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Stabat Mater, the Hymn of the Sorrowful Virgin

Devotion to the Sorrows of the Virgin Mary first emerged in German-speaking lands in the early 15th-century, partly as a counterweight to the iconoclasm of the Hussite movement, and partly out of the universal popular devotion to every aspect of Christ’s Passion, including the presence of his Mother, and thence to her grief over his sufferings. The liturgical feast created as an expression of this devotion was known by several different titles, the most common being that of the Virgin’s Compassion, which is to say, of Her suffering together with Christ as She beheld the Passion. It was also kept on a wide variety of dates; the current date of September 15th was only definitively established in 1913.

(The Virgin of Sorrows; the central panel of the Van Belle triptych by Pieter Poubus (1523 ca. – 1580); in the church of St James in Bruges, Belgium. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

As is generally the case which such feasts, there was a considerable variety in the liturgical texts from one place to another, and between the traditions of the various religious orders. Among them, one of the most widespread was the hymn Stabat Mater Dolorosa, which is universally regarded as one of the great masterpieces of later medieval devotional poetry. The author of this hymn is unknown, and has been the subject of a great deal of scholarly conjecture. For a long time, many attributed it to a Franciscan friar name Jacopone da Todi (‘Big James from Todi’, about 80 miles north of Rome in Umbria; 1230 ca. – 1306); however, a fairly recent manuscript discovery has made this attribution untenable. Others have ascribed it to Pope Innocent III, who reigned from 1198-1216, and was certainly a very prolific writer in various genres, but this remains no more than a plausible conjecture.

In the Roman liturgical tradition, it is sung as a hymn in the Divine Office in one melody of the sixth Gregorian mode, and in another of the second mode as a Sequence at Mass, between the Alleluia and the Gospel. Many great composers have also put their hand to setting it polyphonically, such as Josquin des Prez, Palestrina and Victoria. One of the best known such versions, however, is by the composer Giovanni Battista Draghi, who is generally known by the last name “Pergolesi”, after Pergola, the small town in the Marches from which his family came. This became the single most frequently printed work of sacred music in the 18th century, and, in the common fashion of the Baroque era, was reused by several other composers, including JS Bach, who turned it into one of his German cantatas.

Stabat mater dolorósa
juxta Crucem lacrimósa,
dum pendébat Fílius.

Cuius ánimam geméntem,
contristátam et doléntem
pertransívit gládius.

O quam tristis et afflícta
fuit illa benedícta,
mater Unigéniti!

Quae mœrébat et dolébat,
pia Mater, dum vidébat
nati pœnas ínclyti.

Quis est homo qui non fleret,
matrem Christi si vidéret
in tanto supplício?

Quis non posset contristári
Christi Matrem contemplári
doléntem cum Fílio?

Pro peccátis suæ gentis
vidit Jésum in torméntis,
et flagéllis súbditum.

Vidit suum dulcem Natum
moriéndo desolátum,
dum emísit spíritum.

Eja, Mater, fons amóris
me sentíre vim dolóris
fac, ut tecum lúgeam.

Fac, ut árdeat cor meum
in amándo Christum Deum
ut sibi compláceam.

Sancta Mater, istud agas,
crucifíxi fige plagas
cordi meo válide.

Tui Nati vulneráti,
tam dignáti pro me pati,
pœnas mecum dívide.

Fac me tecum pie flere,
crucifíxo condolére,
donec ego víxero.

Juxta Crucem tecum stare,
et me tibi sociáre
in planctu desídero.

Virgo vírginum præclára,
mihi iam non sis amára,
fac me tecum plángere.

Fac ut portem Christi mortem,
passiónis fac consórtem,
et plagas recólere.

Fac me plagis vulnerári,
fac me Cruce inebriári,
et cruóre Fílii.

Flammis ne urar succénsus,
per te, Virgo, sim defénsus
in die iudícii.

Christe, cum sit hinc exire,
da per Matrem me veníre
ad palmam victóriæ.

Quando corpus moriétur,
fac, ut ánimæ donétur
paradísi glória. Amen.

At the Cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last:

Through her heart, his sorrow sharing,
All his bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has pass’d.

Oh, how sad and sore distress’d
Was that Mother highly blest
Of the sole-begotten One!

Christ above in torment hangs;
She beneath beholds the pangs
Of her dying glorious Son.

