Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity: Ahmed the Gargoyle’s Mudéjar Challenge to Contemporary Islamophobia

This is what I meant to write last year. I originally composed it in response to a call for papers that was framed in such a way that would let me explore some of the ideas that I was trying to get to then. This was the result:


I spent the morning of September 11, 2001 in a darkened auditorium in a university art gallery building listening to a long-planned lecture on architectural modernism that Vincent Scully, the preeminent theorist and historian of American architecture, was almost frantically ad-libbing and revising after the sudden and violent destruction of the buildings that would have been the centerpiece of that morning’s discussion but that had only an hour before become the symbols not of the civil, internal, aesthetic destruction of the skyline and the character of the American city but of their literal decimation by sinister, outside forces. In the space of half a morning, the whole history of art, the humanities, humane letters — all the things that make us human — had been thrown into chaos, perhaps even sundered. At the time we couldn’t tell what would become of us.
In the days that followed, little happened to restore that humanity that a few terrorists had attempted to take; we were complicitous, though only by being scared and remaining ignorant. We were told to shop, rather than to read or to learn or to reflect or to craft careful strategy. Sikhs were beaten by ignorant thugs who thought they were Muslim. Muslims were beaten by ignorant thugs who believed they were doing the right thing. Even the rousing, briefly reassuring bipartisan chorus of “God Bless America” sung out from the steps of the Capitol was, in retrospect, only a portent of all the ways in which people of every faith would take God’s name in vain in the ensuing years. The Crusades were evoked. At the kind of cursory glance that we are all guilty of giving the world as we are absorbed in the leaden minutiae our own day-to-day routines, and especially to those of us young enough to remember few meaning-rich details of the world as it used to be, the monsters of modernity have always been made out to be Muslim. Euphonically, alliteratively, though, it is medievalism that can help to draw down that equivalency.
Almost fully a decade after the fateful blue-sky morning that was no darker inside the old art gallery auditorium than it would become outside, a news item from the BBC caught my eye, once again drawing together the history of art with questions about the contemporary practices of Islam. The proverbially curious case of a French gargoyle nicknamed Ahmed is almost too perfect a study in the ways in which grappling with a thorny problem of medieval cultural history can produce, as a side effect, a more sensible way to understand situations that are presented by the fact of modernity. And likewise, sometimes an example from modernity can appear as a diachronic cipher to clarify the tangled mess of a little-understood problem of an earlier period. As much as medieval monsters can solve modernity, modern monsters talk back loudly and speak to the Middle Ages.

Emmanuel Fourchet, a French-Catholic stonemason employed on a project of refurbishing the exterior of the Cathedral of Saint Stephen in Lyon, elected to carve one out of almost a score of new gargoyles with the visage of the French-Muslim project foreman, Ahmed Benzizine, in honor of his adept leadership and excellent treatment of the men working at the site. At the base of the figure Fourchet carved a legend in French and in Arabic that is wholly in keeping with Church teachings: “God is great.” The presence of those words in Arabic — Allāhu akbar — on the cathedral façade provoked all the predictable criticisms. An ultra-conservative group claiming that the gargoyle and its legend diluted French identity issued a statement implicitly calling for no more religious freedom to be extended to Muslims in lay France than Christians are granted in countries governed as only the most repressive of Muslim theocracies: “While in many Muslim countries Christianity is forbidden and Christians persecuted, in Lyon Muslims take over our churches at their leisure with the complicity of Catholic authorities.” To his eternal credit — inshallah! — a spokesman for the cathedral drew attention to the doctrinal acceptability of pronouncing God’s greatness in every language and appealed to the history of gargoyle carving to suggest that nor was this choice out of line with the artisanal tradition.
The spokesman was, of course, correct. Modern Europe has a long pre-modern historical tradition of churches — some purpose-built, like the Church of San Román in Toledo, and some appropriated and reconsecrated, like the so-called Mosque Cathedral, properly the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, in Córdoba — being decorated with God’s praises written out in a universally-used language that Islam considers to be God’s own, and also with ornamentation full of sound and fury meant to look like Arabic script but signifying nothing. And, as we learn from Michael Camille, the gargoyles that adorn the façades of still other European churches are a site for satire, experiment and imagination that often serve as much as a mirror as they do as a window onto the past. In his posthumously-published The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity, Camille wrote about the modern restoration of the façade of Notre Dame and in particular the recreation mounted by the architects, especially Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, of the medieval gargoyles. They were “made new” (Camille 2009, 6) as much as artifacts of the Enlightenment as throwbacks to the medieval aesthetic past that had been altered and wrecked earlier in modernity; recreating the façade required a reconciliation of reason with medieval monstrosity:
Viollet-le-Duc began… with the now-famous statement ‘Both the word and the thing are modern,’ the adjective ‘modern’ having itself only just come into use… In this brand-new Paris, an imagined medieval past came back to haunt the present in the guise of the chimeras. No longer viewed as monsters of the medieval edge, the wild thins and hybrid creatures of the medieval forest, they transformed, as all monsters must, to become the abject chimeras of modernity (Camille 2009, xiv).
