(The Root) — This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.
Among the most revealing insights into the devotional culture of medieval Spain are the cantigas, a type of monophonic music. A large corpus of this distinctive song form was composed during the 13th century at the court of Alfonso X, called the Wise, ruler of the Spanish kingdom of Castile.
The collection contains more than 400 poems with musical notation compiled by a circle of scholars under the guidance of the king himself. It embraces a diverse range of subjects and lyrical types, from hymns of praise to cantigas de miragre, or accounts of miracles wrought by the Virgin Mary on behalf of people in distress. In three of the four surviving manuscript compilations, the verses are accompanied by musical notation and are still performed today.
A visual dimension is added to these works in the form of illustrated narrative pages facing the text of the song. The stories are, as in this example, usually divided into six scenes, each headed by a short descriptive text based on the lyrics of the songs.
The event illustrated here relates the predicament of a woman falsely accused of adultery by her mother-in-law. The unwilling agent of the fraud is the mouro, or Moor, a servant of the mother-in-law. In the first panel she orders him to lie in bed with her son’s sleeping wife. He raises his arms in a gesture of surprise and consternation, but in the next panel he has complied with his mistress’s demand. She then calls her son to witness the purported betrayal. His mother dissuades him from killing the pair, and instead the local magistrate and other witnesses are summoned for an accounting.
Both the wife and the Moor are subjected to a trial by ordeal to determine their innocence or guilt. They are placed in bonfires in the public square, but only the black man, described as the “betrayer Moor,” is consumed. The wife survives, as she later testifies, when the Virgin Mary appears to her amid the flames, assuring her that she will not be harmed.
In the final panel the woman tells the people of her mother-in-law’s treachery and gives thanks before an image of the Madonna and child. And so the black man dies, while the mother-in-law, the originator of the ruse, suffers no punishment other than the presumed opprobrium of her peers.
The Cantigas de Santa Maria were composed during a crucial phase of Spanish history. During the reign of Alfonso’s father, the kingdom of Castile was transformed by the conquest of vast areas of territory wrested from the Moorish Almohad empire. Almost the entire Iberian Peninsula came under Christian control, and with it Spain began to take on its modern national identity.