03 September 2014

Wonders and Marvels: The Cantigas de Santa Maria

By Jessica Knauss

King Alfonso directs his subjects to worship Jesus through the Virgin Mary
and the angel Gabriel in the F manuscript of the Cantigas de Santa Maria
A poor woman takes her baby with her to the wheat fields — she has no alternative. While his mother works, the boy swallows a head of wheat and his belly swells to alarming proportions. His mother, believing he’s been poisoned or bitten by a spider, frets over him for several days. When she despairs for his life, there’s only one person — or supernatural being — she can turn to. She lays him before the altar of Our Lady of Atocha. The boy’s clothes are removed, and no one can find a spider bite, but they do find an intact head of wheat coming out the boy’s side. The boy recovers immediately. Everyone gives praise to the Virgin Mary for such a beautiful miracle.

The Cantigas de Santa Maria tell of the wonders of the Virgin Mary in a way that still makes people marvel.

Alfonso X of Castile and León is called el Sabio because he loved learning. He made it possible for a team of scholars to record the latest scientific advances for future generations. He carried this compulsion for compilation through to the Cantigas, which are a collection of nearly 400 songs with words, music, and illustrations.

Many of the miracles involve a dramatic recovery, as in Cantiga 315 above, or theatrical leaps of faith, as in the story about the good wife whose husband was so jealous of her that he mistreated her terribly. She asks him if he would believe she’s faithful to him if she underwent a trial by fire. He responds that he doesn’t think that’s necessary, but she can jump off a cliff! If she comes out alive, that will be proof of her fidelity. The woman comes to the edge of the highest, scariest cliff for miles around.

She commends herself to the Virgin Mary and throws herself over. With the entire town as witness, she lands feet first on ground that seems soft and smooth to her, although for non-believers, it would have been rocky — and deadly.

In the style of a rosary, the Cantigas punctuate the miracle stories with songs in praise of the Virgin Mary’s own wondrous nature at every tenth cantiga.

Even these most spiritual of the Cantigas display a down-to-earth quality. One of Alfonso’s main objectives with these songs was to show how wonder could reach absolutely everyone in his realm through Mary, from the poor lady in the wheat field, through nobles, sheriffs, monks, nuns, and warriors, to the king himself. Because they so accurately portray real life, the Cantigas don’t limit Alfonso’s realm to people, but also include the animals that cohabited with his subjects, such as horses, cattle, sheep, dogs, ermines, and silk worms!

A woman who makes her living with silk has trouble: her silk worms are dying. She goes to the Virgin Mary’s altar and promises that if Mary revives her silk worms, she will make an altar cloth to honor the Queen of Heaven. Soon enough, the silk worms are hard at work again, but the woman forgets her promise — until, one day, she comes home to find that the worms have taken her promise upon themselves. They make not one, but two altar cloths, and in the illustrations we see the added miracle that they already have a beautiful lacy design. The fame of the miracle spreads, and since there are two of them, King Alfonso takes one for his own altar to the Virgin Mary.

Most of the lower-numbered cantigas take stories from all over Europe’s Marian repertoire, but as the king’s demand for more and more miracles increased (the goal may have been 500), the poets searched closer to home and in more recent history. As Cantiga 18 shows, some feature Alfonso himself, and 22 take place during the reconstruction of El Puerto de Santa María in the south, one of the king’s pet projects.

Cantiga 371 tells how a large ship headed for El Puerto was laden with flour and people. Some of them were coming for the land grants, some to work as masons, some to form part of the new religious community. El Puerto’s fame was already widespread, as the refrain reports: “Holy Mary performs so many miracles in her Port that we poets can’t describe the least part of them.”

Unfortunately, the ship in this cantiga hits a rock and sinks, killing everyone on board except one woman. She cries out to the Virgin, “I’m coming to you, so save my life with your great power.” In that instant, one of the sacks of flour emerges from the ship, and even though it’s heavy, it floats as if it were very light. The woman floats along atop it, calling, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, Emmanuel,” until she arrives at El Puerto to be welcomed by the residents.

Not all the miracles are so outwardly spectacular. In one of my favorites, the miracle consists of a violent, lustful knight deciding to change his ways.

As you can see in the illustrations, he’s already got an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The Virgin Mary appears to him with a beautiful silver platter filled with rotten food — a metaphor for the knight’s outward loveliness and evil interior. He gets the message loud and clear. Even though the knight’s life is never threatened in this cantiga, his soul is in danger of eternal damnation, which, to medieval thinking, is the most dramatic story of all.

It’s said that the Cantigas were the king’s favorite project, as they incurred the most labor, expense, and time. The compilation may have begun before Alfonso ascended to the throne in 1252 and ended only upon his death in 1284. In his will, Alfonso instructed that the Cantigas manuscripts should be kept in the chapel where he was buried (in the cathedral in Sevilla) and sung on high feast days. None of the four extant manuscripts reside there now: an early draft without illustrations known as To is in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid; King Felipe II had three deluxe manuscripts (including E and T) removed to the Escorial in the sixteenth century; and somehow one of those deluxe manuscripts (F) came to be at the Italian National Library in Florence today.

The Cantigas de Santa Maria deal with people’s interior lives as well as the most unexpected details of their exterior lives, and include everyone from every social class, from Spain to Europe to Northern Africa and the Middle East. Some of these songs are masterpieces of lyricism, others are solid narratives from a time before short stories existed, and still others take humor to new heights. Each of the thousands of illustrations offers delights to appreciate from any point of view. They constitute the largest collection of medieval music ever amassed and contain every imaginable Western musical style.

In their time, the Cantigas celebrated marvels and wonders, and today they have become a marvel in themselves because of the sense of wonder they convey in greater measure as time goes on.

Jessica Knauss earned her PhD in Medieval Spanish with a dissertation on the portrayal of Alfonso X’s laws in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, which has been published as the five-star-rated Law and Order in Medieval Spain. A driven fiction writer, Jessica Knauss has edited many fine historical novels and is currently a bilingual copyeditor at an educational publisher. Find out more about her historical novel, Seven Noble Knightshere, and her other writing and bookish activities here. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, too!