The gargoyles speak because they are medieval echo chambers for modern concerns — and oh, how they speak!  Camille himself wrote that the book came about because “the chimeras seemed to harangue me from their heights on the balustrade every time I passed by the west façade of the cathedral — ‘Hey you!’ their open mouths seemed to shout” (Camille 2009, xi). The author was himself not the first to be drawn in by the vacuum pull of the gape-mouthed gargoyles:
The screaming, singing voices of the stones crying out were a powerful and influential image. Hurling their voices at the abyss, the gargoyles have to have their mouths open in order to function, not as waterspouts but as voices of the cathedral. Viollet-le-Duc was surely thinking of the clamoring throng of stones crying out for justice in [novelist Edgar] Quinet’s cosmic melodrama when he designed the fifty-four statutes for the balustrade… They become so loquacious that Christ, speaking from one of the stained glass windows, has to intervene and quiet them. ‘My cathedral, that’s enough,’ he says (Camille 2009, 130).
By defining two centuries of modern values that continually reinvent the middle ages, Camille set the historiographic stage to hold up the cipher through which Ahmed the Gargoyle could sing out to modernity in perfect harmony with tradition and demand a kind of ultra-modern justice for his model and for his medieval brethren.
The BBC item that announced Ahmed’s creation and the reaction that chimera provoked, a story detailing the creation of art for a church with an aesthetic that, to the casual observer, screams: “Islam!,” resonated loudly for me and amongst my colleagues.  This is because medievalism, and Spanish medievalism in particular, has long struggled to define and explain a set of phenomena known under the rubric of mudejarismo that shares many of the same elements of these very contemporary exploits in Lyon. The term mudéjar is derived from an Arabic word, mudajjan, that refers to Muslims who choose to remain in Christian-ruled territories, generally during and after the thirteenth century, in spite of having an option to leave. In the first chapter of his Islamic Spain: 1250-1500, L.P. Harvey offers a detailed delineation of the ways, etymological, literary and historical, that this term can be both a boon and a hindrance to scholars attempting to write about this period and to think about subjects who both defined their own religious-cultural identity and had it defined for them using terms that are both accurate and compassionate (Harvey 1992, 1-16).
While mudéjar is already a complicated term when it is applied to populations, it naturally becomes that much more diffuse and problematic when it is applied forward to art and architecture. To begin with, the notion of defining an Islamic aesthetic is challenging and is under serious reconsideration by American and European museums with collections formerly referred to as Islamic art, impelled in part by the twin questions of how to designate art made by and for Muslims for non-devotional purposes and art made by and for non-Muslims that is indistinguishable from the artifacts of the material culture of their Muslim neighbors. The term Islamicate, a formal echo of the term Italianate and originally coined by another Chicago historian, Marshall Hodgson, to describe the cultural production of non-Muslim populations resident in the emergent Islamic empire, has come into much more common use, while museums struggling to rename their reinvented and reinstalled collections have turned to more precise, if unwieldy solutions that attempt to use concrete markers of geography and chronology, rather than an inchoate conception of the limits of faith, as the boundary markers; these attempts have, perhaps most notably, included the New York-based Metropolitan Museum of Art’s newly reopened galleries for Arts of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia (Rabbat 2012).
