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It is not a surrealist manifesto, it is only a photograph and probably one of my biggest headaches. I had a good time though, and I learned plenty about my city. It was taken by the famous photographer J. Laurent, a Frenchman that settled in Spain around 1855 to whom we owe the photographic feature of the entire peninsula before the XXth century. The caption in the photo says it is “The Door to the Mihrab or the Mosque Sanctuary”. The photo is kept safe in the archives of the Ministry of Culture. It must be the Mihrab of the Mezquita!

However, to me, a nerd for Cordoba, an enthusiast of every little thing that has to do with the  Mezquita, the picture seemed quite shady. The big horseshoe arch of the Mihrab seemed not the one that I had gone to see so many times, it did not match.

And how could it match when it is something else! For those who took their time to observe they will sure have noticed in the arch a damp patch that is not so. In fact, the patch shows the mortar used in the arch’s restoration. It is of a different tone on purpose, so the difference between the original and the restored tile-work could be better appreciated.

The restorative work was officially carried out by Patricio Furriel, the Cathedral’s organist, one of those resourceful type of men: the MacGyver type. Somebody should write down Furriel’s life. The restoration works begins in 1826 after taking down the altarpiece of Saint Peter’s chapel, which was hiding the Mihrab. My dear friends, the Mihrab remained covered for 500 years.

Furriel did not have glazed tiles so he thought of a solution that still shows nowadays. Little tiles of gilded and painted glass were made, they were then mounted on independent panels for each keystone and, once they were attached to the arch, to better the results, fine details were painted on top of the tiles. The resulting ornamentation design was a bit on the Renaissance side, far away from the Byzantine style of the original keystones: floral motifs and pure mosaic (not a single line painted on top). However, the general outcome was good and today nobody seems to argue if that was, indeed, how the arch looked originally.

But then, where does this photo with the keystones of the same ornamentation style come from?

That was the begging of my inquires and my surprises. Perhaps a previous restoration? But it is not possible. What if the photo shows the true restoration of Furriel and what we now see is the work Viollet-le-Duc did in 1857? Oh la la, the things I have learned with this photo! When did J. Laurent visit Córdoba? When did he take this photograph, in 1855 during his first tour or on those who followed?

The solution

Finally the answer came to me, and it was written in J. Laurent’s biography. There it says that in 1878 Laurent, at that time royal photographer of the King in Madrid, opened a place in Paris to sell his work and his postcards. In 1878 the World’s Fair took place in Paris. Spain decided to build a pavilion of Moorish style to show our treasures. One of the most interesting and appealing pieces was an exact reconstruction of the Mezquita’s Mihrab made by José Botaña. I ignore the materials and techniques with which the replica was made, since apparently there are no graphic documents of it.

Well, since the photo does not fit none of the real restorations the Mihrab underwent, there is but one last explanation: we know that Laurent covered the World’s Fair in Paris, so this photo match the Mihrab in Spain’s pavilion. Naming it as the original Mihrab may have been a confusion or a mischief on Laurent’s part, but it has gone unnoticed ever since, no one has pointed out that that in the picture is not the real Mihrab. However we did gain a photograph of the wonderful replica presented by Spain in 1878 to the World’s Fair in Paris.

 

A print published by the Spanish and American Illustration in the year 1878. Only document known so far of this stunning replica of which it is said that the tile were made out of nacre and seas shells.

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