Christmas Eve and the Last Judgement of the Sibil·la
The Sibil·la, the Song of the Sybil, is said to have its roots in a Greek acrostic poem of the fourth century. Acrostic refers to the giving of a prophesy or message, and in the case of the Sibil·la it isn't the most cheerful of messages. It is a prophecy of the Day of Judgement. In fact, acrostic specifically refers to the prophecies of the Erythraean Sibyl, of whom there wasn't just the one. The "sibylla", this prophetess of Ancient Greece, was capable of all sorts of predictions: the Trojan War, for instance. The fourth-century poem thus relied on a prophecy that had been made several centuries earlier in the time Before Christ.
The poem, made into a song or chant, crossed the Mediterranean and took root in Catalan lands. The actual route of its taking root is believed to have been from the Provençal dialect of southern France and into church liturgy by the tenth century. Although this would have sung in Latin, the Provençal connection was to later prove to be important.
A Father Higini Anglès established in his 1935 book, "The Music of Catalonia at the End of the Thirteenth Century", that the Sibil·la had become part of the post-conquest liturgy in Majorca. And he drew on a codex - a manuscript - of the fourteenth century, discovered in 1908, which was the first official record of the Sibil·la in Majorca. Crucially, this codex was in Catalan.
This Gregorian chant, the melody of which has altered over the centuries, was originally only performed by priests, and it was certainly being sung at the Cathedral back in mediaeval times. It formed part of the Matins service at Christmas, which nowadays means Christmas Eve but which in strict terms is the nighttime liturgy which ends at dawn.
In the mid-sixteenth century, the church's Council of Trent removed the Sibil·la from the liturgy. It was considered to be not purely religious. Pius V decreed this in 1568, but it was only a short time (1575) before Joan Vic i Manrique, the Bishop of Majorca, was to allow it but not in its previous context.
Majorca was one of only two places where the Sibil·la was retained. While it was also sung in Alghero in Sardinia, it was Majorca where it was more enduring and where it created greater debate and argument. In 1692, Pere d'Aragó i de Cardona, the bishop, declared that it could be sung but only at Christmas time. It wasn't to be until 1967 that Vatican reform formally approved its reintroduction to the liturgy.
In 2010, the Sibil·la was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by Unesco. It is now sung at churches across the island on Christmas Eve. The lyrics have undergone revision over the centuries, but they owe much to the codex of the fourteenth century and its vision of the Last Judgement.
"On the day of judgement, he will be spared who has done service.
Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, man and true eternal God, from Heaven will come to judge and to everyone what is fair will give.
Great fire from the heaven will come down; seas, fountains and rivers, all will burn. Fish will scream loud and in horror. Losing their natural delights.
Before the Judgement the Antichrist will come and will give suffering to everyone,
and will make himself be served like God, and who does not obey he will make die."
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