The terminological struggle reflects the difficulty in defining just one of the component parts of mudéjar art. Within the history of art, mudéjar has come to refer, particularly for material and visual culture, not to the art of the people readily identifiable by religious and geopolitical circumstances as mudéjares (though that was certainly a component of the original definition (Amador de los Ríos 1956, 8)), but more diffusely and problematically to the application of a wide variety of ostensibly Islamicate ornamental programs to buildings built for and used by non-Muslims. In short: Mudéjar, traditionally defined in modernity, is Islamic art (whatever that is, exactly) for non-Muslim patrons. While the notion of being a mudéjar person is itself medieval and natively Islamic, as an architectonic concept mudéjarismo is rather newer, dating to a nineteenth-century paper by the Spanish historian José Amador de Los Ríos in which he wrote that “poorer and less enviable, but without question a credit to the republic, the mudéjares dedicated themselves to architecture… and their craft came to be reflected even in the upper echelons of Christian society” (Amador de los Ríos 1956, 20), and that later Castilian Christians would go on to imitate this style out of a pure and unadulterated “ancient longing to imitate all of its beauty” (Amador de los Ríos 1956, 52).[i] In sum, this seminal paper developed into a popular theory that mudéjar art was the product Muslim craftsmen loosed upon Christian Spain to ply the only trade they knew, and is still perpetuated in very current scholarship. However, some scholars have begun to suggest that this theory and its implication of the funding of a project followed by a total lack of investment in the outcome fails a basic test of logic while still managing to remain quite entrenched in the collective scholarly imagination of Andalusi art. Mudejarismo is troublesome thinking in other respects as well: It invents a hierarchy of monotheisms that confounds, artistically, a shared religious history; it postulates unilateral influence that never gives way to integration or understanding, adoption or absorption; and it fails to account both for a truly vast and diverse range of styles that are all described by this one word, mudéjar, as a supposedly single, unique and unitary style and for changes in Christian perceptions of Islam, Muslims and their visual languages and holy spaces across the space of the Iberian Peninsula and the length of time across which Muslims went from being victors to vanquished. And, returning to the original problem, without really being able to define what constitutes a faith-based visual form, the construct ought to collapse under its own weight; but it has not.
Likewise failing to satisfy is a more moderate, more contemporary version of the theory, namely that Christian patrons wanted their sites to look “Islamic” in an explicit appeal, unchanging over time, to Islam’s visual language of power and prestige. As an example of this more moderated position, cited in the monograph The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture the art historian María Teresa Pérez Higuera describes mudejarismo as a being an explicit process of contact between two confessional, national artistic traditions and the explicit and discernable influence of the one upon the other even as it forms, unnoticed, a new local culture: “Mudejarismo is the process by which medieval Hispanic society is Islamicized, and comes to use Mudejar art to express its cultural identity, distinct from the European identity represented by Romanesque or Gothic” (Dodds, et al. 2008, 138). Even though this position represents an intellectual evolution from Amador’s original notion and those that grew directly from it, the challenge within scholarship has still remained to determine whether these component parts and processes and material actors are so clearly defined, that is, whether creating mudéjar art is really a process of Christians explicitly Islamicizing or of doing something else entirely, and whether Islam can be said to be the visual language of power to which artists ran even in the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth (and even twentieth) centuries when Islam was on the decline, in hiding, and gone from the Iberian Peninsula. Would building an “Islamic” building have made sense as an articulation of political power for the vanquishers of Islam and their architects? Or were they simply building in a tradition that had, by then, become fully Spanish?  As that second question suggests, this theory also fails to resolve another question that has plagued the thinkers who would — and who would very much like — to solve this problem, namely the question of the limits of hybridity, that is, the point past which something cannot be said to be an admixture of component parts from separate cultures and artistic traditions but has become its own, new style. It also raises questions with regard to when such a process can be thought to be complete or still ongoing. The question of how to interpret the kind of architecture known as mudéjar is, then, as unresolved as it is circular: The invention of a visual category along religious lines, the assertion that a building might have a confession, invents all sorts of difficulties that should never have borne upon the object of interpretation. If Christians built churches in what we now call a mudéjar style simply because it was the local vernacular of sacred space and not as part of a concerted movement to create Islamicate art, the question of whether they understood it to be a visual language of religion or power or coexistence is manufactured and unanswerable. Yet this term, mudejarismo, has come to pervade discussions of medieval Spanish art and architecture so that it is now something to be reckoned with.
The case of Ahmed the Gargoyle proved particularly resonant with that scholarly struggle to define Christian religious art and space that seems to grow out of a connection with a Muslim population. So when the news of the kerfuffle over Ahmed came across the wires, those of us with an interest in the Spanish Middle Ages said to each other, tongues firmly in cheeks, “You see? This is what happens when you send Muslim craftsmen to build your church. You end up with a mudéjar gargoyle.” But jocular (if nerdy) humor aside, what if this act of art and of friendship could speak to the scholarly problem of mudejarismo? And what if, newly solved, that very same question could be fed back into modernity to challenge the contentions of the French right-wingers who articulate a belief in a God that is great as long as nobody says so in Arabic?
