Given their shape and their size, these three squinches  were probably placed at the corners of an octagonal ceiling as a transitional element between the ceiling and the quadrangular shape of the room. They would therefore have been part of a larger, carved wooden ceiling fully decorated with interlace patterns.  This type of ceiling was particularly popular in the Iberian Peninsula, both in Muslim al-Andalus and in the Christian kingdoms, during the 14th and 15th centuries. Monarchs as well as noble and religious elites on both sides of the religious divide installed them in their palaces, funerary chapels, and churches. Gilded and painted, and often incorporating heraldry and muqarnas friezes and bosses (see AKM892), they expressed the epitome of power and luxury in medieval Iberia.
By the end of the 13th century, the popularity of marquetry ceilings had spread across the Iberian Peninsula. “The earliest surviving examples of such pieces decorated with interlace and geometric patters are from the kingdom of Granada, although some scholars had pointed towards Toledo as their possible origin, but they were quickly incorporated into the architectural practices of the Crown of Castile (today Castile, Andalusia, and Extremadura), where most of the extant examples are located. Despite their appearance of structural and ornamental complexity, carpenters only needed to apply a few simple geometrical rules, together with their own practical knowledge, to produce visually outstanding ceilings. The ceilings’ luxurious appearance complemented the desire of the elite classes on both sides of the Andalusian border  to display their wealth and power. For this reason, such ceilings became part of a courtly culture shared across the Iberian Peninsula from the 14th century onwards.
During the 14th century, the initial compositions with eight-pointed stars, created from two squares, gradually gained in complexity. Nine-pointed stars creating wheels with surrounding hexagons, as in these squinches in the Aga Khan Museum Collection, appeared relatively late. One of the earliest surviving examples is the spectacular vault of the Comares Hall (ca. 1350) in the Alhambra of Granada, featuring nine and twelve-pointed stars. In the 15th century, such elaborately patterned squinches were also used in Castile. Examples in San Miguel de Arévalo; the royal palace of Valladolid, today in the Museo Nacional de Escultura (Inv. CE1922); and the octagonal ceiling of the apse of Santa Colomba de la Vega (León) resemble the squinches in the Aga Khan Museum Collection. All are dated between the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century.
The Leonese squinches are most similar to those in the Aga Khan Museum Collection in terms of shape, structure, and ornamental motifs. However, their central element is a small muqarnas boss rather than a star. Their colours are also analogous, contouring the geometric figures with red and clear blue or white stripes. However, in the example from Leon, the geometrical figures are coloured in dark blue. The Aga Khan Museum’s squinches, in contrast, possess refined vegetal figures, similar to the ceilings preserved at the Museo de Artes Decorativas (CE04516 and CE01278): light green pears and grapes, cream pine cones, and red radishes flourish inside each hexagon. The half stars of the corners have a darker and stylized leaf, while the central star has a unique figure of a schematic bird. The woodwork and painting of these ceilings were usually executed in different workshops and in no particular order, long periods of time could pass between the completion of each section. Interestingly, painting was much more expensive than the design and the execution of the ceiling.
The origin of the squinches in the Aga Khan Museum Collection has been the subject of debate. Although they have previously been identified as Nasrid, similarities with other examples point towards a probable origin in Castile. Their complex design, using the nine-pointed star, suggests that they were created at the end of the 15th century. The naturalistic style of the paintings in the hexagons, similar to other Castilian examples—such as the beams from the Monastery of the Concepción in León (MAN 50471 and 50472)—also points in that direction. It remains possible, however, that the painting was executed later than the woodwork.
— Elena Paulino Montero
1. See Los mundos del Islam en la colección del Museo Aga Khan (Barcelona: Fundación La Caixa, 2009), 98–9; Pattern and Light: The Aga Khan Museum (New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2014).
2. For the technique and aesthetic development of these ceilings, see Enrique Nuere, La carpintería de armar española (Madrid: Instituto Español de arquitectura, 1989).
3. The Partal palace in the Alhambra, built by Muhammad III (1304–09), is one of the earliest examples.
4. J. García Nistal, “Las armaduras d cubierta en l consolidación de una imagen para la corona de Castilla durante el tercer cuarte del siglo XIV,” BSAA arte, LXXVI (2010): 9-24; “Espacios funerarios mudéjares como estrategia de poder y legitimación de la nobleza bajomedieval en la Corona de Castilla” in Imágenes del poder en la Edad Media, 2011, vol. 2, 265–81.
5. Rosa Rodríguez Porto, “Courtly culture and its Trujamanes. Manufacturing Chivalric Imagery across Castilian-Granadine Frontier,” Medieval Encounters, 14.2-3 (2008), 219–66.
6. J. García Nistal, “La carpintería de lo Blanco en la iglesia de santa Colomba de la Vega. Aspectos estructurales, ornamentales y heráldicos,” Argutorio, 12, 2004, 46–9.
7. Enrique Nuere, La carpintería; García Nistal, “La carpintería,” 46–9.
8. See Los mundos del Islam.
Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Los mundos del Islam en la colección del Museo Aga Khan. Barcelona: Fundación La Caixa, 2009. ISBN: 9788499000138
Kim, Henry S. et al., Pattern and Light: The Aga Khan Museum. New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2014. ISBN: 9780847844296
García Nistal, Joaquín. “La carpintería de lo Blanco en la iglesia de santa Colomba de la Vega. Aspectos estructurales, ornamentales y heráldicos,” Argutorio, 12, 2004, 46–9. https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=2379968
---. “Las armaduras d cubierta en l consolidación de una imagen para la corona de Castilla durante el tercer cuarte del siglo XIV,” BSAA arte, LXXVI (2010): 9-24. https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=3418287
---. “Espacios funerarios mudéjares como estrategia de poder y legitimación de la nobleza bajomedieval en la Corona de Castilla” in Imágenes del poder en la Edad Media, 2011, vol. 2, 265–81. https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=4641516
Nuere, Enrique, La carpintería de armar española. Madrid: Instituto Español de arquitectura, 1989. ISBN: 9788489150379
Rodríguez Porto, Rosa, “Courtly culture and its Trujamanes. Manufacturing Chivalric Imagery across Castilian-Granadine Frontier,” Medieval Encounters, 14.2-3 (2008), 219–66. https://doi.org/10.1163/157006708X366263