Representing the Unrepresentable: The Mosque of Córdoba and the Ideal Islamic Temple

Pablo Martinez Capdevila*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Influential architects such as Norberg Schultz, Rafael Moneo or Stan Allen have interpreted the Great Mosque at Córdoba, arguably the most famous example of hypostyle mosque, as the embodiment of an understanding of architecture that is fundamentally different from the one that has prevailed in the West. This paper carries forward said comparison and explores the reasons behind this stark difference. It traces back the origin of the hegemonic view of the ‘Western architectural object’ to Leon Battista Alberti’s description of the ‘ideal temple’ and maps its key traits. The article draws on interdisciplinary sources to outline the new and seemingly impossible aesthetic and architectural requirements of Islam, marked by the radical alterity of an unrepresentable God, extracts from them a hypothetical and alternative canon, that of the ‘ideal Islamic temple’ that, unlike Alberti’s, was never explicitly formulated, and systematically compares both constructs. It argues that hypostyle mosques reflected said canon better than other mosque types and posits the Córdoba Mosque as, perhaps, its clearest (albeit contingent and imperfect) built expression. Finally, it puts forward the concept of ‘built arabesque’ as a conceptual model for these Islamic buildings that, even today, challenge the Western understanding of the architectural object.
Keywords: Islamic architecture; Mosque of Córdoba; Canonical architectural object; Abrahamic religions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-33
Number of pages33
JournalJournal of Architecture
Early online date30 Jan 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 30 Jan 2024

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