Master Mateo’s Musicians

Ernest G. Norris
The following article first appeared in our Bulletin no. 61 in December 1997, and is included here by permission of the author and the editor. You may quote reasonable extracts without permission, though we would appreciate an acknowledgement. For more substantial use, please contact the Secretary.


Muy bien, amigos. Gracias. We need to come at it fresh. Take five. Now, Padre, you asked why a ‘sceptic’ should be taking el Camino de Santiago. One word answer, Master Mateo. You make medieval stringed instruments, vielle, rebec, ‘figure of eight’, fiddle, vihuela? No instruments remain. The only evidence is iconographic; statuary, manuscripts, paintings. All roads lead, in the end, to el Camino de Santiago to el Pórtico de la Gloria, and the best of all sources – Mateo.

Here is this mason/sculptor in a small province at the edge of the known world, sea north and west, mountains to the east, south a brilliant, tolerant, multi-racial, but religiously alien civilisation. The odds are that Mateo never travelled far, if at all, beyond the borders of the province, probably knew only his local churches, castles and palaces, though his professional training must have been thorough and solid. From which concatenation of vagueness and possibility can be deduced how little is known of Mateo – except through his work and documents related to it. Yet his work puts him among the greatest of all sculptors. What influences can we see in his work?

Living in Santiago Mateo cannot help hearing pilgrims’ tales; the glories of French cathedrals, the porticos of Moissac and Oloron. He hears of integration of sculpture and scripture, of Christ Universal Ruler – accompanied by the Apostles and the Blessed – on the tympanum of the porticos, and on the semicircular arch, the archivolt, surrounding the tympanum, twenty four Elders playing cytharas, as in the Apocrypha. Just as well he did not see the originals. Twenty four po-faced Elders sitting bolt upright as if on the WC, an impression enhanced by phialas, resembling specimen bottles held in right hands, leaving the left for twenty four identical fiddles, are hardly inspirational. Competent craftsmen worked to a formula – and that is what the formula produced.

Mateo’s new brief, a portico for the cathedral left by Esteban and his successors, fired an imagination fuelled by genius and discipline, unhampered by pedestrian precursors. The tympanum, of course, had to be static, hierarchic. There can be nothing informal about the majesty of the Universal Ruler – even more so if the portrait is to be in terms of an idealised twelfth-century Spanish court. Sculpture, in this subject more than any other, must flesh out the eternal. Nothing must disturb the sense of timelessness. “As it was in the beginning, is now…” There must be no movement, no tension, no drama. Serenity is all. But an arch exists only in stress; tension and compression are built into the form. For Mateo to deny this would be departure from truth. Stress must be reflected in movement among the musicians, but must not detract from the majesty of the tympanum.

Mathematics was an obsession running through all medieval education. Saint John of Ortega’s monastery church is a beautiful example of that obsession applied. It is implicit in Mateo’s training; for a mason it is the primary tool. Mateo’s mastery shines in the proportion and precision of his work, but his genius is shown in such detail as the difference in height between the outer Elders and those in the centre, an acute awareness of perspective predating Uccello by three centuries. Being adjacent to Mozarabic civilisation, the centre of European learning of the time, probably helped. While the Crusaders were sacking Constantinople, destroying the libraries of a millennium in that last great Viking raid, here Greek and Roman learning was preserved and spread; Christian, Jew, and Moslem in academic brotherhood, each enhancing the studies of the other, and the learning of the past. The renaissance of Greek mathematics (of which theoretical music was an essential part), enlarged by Arabic invention, was one of the disciplines broadcast by the catholic nature of the Christian Church. And the work and pilgrim routes to Santiago came from the South, as well as from the West.

We can only conjecture about Mateo’s wide experience of practical music, revealed in the archivolt. Much may be ascribed to acute observation. Mateo certainly possessed that to an extraordinary degree. Jongleur, minstrel, were everyday currency, but the poise of the musicians, the standard and variety of their instruments, point to an acquaintance very much higher on the ladder, say, household musicians in court or palace. Twenty four of them? Unlikely. Whether large bands (and large is, say, more than ten) as opposed to impromptu ‘get togethers’, existed in medieval times, and where and when, is still subject to argument. The way Mateo chooses and arranges his forces, the fact that no two instruments are exactly alike, the large number available to copy with all his will towards truth, argues large groupings, though not necessarily scripturally large. The Apocryphal reference to ‘cytharas’ restricts him to ‘strings’, but stretched to mean any kind of ‘string’, from organistrum, through bowed and plucked instruments, to harps and psalteries. In any case, the last cythara had probably perished five hundred years before, and it is doubtful whether Mateo would have recognised one if he saw it. Fr López-Calo’s inspired conjecture about the shape and role of the phialas in Mateo’s work, turning them from perfume holders to musical gourds (calabazas), certainly has a bearing on the size of the band of musicians Mateo could have encountered. A small, homogenous group of musicians needs no outside standard. For a large group a standard is essential – think of a modern orchestra tuning to flute or clarinet A. Twenty four Elders would have had no such standard, only stringencies of tuning. Multi-string instruments, harps, psalteries, took longer to tune and would have priority over instruments with fewer strings, rebecs, fiddles, vihuelas and organistra. Where would a common pitch have come from? López-Calo’s idea of ‘tuned’ as well as percussive gourds fits perfectly. You tried them by the dozen until you found one with a satisfactory and agreed pitch – then treasured it. Your ‘large’ orchestra could tune, even to the drone fifths of the organistrum. Look at Elder number four.

