Heritage: Superstition and design

Mythology, superstition and religious imagery are long-time companions of architecture. Cast your eye upwards outside any Gothic church and you will be confronted with the gruesome visage of gargoyles and the frightening claws of gryphons. Middle Ages Europe wasn’t the only place where superstition shaped design. Chinese roofs are curved to prevent evil spirits from using them as superhighways, coins are laid in the foundations of Filipino homes, the number 13 is still omitted in even the most modern building in the West and don’t even think about adding a fourth floor in China. As much as we would like to believe that we do not believe in silly superstitions, architectural design across the world continues to prove otherwise. Here at Blakstad Design Consultants, we don’t follow any prescribed rituals or superstitions but looking back over the history of architecture in Ibiza is a favourite pastime.

The most obvious design superstition that exists in Ibiza and that can still be seen on some of the older farmhouses is the creu de bruixa or the witch’s cross. These white crosses were painted above north-facing windows and sometimes along a north-facing wall. To have a window facing north was once considered very bad luck and an open invitation to evil spirits. Often they were painted on houses as part of a wedding ceremony and when you see them in groups of three, the intention is to represent the stations of the cross. There are, of course, good and logical reasons not to have a north-facing window or opening – it is, after all, the darkest orientation with south-facing plots being the ideal to capture the most of the sun. With the advent of electrical lighting and heating, having a north-facing window became much less problematic, but homeowners in Ibiza still touch up their creu de bruixa every couple of years regardless.

A little linguistics: ‘witch’ used in this context is a bit disingenuous. Ibiza’s witches were not the nasty, broom-riding, wart-covered crones of northern Europe but rather highly respected older women in the community with an intimate knowledge of natural remedies that could be concocted from wild herbs and flowers. They were more like sages, providing wisdom, tonics and potions to cure everything from nappy rash to a broken heart. The creu de bruixa was so named not because it kept witches out, but because they were painted and blessed by the good witches of Ibiza.

Symbolic decoration has been found on many of the old farmhouses and artefacts across the island and although their meanings are lost to us now, there are direct correlations between the designs found in Ibiza and those found in other ancient agricultural communities across the Mediterranean, North Africa, Western Asia, Turkey and Egypt. Look closely at the iron rings used as door handles in Ibiza and you’ll notice a zigzag ‘ring of fire’ pattern interspersed with small dots sometimes topped with crescents, a pattern connected to the goddess Tanit, who was worshipped by the Phoenicians and remains a strong element in Ibicenco culture.

Waxing and waning moon shapes also appear frequently in local crafts and architectural motifs. Some carpentry uses full circles and squares with negative crescents cut out of them to represent the cycles of the moon and therefore the cycles of life. Similar motifs are found in Bronze Age temples and Roman coins. The waxing moon is represented with its points going upwards and the waning moon downwards. In Carthage, the waxing moon has a curious bulb shape in the centre, which is also seen in the multiple strand gold necklaces worn by Ibicenco women during ritual dances. These shapes and patterns extended to frescoes within the family home too.

Commonly these frescoes were executed as simple line drawings done in deep red iron oxide. The sacred wall niches found in the main rooms facing the front door were often bordered by these geometric patterns, painted directly onto the wall. Filled with figurines representing the gods, the location of the niche would obligate those who enter the house to make some acknowledgement of the shrine – mostly probably in the form of a verbal blessing as is common in similar cultures in Morocco.

Frequently the painted borders found around the niches and also occasionally around front doors have roots in the Assyrian solar motif set within zigzag bands, which acted as a barrier to foreign spirits. The zigzag is seen repeated in many of the natural springs around Ibiza in addition to other Phoenician sites across the island even today. While their spiritual significance may no longer be recognised, hopefully the gods are still taking notice – and if they’re not, the ancients will have to be satisfied with the fact that we here at Blakstad Design Consultants are paying attention.

© Copyright – Blakstad Ibiza

© Copyright – Blakstad Ibiza