Hennaed Drums in Medieval SpainThe ultimate origin of hennaed drums is probably impossible to find definitively. Wherever people were using henna on skin, and had drums, it would be a logical extension to decorate your drumheads with henna. Drumheads will stain beautifully — they are skin, after all — and the colour will be deep and permanent (since the animal’s skin is no obviously longer growing).
|The decorated drums of the Golden Haggada, Barcelona, ca. 1320.|
The subject of the paintings is often the prophet Miriam dancing and singing with the women after the crossing of the Reed Sea. As is common in medieval art, although the events depicted took place in another time the characters are depicted as if they were living in the contemporary period — the clothes, instruments, and other objects were shown as recognizable to the viewers, as a way of drawing a direct link between the events of the Exodus (for example) and the celebrants at a Passover seder in 14th century Catalonia. “In every generation,” we read in the haggada [Passover servicebook], “one must see themselves as if they had themselves left Egypt.”
The drums shown are handheld frame drums, known as adufes or panderos in Spanish (tympana in Latin, tof in Hebrew, and duff in Arabic). They have a long history in the Iberian peninsula, and are deeply linked with religious ritual and symbolism in local Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities. It is especially associated with women, and in artistic iconography the frame drum is associated with Miriam in particular.
To learn more on the symbolism of the frame drum in medieval Iberia, check out the extensive work of Mauricio Molina (e.g. 2007 and 2010). The frame drum’s importance continues for contemporary women in Spain and Portugal, as well as in the Middle East, as shown by Judith Cohen (2008) and Veronica Doubleday (1999). As Cohen writes, "perhaps [for contemporary Spanish and Portuguese women] playing the adufe and singing is an affirmation — for themselves, for each other, and maybe for the community as a whole — of their strength: physical, emotional and aesthetic."
In al-Andalus — an area where we know henna was being grown and used extensively — it’s reasonable to assume that henna was used to decorate drums, especially if the colour matches.
|Golden Haggada, Barcelona, ca. 1320, folio 15a.|
The designs of both drums are painted in a brown colour and it seems reasonable to suggest that these represent hennaed designs. The designs are clear and, while simple (remember that the drums in this image are less than a square inch in size), would be beautiful inspirations for contemporary hennaed drums.
|Hispano-Moresque Haggada, Castile, 14th century, folio 86v.|
The fleur-de-lis is a prominent symbol in medieval art and heraldry — in Christianity, often associated with the Virgin Mary. What it’s doing on this drum is anyone’s guess. Is this implying an equation between Miriam and Mary? In the hands of a Jewish artist, this might be an attempt to claim the superiority of ‘our’ prophetic female figure, just as pure and holy as Mary but representative of a living and vibrant (red) tradition rather than the dead and sterile (white) line of Jesus (lest you think I’m totally off-track, similarly provocative and transformative themes around Mary have been noted in Jewish art before — see Epstein 2015: 151-152 for an example). Or is there any connection to Florence, the flag of which has been a red fleur-de-lis since 1266? Just throwing some ideas out there.
|Kaufmann Haggada, Catalonia, ca. 1370, folio 3v.|
|First Bible of Leon, Burgos, 960, folio 40v.|
|Second Bible of Leon, ca. 1162, folio 38v.|
|Elder of Cathedral of Burgos, ca. 1235.|
Two Elders is shown playing drums, one square and one round; the round drum is decorated with a six-pointed flower in the geometric proportions of what is sometimes called the Seed of Life or the Flower of Life. While it is obviously difficult to tell if this is meant to show a hennaed drum it is clearly part of the iconography of medieval Iberian decorated drums.
However, what is clear is that there was a vibrant tradition in al-Andalus among both Jews and Christians of adorning drumheads with a variety of geometric and floral patterns, including meaningful symbols, and that it is at least likely that henna was used. The possibilities for contemporary artists to reconstruct and reimagine these drum patterns, based on medieval art, are endless; as an example, here is one interpretation of the central pattern from the Golden Haggada’s drum:
|Hennaed drum, Noam Sienna, 2014.|
If any of you are inspired by the images in this post, I'd love to see what you come up with!
Tune in next time for the following post in the series, exploring a tradition where we do have textual, visual, and material evidence: Moroccan hennaed drums from the 19th century to today.
- Cohen, Judith. "This Drum I Play": Women and Square Frame Drums in Portugal and Spain. Ethnomusicology Forum, vol. 17, 2008.
- Doubleday, Veronica. The Frame Drum in the Middle East: Women, Musical Instruments, and Power. Ethnomusicology, vol. 43, 1999.
- Molina, Mauricio. "In Tympano Rex Noster Tympanizavit": Frame Drums as Messianic Symbols in Medieval Spanish Representations of the Twenty-Four Elders of the Apocalypse. Music in Art, vol. 32, 2007.
- Molina, Mauricio. Frame Drums in the Medieval Iberian Peninsula. Edition Reichenberger, 2010.