Islamic textiles: The Condestable’s Cope

The burial chapel of Pedro Fernández de Velasco in the Burgos Cathedral, also known as the Condestables' Chapel, preserves one of the best preserved examples of vestments tailored using Islamic textiles. The Chapel was completed in 1494, and as one can expect, the founder provided together with funding for the chaplain’s stipend and the architectural setting, all material elements necessary for the liturgy, including vestments.

The first written testimony of this cope is found in a 1505-1525 inventory, which describes a terno (a set of chasuble, dalmatics, and cope) tailored in a Moorish fabric with green velvet apparels and the coats of arms of the Velasco and Mendoza families. The document also states that the set was used on Thursdays (the establishment of a disciplined rubrical code for liturgical colors is still a few decades away). Later inventories progressively cease to mention vestments other than the cope. The change of the orphreys, from green to red velvet is supposed to have taken place during the 17th century.

The base textile preserved from the original cope is a spectacular silk lampas, woven between 1408 and 1417 in the Nasrid emirate of Granada. The complex technique for the weaving of lampas arrived in Islamic Spain in the 12th century, and Granada became the capital of its production, which was exported to both the Islamic and Christian worlds. The use of a double weave, consisting basically of two fabrics woven into one another, allowed the introduction of multiple colors into the decorative patterns of the weave, and became the most priced luxury fabric available for centuries. This rich fabric, referred to as tiraz,  was in all likelihood woven for the Alhambra palace or the royal court. The cope’s weave consists of several linear designs in blue, white, red, green, and yellow silk, alternating leaves and flowers with epigraphic decoration, as is still common in the Islamic world. The thuluth calligraphy reads: Izz limaulana al-Sultan – Glory to our lord the sultan. 

One might find it utterly incongruous to use a textile featuring such text on a Christian liturgical vestment and may easily ascribe it to ignorance, and perhaps to the budding fashion of pseudo-Kufic decorations so common during the renaissance.  However, it should be kept in mind that the surrender of the last Emir of Granada in 1492 was the end to almost 8 centuries of Islamic presence in the Iberian Peninsula. The kingdoms of Portugal, Leon, Castile, Navarre and Aragon were all born along a permeable and quite mobile border between the Christian and Islamic worlds. 780 years of on and off Reconquista wars did not impede some periods of peace and constant cultural exchange.

The bolt of fabric used to tailored the original terno of the Condestables' Chapel was likely a diplomatic gift or a spoil of war. The patrons, tailors and the clergy involved in the production of these vestments were certainly aware of the immense material and artistic value of the fabric. One might also speculate the meaning of the calligraphic inscription was likely also known and not deemed problematic, perhaps giving it a new, more acceptable interpretation. There are several instances in which the term sultan is used to refer to Christian kings, and with the translation not having a marked Islamic character to it, one could easily say that the praise was to be directed to the Lord.

Following the brief descriptions found in the inventories, paired with contemporary examples, such as terno of Cardinal Mendoza (who incidentally was the Condestable’s brother in law) I have attempted to digitally reconstruct what the original terno might have looked like.

Images by Alet Restauración and Burgos Cathedral

Digital reconstruction by the Author

Further reading:

- Gloria al Sultán en la Capilla de los Condestables de la Catedral de Burgos, by Mónica Moreno García and Aranzazu Platero Otsoa, 2007
- Pathways of Portability: Islamic and Christian Interchange from the Tenth to the Twelfth Century, by Eva Hoffman, 2007
- Islamic visual culture, 1100 - 1800, by Oleg Grabar, 2006
The Art of the Nasrid Period (1232–1492), The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

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