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  • Conversion and Apocalypse:The Visual Archive of the Libro del alborayque*
  • Seth Kimmel

The animal depicted in the woodcut reproduced in figure 1 possesses the body of a donkey, the face of horse, and the tail of a serpent, which ends in the head of a peacock. An eagle's claw and lion's paw support its hindquarters, while one front foot is smartly clad in a human shoe and the other, raised in motion, is a horse's hoof. Its greyhound ears flop; its penis is erect. This is an ungainly but vital hybrid creature. Its sturdy saddle and bridle imply that the animal has been tamed, though the reins made of swords suggest that to ride it could be dangerous. A section of the animal is missing because it was damaged when construction workers discovered the text in 1992, hidden along with a trove of other works in the wall of a private home in Barcarrota, Extremadura. A banner at the top of the woodcut offers what seems to be a name for both beast and text: "Alborayque." The pamphlet's anonymous author explains early in the treatise that residents of the small southern Iberian city of Llerena invented the Castilian neologism alborayque or alborayco to label and insult conversos, as converts from Judaism to Christianity were and continue to be known (67).1 According to the visual logic and polemical content of this Tratado or Libro del alborayque–an anonymous, twelve-folio, Castilian pamphlet printed at least twice in early sixteenth-century Iberia and probably composed in the mid-1460s–these conversos were nothing less than a new species.2 [End Page 341]

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Fig. 1.

Woodcut of al-burāq from the "Biblioteca de Barcarrota" version of the Libro del Alborayque, 16th century, BIEx FA 266, fol. 2v. Biblioteca de Extremadura (Badajoz, Spain). Bibliographic holdings.

Alborayque is a term with Islamic origins. When the angel Gabriel arrived in Mecca to take the prophet Muhammad on his night journey to Jerusalem and ascension to the seven heavens, he rode a mythical creature, known in Arabic as al-burāq, or "the flash," for its lightning speed. In the Libro del alborayque, however, al-burāq is not the noble mount described by Islamic commentators as a white, winged animal and depicted in various constellations of beautiful mixture (Gruber 40-46; Paret). It is rather a more base and alarming crossbreed, one whose animal parts and senses are as jumbled as the Libro del alborayque's own mishmash of medieval Christian, Muslim, and Jewish sources (Lawrance; Netanyahu 31; Roth 68-69). An embodiment of philological as well as zoological hybridity, the alborayco [End Page 342] is a multilayered allegory for converso heterodoxy, which, as this article demonstrates, functioned as a harbinger of the Apocalypse.

The textual sources employed by the Libro del alborayque's anonymous author, who probably belonged to the circle of theologians associated with Tomás de Torquemada, include both Alfonso X's Estoria de España and the Castilian, Latin, and French translations of Muhammad's night journey and ascension narrative, or mi'rāj, all of which mention al-burāq (Fita; Lazar). The Alfonsine corpus describes al-burāq's hybrid animal qualities only in passing, and then only as an explanation for its speed, power, and grace, however. No medieval European source directly associates al-burāq with the Apocalypse. In order to fully recognize this early modern meaning of al-burāq, it is thus necessary to reconstruct and examine the work's heretofore hidden visual archive, one that complements the already extensive textual archive expertly compiled in recent years by Dwayne Carpenter, Jeremy Lawrance, and Isabel Mateo Gómez. By focusing on visual culture, this essay identifies and studies the formal strategies employed by the Libro del alborayque's anonymous author and editor to reinvent apocalyptic imagery as a tool of interreligious polemic. Yet the Libro del alborayque is more than an emblematic example of early modern polemicists working across linguistic and religious lines. Given ongoing debate in medieval and early modern Iberian studies about the value of formalism as a tool...


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