Monday, March 2, 2009

Alfonso X's and Others' Cantigas de Santa Maria



"The realm of the images began way before the 20th century." That's how the world's most renowned Middle Age comics specialist, Danièle-Alexandre Bidon, started her article "La bande dessinée avant la bande dessinée" (Le collectioneur de bandes dessinées - Hors série: Les origines de la bande dessinée, 1996: 11 - 20; the comics collector - one shot: the origins of comics; my translation). (Another Medieval comics scholar worth noting is Eckart Sackmann - in German -:
Bidon's text and title were, later (2000), used as documentation and virtual exhibition title at the Bibliothèque nationale de France's site (the National Library of France): La BD avant la BD (; there's an English, more abridged, version). Danièle was right. All through Medieval times (476 - 1456) books (codices) were illustrated (illuminated, sometimes copiously; according to her, a Bible could attain 5424 panels; ditto: 11). Since the Vienna Genesis (c. 540) or the codex Purpureus rossanensis (the purple codex from Rossano; c. 555) until later examples like Paul's, Hermann's and Jeantrès' (the Limbourg brothers) Les très riches heures du Duc de Berry (the very rich hours of the Duke of Berry; 1412 - 1416) the Middle Ages are a boon to great comics and great illustration lovers. My personal favorite work, among all this great corpus, was done by Romanesque Spanish artists, particularly the Comentarios al Apocalipsis (Commentary on the Apocalypse) by the Beatus of Liébana (w; 776), also known as the Facundus Beatus' (a; 1047) or the Fernando I's and Doña (lady) Sancha's Apocalypse (the patrons):
Another important phase in the illuminated manuscript's history is the Carolingian era with Vivien's Bible (or Charles the Bald's Bible; 845; abbot and king, respectively: or the Moutier-Grandval's Bible.
Anyway, are all these books comics? As we must know by now, it all depends on our definition of the word. Danièle-Alexandre Bidon's definition is too orthodox to go beyond the proto-comics cliché. Besides, she published her essay in a magazine that significantly, and in a rather provocative way, accompanied the panel that occurred during the Rodolphe Töpffer exhibition in Angoulême (January, 26, 1996). Quite obviously, said exhibition tried to be an anti-comics centennial celebration, establishing Töpffer as the "father of the comic strip" at the same time. At such an undoubtedly French party, elitist Medieval comics were as unwelcomed as American mass distributed newspaper strips (Töpffer was a Swiss artist, by the way, but he wrote in French).
Even so the Cantigas de Santa Maria (songs to the Virgin Mary; c. 1270) by Alfonso X (the sage; 1221 -1284; king of Castile, Léon, Galicia) and other artists, were described by Bidon as "sequential narrative's [...] perfection." (14; my translation.) Whoever wrote the captions under the images on the La BD avant la BD exhibition asked, in a rhetorical way, if the Cantigas are: "The first comic book?", adding: "[It's]the Medieval manuscript that's closer to a Modern comic" (my translation).
The Cantigas de Santa Maria are four hundred and twenty seven poems narrating the Virgin Mary's miracles and lauding Her. Four books contain the cantigas (two have comics: one at the Escorial, the other in Florence). Music notations complete this Medieval "multimedia" book. The words are in Galician-Portuguese, one of the languages more frequently used to write poetry in the Iberian Peninsula at the time.
The Cantigas are an extraordinary window into life in 13th century Europe. Apart from that they are the result of an incredible comics skillfulness. Who were these comics artists from long ago, then? It's hard to tell, obviously... Gonzalo Menéndez-Pidal registers a few possible names (La España del Siglo XIII - 13th century Spain -, 1986: 35): D. Andrés, Pedro de Lourenço, Bonamic, Juan González (John Gundisalvi), Martínez Pérez de Maqueda, Juan Pérez, Pedro de Pamplona. The books were probably created in Seville showing a strong Arab influence. Menéndez-Pidal detected similarities between the Cantigas and Al-Maqamat (the assemblies; 1237) by Abu Muhammad al Qasim ibn Ali al-Hariri (w) and Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti (a). Lourenço, Gundisalvi (of those names we are certain), and the others, proved to be worthy of their Oriental inspirers. Like them, they were great visual storytellers... Their work remains unsurpassed, more than seven hundred years later...

Images and sounds:
1. a fragment of cantiga # 10, "Rosa das Rosas" (rose of all roses; Rose of all roses, Flower of all flowers, / Lady of all ladies, Liege of all lords, / Rose of beauty and truth / And flower of joy and of youth, / Lady enthroned in great holiness, / Liege Lord who bears our sorrows and sins.); The Renaissance Players (Mara Kiek, singer), translation by Jack Sage; this is, in my opinion, the best vocal interpretation of a cantiga that I have ever listened to; an ancient music performer still has to bring the primary material to life, it's not enough to be archeological; that's what the great Mara Kiek does... no one seems to achieve this goal quite like her; here's another example (Martin Codax, Galician poet, 13th century):;
2. this is a moving curio: the caption at the beginning tells us that Françoise Atlan (a French singer of Jewish descent) is going to sing a certain Cantiga Morena (brown song), but what she really sings are two songs being the first one "Rosa das Rosas;" this is erroneously presented as a Sephardic song ("Sepharad" is Hebrew for "Spain"); Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, so, for me it's moving to see "Rosa das Rosas" sung and played in Morocco; it kind of brings the Moorish influence back, five hundred years later, by the hand of a Jewish tradition; call me a Romantic, but, to me, it's the very best of three cultures!; a contemporary reminder of a brief period in Toledo's history when the three Monotheistic religions coexisted peacefully (I kind of miss Mara, though);
3. cantiga # 101 by Eduardo Paniagua's Musica Antigua group (a man who was mute and deaf went to Soissons; at the altar, he moaned and gestured, asking for the Virgin to come to his aid; the Virgin appeared to him and touched his face; She loosened his tongue and opened his ears; blood flowed from them; the man praised the Virgin; summary found, here:;
4. a facsimile of the Escorial's Códice Rico (the rich codex; Edilán, 1979) showing the three art forms in presence: comics, literature, music.

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