Within an old-school mudéjar scenario, Ahmed the Gargoyle’s closest kindred spirit might be considered to be the chimera on the façade of Notre Dame who represents Ahasvérus, the popular, Romantic reimagining of the medieval figure of the Errant Jew. Each of the gargoyles on the façade of Notre Dame, like all the very best bits of the ruins and remnants of medieval cultures, this narrative that explains this figure’s existence and significance is always radically different in its retellings, depending upon the interests of the narrators. The Errant Jew, a bearded old man with a pointed cap to comply with even the stony sumptuary conventions “is the only one of the fifty-four chimeras on the cathedral who is fully human. Indeed, there is nothing disturbing about him — except that he is a Jew” (Camille 2009, 127). Beyond representing a member of a French religious minority, one of this gargoyle’s creation myths posits another correlation between Ahmed the Gargoyle and Ahasvérus the Gargoyle: After dismissing the possibility that this figure might represent an alchemist, Camille cites “the idea, recently promulgated on a Web site, that ‘this is the likeness of one of the foremen on the restoration crew of Viollet-le-Duc. Apparently the foreman was a demanding taskmaster and many of his workers came to loathe him. One worker… worked on days off, lunch breaks, and holidays to create the likeness of his hated boss for the world to see as a gargoyle’” (Camille 2009, 128). The Lyon stonemason goes farther than his apocryphal Parisian counterpart does in this version of the narrative — a version that, while not reflective of the realidad histórica has been entered into the narrative reality and the collective imagination and the realidad histérica. Rather than using the monstrosity of religious minority to represent a hated foreman as a terrifying Gorgon, the Lyon stonemasons used the moderate, marvelous, mediating visual language of monstrosity, arguing implicitly that medieval does not mean backwards, to honor a beloved foreman.
In an argument that seeks to turn the corner on previous discourse about lo mudéjar, the art historian Cynthia Robinson tries to steer the discussion away from the term itself and then, perhaps necessarily, away from the ways in which it has been constructed, writing that the aesthetic that we call mudéjar in fact grew out of “the participation of specific groups from among the practitioners of all three [Abrahamic faith] traditions in the creation of a devotional language, literature, practice, and visual tradition which is both specifically Iberian and strikingly different from those prevalent at contemporary moments elsewhere in Europe and the Islamic world” (Robinson 2003, 53). As an artistic way of being, the various styles that “look Islamic,” to continue to use Robinson’s terminology, were an artistic way of being that made so much sense and required so little justification from or to any corner that it cannot have been a visual language of Islam, but rather, and rather more simply, Iberia’s visual language of devotional spaces.
The Lyon cathedral paints a similar picture: It is not the resemblance of a restored gargoyle to a Muslim foreman that makes it mudéjar, but rather the participatory nature of the act that created the modern mudéjar monster. The gargoyle was not created to exoticize or even to appropriate, but rather to reflect a reality on the ground that is so pleasantly familiar as to go unnoticed by the people whose existence it defines. Ahmed the Gargoyle is the deliberate mark of a craftsman with many skills at his disposal and with many faces prepared to meet the faces his would meet; it was created fully in accord with the patron as one face of a local artistic vernacular and popular culture in which Christians and Muslims travel equally in the shadow of a neo-Gothic cathedral. The new façade of the Lyon cathedral is, of course, like that of Notre Dame, an imagination of the Middle Ages, but it also manages to reflect a sensibility thoroughly contemporaneous to its setting, responsive to its concerns and fully native and unstrange in its time and in its place. The restoration of the façade of Saint Stephen of Lyon is a living example of how mudéjar art comes about. On the surface the mise-en-scene conforms to the older art-historical clichés: A bit of church-façade ornament that one, after a quick glance that does not leave room to think about what the phrase can or cannot mean, might describe as “looking Islamic” was created under the watch of a Muslim foreman for a most Christian patron. But that’s not it: Rather, a Christian craftsman with the full awareness and approval of his Christian patron — the Catholic Church itself — created something that to an outsider (and even to the outsider within, in this case a right-wing, racial-nationalist syndicate that made itself alien by not having its ear to or boot upon the ground), would seem Islamic, where Islamic is a code-word for foreign and invasive and dangerous, when in reality it is the visual site where the monsters are Muslim but not foreign or scary or even the slightest bit out of place. Ahmed the Gargoyle, a chimera but not a monster, is just one more among many; perhaps the French right wing, who mean something entirely different when they talk about Muslim monsters, will see, too, that Ahmed the man is, likewise, simply, one more Frenchman who lives in a town with a beautiful, locally-recognizable cathedral.
