Elements of Blakstad: Sacred niches

Religious symbology in domestic design is as ancient as design itself. Talismans, statues, shrines, offerings – all of these spiritual signifiers, as well as other items of religious iconography, appear in the domestic realm across cultures and millennia. From the Balinese banana leaf snack tray and the Jewish mezuza on each architrave to the crucifix above the bed, humans have always collected or created mementoes of their spirituality.

In ancient times, the population of Ibiza was dispersed across the island which relegated communal spiritual worship to specially planned events dotted throughout the year. A deeply spiritual yet also supremely practical people, the Ibicencos brought their gods and goddesses into the home. Each farmhouse had a niche carved into the whitewashed walls where a single shelf would house a representation of the goddess Tanit and a scattering of other gods and goddesses. In later years, these figurines were most likely replaced by their corresponding Catholic personage.

According to studies undertaken by Rolph Blakstad and published in his book, The House of Ibiza: The key to a millennial tradition (read more about the book here), the location of the niche was uniform regardless of the design of the house. Placed in the porxo, the main room and entryway, directly opposite the front door, the position obligated people to make some acknowledgement of the gods as they entered the room, most likely in the form of a verbal blessing. The placement of the niche was not arbitrary, it was there to ward off evil spirits from entering the home and to remind inhabitants and visitors alike to pay attention. Similar habits have been recorded across the Levant and in North Africa. Of course, other religious cultures also employ the niche in worship practices, notably the public niches filled with flowers and statues of virgins that can be seen on street corners throughout Italy and other parts of Europe.

In most farmhouses, the sacred niche was decorated with a border painted directly into the wall in a deep ochre colour. The patterns frequently replicated ones seen in some of the more important wells across the island that were used for ritual practices (you can read more about the wells of Ibiza here). It’s hard to know if every household decorated their niches with such patterns but definitely those of means and with a particular religious outlook would have. In the many surveys he conducted in ruins across the island, Rolph Blakstad found multiple traces of frescoes in private homes. During his research, Blakstad came across one fresco that had been dated 1812 which led him to believe the practice probably came to its natural end at the beginning of the 19th century.

Consisting almost exclusively of simple geometric lines, some also featured images of ships and almost all of them contained a reference to Tanit, the moon and the sun. One ruin located near San Lorenzo showed a Tanit symbol set within a ring of fire. Zig-zags abound as do several versions of the six-petaled flower often thought to be the precursor to the Jewish Star of David. There are also solar discs represented by a circle with lines radiating from the centre as well as moons in varying states of wax and wane. And of course, Tanit – her image represented by a trapezoid stick figure often standing on an inverted crescent moon or with the moon above her head.

These niches exist still today in many of the old farmhouses, long since renovated, but the use as a portal to the spirit world shifted over the years to store special china, the accoutrements for a home bar or various other trinkets. And while no one expects religious fervour to reignite the island any time soon, it would be heartening to see some of these niches return to their original purpose even if just for a connection to the aesthetic past.