CHRISTIANITY | Francesc Vicens Vidal: “The Song of the Sibyl is a living and identifying spiritual, social and cultural tradition" #Trànsits

The Office of Religious Affairs (OAR) collaborates with the "Trànsits” cycle organised by the Museu de la Música de Barcelona. Featuring conversations, concerts and liturgies, the cycle explores the role that music plays in the religious practice and spiritual life of several religious communities living in Barcelona. The cycle continues in 2023.

The OAR began collaborating with the Museu de la Música de Barcelona, as it has been doing with the city’s other cultural institutions since 2019, through cycles on matters that affect various religious traditions across the board. This cycle, “Trànsits, la música de l’esperit”, is not just a concert programme but is also about facilitating attendance, participation and the sharing of a set of living practices.


The musicologist Francesc Vicens Vidal spoke about the social, cultural and musical tradition of The Song of the Sibyl in Mallorca, with clergyman Pere Carulla, Rector of the parish churches in the pastoral community of Poble Sec and teacher of religion and the history of art. The discussion brought together musical and historical expertise and the spiritual meaning of this song and was held at the same Parish Church of Santa Madrona.


According to Francesc Vicens “The Song of the Sibyl is a living tradition, which is being regained in many places in the Catalan-speaking lands and can be regarded as an emerging phenomenon”. The song is a “human activity” where verses relating to the Day of Judgement are sung. Although it originated in a liturgical context, today we can also find it outside of these. The song is performed close to Christmas, specifically the Second Vatican Council includes it in its Christmas Eve Mass, known in Mallorca as the Missa de Matines This is also the point when the song specifically comes after the first reading from the Old Testament, usually from Joel or John, and stands out as it is an apocalyptic reading. Francesc also notes that in Mallorca “it cannot be disassociated from the experience of Christmas and forms part of the collective conceptualisation of Christmas, yet long ago it was not only performed on Christmas Eve, but also during important liturgical festivities in the year and around Europe too”.

Francesc Vicens continues by pondering: “Who is the Sibyl? She is an oracle, a seer, with the ability to predict the future”. She is a character who dates back two thousand years and is found in the area of the Aegean Sea. We have seen the names of these great Sibyls painted in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo, and on the pavements of Italian cathedrals, for instance in Siena, taking on the name of the geographical places they were linked to: Cumae, Aegyptiaca, Erythraea etc. These characters became very famous as they predicted or foresaw major historical events which would later occur. For instance, the Erythraean Sibyl predicted the coming of Christ.


This step occurs through Medieval liturgical theatre. These are theatre spectacles, for instance the Procession of Prophets, the Ordo prophetarum, ended with The Song of the Sibyl, and Francesc explains that “this was the final act, the most grandiose, the most eagerly awaited, the most desired”. Therefore, this final representation becomes a unique and isolated act, a representation in itself, regardless of the rest of the performance. This is where the song would acquire this presence and representativeness across Europe as a stable representation.


As Francesc argues “The Song of the Sibyl speaks in bitter-sweet terms, reaching out to us, with an apocalyptic language where the condemned will be judged on the day of reckoning. The text speaks of good, evil, Jesus Christ as the universal king, of the sun losing its light and the Day of Judgement being for everybody, etc.”. Historically, the early texts were in Latin until the 10th or 11th century, and then in various vernacular languages, with the first texts in Catalan appearing in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries (the first reference in Mallorca is from the end of the 14th century, early 15th century, while versions in early Catalan arrived in the lectionaries of the conquering troops as from 1229). Francesc notes that “the version of the text we will hear today can be found in full in the Alcover Moll dictionary. It is a consensual text established at the end of the 19th century, start of the 20th, at a moment of historical positivism, in an attempt to organise culture”. This is the text which is sung in all the churches in Mallorca. He also points out that “the recovered versions we find elsewhere (Seu d’Urgell, Ontinyent, Barcelona Cathedral etc.) are texts from documents recovered from parish archives.

In addition, all this rather apocalyptic reality, which the actual reality of the last few years has placed us in (pandemic, climate change etc.), explains clergyman Pere Carulla, “would connect with the apocalyptic literature of the New Testament and the Old Testament, linking directly with the language of The Song of the Sibyl This reminds us that we are not immortal, and from the spiritual perspective the song can help us”. “For me the song is an urgent cry in this apocalyptic scenario”, states Francesc.

Pere Carulla notes that the song “is a theatre representation framed in a liturgical time and space, on top of which we as Christians are in a moment of preparation for an event which is far more important: the incarnation of the son of God as a man among others”. He goes on to say that “this is whereThe Song of the Sibyl connects us, also connecting with the mystery of death and the resurrection and the moment of the Day of Judgement. Two moments, two mysteries which connect in the text of The Song of the Sibyl”.

