The Alhambra World Heritage Site: Inspiration for Artists and Dreamers

by | Mar 16, 2016 | Alhambra Palace Artists and Dreamers, Europe, Spain | 6 comments

All M.C. Escher works © 2016 The M.C. Escher Company - the Netherlands. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

All M.C. Escher works © 2016 The M.C. Escher Company – the Netherlands.
All rights reserved.
Used by permission.



Impossible Worlds:
Escher’s Impossible Waterfall scrambles the brain. The water flows downwards from the base of the waterfall, until it reaches the top of the waterfall! No wonder Escher was adopted by the hippy movement as the “godfather of psychedelic art.”

Would you be inspired by tiles?
M.C. Escher became fascinated with Islamic art when he visited the Alhambra in 1936. He spent months methodically copying the mosaic patterns in the ceramic tiles that decorate the palaces. These drawings became the inspiration for his life’s work. The tiles have been in place for a 1000 years. Escher saw something new. I wanted to see firsthand what had inspired Escher’s lifelong passion. We set off for our own Escher-style experience. I went all the way to Southern Spain to look at tiles…..and convinced my sister to come with me……and it was soooooo worth it! We had a FABULOUS time.

Math and Magic:
Many mathematicians are fascinated with Escher’s works because he used a mathematical concept of tessellations to create impossible worlds that fry the brain. The tiles in the Alhambra are standard tessellations in that the tiles are symmetrically arranged to fill a flat surface with no gaps or overlaps. Escher warped the tessellations to create lithographs of impossible heavenly and earthly creatures. The patterns that can be formed with tessellation fit within 17 distinct wallpaper groups. Many mathematicians have visited the Alhambra to debate how many of the groups are represented by the tiling in the palaces.

All M.C. Escher works © 2016 The M.C. Escher Company - the Netherlands. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

All M.C. Escher works © 2016 The M.C. Escher Company – the Netherlands.
All rights reserved.
Used by permission.

Are these blackbirds Singing in the Dead of Night?
Can you see how Escher used the pattern in this Alhambra tile as inspiration for Day and Night, one of his most famous tessellations? The black birds are flying into day while the white birds are flying into night.

All M.C. Escher works © 2016 The M.C. Escher Company - the Netherlands. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

All M.C. Escher works © 2016 The M.C. Escher Company – the Netherlands.
All rights reserved.
Used by permission.

The Amazing World of M.C. Escher
When you look at this tile, do you see bats and angels? Islamic art does not depict living creatures. The tessellations in the Alhambra are made with geometric shapes. Escher was not bound by this constraint so he allows fish, frogs, bats, birds and angels to inhabit his imaginary worlds.

Escher was an enigma in the art world. The first major exposition of his work was staged just last year in the Scottish National Picture Gallery. It was called “The Amazing World of M.C. Escher.” From there, it moved to the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. I would have loved to have seen it in Dulwich because I lived in Dulwich Village for two years and love that Gallery.

Matisse: The Great Colorist
For centuries, the Alhambra has inspired poets and dreamers and artists. Henri Matisse was one such artist. He was despondent after the death of his father and had not painted in a year. He took a trip to Spain and visited the Alhambra in 1910. That same evening, he wrote to his wife, “The Alhambra is a marvel. I felt an intense emotion.” He immediately started to paint again. He infused his work with colour, light, space and harmony. Granada hosted a symposium on Matisse and the Alhambra to celebrate the centenary of his visit. The influence of the Alhambra on his work is published in this beautiful hard-covered book.

Matisse’s Cut-Outs:
Late in life, Matisse became incapacitated with cancer and could no longer paint. He turned to a new medium: coloured paper and scissors. He made monumental collages, where the story is told in both the white spaces and the coloured spaces. The cut-outs are Matisse’s vision of a tessellation. Last year, the Tate in London mounted a first-ever exhibition of his cut-outs. It drew half a million people. The exhibition next moved to MOMA in New York for four months. It proved to be so popular that in the final weekend of the show, the MOMA stayed open from Friday morning to Sunday night to accommodate the flood of visitors.

The centrepieces of the show was “Large Composition with Masks” which Matisse completed in 1953, the year before he died. This stunning work is reminiscent of the tiling in the Alhambra and a fitting tribute to the inspiration that the Alhambra gifted to Matisse.

