My research project begins with a question: is it pos­sible to visually rep­resent reli­gious con­version? More specif­i­cally, was it fea­sible to depict the con­version of the Moriscos in early modern Spain? To date, there has been no attempt to study how artists dealt with the problem of rep­re­senting the con­verso pop­u­lation and making it visible.

In my work, I start from the premise that neither ethnic appearance nor costume allow us to accu­rately identify these figures. I therefore begin to untangle the problem by ana­lyzing the thorny issue of the ethnic rep­re­sen­tation of Moriscos in painting, prints, drawings, and sculpture. Scholars like Vincent (1985), Fuchs (2002–9), or Feros (2017) have shown that Moriscos were described in legal and lit­erary sources as either dark or white skinned to justify the sim­i­larity between old and new Chris­tians. More specif­i­cally, our most recent pub­li­cation (Franco­­–Díaz del Campo, 2019) shows, using census data from the years fol­lowing the War of the Alpu­jarras, that the number of dark-skinned Moriscos was only slightly higher than that of light-skinned ones as a result of years of coex­is­tence with Old Chris­tians. It is therefore easy to under­stand why dif­ferent texts dating from the time of the expulsion state that Moriscos were indis­tin­guishable from the rest of the population.

On the other hand, Spanish sources also suggest a con­spicuous hybridization of customs between these groups, including attire. For instance, “dressing as a Moor” was not nec­es­sarily a token of reli­gious alterity but could in fact be a sign of luxury (Irigoyen 2017). Such ambi­guity renders the task of visu­al­izing the Morisco even more difficult.

Approaching the con­verso through the lens of dif­ference is a fun­da­mental mistake because it dis­torts complex and diverse real­ities. My research addresses a number of ques­tions that have not been ade­quately answered: What kind of image was in the mind of an artist who created pic­torial cycles showing Moriscos? To what extent were artists depicting the reality of that minority, or was their aim simply to con­tribute to the social con­struct to which the Morisco was subject?

I propose five ways to pursue these questions:

