Cantigas de Santa Maria: Art as Historical Evidence

A Castilian representation taken from the Cantigas de Santa Maria (ca. 1280) of a battle between Nasrid Emirate of Granada and the Kingdom of Castile-Leon, late-thirteenth century.


Notice that all/most of the Muslims are represented (accurately) with Hispanic features and, aside from the beards and turbans, are indistinguishable from their Christian counterparts. Not to mention that several Muslims are also (accurately) depicted as fighting alongside their Castilian comrades against the Nasrids, demonstrating that even as late as the thirteenth century the link between religion and political allegiance remained extremely fluid in Iberia.

It’s interesting that this representation–which is contemporary with the events in question–has been subordinated to the early modern and colonial-era depiction of the Hispano-Muslim/Andalusi (and Sephardic) civilization in Spain as a foreign presence with little or no relation with the historical, ethnic, or cultural landscape of the Iberian peninsula in the medieval period. The dominance of terminologies such as “Moor”, “Moorish” and “Saracen”, not to mention the prevalence of the framework of the “Reconquista” mythology has obfuscated this reality of medieval Iberia within Spain and beyond. Until recently, very few scholars have sought to rectify this…thankfully, the increasing interest in art historical sources (such as this particular painting) for the history of medieval Iberia has provided the space for the reexamination of these very ahistorical assumptions.

Some additional representations of Muslims from the Cantigas:

04.15 - Documentación - Cantigas de Santa María 185d - Ejército moro (Menéndez Pidal)







(For those interested, the Cantigas de Santa Maria were a series of musical pieces–complete with pictoral representations–which were commissioned by King Alfonso X of Castile in the late thirteenth century. Here’s Cantiga 100:

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