Scenes of Adultery Set to Music

Image of the Week: Illustrations of a Moor and his mistress were used for religious music in medieval Spain.

The Story of the Adulterous Moor, from Las Cantigas de Santa Maria, 13th century. Cantiga CLXXXV. Escorial, Real Monasterio.

After this acquisition of new lands, Alfonso was faced with the task of integrating the Muslim and Jewish populations into the juridical structure of the state. The vernacular grounding of the stories clearly exposes the resulting cultural dissonances of the period, such as the often disadvantaged nature of Castile’s non-Christian inhabitants.

The social identity of the black man in the story can be ventured by an examination of the clues contained in both text and image. Described as a Moor, he is understood to be part of an extensive Muslim culture that arose within North Africa to expand its range into the Iberian Peninsula during the eighth century. His status as free or slave remains ambiguous in the story, but the collective reference to him in the illustration as “one of her [i.e., the mother-in-law’s] Moors” suggests the anonymity of bondage, an impression reinforced by the large rings visible around his ankles.

With the momentous reconquest of Spain by Christian forces, as a Moor the black man would have been associated with the defeated enemy. From a position of relative acceptance within the cosmopolitan culture of the Almohads, he was faced with a more constrained situation imposed by the new ruling power.

It is simplistic, however, to attribute the horrific treatment of the black man in the cantiga solely to his race. His death occurs within a narrative structure conditioned by an ideal of religious conformity that fundamentally altered the tolerant attitude toward faith practiced under Muslim rule.

The story of the adulterous Moor follows the insistent affirmation of Christian belief encountered throughout the cantigas. Within this new context, the fate of non-Christians, and especially Muslims, is decided by their relationship to the ascendant authority of the Catholic faith. One has the strong feeling that the black man’s guilt has been determined as much by his faith as by his supposed illicit relationship with the daughter-in-law.

The hardening attitude toward faith during Alfonso’s regime reflects the broader concept then emerging in Europe of a union of all peoples of the earth under Christian rule. Only with the subsequent exploitation of the world and its resources, aided by the African slave trade, did the specter of a more virulent, focused form of racism take hold.

The cantigas, with their reductive tales of injustices made right, extol the Christian ordinance of the world at the expense of nonbelievers. The almost fairy-tale quality of the happy ending reflects the strong concern of the Castilian state for the security of the Christian faith within a still quite pluralistic society.

On the symbolic level, however, the drastically divergent fates of the white woman and the black Moor involve the polarized significance of black and white as metaphors of sin and virtue, respectively, in medieval European culture. The image of the black Moor here may be intended to emphasize the evil nature of the deception itself rather than invoking the inherent culpability of race.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.