(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.
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.