Alcázar - Mudéjar Alcázar

The stunning gold ceiling of the Alcazar. © Sophie Carefull
The stunning gold ceiling of the Alcazar.

Mudéjar Alcázar

Palacio del Rey Pedro I de Castilla

This part of the Alcazar is the most famous, and is often shown in photos of the palace due to its astonishing visual impact, especially the Ambassador’s Hall with its mirrored gold domed ceiling, and the Patio of the Maidens with its beautiful stucco arches and sunken gardens.

Introduction

While the Alcazar looks like a Moorish palace, in fact many of its chambers were built by Moorish workmen for the Christian king, Pedro I of Castile, in the 1360s. Pedro was interested in Islamic culture and philosophy.

This combination of Moorish craftsmanship with Christian aesthetics (often regal symbols such as castles and lions, as well as heads of monarchs) is called Mudéjar.

Known as The Wise or The Cruel (he’s said to have murdered his own half-brother), Pedro lived in the palace with his mistress, Maria de Padilla.

He embarked upon a complete rebuilding and extending of the palace from its Moorish and Gothic origins, employing the finest workmen from Granada (who also worked on the Nasrid Palace of the Alhambra) and Toledo, and utilising fragments of earlier Moorish buildings in Seville, Cordoba and Valencia.

Pedro's Mudéjar palace forms the heart of the Alcazar as it is today and, despite numerous restorations necessitated by fires and earth tremors, the Alcazar offers some of the best surviving examples of Mudéjar architecture.

Highlights of King Peter’s Palace

Straight ahead as you go in, past the Moorish wall facing you across the Patio de la Monteria, is the Palace of Don Pedro I of Castile.

Its layered façade is the epitome of Mudejar architecture, harmoniously marrying Moorish features – delicate polylobate arches, sebqa stucco work, and blue Arabic lettering ("Noone is victorious but Allah") with Christian words (“the very noble... Don Pedro... ordered these Alcázares built in 1364") and symbols such as the Kingdom of Leon’s coat of arms. The façade is a strange but fascinating combination of styles, laying out the intent of the interior and giving a taste of what’s to come.

The overall effect is exotic, almost oriental - the square roof and ornate projecting portico with painted and carved mocarabe details in regal green, red and gold have an Asian feel.

Patio de las Doncellas (Maidens’ Courtyard)

With its sunken gardens, painstaking arches and elegantly long pool, this is one of the finest examples of the Mudéjar patio.

The arcade is of white marble columns with 24 elaborate stucco arches. Renaissance additions from the 16th century include sculptures of knights, coats of arms, hands and masks.

The gardens were planted at a lower level than the walkways, to make it easier to pick the fruit from the trees. This sunken part was only rediscovered in 2002, having been paved over in the 1570s.

The azulejos (ceramic tiles) in interconnected lattice patterns adorn the lower parts, in vibrant shades of turquoise, royal blue and orange. These tiles can be seen throughout Peter’s palace: all were handmade, with tiny coloured pieces painstakingly inset one by one, in a style called alicatado. The designs, often featuring stars, are repeated, linked by intercrossing ribbons to represent divine infinity.

While stucco and tiles design in Arabic architecture mostly use graphic shapes and botanical details, such as stars or leaves, those in Mudéjar decoration feature motifs such as flowers, as well as shells which are associated with fertility, and the lion and castle of the Spanish monarchy.

Look up to see the coloured artesonado (wooden carved coffered ceilings), also with geometric designs.

You will also see these types of decoration – tiles, stucco and artesonado ceilings - in the other salons of Pedro’s palace.

Around this patio are various royal salons (Salónes de los Infantes, Philip II Ceiling Room, Charles V Ceiling Room) and other patios (Patio de las Muñecas), and at the opposite end is the most spectacular room in the palace: the Ambassadors’ Hall.

Salon de los Embajadores – Ambassadors’ Hall

This hall was where visiting dignitaries were received.

Peter I wanted the entire hall to be decorated, on every surface, so that it would be the palace’s most resplendent room. The four walls are completely covered with intricate and beautiful tile and stucco work.

The room is square like a Muslim qubba, with triple horseshoe arches on three sides, and a semi-circular arch leading to the Patio de la Doncellas. It is the only double-height room in the palace – the outer roof, seen from the patio, is hexagonal.

The crowning point is the gold mirrored cupola, which represents the heavens, and God being above all men; nine metres in diameter, the wooden dome was installed in 1427. Thanks to an angled mirror, you can see the celestial decoration close-up without having to bend your neck back to look upwards.

As well as a distinctly regal atmosphere, thanks to its blue, gold and white colours, and the gallery with portraits of all the Castillian kings, fabulous touches such as balconies supported by golden dragons also give the room a fairytale feel. Again, panels of Arabic calligraphy can be seen.

Phillip II Ceiling Room

The name refers to its semi-barrelled wooden ceiling.

Look out for the Peacock Arch leading to the Ambassador’s Hall. This is another superb example of Mudéjar art, with Islamic inscriptions and latticework plus Christian-influenced figurative details – the peacock, swan and other birds in gold.

This room leads out to the Prince’s Garden.

Infantes’ Suite

Situated to the left of the Ambassadors’ Hall, viewed from the Patio de las Doncellas, this suite of rooms was occupied by the king’s daughters. The central rectangular room was used as a dining room, with a square bed chamber on either side (in Muslim style), both looking out onto the Galley Garden.

In addition to the exquisite wall tiles, stucco and ceiling, these rooms also have beautiful floors with inset tiles, windows with decorated wooden shutters, and even the metal grille has Arabic calligraphy.

Charles V Ceiling Room

Originally designed as a chapel, this has a Renaissance coffered ceiling from 1543 with busts of human figures.

Alcoba Real - Royal Chamber

This Alcoba Real next to the Courtyard of the Maidens contains two chambers used by the king.

One receives sunlight from the patio, and would have been used in winter, with a separate bedroom area. Through a triple arch, the second chamber has a higher, barrel-vault ceiling, and is cooler and without direct light, designed for summer.

Patio de las Muñecas - Courtyard of the Dolls

This was in the private area of the palace, for the use of the king and his family. It opens onto three bedrooms, and to the Prince’s Garden.

A small, square courtyard, its columns have capitals bearing inscriptions from the Koran, repurposed from Medina Azahara, the abandoned city of the Córdoban Caliphate, and stucco from the Alhambra.

The name of the courtyard comes from the tiny dolls’ heads at the base of one of the arches.

Salon de los Reyes Católicos (The Catholic Monarchs’ Room) also known as the Dormitorio del los Reyes Moros (Moorish Kings’ Bedroom)

Next to the Dolls’ Courtyard, this room has a beautiful wooden ceiling, comprised of ribbons and heraldic emblems.

Suite of the Prince

Also accessed from the Patio de las Muñecas, this is similar to the Infantes’ Rooms - one rectangular salon, with a square bed chamber either side of it.

The suite was used as the Queen’s bedroom until Isabel La Católica built the upper floor; afterwards, her son Juan de Aragon was born there, hence the name. Sadly, the royal baby died at just 19 days old.

Like the other rooms, it has exquisite scalloped stucco arches, plasterwork with Arabic quotes, and lattice tiles. The floor is modern.

The ceilings are considered the finest Renaissance examples with their polychrome, 3D mocarabe decoration and Plateresque mouldings.