Photo Credit: A Morning at MOMA with Sophie Matisse – The New Yorker  Photograph by Selcuk Acar/Anadolu Agency/Getty

The scale of Matisse’s work reflects the scale of many facades in the Alhambra.

WARNING: This is a sad story. There are no pretty pictures and there is no happy ending

A princess in a palace:
For centuries, the Alhambra has inspired writers and dreamers and artists. But not every story has a happy ending. Once upon a time, a beautiful princess married a handsome prince, but she did not live happily every after. This is the story of Catherine of Aragon.

In 711, the Moors crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and conquered Spain. Granada was chosen as the centre of their kingdom. Granada is an Arabic name that honours the pomegranate, the ‘apple of Granada.’

The Moors built the Alhambra as their royal palace in the 13th century. The Nasrid kingdom of Granada flourished over the next century. The Alhambra that we visit today was built during the golden age of Islamic art. The Nasrid dynasty collapsed in 1492 when King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile drove the Moors out of Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella moved into the Alhambra.

We can be thankful that Ferdinand and Isabella recognized the beauty of the Alhambra. They did not destroy it. They moved in with their two daughters, 7-year-old Catherine of Aragon and her older sister, Joanna of Castile. Catherine and Joanna were true princesses who grew up in a fairy-tale palace.

Catherine was a very beautiful woman with a fair complexion, blue eyes and long, thick auburn hair. She was educated in arithmetic, law, literature, history, philosophy and religion. She could read and write in Spanish and Latin. She spoke Spanish, French and Greek. In later years, she commissioned a book that claimed that women have a right to an education. A statue in her birthplace in Spain shows her holding a book.


Through her mother, Catherine had a stronger claim to the English throne than King Henry VII. To legitimize the Tudor monarchy, Catherine was 3 years old when she was betrothed to Henry’s son, Arthur. When both Catherine and Arthur turned 15, Catherine was shipped off to England to marry Arthur, the future king. She never returned to Spain. It is hard to imagine a teen-age princess leaving her family forever to marry a stranger in a foreign country. Arthur did not become king. He died a few months after the wedding. Catherine was a widow at the age of 16. For the next few years, she lived as a virtual prisoner while her father and father-in-law fought over her dowry. When she was 21, she became the first female ambassador in European history when her father named her as the Spanish ambassador to England. Two years later, she married Arthurs’s 17-year-old brother, King Henry VIII. She had six children. Her first child was stillborn. Her second child lived just 52 days. Her third child died shortly after birth. Her fourth child was stillborn. Her fifth child, Mary, survived. Her sixth child died a few days after birth. The heartache of losing five children must have been unbearable. With no male heir, King Henry started a war with the Catholic Church to allow him to annul his marriage to Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn. Catherine was stripped of her title of Queen and banished. As punishment for her refusal to acknowledge Anne Boleyn as the new queen, Catherine was forbidden to see her daughter. She never again saw Mary.

To this day, visitors adorn Catherine’s grave with pomegranates, the apple of Granada.

The beautiful princess who lived in a palace did not live happily ever after when she married a handsome prince.

Washington Irving: Tales of the Alhambra

Fairy tales based on the Alhambra have a happier ending than the story of Catherine of Aragon. Washington Irving is best known for his short stories, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Washington Irving’s, Tales of the Alhambra, was instrumental in introducing the Alhambra to Americans.

He was given unprecedented permission to live in the Alhambra while he wrote his book. A plaque in the Alhambra celebrates Irving’s influence in publicizing the grandeur of the Alhambra.

While we were strolling through the Alhambra Woods, we came across this wonderful statue of Washington Irving.

This concludes our fairy tale adventure at the Alhambra in Spain.

Our next stop: a two-hour bus and train trip to the mountain town of Ronda.

Rose Ann MacGillivray

Rose Ann MacGillivray

World Heritage Traveller at
I love visiting World Heritage Sites, celebrating the world’s most fascinating places and cultures, and most of all, having fun on a trip. Join me on the road to fun and fascinating places. Thanks for reading – and remember to add your e-mail below for updates!
Rose Ann MacGillivray