Cantigas de Santa Maria

Photo on 2-25-19 at 7.37 AM

Before last night, I had never considered how Christianity, the Middle East and the European Medieval times were so interconnected. I attended a performance by the Schola Cantorum of Syracuse yesterday and was struck by the beauty and eeriness of the music. These medieval lyrics and instrumentals were so moving, ancient yet familiar. Sung both in Spanish and the last Cantiga in English, I could hear the hope and sadness in the beautiful voices of the vocalists even though I could not understand all the words.

The musicians utilized authentic handmade instruments created by studying illustrations of medieval manuscripts. Daniel Yost built and played the 4- and 5-stringed guitar-type instruments, a Moorish guitar and an Anglo Saxon lyre. The citole is another medieval stringed instrument, which reminded me in appearance and sound of a dulcimer. The bowed instruments were Renaissance viols, similar to violins or violas. Also included in the band were percussion instruments from India and Pakistan called a tabla, daf and darbuka; the tambourine-like instrument was square instead of the round shape most often seen today.


photo from Medieval manuscript

This program focused upon “El Ray de las Cantigas,” and the poetic works of King Alfonso X who ruled in Spain during the 13th century. Alfonso X was a warrior and an intellectual. He was dubbed the “Wise King” as he loved knowledge and the arts. Alfonso patronized scholars and was responsible for Siete partidas (Seven Divisions of the Law), which not only preserved details of Medieval customs, it later influenced Spanish law. The Wise King also was interested in science and astronomy, supporting scholars of various backgrounds to compile the Tablas Alfonsies (Alfonsine Tables), focusing on planetary movements, and the Libros del saber de astronomia (Books of Astronomical Lore), designating astronomical instruments (, 2019).

Alfonso X ambitiously sought to record world history and had his scholars compile both the Primera crónica general (First General Chronicle) and the General estoria (General History). Although his scholars mixed fact with fiction, they ultimately provided a real testament of the medieval interpretation of the past.

Troubadours from many regions of Europe and the Middle East visited the Wise King’s court. During his reign, which occurred during a tumultuous time in history, his love for the Virgin Mary prevailed. Of Alfonso’s satirical and love poems, the most momentous are the Cantigas de Santa Maria (Canticles of Holy Mary), written between 1257 and 1279 in Galician-Portuguese. The canticles are written in troubadour style and not only contain a wealth of descriptive detail about medieval life, show just how intertwined the regions of Europe, the Middle East and India were in Medieval culture.

This music was from 800 years ago, and yet, I can imagine it in a soundtrack for a drama, as part of a rock song, as background for a documentary, and included in a Christmas concert; old-fashioned while contemporary. When I left the performance, I felt a connection to the past and realized we are not all that different from people all those centuries ago – seeking wisdom and knowledge, relishing in the arts and music, and giving praise to the heavens.

To hear an instrumental of Cantiga de Santa Maria, visit youtube:  Le Lutin d’Ecouves Published on Jan 23, 2008


“Alfonso X.” World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved February 02, 2019 from

Schola Cantorum of Syracuse. “El Ray de las Cantigas” program. 2019, February 24.


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