Pere Carulla also notes that “obviously we may be in an apocalyptic context, but according to our beliefs as Christians, death should not have the last word and neither must we live without hope. The annunciation of the birth of Jesus, our Hope, sees us reborn in that hope”.

It is worth noting that the final verse of The Song of the Sibyl refers to the Nativity and is a verse which reconciles us with the Christmas spirit and with these apocalyptic verses. This was added to the Nit de Matines (Christmas Eve Mass) early in the 20th century to give a form of consensus to what this day represents.

Oh humble Virgin! Who gave birth to
Jesus the child this evening,
pray to your son
that he may deliver us from Hell!


The spectacle aspect of The Song of the Sibyl, according to Francesc, “has been maintained for almost a thousand years in Mallorca and Alghero without interruption, even becoming a song of resistance in the face of all historical adversities arising”. Clergyman Pere notes that from his experience in Barcelona The Song of the Sibyl “was not so firmly rooted and did not form part of the collective Catholic tradition”. In the context of Christmas traditions, these did include the Shepherd’s Mass and restolines (a light meal eaten before of after the Shepherd’s Mass), for instance. Yet he does recognise that “The Song of the Sibyl has gradually started to re-emerge, even though it appears more of a cultural advocacy than a religious act or something borne of a religious act”.

Francesc explains that “precisely this element of spectacle led to The Song of the Sibyl being silenced around Europe, in a bid to reform churches as places of worship and not as spaces for displays or shows”. In Mallorca and Alghero, more insular situations meant the tradition endured. “Insularity explains the idiosyncrasy of this song and its endurance and continuity”. Pere Carulla reflects on the silencing of The Song of the Sibyl explaining that “the religious level was perhaps lessened or lost some of its identity in the face of certain activities, with this pagan vision of an oracle or a seer. Perhaps now it is regaining its value and returning to a liturgical context”.


“Worship has lost ground and the number of believers keeps dropping. These traditions based in liturgical frameworks must move into the realm of culture to survive, or will we have to invent specific forms of worship?”, Francesc wonders. Pere Carulla also reflects that “the Catholic reality is present in our culture and even shapes our annual calendar. It is true that on some occasions the temptation has been to maintain the tradition and empty it of religious meaning, which is why some versions of The Song of the Sibyl take the form of a theatre representation. It is true that ours is an increasingly secular society, and that on some occasions we haven’t managed to convey the meaning of living religiously. This has led us to a plurireligious context which is reflected in Barcelona’s religious map, for instance. In addition, globalisation has led to multireligiousness”.

Precisely this makes for a paradox, as The Song of the Sibyl has a very important social side to it, because behind each parish community there’s a human group striving to make it possible. Francesc explains that many people are linked to this tradition, stating that “when the Sibyl performer sings, the world comes to a standstill. And many Sibyl singers verbalise something that becomes a transcendental moment. Singing the Sibyl is a different experience, and while this experience takes shape and gains a presence in a globalised world, participation in religious rituals seems to lessen”.


“All tradition is kept through practising it”, affirms Francesc, and this is why we need to “continue going to Christmas Mass around midnight”. The Song of the Sibyl has been adapted to many adverse circumstances and is becoming “an identity symbol linked to Catalonia, even though long ago it was performed all around Europe”. Yet there is an emergency which makes people think of The Song of the Sibyl as a symbol of all that is Catalan. Francesc continues to observe that “at the start of the 21st century, a solid number of Sibyls had been regained and today we have a long list of them, meaning we need to talk of this emergency of The Song of the Sibyl. For some, this will be a social phenomenon, for others a cultural phenomenon, and for others a sort of mix between spirituality and a social and cultural part too. In Mallorca it’s a combination of all three.

In 2010, The Song of the Sibyl was included in the UNESCO List of Intangible Heritage and promoted outside of Mallorca. Now the Catalan-speaking lands which have recovered The Song of the Sibyl are: Vic, Girona, Barcelona (various churches), Lleida, Ripoll, La Seu d’Urgell, Ponts, Banyoles, Cabrera de Mar, Sant Iscle d’Empordà, Sant Cugat del Vallès, Reus, Figueres, Puigcerdà, Santa Cristina d’Aro, Ontinyent, Gandia, Alghero, Mallorca (various churches) and others.

After the discussion, the same Parish Church of Santa Madrona hosted a religious ceremony by the clergyman Pere Carulla, and after the first reading from the Old Testament, the Sibyl singer Inès Mas, accompanied by organ music from Jordi Reguant, on this occasion in the interludes, delighted those attending with a transcendental, profound and moving moment. The occasion allowedThe Song of the Sibyl from the “Trànsits” cycle to be enjoyed in its original time and space.

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