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Take a Pilgrimage


Alfonso X, el Sabio, Cantigas de Santa María (1256-84), Camerata Mediterranea and l’Orchestre Andalou de Fès, Erato CD #3984-25498-2 or Warner Classics as Apex CD 2564 61924-2

The harvest has been gathered, the first snows have yet to fall. The time has come to think of a pilgrimage. As a concept, the idea of pilgrimage is nearly universal among the human species. It is a physical journey to a place of veneration, usually a site connected with an historical or religious personage or event. The pilgrimage is a means of demonstrating faith. And in general, the pilgrimage is seen are proceeding on two levels: the first, the travel to the object; the second, the Weg nach Innen as Novalis writes in the Blüthenstaub-Fragment–the path within. For the Hindu, it might be a visit to sites associated with the life of Lord Krishna, or a trip to Varanasi on the sacred Ganges. For a Muslim, the Hajj, the trip to Mecca which all able-bodied faithful should undertake. For a Buddhist, a trip to the birthplace of Lord Buddha, in Lumbini, Nepal. For a Christian, it might be a shrine such as the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico, which I visited earlier this year.


But I have one particular point of pilgrimage in mind: the journey to Santiago de Compostela, St. James of Compostela, in modern-day Spain. For the Christians of Europe, el camino de Santiago was the pilgrimage, especially after the Holy Land itself fell under the control of the Muslims, and could only be approached with great danger. The site is associated with a legend, namely that it is the final resting place of St. James, the brother of Jesus, who had preached the Gospel in the Iberian peninsula.

One image in particular is associated with the Way of St. James, and that is the scallop shell – in many languages called the muscle of St. James. The shell features a single point from which ribs radiate outwards, a symbol of pilgrimage. By tradition dating back to the eighth century, pilgrims who completed the journey would bring back a Galician scallop shell as proof. And later pilgrims destined for the shrine of St. James would wear the scallop shell as a symbol of their pilgrimage. While Santiago de Compostela’s tradition is distinctly Christian, this area was a destination for pilgrims from the time of classical antiquity. For the geography-challenged Romans, it marked the Western end of the World (finisterra), the meeting point with the dreaded Sea of Darkness (mare tenebrosum, as they called the Atlantic.) For the Celts, the site was also the point at which the sun set, and was associated with death rituals.

Of course, throughout human history, travel has been fraught with danger, and until very recently the dangers and risks were very great. A pilgrim therefore was advised to adopt a certain garb and to travel as a mendicant – a step that afforded some protection against the dangers around him. And music was another essential element of the pilgrimage – it marked the pilgrims, reminded them of their goal, and it entertained at the same time. There is a great heritage of music associated with the pilgrimage, and much of it today is shamefully forgotten. But much of this music is inspirational and reveals a rich legacy. In a sense it is a part of our cultural DNA; it reminds us where we come from as we proceed on this journey to an always receding aspirational goal.

And the pilgrimage I have in mind is one you can do in your own living room, or indeed, thanks to the advancements of modern technology and the path-breaking arrival of the iPod, anywhere. It won’t require you to travel anywhere, only to make the inward journey. It requires you only to listen and reflect.

In the mid-13th century, Alfonso X, called “the Learned,” directed the creation of a major collection of music associated with the Marian tradition, the Cantigas de Santa María including within them a great number of compositions associated specifically with the pilgrimage to Compostela. Alfonso was one of the great figures of the Middle Ages, he was the king in Castile and León, as well as Galicia, and briefly was elected Holy Roman Emperor. But his longer lasting legacy came not in the field of politics, but rather the arts, for he patronized and loved them in a way which previously was only known in the Muslim courts of al-Andalus. The texts are composed in Galego, the Galician-Portugese dialect spoken in Compostela, and many of these are songs which would have been sung by pilgrims en route to or from the shrine of St. James. It is curious that Alfonso, who spoke, wrote and promoted Castilian as the language of his kingdom, and who used Latin as a language for international and religious communication, but Castilian as his language of record and scholarship, turned to the dialect of Compostela as the medium for artistic expression. There are some 427 works in the collection, mostly the works of a few Galician composers, but some most likely composed by Alfonso himself (or “Affonso” as he calls himself in the texts).


The Cantigas de Santa María stand at the beginning of the Western musical tradition, and indeed they stand as a bridge. Is this music sacred or secular? The theme is certainly religious. Most of the songs recite typically thirteenth century miracle stories, some with a Biblical tradition, and some of a more Iberian and popular origin. A great many of them tell the story of an individual pilgrimage. A particularly poignant example is in Cantiga No. 175, which could be rendered into English roughly this way:

A German pilgrim was on the Route to Compostela with his son. When they arrived at Toulouse they looked for somewhere to spend the night. The inn they found belonged to a bad man, a heretic. People told them not to stay there, but the owner put a silver cup in the son’s bag just to spite them. As they walked away the owner started shouting that they had robbed him. The Judge and soldiers arrived, searched the boy and found the silver cup. The Judge said: “Hang the boy!” So they did. The father continued to Santiago and on the way back passed by the place where they had hung his son. He heard his son’s voice through his tears: “Father, don’t cry, I’m alive, the Virgin Mary is protecting me, she held me up with her hands”. The father ran to Toulouse and called the Judge and a lot of other people, who took his son down from the scaffold, alive. The son told them what had happened and how the Virgin Mary had held him up for three months. The people then killed the innkeeper.

