The Cantigas de Santa Maria ("Songs to the Virgin Mary") are manuscripts written in Galician-Portuguese , with music notation, during the reign of Alfonso X El Sabio (1221-1284) and are one of the largest collections of monophonic (solo) songs from the Middle Ages. All of the songs at least mention the Virgin Mary, and every 10th is a religious hymn. Some of the manuscripts containing this music also contain colored miniatures showing pairs of musicians playing a wide variety of instruments.
The Cantigas are written in Galician-Portuguese, the lyrical language of Castile at the time. The Cantigas are composed of 420 poems, 356 of which are in a narrative format relating to Virgin Mary miracles; the rest of them, except an introduction and two prologues, are of lore or involve Marian festivities. The Cantigas depict the Virgin Mary in a very humanized way, often having her play a role in earthly episodes.
The authors are unknown, even if several studies indicate that Galician poet Airas Nunes might well have been the author of a large part of them. King Alfonso X — named as Affonso in the Cantigas — is also believed to be an author of some of them as he refers himself in first person. Support for this theory can be found in the prologue of the Cantigas. Also, many sources credit Alfonso due to the influence of his works on the poetic tradition, including his introduction of religious song. Although King Alphonso X's authorship is debatable, his influence is not. While the other major works that came out of Alfonso's workshops, including the histories and other prose texts, were in Castilian, the Cantigas are in Galician-Portuguese, and reflect the popularity in the Castilian court of other poetic corpuses such as the cantigas d'amigo and cantigas d'amor.
The metrics are extraordinarily diverse: 280 different formats for the 420 Cantigas. The most common are the virelai and the rondeau. The length of the verses varies between two and 24 syllables. The narrative voice in many of the songs describes an erotic relationship, in the troubadour fashion, with the Divine. According to 2000 publishings by scholar Manuel Pedro Ferreira the models for the Cantigas might actually be something different than a traditional French rondeau. He calls the format for some of the Cantigas the "Andalusian rondeau" which has a structure of AB/BB/AB.
The music is written in notation which is similar to that used for chant, but also contains some information about the length of the notes. Several transcriptions exist. The Cantigas are frequently recorded and performed by Early Music groups, and quite a few CDs featuring music from the Cantigas are available.
Three codices (copies) of the Cantigas are preserved. They are known as the E Codex, the T Codex, and the Florencia manuscript. The E Codex kept in El Escorial, originally from the royal court of Seville, is in two volumes and is the largest collection of the Cantigas; it is richly illuminated in a Gothic hand, containing no less than 1262 carefully detailed miniatures, and has been dated to 1280-1283. The T Codex, from Toledo , which had been considered a copy of an earlier manuscript, has now been reevaluated; it may be in fact be the oldest of the codices, dating from the lifetime of King Alfonso. Also, the T Codex is the least illustrated of the manuscripts. Instead of intricate depictions of scenes it contains alternation of ink throughout. The Florence manuscript has 109 of the cantigas but contains no music, only empty staves; however it is richly illuminated.
The musical form of the Cantigas, a central work of medieval music, is highly organized and, like other aspects of the Cantigas, it is still a topic of debate and study to uncover the truth. According to Manuel Pedro Ferreira, a scholar on the Cantigas, the music found in the Cantigas cannot be classified as Arab, but instead must be classified as "Moorish- Andalusian". This influence of music lends to the Cantigas a mixture of reference from Western and Eastern traditions of music.