A mystery mosaic and the redefinition of space in the Great Mosque of Damascus

Speaker: Dr Bea Leal (University of East Anglia)

As with many multi-period sites, art historical interest in the Great Mosque of Damascus has mainly been on the ‘original’ phase, and discussions of the mosaics have tended to focus on the iconography and significance of the 8th-century Umayyad programme.  The later history of the building and its decoration has been relatively neglected, and several areas of medieval or early modern mosaics are still undated and unpublished.  In this talk I will put forward a hypothesis for the date and context of one of these compositions, in the northwest corner of the porticoes surrounding the courtyard of the mosque.  The medieval mosaics both respond to elements of the Umayyad ones, and introduce new motifs; they are literally added on top of earlier mosaics, and they also add another layer of meaning to them.  This corner of the mosque was not particularly distinguished at the time of the original construction, however it seems to have become more important over time.  The new walls to which the mosaics were applied were probably added in the second half of the 11th century.  By the 12th century, the space was associated in Damascene popular culture with Aisha, wife of the Prophet.  The area also gained a new significance as one of the points of access to the Kallasah mosque, built just to the north of the Great Mosque by Nur al-Din in 1160 and then rebuilt by Saladin in 1179.  This talk will explore the role of decoration in the continuous process of redefinition of space – did the new mosaics contribute to the development of this particular space into a place, or were they added there because this process had already begun?

Bea Leal obtained a BA in Silversmithing and Metalwork from Camberwell Art College, then a BA, MA and PhD in History of Art from the University of East Anglia.  She is currently working on a postdoctoral research project based in Oxford; her part of this project is about the multi-period mosaics of the Great Mosque of Damascus.  Bea has also just started a teaching post at the University of East Anglia.  Her research interests are late antique and early Islamic art and architecture, with a particular interest in architectural and other non-figural motifs, and in uses and perceptions of materials.

Organised by Dr Jessica Barker (The Courtauld) 

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13 May 2020