Is there one who would not weep,
Whelm’d in miseries so deep,
Christ’s dear Mother to behold?

Can the human heart refrain
From partaking in her pain,
In that Mother’s pain untold?

Bruis’d, derided, curs’d, defil’d,
She beheld her tender Child
All with bloody scourges rent;

For the sins of his own nation,
Saw Him hang in desolation,
Till His Spirit forth He sent.

O thou Mother! fount of love!
Touch my spirit from above,
Make my heart with thine accord:

Make me feel as thou hast felt;
Make my soul to glow and melt
With the love of Christ my Lord.

Holy Mother! pierce me through;
In my heart each wound renew
Of my Saviour crucified:

Let me share with thee His pain,
Who for all my sins was slain,
Who for me in torments died.

Let me mingle tears with thee,
Mourning Him who mourn’d for me,
All the days that I may live:

By the Cross with thee to stay;
There with thee to weep and pray;
Is all I ask of thee to give.

Virgin of all virgins blest!
Listen to my fond request:
Let me share thy grief divine;

Let me, to my latest breath,
In my body bear the death
Of that dying Son of thine.

Wounded with his every wound,
Steep my soul till it hath swoon’d,
In His very blood away;

Be to me, O Virgin, nigh,
Lest in flames I burn and die,
In his awful Judgment day.

Christ, when Thou shalt call me hence,
Be Thy Mother my defence,
Be Thy Cross my victory;

While my body here decays,
May my soul thy goodness praise,
Safe in Paradise with Thee.

– Translation by Edward Caswall

The Death of St Cyprian

Today marks the anniversary of the death of St Cyprian, bishop and martyr, in the year 258. His feast was originally kept on this date, according to the Church’s most ancient custom that Saints are celebrated on the day of their entry into eternal life, but later bumped forward to the 16th by the Exaltation of the Cross. After Tertullian, he is the second major Church Father who wrote in Latin, and one of the most important creators of a specifically Christian form of Latinity. Like Tertullian, he was educated in the great tradition of Roman rhetoric, but unlike him, he never allowed that training to get the better of him stylistically. His writing is generally clear and to the point, where Tertullian is often obscure and verbose. Although the latter died outside the peace of the Church as a member of the Montanist sect, St Cyprian always referred to him as “the Master”, and read his works assiduously.

Cyprian’s career in the Church was unusually meteoric. He was baptized ca. 245 after an early life which he himself described as dissipated, ordained deacon and priest not long after, and then elected bishop of Carthage, the most important see of Roman North Africa, sometime in later 248 or early 249. Shortly after, the Emperor Decius began the first general persecution of the Christians, which caught the Church in Africa very much by surprise, since it had mostly been at peace for nearly fifty years. Cyprian fled from Carthage, which brought a fair amount of negative criticism, since many believed it was the bishop’s duty to die courageously with his flock. To this he replied that “the Lord commanded us in the persecution to depart and to flee; and both taught that this should be done, and Himself did it. For as the crown is given of the condescension of God, and cannot be received unless the hour comes for accepting it, whosoever abiding in Christ departs for a while does not deny his faith, but waits for the time.” (De lapsis 10)

Cyprian’s time came in the next persecution, which broke out in the reign of Valerian in 256. In late August of 258, he was arrested and tried before the proconsul of Africa, Galerius Maximus. The record of this interrogation survives, since the early Christians preserved copies of the trials of the martyrs whenever they could. This was done not only for the sake of record keeping; the accounts of martyrs’ death, including trial records such as this one, were actually read out to the faithful on their feast days as part of the celebration of Mass. Here then is the transcript of St Cyprian’s interrogation.

