taken back control of some of the surrounding area. For a long time, this area had been under Muslim control or had a heavy influence from Islamic culture. - [Steven] And the camel will remind anybody in Spain of the Holy Lands, of the eastern Mediterranean, and so it is an interesting, complicated mix, because the camel then represents both the origins of Christianity, but also also a land that is now controlled by Islam. - [Lauren] This camel was accompanied by other animals that don't necessarily have any scriptural basis or hunting scenes that we don't expect to find inside a Christian space. Another way we could read this camel is relation to Islamic luxury arts, things like ivory caskets or metalwork, where you do find animals like this one, or even above the camel, we see lions that almost look like griffins in these roundels that are similar to what we find on some of these Islamic luxury goods. - [Steven] I love this camel. I love that he's giving us a bit of a side eye. I love the heavy outline that gives him such a playful quality, that wonderful swoop of the neck, and the careful rendering of the hooves. - [Lauren] Camels signified wealth, and so displaying it here, perhaps the artist, who is painting this inside of a Christian space, wanted to convey some of that idea of luxury and wealth, both the camel itself and its associations with the eastern Mediterranean, but also that we do find camels on Islamic luxury goods. - [Steven] And it's important to remember that the artist probably never saw an actual camel, and so this would have been copied from one of those luxury items. You can see a little bit of confusion around the hump area. There's that larger hump and then there seems to be a smaller hump within it. - [Lauren] One of the things that I find so interesting about this fresco is that it really speaks to some of the tensions, the ambivalences, but also the shared cultural practices that we find in Spain throughout the Middle Ages, and eventually, even into the Renaissance. (gentle music)