But the most astounding of all his books are the superbly illustrated manuscripts of the Cantigas de Santa Maria- the royal collection of poems in praise of the Virgin, which is one of the great art treasures of the Middle Ages yet is still one of the least known. The four surviving Cantigas are illuminated with over 1300 miniatures in various stages of completion; they document virtually every aspect of life in thirteenth-century Spain, from architecture and warfare, to medicine and sexual relations….
The sexual situations depicted in the Cantigas might have been chosen by Ingmar Bergman: a young girl who has chosen to preserve her chastity is forcibly deflowered by her bridegroom and his accomplices; a woman loses her husband and sleeps with her own son instead; when they have a child she kills it by throwing it down a toilet; bathroom fixtures are of course included among the architectural details.
A knight seduces a nun and abducts her from the convent. A prioress has to undress before a bishop to prove she is not pregnant. A monk cannot break the habit of making love to women, “both married ones and unmarried ones, nor did he leave virgins alone, nor nuns, nor sisters of charity.” A black man sleeps with a white woman; both are arrested in bed at her mother-in-law’s instigation and condemned to the stake, but Santa maria intervenes to save the white woman, though not, be it noted, the black man.
All of these stories are narrated and illustrated with complete candor; it was an age without our elaborate notions about what is unmentionable, an age that still assumed that “all the news is fit to illuminate.” Nor was it strange that these sensual and sinful activities should appear in a book of religious songs: at the crucial moment, and usually at the eleventh hour, the Madonna dispenses justice and mercy, or resolves the problem with what else, but a miracle. Some of these are simply household miracles, of course as in the story of the peasant from Segovia “who lived in a village and lost a cow he loved very much.”
The peasant prayed to Santa Maria to bring back his cow,vowing to give her its first offspring in repayment:”And the cow came back unharmed and unhurt, with its ears hanging low.” Eventually it bore a bull-calf, and the peasant, forgetting his vow, took the calf to market. But it got away and went into a church to pay homage to the Madonna. From then on “there was not a better work bull in the village,” and its owner became a very pious man.
In some of the other domestic cantigas the intercession of the Virgin is not so much miraculous as merely therapeutic. One of the songs, for example, tells about the troubles of a merchant’s wife whose husband is out enjoying himself “with his barragana,” or harlot, but in due course, after the wife has prayed to the Virgin, the other woman sees the error of her ways, makes friends with the wife, and allows the married couple to be reconciled.