Mateo must, however, have brought more to his musical task than observation and dedication to truth. Prima facie, masonry and music are antipathetic. A lifetime wielding mallet and chisel, starting as a very young apprentice doing rough work, does not make for delicacy of touch. But Mateo’s depiction of tuning and listening, his awareness of the universal body language of string players, points to more than observation and knowledge. How many craftsmen have possessed both and yet made egregious mistakes in musical subjects? Mateo brings empathy to his work, surely born of experience. Could he have been a practising musician? Could this have been part of his inspiration?

So to the musicians. And musicians they are. Elders by definition and scripture, perhaps, but that stands for nothing beside the reality of the way they handle the instruments, their expression, body language, communication. They are musicians; professionals at that. And here is Mateo’s prime act of genius. This is not the first depiction of everyday life. Much of Greek and Roman sculpture, the friezes of the Parthenon, the sculptures on arches and pillars of Roman triumphs, refer to life as lived. There, however, you face the two choices of antiquity and modernism, Ikon or Ideal. Ikon does not pretend to life; it abstracts desired features leaving you to fill the gaps. Ideal does not pretend to life as it is – no warts – looks to a Platonic heaven. Archetype Ikon sculpture would be, perhaps, Trajan’s Column – cartoon adventures in stone; archetype Ideal sculpture the Athenian procession, youths, maidens, magistrates, animals, gods, all perfect of their kind. Sculpture had ever been thus. Mateo knows nothing of this. He is not concerned to abstract, or idealise, or even ‘make real’. His concern is with truth. Truth starts with the relationship between pairs of musicians. If one, say, is ‘giving a note’, the other is listening intently; posture, the way instruments are held, heads placed, robes fall, all go back to this relationship. There are twelve of these relationships, none of them repeated. Truth must prevail to the smallest item. An instrument must be correct to the holes taking the strings to the back of the peg-holder, to the screw slot in the handle of the organistrum. The marvel of this dedication to truth in the hands of Mateo is that it does not become sterile. It enables him to maintain a rhythm from the ends of the arch to the triumph of the organistrurn in the centre. It enables him to arrange his instruments in a pattern from simple to complex, and for variety, to break that pattern with instruments of different shape. And whilst movement is apparent and rhythmic it is not in any way violent. It must not be concerned with the whole. The tympanum is serene. The archivolt shows the equivalent of serenity in movement – it is relaxed.

Relaxation is very rare in sculpture. Ikon and Ideal cannot relax. Ikon must exaggerate to make its point, leaving you with too little information to determine what happens next. This has to be stated explicitly, if at all, in the next ikon or frame, usually with the aid of words, external crutches for an inadequate work of art. Ideal aims to universalise the image; a god is a GOD; Venus, the perfect woman; David, the paradigm of youth, etc… These images have a present, but no past and no future. When the model stepped down from the rostrum, the god disappeared and an ordinary being with all the faults inherent in that estate put on the ragged dressing gown. Ikon and Ideal have only an eternal present. Mateo’s refusal either to abstract or idealise his musicians, and his relaxation of them, produces something unique in sculpture; a parameter of time: a minute ago they were playing: a few seconds and they will start again.

In a fable about a medieval mason, at Wells, he is asked why he has carved a figure destined for the façade, completely in the round. “No one will ever see it,” he is told. “Ah, but God will,” he replies. This demeans both God, and craftsman, God as a kind of nagging foreman, and the craftsman as only working well under supervision. What Mateo achieved was truth, in all its aspects, truth to life, subject, spirit, and craftsmanship. This truth extended from the geometry of the Pórtico (even the laying out of that on the plaster floor of the drawing loft was a vast feat of intelligence and technique for the time and place – witness the inexactitudes in other projects of the era) to the ornamentation and mechanism of the organistrum. Add one further truth, constructional – the Pórtico stands almost perfect after 800 years – and you have an idea of the integrity of the man who hides himself behind the pillar. Not in fear of judgment on his work, not even offering it to God. In this work is integrated his every talent, imagination, intellect, spirit, feeling, and craftsmanship, all used to their fullest. “Here I kneel. I could do no other.” It is what God intended.


“Hola amigos. Listen now, I know you are used to entertaining in the Highest circles. Tomorrow, however, you come down from those perches and play for people…. Christ’s people. Tomorrow you will play loud – big fff loud – and even then the pilgrims won’t hear you. But they’ll know you’re there! Now, ‘Iacobe Sancte’. From the top and let’s hear it. After …
Source: Confraternity of St James Bulletin Nº 61 pp. 21-25.

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