Cantigas de Santa Maria

You can’t open a book on music history without finding one of these plates in it.

Often used to illustrate the use of the lute in the middle ages.

They were found as illustrations in a book of hymns, the “Cantigas de Santa Maria” or “Songs of Saint Mary”. Made in the 13th century during the reign of Alfonso X over the Spanish region of Castile.

He was known as “el Sabio” (the wise) and interested in a wide variety of subjects. Astronomy, history, games, music. I guess we can recognize him as an early Homo Universalis. Beside these Cantigas there is also a book with chess games.


Playing lute during chess… Most players would become annoyed…

At his court Alphonso employed Christian, Jewish and Islamic scholars. The main portion of Spain was still under “moorish” control in those days, and it might come as no surprise that there was a lot of cultural exchange between them. Music, geometry, poetry, medicine, chemistry, bio- and herbology etc. a lot of the western science and art find their roots in the Islamic culture.

CantigasSome words like “lute” (al oud – the wood) and Alcohol (Al-kuhul) find their origin in the Arabic language. The lute was probably brought to Europe by the same route.

This picture shows two musicians, one in European and the other in Moorish clothes, playing together. The instruments have been identified as a “Chitarra Moresca” and “Chitarra Latina”. I have always wondered how this would have sounded. Last week I found this short film of Adel Salameh (oud) and Jacob Heringman (lute) playing Cantiga 353…

I have heard it over and over again, and it still mesmerizes me.

Another movie of the same cantiga, played by “The Night Watch”, Ian Pittaway and Andy Casserley. Played on oud and bagpipes.

Recently I found Ian’s blog Early Music Muse, a treasure chest of information on early instruments and performance. I strongly advise you to pay it a visit. It’s one of the best blogs I’ve seen. To me it’s comforting to know there are others out there with somewhat the same combination of obsession and curiosity. He also has a great youtube channel…

Another one I would like to share with you is this version of “A Madre de Jesu Cristo” by Simone Sorini. Just because it’s beautiful.

Even after 750 years the Cantigas de Santa Maria still inspire people. And they probably will for another 750 years.

But what is more important, especially in the present day, is that it shows that we can work together to make something beautiful. No matter what background or faith. When we take up instruments of art rather than destruction, we can achieve great things. This is a lot harder than hate (hate is cheap and easy, that’s why it’s given out so much lately) but the rewards will be a lot better…

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