top of page

The Patio of the Lions

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

The lion fountain in the Alhambra may be one of my all-time favorite works of medieval art. I'll tell you why in this post. (For Part 1 of this discussion, click here.)

The Patio of the Lions originally featured a stunning garden, divided into four corners, to represent the four corners of the earth--a comment on both the totality of God's creation, and the ambitions/self-concept of the caliph. Nowadays, the courtyard has a mausoleum-like quality, because there's almost no greenery, and white marble dominates.

You'll recognize the lion fountain as the banner for this site. The fountain, along with the entire Patio of the Lions, represents a nexus in medieval art where three religious cultures (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) meet to create a monument to the artistic achievements of their time and place. An optimistic term is used for the cultural inter-mixing in Al-Andalus (most of medieval Iberia, now Spain): "convivencia," literally "coexistence" or "living together." Academic study has broadened this out to apply to the arts, politics, and daily life of the place and period. There are optimistic approaches to this, as I think "convivencia" points to--the way traditions came together and influenced each other to make new creations, but it is only fair to note that convivencia never really meant peaceful coexistence. There were periods of peace, predicated on the deployment and enforcement of boundaries modern people would not consider egalitarian, and there were periods of great violence and suppression, where influences were emphatically submerged, even though they continued to exist.

The Patio of the Lions was the product of confluences of style, but the hierarchy of power is embodied in the site's conception and creation. The courtyard is ringed by an arcaded gallery--like a Christian cloister. The caliph's family could walk around the garden in the shade, enjoying the scents from the flowering trees and bushes, and hearing the rush of the water from the fountain and the four flowing channels (representing the four rivers of Paradise) which radiated from it to parts of the garden.

Curtains of Lace and Poetry

The courtyard and the palace were among the last additions to the Alhambra. Muhammad V, who ordered the palace, was influenced by his friend and ally, Pedro I, the Christian ruler of Toledo and Seville. Pedro employed a mixture of artisans in his palaces, who were Muslim and Christian, and this teamwork evolved what came to be known as Mudejar style.

The stucco fronting for the facing walls of the gallery and porticos was carved out in intricate geometric styles, to the point that these walls, even though they bore significant weight, seemed to be lacy and light. Where there weren't abstract patterns, there were poems, prayers, and praise woven into a surface that resembled the silks worn at the court.

Seen from Under the Portico

You can see here that the muqarnas hang like tassels off a shawl, or like stalactites in a cavern. With all the writing, the architecture seems like its own medieval manuscript.

The Centerpiece, the Masterpiece

Why is this fountain so special? First of all, it's a technological wonder. The twelve marble lions originally took turns on each hour to spout water. To this effect, the fountain worked as a clock, running through a twelve-hour cycle as each lion took its turn. This harkens back to the water-clocks in use in Ancient Egypt and Babylon, but the technology was not in common use in the rest of Europe.

Secondly, the lions have a secret--they are older than the rest of the patio by 300 years. There's strong evidence to suggest that they came as a fountain, from the home of Jewish vizier Yusuf Ibn-Nagrela. The lions represent the twelve tribes of Israel. Each lion is slightly different from its mates. Two bear triangles on their foreheads, marking them as representing the two priestly tribes. So, these lions are probably not Islamic art, and they were made for a man whose religious tradition did not restrict figural representation of living creatures. But, why would a Muslim king have them there, as a centerpiece to his inner-palace rooms? Muhammad V was a very cosmopolitan prince, who spent much of his early years among Christians and Jews. He may have found the trappings of royalty and prestige in other palaces as befitting the image he wished to project. This is where convivencia is in play--not necessarily from a recognition of equality, but a recognition of how the two other cultures conveyed similar values (of regalness, of shock-and-awe, of luxury) and a desire to bend those styles to one's own purposes.

The basin is not original to Ibn-Nagrelas house. The lions are marble, but the basin is alabaster. It blends seamlessly with the lions. It has a poem, by Ibn-Zamrek, inscribed on it--a paean to technological advancement and a threat, in the voice of the lions, to any who would dare attack the caliph. The cultures may blend in the Patio, but there is only one king.

Poem on the basin of the Lions

«May The One who granted the imam Mohammed with the beautiful ideas to decorate his mansions be blessed. For, ¿are there not in this garden wonders that God has made incomparable in their beauty, and a sculpture of pearls with a transparently light, the borders of which are trimmed with seed pearl? Melted silver flows through the pearls, to which it resembles in its pure dawn beauty. Apparently, water and marble seem to be one, without letting us know which of them is flowing. Don't you see how the water spills on the basin, but its spouts hide it immediately? It is a lover whose eyelids are brimming over with tears, tears that it hides from fear of a betrayer. ¿Isn't it, in fact, like a white cloud that pours its water channels on the lions and seems the hand of the caliph, who, in the morning, grants the war lions with his favours? Those who gaze at the lions in a threatening attitude, (knows that) only respect (to the Emir) holds his anger. ¡Oh descendant of the Ansares, and not through an indirect line, heritage of nobility, who despises the fatuous: May the peace of God be with you and may your life be long and unscathed multiplying your feasts and tormenting your enemies!»

---from Alahambra de Granada website


It is also interesting to note that the Mormon temple baptismal fonts, which rest on 12 oxen rather than lions, are related to this also, through the shared orientation toward Exodus.

Carolyn Whitson
Carolyn Whitson
Mar 29, 2021
Replying to

Wow. I did not know of this. I imagine that the fonts can't be visited by non-Mormons, right?


Interesting read on the origin and meaning behind the fountain.

bottom of page