  1. The Morisco as a Spaniard: I begin the dis­cussion with Felipe Bigarny’s altar­piece in Granada’s Royal Chapel (1526) dis­playing scenes of the Baptism of Granadan Moriscos. The sub­jects were por­trayed with both light and dark com­plexions in order to show their ethnic diversity, but in my opinion, they were rep­re­sented as sub­jects of the Spanish Empire and inte­grated under its rule. (Figs. 1–2) They appear dressed in their regional attire ­­– which caught the attention of central European trav­elers ­­– to make them easily iden­ti­fiable. (Fig. 3) The issue of the Morisco as a member of the Spanish nation has been researched by several scholars, including Fanjul (2013), Feros (2017), Herzog (2003) or Bernabé Pons (2017). The pre­vailing view among the sci­en­tific com­munity is that they were gen­erally con­sidered to be as Spanish as Old Chris­tians, as can be seen in the writings of Pedro de Valencia and the text of Don Quixote, although some his­to­rians refute this by focusing on the thoughts of the apol­o­gists of expulsion. The image of ethnic diversity dis­playedon the Granada altar­piece fits in with the imagery used to rep­resent the Morisco col­lective on the seventh of the com­mem­o­rative arches built in Seville on the occasion of Charles V’s mar­riage to Isabella of Por­tugal in 1526. In these works, the con­verso appears sur­rounded by Indians, Germans, Italians and other Spaniards to convey the idea that they all were part of the His­panic nation. The pos­itive message con­tained in these two roughly con­tem­porary works was con­sistent with Charles V’s assim­i­la­tionist policy.
  2. The Morisco as a Turk: In certain art­works, such as Fran­cisco Heylan’s and Girolamo Lucenti’s illus­tra­tions in His­toria Ecle­siástica by Justino Antolínez (1610), con­verts are rep­re­sented as Turkish allies, mainly as a response to the vio­lence unleashed during the War of the Alpu­jarras (1568–1571). Coastal security problems involving Barbary pirates also con­tributed to this asso­ci­ation. In this case, Moriscos were depicted as Turks to show that they were not true Chris­tians, but enemies of the Spanish monarchy (Figs 4–5). This current was essen­tially a visual expression of the the­ories that had been evolving in courtly circles since the mid six­teenth century, par­tic­u­larly among those who loudly demanded the expulsion of Moriscos. It is inter­esting to note that this current was not visually cap­tured until much later, by and large after the expulsion, as for instance in the works men­tioned above or in Petrus Firens’ illus­tra­tions for the flyleaf of Pérez de Hita’s work Las Guerras de Granada (The Granada Wars). 
  3. The “racialized” Morisco: The can­vases painted by Pere Oromig, Vicente Mestre, and Jacinto de Espinosa to illus­trate Morisco expul­sions from Valencia in 1609 all show dark-skinned Moriscos. This rep­re­sen­tation echoes Philip III’s jus­ti­fi­cation of the expulsion as a con­frontation between white Chris­tians and black crypto-Muslims (Figs 6–7). The aim of this dis­torted and racialized image was to prove that Moriscos were not Spaniards. In these images they were Africanized, por­trayed as Berber tribesmen, and made to resemble the enemy. This process of “racial­ization” chal­lenges the “realism” of these images. Bigarny’s altar­piece in Granada and this set of paintings illus­trate opposite ends in the process of cre­ating alterity. They demon­strate that the image of Morisco “others” does not always emerge as a reflection of reality, but as an expression of the political and reli­gious con­cerns of their contemporaries.
  4. The Morisco in the eyes of trav­elers: A sig­nif­icant part of his­to­ri­o­graphical research to date con­siders the descrip­tions and illus­tra­tions of Moriscos by such authors as Weiditz (Fig. 3) or Hoef­nagel to be reliable sources. Our research in the archives, however, has found this to be another instance of a mental con­struct created by intel­lec­tuals trav­eling to the Iberian Peninsula, lured by its “exoticism” and Islamic her­itage. These images selec­tively display char­acters drawn from the most deeply Islam­i­cized back­grounds, thereby cre­ating clichés that do not agree with what we find in primary sources, be it as regards Morisco dress or even skin color. In this instance the rep­re­sen­ta­tions were not driven by political interest but chiefly by the trav­elers’ sub­jective interpretation.
  5. The hidden Morisco: My work on crypto-Muslim rep­re­sen­ta­tions is perhaps the most ground-breaking aspect of this research. Certain paintings by the artist Joan de Joanes convey a salvific message in the rep­re­sen­tation of Moriscos as inno­cents, arguing that they did not choose to be born infidels. This idea is linked to the humanist J. B. Agnesio, an important preacher to Moriscos, who was con­nected to the prominent Cen­telles and Borja fam­ilies. Agnesio was a pas­sionate advocate of peaceful con­version by adopting the methods pre­vi­ously used by Her­nando de Talavera. This leads us to con­clude that in these works the Morisco is por­trayed through subtle metaphors that emphasize the need for per­son­alized preaching. This imagery widens the range of rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the Morisco minority, as it includes more complex ways to sym­bol­i­cally describe the “other” (Fig. 8).

Briefly, my research sug­gests an approach to the study of visual rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Moriscos, ranging from those images that were used to stig­matize the group or justify their expulsion, to those that broadcast a moral message about their duty to be true Chris­tians, whilst at the same time con­cealing their identity.

The aim of this research is to give a voice to these works of art, not as mere visual depic­tions of a text, but as con­stituent ele­ments of a society that expressed its anx­i­eties through them. My dis­course springs from the need to rethink the way our past has been studied so far and, in par­ticular, to reflect on how a stereo­typed imagery of Christian con­verts from Islam was created which did not always agree with reality. Works of art should be seen as sources to be studied in par­allel with — rather than super­im­posed over — textual sources, be they of a lit­erary or legal nature. Only when all the pieces in the puzzle are in place, we shall be able to “see” the Moriscos in a dif­ferent light and to under­stand the ways in which this col­lective was imagined and used, some­times for political pur­poses. Only then shall we be closer to under­standing the dif­ference between the “real” and the “made-up” Morisco, whatever the reasons behind its creation.