The Middle Ages and this puzzle of medieval scholarship offer guidance on a less fraught way to understand this modern Islamicate chimera. But where does Ahmed the Gargoyle leave, in turn, the generation of medieval Islamicists who grew up as students and thinkers out of the ashes of the World Trade Center, staring up at the only hopeful thing left in the world: the cathedrals of knowledge, of power and — yes, even — of faith that were our libraries and the object of our studies? What does Ahmed say when he screams to those of us who don’t require the shouting because we already know to listen to the medieval past and already see and challenge the mudejarismo in the news? As much as Ahmed the Gargoyle may be a medieval lesson in tolerance for that great lumbering French right wing, he is also a modern lesson in basic humanity to us lumbering medievalists: We so often shout at modernity to remind it that the guy living and working next door is just the guy next door first, and is only second a Muslim, a Christian, a stonemason or a priest, forgetting that the guy living and working next door in the eleventh or twelfth or fourteenth century was no more than just the eleventh- or twelfth- or fourteenth-century guy next door. Just — to take a contrasting example, an exception that proves the rule — like a house in San Francisco looks Victorian not as a paean to Victorian England but because that’s simply what a house in San Francisco looks like now, and just like the monsters on restored Gothic sanctuaries look like Muslims because, on the face of a cathedral, everything sublime and familiar looks like a monster, churches in Spain “look Islamic” not as a paean to Islam but because, in fact, that aesthetic looks Spanish.
We Islamicists who watched the whole world change from our art history classrooms and went not to war but to Arabic lessons, we’re still catching our breath.  Our unique, natural and uncomfortable vantage point bought us an intimate proximity, paired paradoxically with radical distance, that makes us the freaks, the chimeras, and the funny, monstrous misfits that reflect our present reality while equally reflecting upon the past.  It’s a different problem than the one faced by our confused predecessors who could not conceive of a Christian craftsman making Islamicate art simply because he wanted to and because it was familiar to him, but the effect is the same. It is sometimes too easy, blinded by the dust storm of ashes at our feet, to keep our eyes only on the stories of the cathedral spires that keep us from falling in or disintegrating and not look at the historical reality of the guy who lived next door a millennium ago. But it’s the same mixed-up monster of modernity that creeps up in unexpected ways — sometimes in the form of a French gargoyle named Ahmed — and reminds us that we, like the world that we sometimes all-too-reluctantly inhabit, can do better.  The stories, and the books we read and write, could easily kill the buildings that the medieval guys next door inhabited and built,[ii] as Victor Hugo wrote, more or less (and only to his male readers), but we need the buildings and their monsters to make sense in and out of the books. The book could easily kill the building. But if we let it, we obliterate Ahmed and his silent, screaming, medieval, modern wisdom.

Amador de los Ríos, José. El Estilo mudéjar en arquitectura. Paris: Centre de Recherches de l’Institute d’Études Hispaniques, 1965 reprint.
British Broadcasting Corporation. ‘Muslim’ Gargoyle Adorns French Cathedral. 7 Sept 2010., accessed 2 May, 2012.
Camille, Michael. Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Castro, Américo. La realidad histórica de España. Mexico City: Porruá, 1957.
Dodds, Jerilynn D., María Rosa Menocal and Abigail Krasner Balbale. The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture. New Haven: Yale UP, 2008.
Harvey, L.P. Islamic Spain, 1250-1500. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Hodgson, Marshall. The Venture of Islam, 3 vols. Cambridge: UP, 1993 reprint.
Hugo, Victor. Notre-Dame de Paris. New York: Penguin Books, 2004 reprint.
López Baralt, Luce. “Hacia una lectura ‘mudéjar’ de Makbara,” Huellas del Islam en la literature española. Madrid: Hiperión, 1985. 181-209.
Márquez Villanueva, Francisco. Mudejarismo. Madrid: Fundación Tres Culturas, 2002.
Rabbat, Nasser. “What’s in a Name?” Artforum 50:8 (January, 2012)., accessed 27 June, 2012.
Robinson, Cynthia. “Mudéjar Revisited: A Prolegomena t othe Reconstruction of Perception, Devotion and Experience at the Mudéjar Convent of Clarisas, Tordesillas,” Res 43:1 (2003), 51-77.

[i] Translations from this text are my own.
[ii] Camille writes about this excursus in Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris — that begins with the misogynistic apologetic caveat: “Our female readers will forgive us if we pause for a moment in order to see what the thought might be that lay concealed beneath the archdeacon’s enigmatic words ‘This will kill that. The book will kill the building.’ — in the third chapter of Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity.

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