FRAME|WORK: A Ceiling from the Palacio de Altamira, Spain

FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums' permanent collections. This week, we feature an extraordinary Spanish ceiling from the era of Christopher Columbus, currently installed at the Legion of Honor.

Anonymous maker, Ceiling from the Palacio de Altamira, Spanish 1482–1503. Painted, gilded, and composed wood. Gift of Mrs. Richard Ely Danielson and Mrs. Chauncey McCormick. 46.16

Prior to Columbus’s explorations to the New World, Spain’s diverse cultures—Jews, Catholics, and Muslims—all lived together in a state of relative peace. From 711 to 1492, Moorish caliphates occupied the southern Iberian Peninsula while Catholic monarchs ruled the north, during what has been deemed the convivencia, or coexistence. During this time, the free exchange of ideas among Spain's inhabitants resulted in both scientific and artistic advances, as well as general religious tolerance. Medieval Spanish architecture remains a lasting testament to this unique period in history and tells a tale of cultural vitality and wealth.

This spectacular painted and gilded wooden ceiling was made in the late 15th century and installed in one of the four towers of the Palacio de Altamira outside of Toledo, in central Spain. The ceiling’s elaborate geometric patterning is Islamic in origin, but Christian motifs are also present. This combination of Moorish and Christian architectural and design tropes is known as the Mudéjar style.

At the center of each wall panel is a coat of arms for the aristocratic Maqueda family, important members of the court of Isabella, a Catholic, who, along with her husband, Ferdinand, ultimately commissioned Columbus’s westward expedition.

Another set of coat of arms belongs to Don Gutierre de Cárdenas and his wife, Doña Teresa Enríquez. Doña Teresa’s piety is likely referenced in the row of gilt scallop shells that top each wall panel. Shells are associated with Christian pilgrimages, particularly those made to the shrine of Saint James at Santiago de Compostela, a pilgrimage route that remains popular today.

Surprisingly, the Legion of Honor’s Spanish ceiling is not the only one of its kind in the Bay Area. Another ceiling extracted from the Palacio de Altamira, donated by William Randolph Hearst, currently hangs in San Francisco's Cannery. Hearst was an avid collector of these stunning architectural remnants and included more than thirty Spanish ceilings in his roaming castle on the hill in San Simeon.

So, the next time you’re at the Legion of Honor, don’t forget to look up! The Altamira ceiling is currently on display in Gallery 3.


For further reading, see Legion of Honor Selected Works.