Miscellaneous Information

How to Read an Illumination

Medieval representations of musical instruments are so rare as to be treated as any precious resource and never squandered. The loss of any one illustration is irreplaceable, as a species of plant or animal. Even the crudest graffito is valuable but that does not mean that they are of equal value. We must learn everything we can about each picture while taking into account the intent of the maker as well as the competence of his information.

To our knowledge, we have no pictures of musical instruments actually made by musicians. That does not mean that those who illustrated the manuscripts could not have been musical. But we must use other cues to evaluate their perception and accuracy, and remember that professional musicians and professional scribes and illuminators occupied different worlds. For the most part they, literally, would not even have spoken the same language. Outside of the Spanish peninsula monks spoke Latin, an acquired skill which symbolically as well as physically separated them from the outside world which spoke the increasingly disparate secular languages derived from Latin. Walter Ong writes of Latin as a puberty rite, preparing young (almost always) men for life as adults in a specialized fraternity, wrenched away from their mothers and Mother Tongues. In the court of Alfonso, with its babble of Castillian, Galician, Asturian, Basque, French, and Arabic, the clerics responsible for the Cantigas, judging by the calligraphy and pictorial style, were French monks whose professional language was Latin.

When we look at the illuminations in the Cantigas we must keep all this artistic, cultural, linguistic, perceptual information in mind as we evaluate the physical musical instrument. If we do not know about medieval costume we must learn. If we do not know about the physical and social context of Alfonso’s court (which travelled constantly around his kingdom and was never in one location for long), we must learn. If we do not know about the relationships among the various religious and ethnic groups in the Christian north, we must learn. If we do not know about the military equipment and exchange of personnel and tactics between Muslim and Christian forces, we must learn. If we do not know the range of construction and performance possibilities among contemporary, and historical, shawms, lutes, psalteries, fiddles, and a host of other instruments, we must learn or resign ourselves to merely observing,”look, an old fiddle.”

When we look at a particular illumination our first reaction is likely to be esthetic and, ironically, that is one of the primary original purposes for the picture. But their esthetics are not ours. The original meaning of the word “ornament,” as Coomaraswamy makes clear, is to perfect or complete, as in, “a sword ornaments a knight.” It doesn’t make him prettier, it makes him more effective. And though the illustrations in the Cantigas are beautiful, they were intended to make the manuscript more complete as an offering to the Virgin Mary. Of course, it would have been just as effective if angels, rather than musicians were shown. But not as perfect for us.

It is hard for us to understand that medieval illuminated manuscripts in general, and the Cantigas as a classic example, were not made for practical purposes but for display, prestige, as items of conspicuous consumption. Works intended for use were used up, worn out, and recycled. But even more importantly, most information was oral, learned in a controlled teacher-student environment, and more likely than not, secret. Thus, the small details which occur in the pictures may be carefully observed minutiae, unknowingly revealed by the copyist, or imaginative filler, dreamed up by a bored scribe. And only our concerted collating of all available information can tip the scales to one side or the other. One is reminded of the Russian proverb popular in the news some years ago: Trust but Verify.

How Are the Illustrations Arranged?

In Manuscript E2 there is an illumination, showing one or two musicians, for each Cantiga de Loor. These occur at every tenth position, so that Cantiga No.10 has the first illustration, No.20 the second. There are 40 pictures altogether, for 400 cantigas. There is also a large illumination at the beginning of the manuscript for the Prólogo (Prologue) which likewise depicts musicians. The arrangement of the instruments in the illustrations shows an overall plan, though there are exceptions to it. In general, the first half shows chordophones (strings), while the second half depicts aerophones (winds).
Below is a simplified table of information from my dissertation (1996).