Hardly the sort of a tale which could be picked up and dramatized by Hallmark for a holiday-season feature, of course. But this song reflects the harshness, the brutality, and the vision that mark the Spanish world of the thirteenth century.

And it’s remarkable, and typical for the attitudes of the age of Alfonso X that the Virgin Mary of these songs intercedes for those who respect and summon her, whether or not they are Christians. One of the most striking songs is cantiga No. 181, which begins “Pero que seja a gente,” and details a legend taken from the life of the twelfth century King of Morocco, Aboyuçaf, who allies himself with the Christians under the banner of the Virgin and defeats their enemies near the Morabe river. Because “os que a Virgen mais aman, a esses ela ajunda” (“those who love the Virgin, those She helps”), goes the refrain, alternating once more with numerous couplets. This cantiga also shows the use of the medium as a source of historical documentation, and a sense of shared or common history between the Christian Iberians and their Muslim counterparts.


A third and truly remarkable cantiga, and one of the group ostensibly authored by Alfonso himself is cantiga No. 209. It begins “Muito faz grand’erro” and relates a semihistorical event that occurred during his reign. While at Vitoria, Alfonso was suddenly struck by an illness which his doctors took for fatal. The king commended himself in the hands of the Virgin, lying down on the “book of the Virgin” (probably this is a reference to the Codex E of the Cantigas de Santa María, which is now in the Escorial museum, and from which the marginal illustrations are taken), and was saved. This cantiga is thus an account of a miracle sung and authored by its beneficiary, a conventional form with an historically significant implementation. It is also a mesmerizing setting: written for female voices alone, and accompanied by a single note held by an instrument, has a strophic structure of eight verses with refrain. The harmony is very simple—fifths, octaves and unisons.

These stories are interspersed with songs of praise to the Virgin Mary. The lyrics are simple and you don’t need to speak medieval Galego to understand them. It suffices if you know a bit of modern Spanish or Portugese, or even Latin, French or Italian.

The most famous of these, and certainly the best-known song in the collection is cantiga No. 100. The French music historian and Vivaldi biographer Sophie Roughol describes it this way in an excellent recent article in the early music magazine, Goldberg:

One of the best known cantigas, and the most frequently peformed, is the 100th, “Santa Maria, strela do dia” (“Virgin Mary, star of god”). It is a simple poem to the Virgin. In the tradition of the medieval conductus, it is a non-narrative prayer sung a cappella, exalting the virtues of Mary, in three long verses, alternating with a refrain of four lines: “Santa Maria, strela do dia, mostra nos via, pera Deus e nos guia.” This is a typical cantiga de loor, a song of praise, announced by the title: Esta é de loor.

But if you don’t listen to the texts and follow the music alone, you might find the religious themes surprising. The execution is popular, the qualities a continuous blend of the introspective with the racy, piquant, exotic. To a modern listener they are much more approachable than much of what we consider to be the “classical” traditional: the determined beat, the heavy use of percussion instruments, for instance.

But the really astonishing thing about the cantigas is not the lyrics; it’s the music. España es differente. In this music, you will hear the three strands from which the culture of late-medieval Spain emerged. Alfonso called himself rey de tres religiones, king of the three religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. We see this interaction first visually, in the illuminations found in the three codices that preserve the cantigas; the musicians who accompany these works are often clearly Christians, but there are no shortage of Moors and Jews scattered among them. And second, in the instrumentation, for most of these works have been composed for instruments known to the North African-Andalusian Islamic tradition, such as the oud (???) or taâr (??? ), at this time barely known in Europe outside of Iberia. And finally in the performance style, in which we see a confluence of the troubadour tradition of the north, and three native Iberian styles: Christian, Islamic and Sephardic.

There are many collections of recordings of the Cantigas de Santa María, including an extensive series by Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XX and Eduardo Paniagua series with Música Antigua. Both of these take the “Western approach” to understanding the cantigas. But, while still somewhat controversial, a challenging and different approach is offered by Joel Cohen and the Camerata mediterranea together with l’Orchestre Andalou de Fès under the direction of Mohammed Briouel. They interpret the music backwards from the Moroccan tradition (which in Arabic is called the Andalusian tradition). The instrumentation falls easily into place and the sound seems instinctively right. It’s a brilliant product and it demonstrates an amazing fact: that the greatest masterwork of the Christian medieval tradition, the Cantigas de Santa María, springs straight from a Muslim cultural tradition and provided it with bridge of influence into the European mainstream. It is another amazing demonstration of the brilliant culture that flourished when three faiths prospered in harmony in medieval Spain.

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