(A page of a 15th century Spanish copy of the letters of St Cyprian. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Galerius Maximus proconsul Cypriano episcopo dixit: “Tu es Thascius Cyprianus?” Cyprianus episcopus respondit: “Ego sum.” Galerius Maximus proconsul dixit: “Tu Papam te sacrilegae mentis hominibus praebuisti?” Cyprianus Episcopus respondit: “Ego.” Galerius Maximus proconsul dixit: “Jusserunt te sacratissimi Imperatores caeremoniari.” Cyprianus Episcopus dixit: “Non facio.” Galerius Maximus ait: “Consule tibi.” Cyprianus Episcopus respondit: “Fac quod tibi praeceptum est. In re tam justa nulla est consultatio.” Galerius Maximus collocutus cum concilio sententiam vix aegre dixit verbis hujusmodi: “Diu sacrilega mente vixisti, et plurimos nefariae tibi conspirationis homines aggregasti, et inimicum te diis Romanis et sacris legibus constituisti, nec te pii et sacratissimi principes Valerianus et Gallienus Augusti, et Valerianus nobilissimus Caesar, ad sectam caeremoniarum suarum revocare potuerunt. Et ideo cum sis nequissimorum criminum auctor et signifer deprehensus: eris ipse documento his, quos scelere tuo tecum aggregasti: sanguine tuo sancietur disciplina.” Et his dictis, decretum ex tabella recitavit: “Thascium Cyprianum gladio animadverti placet.” Cyprianus Episcopus dixit: “Deo gratias.”

Galerius Maximus the proconsul said to Cyprian the bishop: “Are you Thascius Cyprianus?” Cyprian the bishop answered: “I am.” Galerius: “You have offered yourself as the bishop to men of irreligious mind?” Cyprian: “I have.”  Galerius: “The most sacred Emperors have commanded you to conform to offer the rites.” Cyprian: “I refuse.”  Galerius: “Take heed for yourself.” Cyprian: “Do as you are ordered; in so just a case, there is no need for deliberation.” Galerius, after briefly conferring with his council, with little reluctance pronounced the sentence as follows: “You have long lived an irreligious life, and have gathered to yourself a great many men in an unlawful association, and set yourself as an enemy to the Roman gods and the sacred laws; nor have the pious, most sacred emperors Valerian and Gallienus been able to bring you back to the way of their religious observances And therefore, since you have been apprehended as the author and leader of most wicked crimes, you yourself shall be an example to those whom you have gathered to yourself in your crime; the punishment shall be ratified in your blood.” Then he read the sentence from a written tablet: “It pleases (the court) that Thascius Cyprianus be executed with the sword.” The bishop Cyprian said: “Thanks be to God.”

The Dedication of the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus

On September 13, the ancient Romans commemorated the dedication of one of their city’s most important temples, that of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill. This dedication is said to have taken place in the very first year of the Roman Republic, 509 B.C. The temple was destroyed by fire and rebuilt three times: in 83 B.C., during the civil wars that took place during the dictatorship of Sulla; again in A.D. 69, in the chaos of the Year of the Four Emperors; and yet again only 11 years later, in the brief reign of the Emperor Titus.

In its original form, the temple would have been modelled on the architectural style of the Etruscans; like any important religious building with a long history, it underwent many modifications and embellishments. But whatever its decorations, looming over the city from its position on the Capitoline, it could not have failed to impress for its sheer size, estimated by some to be as large as 200×200 feet, plus the large precinct around it. Over time, the area came to be filled with military trophies and votive offerings of various kinds, and innumerable decorative sculptures. Jupiter was honored there as part of the Capitoline Triad, with Juno and Minerva, and each of these gods had their own section within the massive complex.

The later buildings, which came after the Romans had learned to take so many things from the culture of the conquered Greeks, would certainly have been far more impressive than the original. For its second iteration, Sulla plundered columns from the great Temple of Zeus in Athens, which he sacked in 86 B.C. Vespasian’s short-lived third temple was taller than its predecessor; Plutarch reports that his son Domitian expended 12,000 gold talents for the gilding of the fourth and final building’s roof, and numerous other lavish decorations. But this very richness would also have spelled the building’s eventual doom. In 392, the Emperor Theodosius ordered the closure of all pagan temples, and as the taboo on interfering with old religious structures faded, the need for decorative materials was most often satisfied by plundering them from the most beautiful abandoned pagan temples. Nonetheless, it was still impressive enough to the writer Cassiodorus a century and a half alter that he could write, “To climb the lofty Capitol is to see all (other) works of the human ingenuity surpassed.” Today, there remain only ruins of the foundations and the cella wall under the part of the Capitoline Museums housed in the mid-16th century Palazzo Caffarella.

(A 19th century reconstruction of the temple. Engraving from La patria, geografia dell’Italia, by Gustavo Strafforello, Torino, 1894.)

In his account of the dedication (Ab Urbe Condita 2.8), Livy tells a story that exemplifies the classic stoicism for which the Romans were so well known in the ancient world.