1. Cantiga 10 2 chordophones fiddle, guitarra latina 21. Cantiga 210 2 chordophones 2 “banjo-fiddles”
2. Cantiga 20
2 chordophones fiddler, guitarra latina(?)
22. Cantiga 220
2 aerophones 2 double reedpipes zummara or alboka?
3. Cantiga 30
2 chordophones 2 lutes
23. Cantiga 230
2 aerophones 2 double bladderpipes
4. Cantiga 40
2 chordophones 2 rotas (harp-psalteries)
24. Cantiga 240
2 aerophones 2 large cross flutes
5. Cantiga 50
2 chordophones 2 small trapezoidal psalteries
25. Cantiga 250
2 aerophones 2 bladderpipes w/large horns
6. Cantiga 60
2 aerophones 2 triple clarinets (launeddas)
26. Cantiga 260
2 aerophones 2 small bagpipes
7. Cantiga 70
2 chordophones 2 small psalteries
27. Cantiga 270
2 aerophones 2 large horns (oliphants?)
8. Cantiga 80
2 chordophones 2 large square psalteries
28. Cantiga 280
2 aerophones 2 small bagpipes
9. Cantiga 90
2 chordophones 2 mandoras
29. Cantiga 290
1 chordophone large curved psaltery-harp
10. Cantiga 100
1 chordophone 1 fiddle (a gamba)
30. Cantiga 300
aerophone & membranophone albogón & waisted drum
11. Cantiga 110
2 chordophones 2 tiny rebabs
31. Cantiga 310
2 aerophones 2 round-bell shawms (“the mysterious douçaine?”)
12. Cantiga 120
2 chordophones 2 guitarras morisca
32. Cantiga 320
2 aerophones 2 straight trumpets (añafil)
13. Cantiga 130
2 chordophones 2 small guitarras morisca
33. Cantiga 330
aerophone & idiophone shawm & bones
14. Cantiga 140
2 chordophones 2 small guitarras morisca
34. Cantiga 340
2 aerophones alboka & hornpipe
15. Cantiga 150
2 chordophones 2 guitarras latina(?)
35. Cantiga 350
1 aerophone 1 large bagpipe
16. Cantiga 160
2 chordophones 2 square hurdy-gurdies (symphonia)
36. Cantiga 360
2 (x2) aerophones 2×2 shawms(?)
17. Cantiga 170
2 chordophones rebab & large lute
37. Cantiga 370
2 aerophones (& 2 membranophones) 2 pipe & tabor sets
18. Cantiga 180
1 idiophone (set) carillon of 3 bells
38. Cantiga 380
2 chordophones 2 Romanesque harps
19. Cantiga 190
2 idiophones 2 cymbal (pairs)
39. Cantiga 390
2 aerophones 2 round-bell shawms
20. Cantiga 200
1 aerophone 1 portative organ
40. Cantiga 400
1 idiophone (set) mechanical set of 7 bells

The first collection of Cantigas only contained 100 hymns and there seems to be an awareness of the importance of each hundred even in this, larger, manuscript. Cantiga 100 features a solo musician, the first exception from the two-man rule, playing a fiddle in the unique Oriental style. Cantiga 200, likewise, shows a single figure playing a portative organ, one of the earliest depictions of that instrument. The last Cantiga, 400, has a tonsured monk playing a mechanical bell-chime box, another unusual instrument. On the other hand, Cantiga 300 shows a strange ensemble: a man and a woman (both Muslim by their sleeve patches) playing unique instruments. The man, wearing the noble box-cap birrete, blows a huge fingerhole horn, while the woman plays an hourglass-shaped drum. Since the organization of the illustrations is a little loose, it seems likely the previous picture (for number 290) was intended for this position. Cantiga 290 follows the pattern of striking solo performers in portraying a man, seated on a throne-like chair, playing the singular curved psaltery mentioned previously.

It is possible to see other patterns in the arrangement of pictures but it is not always certain whether they were intended or are merely part of our penchant for classification. Considering the still primarily oral minds who created these manuscripts I would err on the side of caution, but it is interesting to play the game.

Two thirds of the musicians are shown playing seated, but is this their normal position or because they are mostly shown in a courtly setting? Interestingly, the guitarra morisca players are usually shown standing (a more difficult position[?]) and only one pair is seated.

Why, in the first half which shows stringed instruments (with bells and cymbals thrown in at the end), did the limner show the triple clarinet players–right in the middle of a bunch of psaltery players? Some medieval pun or inside joke? Then, perhaps the punchline is the two Jewish harpers [not Jew’s harps] stuck back toward the end among the shawms and pipes and tabors.
Is there any significance to the illuminations which do not show the jewel-like coffered background? Cantigas 30, 60, 70, 80, 360, 370, 380, 390, and 400 all settle for musicians against a plain color. The last five could indicate haste in finishing the manuscript but the other four are at the beginning: were they not done in order?
The instruments clearly begin with the most common types: fiddles, guitarra latinas, lutes, and psalteries. But are the rest shown in order of popularity or prestige, or are they products of the preferences of the designer, the illuminator, or merely the multi-directional synapses of memory?

The study continues with the second half of the illustrations on a separate site. Click here to go there.