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St. Isidore and Mozarabic Chant

Photo: Catedral de Santa María de la Sede, Seville, Spain.

Three hundred years ago yesterday, on April 25, 1722, the last of the Christian Fathers of antiquity was proclaimed Doctor of the Church by Pope Innocent XIII: St. Isidore of Seville.

Seventeen years after his death in 636, he was recognized by the the 8th Council of Toledo in 653 as

Nostri quoque sæculi doctor egregius, ecclesiæ catholicæ novissimum decus, præcedentibus ætate postremus, doctrinæ comparatione non infimus, et quod maius est in sæculorum fine doctissimus, atque cum reverentia nominandus, Isidorus [the distinguished doctor of our century, the newest ornament of the Catholic Church, though the last when compared with the previous in terms of time, and furthermore, the most learned in the end times, and to be named with reverence, Isidore].[1]

He was born around 560 into an extraordinary family: among his siblings elder brother St. Leander, Archbishop of Seville and a great friend of Pope St. Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), was his tutor; younger brother St. Fulgentius was bishop of Astigi (today’s Écija, southwestern Spain) and sister St. Florentina a Benedictine nun. He succeeded his brother to rule the Andalusian archdiocese around 600, led some councils, in particular the 4th of Toledo in 633, which liturgically standardized the vast kingdom of the Goths, the Iberian peninsula and Narbonese Gaul.

The so-called Doctor Hispalense embodies the intellectual and literary greatness of the Visigoth Monarchy, and became an endless spring that would flood the intellectual and cultural activity in Europe for centuries to come. Isidore was the first one, once the Occident Empire fell, to be able to transfer, moreover in a lyrical manner, the eloquent echo with which Rome’s greatness is able to resonate from its own ruins.[2]

The great cultural heritage that perhaps was lost in Italy was maintained in some areas of the former Western Roman Empire, especially in southern Spain and Provence (the Roman province par excellence). Isidore wanted to contribute to the conservation of this heritage and compiled a large encyclopedia of all the knowledge of that period, the Etymologiæ sive Origines, in 20 books. It is his most famous work, for which, under Pope John Paul II, he was made the patron of the Internet. But his corpus also includes numerous works of dogmatic theology (Sententiarum libri tres and De fide catholica contra Iudæos), biblical theology (Quæstiones in Vetus Testamentum, De ortu et obitu Patrum, De numeris qui in Sacra Scriptura occurunt and Allegoriæ quædam Sacræ Scripturæ), liturgy and ecclesiastical discipline (De ecclesiasticis officiis and Regula monachorum), ascetics (Synonymorum libri duo), secular sciences (Differentiarum libri duo, De natura rerum, De ordine creaturarum), history (Chronica maior, Historia Gothorum, De viris illustribus and De hæresibus), 11 letters and 27 epigrams.

Isidore of Seville by José Alcoverro (1892) at the Biblioteca Nacional de España, Madrid

The Archbishop of Seville also gives proof of musical erudition, revealing himself to be one of the major theorists and elaborators of the reform undertaken by Pope St. Gregory the Great.

His work De ecclesiasticis officiis, which can be considered the first “liturgical manual” in history, also has a singular importance for ecclesiastical chant in general and for “Mozarabic chant” in particular. About the usefulness of music to raise the minds of men to God Isidore teaches:

Cuius psalterium idcirco cum melodia cantilenarum suavium ab Ecclesia frequentatur, quo facilius animi ad compunctionem flectantur [the psalter, with the melody of sweet strains, is frequented by the Church, with which souls more easily incline towards repentance] (De ecclesiasticis officiis, 1.5.1).

Listen to Psalm 1 in Mozarabic chant here:

Mozarabic chant is one of the four major western liturgical repertoires: the Gregorian, as it was called after St. Gregory the Great, who revived it, is “the Chant proper to the Roman Church” (Pius X, Tra le sollecitudini, 3); the Ambrosian, still used in the Archdiocese of Milan and certain churches that gravitate in its orbit; the Gallican, sung in the past in the ancient French Church and now only in the Lyon Cathedral, east-central France; and Mozarabic, typical of the Visigothic liturgy, formed before the Arab invasion in 711 and in the present performed in the Corpus Christi Chapel of Toledo Cathedral, south-central Spain.

This chapel was designated in 1504 for the celebrations according to the Mozarabic rite by the then Archbishop, Cardinal Francisco Ximénes  de Cisneros (1436-1517), who in 1495 collected the ancient codices and compiled an edition of the texts for the Mass and Divine Office.

The adjective “mozarabic” means “among the Arabs” and refers the Christians of Spain who lived under the Moorish Empire. Hence the name of Mozarabic liturgy, rite or chant, which some would call more willingly “ancient Hispanic” and “Hispano-Visigotic.”[3]

About twenty pieces of such chant are accessible today, taken from some manuscripts of Silos and above all from the Antiphonary of León Cathedral, written in the 10th century on a specimen of the 6th-7th century. The Hispanic-Mozarabic liturgy reflects the dramatic character of the Spanish populations of all times and also recognizable in literature, art and music.[4] Both the tendency to the dramatization and popular inflections also distinguish Mozarabic chant. Here you can hear some examples of this archaic Christian chant: a providential call to rediscover the spiritual roots that made the Western civilization.

Editor’s note: for more on the Mozarabic chant and rite, see the work of our friends at New Liturgical Movement here.


Photo credit: Henrique Ferreira on Unsplash

[1] Vives, ed., Concilios Visigóticos e Hispano-Romanos, Instituto Enrique Flórez, Barcelona 1963, pp. 276-277.

[2] Cf. F. F. De Buján, Il potere politico nel pensiero di Isidoro di Siviglia, in Ravenna capitale. Uno sguardo ad Occidente. Romani e Goti, Isidoro di Siviglia, Vol. 1, Maggioli Editore, 2012, p. 1.

[3] Cf. G. Cattin, La monodia nel medioevo, Vol. 2, EDT 1991, p. 204.

[4] Cf. G. Cattin, ibidem, p. 56.

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