• An Ethiopian-Headed Serpent in theCantigas de Santa María: Sin, Sex, and Color in Late Medieval Castile

    Pamela Patton (see profile)
    Twelfth century, Thirteenth century, Fourteenth century, Art, History
    Item Type:
    11th to 14th century, Art history
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    An unconventional portrayal of the serpent of the Temptation in the Florence codex of the Cantigas de Santa María (Biblioteca nazionale centrale di Firenze, MS B.R. 20) manifests significant developments in the visual and epistemic norms of late medieval Castile. The satanic serpent’s black face and stereotyped African features link to cultural traditions well beyond Iberia, most notably the topos of the “Ethiopian,” which blended the actual and fantastical in deeply symbolic ways. Most crucial to the reading of the motif in the cantiga were the Ethiopian’s long-standing associations with sin and diabolism, rooted in early monastic Christianity but preserved in later medieval monastic and romance literature as well as in visual images found in Iberian contexts. Yet the otherwise conventional femininity of the serpent’s head must have connected still more specifically to medieval stereotypes of black women as hypersexual, distasteful, and dangerous. Iberian awareness of these stereotypes, attested by the caricatured black women of medieval Castilian exempla, poetry, and historical texts, surely facilitated recognition of the complementary binaries central to this cantiga, in that Satan’s blackness and sensuality invert Eve’s whiteness and erstwhile purity, foreshadowing her capitulation to the darkness of sin and sex as an antitype of the faultless Virgin. The innovative image thus reveals both its artist’s sensitivity to broad European cultural trends and the resonance of skin color in a region where both color and race would soon become inescapably concrete concerns.
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    Journal article    
    Last Updated:
    6 years ago
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