Simon Doubleday

Cantigas de Santa María

The Cantigas de Santa María (Songs of Holy Mary) are a cycle of four hundred and nineteen songs of devotion to the Virgin, written between the 1260s and 1280s, in the lyric language of Galician-Portuguese. The Cantigas recount miracles—some very recent—performed by the Queen of Heaven in the Iberian Peninsula and beyond.

Alfonso himself is thought to have written roughly twenty of the songs and some of the musical settings. Adopting a role as troubadour to the Virgin, and intermediary between Her court and his kingdom, he hoped to enhance an aura of majesty that accentuated his authority as ruler of the realm. He also aimed to use the Cantigas as a means of instilling new social values, including the repression of violent emotions.

The king envisioned the songs for public, theatrical performance. However, when he fell desperately sick in Vitoria in 1276-77, he turned both to Mary and to the book in which his yearnings were almost magically distilled: a manuscript of the Cantigas, which he saw as an amulet, a talisman, with its own healing powers.