“Nondum dedicata erat in Capitolio Iovis aedes; Valerius Horatiusque consules sortiti uter dedicaret. Horatio sorte evenit: Publicola ad Veientium bellum profectus. Aegrius quam dignum erat tulere Valeri necessarii dedicationem tam incliti templi Horatio dari. Id omnibus modis impedire conati, postquam alia frustra temptata erant, postem iam tenenti consuli foedum inter precationem deum nuntium incutiunt, mortuum eius filium esse, funestaque familia dedicare eum templum non posse. Non crediderit factum an tantum animo roboris fuerit, nec traditur certum nec interpretatio est facilis. Nihil aliud ad eum nuntium a proposito aversus quam ut cadaver efferri iuberet, tenens postem precationem peragit et dedicat templum.

The temple of Jupiter on the Capitol had not yet been dedicated, the consuls Valerius (Publicola) and Horatius drew lots to decide which should dedicate it. The lot fell to Horatius. Publicola set out for the war against Veii. His friends showed unseemly annoyance that the dedication of so illustrious a temple should be given to Horatius. Having tried every means of preventing it, after all other attempts had failed, they tried to strike fear in the consul as he was actually holding the door-post during the prayer to the gods with the disgraceful message that his son was dead, and he could not dedicate a temple his family was in mourning. There is no certain tradition as to whether he did not believe that this had actually happened, or was of such strength of mind (as to ignore it), and it is not easy to decide from the records. He only allowed the message to interrupt him ling enough to order the body to be brought out (for burial); then, with his hand still on the door-post, he finished the prayer and dedicated the temple.”

St Bernard of Clairvaux on the Holy Name of Mary

On this day in the year 1683, the armies of the Ottoman Empire were soundly defeated outside the gates of Vienna by the combined forces of the Holy Roman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This battle represents the high-water mark of the Turkish invasion and occupation of eastern Europe. Sixteen years later, after several other defeats, the Ottomans were forced to accept the Treaty of Karlowitz, which entailed significant territorial losses for them, losses which would increase throughout the following century.

In commemoration of the battle, Pope Bl. Innocent XI added to the general calendar a feast in honor of the Most Holy Name of the Virgin Mary, to whose special intercession the victory was attributed. Of course, devotion to the Name of Mary did not begin with this; a feast of this title was kept in Spain by the early 16th century. Well before that, we find this passage from a sermon of St Bernard of Clairvaux on the Annunciation, which was added to the breviary for today’s feast, a passage which nicely illustrates how the great father of the Cistercian Order earned his title “Doctor Mellifluus – the teacher whose words flow like honey.”

“Loquamur pauca et super hoc nomine, quod interpretatum maris stella dicitur, et Matri Virgini valde convenienter aptatur. Ipsa namque aptissime sideri comparatur, quia sicut sine sui corruptione sidus suum emittit radium, sic absque sui læsione Virgo parturivit Filium. Nec sideri radius suam minuit claritatem, nec Virgini Filius suam integritatem. Ipsa est igitur nobilis illa stella ex Jacob orta, cujus radius universum orbem illuminat,  cujus splendor et præfulget in supernis, et inferos penetrat; terras etiam perlustrans, et calefaciens magis mentes quam corpora, fovet virtutes, excoquit vitia. Ipsa, inquam, est præclara et eximia stella super hoc mare magnum et spatiosum necessario sublevata, micans meritis, illustrans exemplis. O quisquis te intelligis in hujus sǽculi profluvio magis inter procellas et tempestates fluctuare, quam per terram ambulare; ne avertas oculos a fulgore hujus sideris, si non vis obrui procellis. Si insurgant venti tentationum, si incurras scopulos tribulationum, respice stellam, voca Mariam. Si jactaris superbiæ undis, si ambitionis, si detractionis, si æmulationis, respice stellam, voca Mariam. Si iracundia aut avaritia aut carnis illecebra naviculam concusserit mentis, respice ad Mariam. Si criminum immanitate turbatus, conscientiæ fœditate confusus, judicii horrore perterritus, barathro incipias absorberi tristitiæ, desperationis abýsso, cogita Mariam. In periculis, in angustiis, in rebus dubiis Mariam cogita, Mariam invoca. Non recedat ab ore, non recedat a corde; et, ut impetres ejus orationis suffragium, non deseras conversationis exemplum. Ipsam sequens, non devias; ipsam rogans, non desperas; ipsam cogitans, non erras; ipsa tenente, non corruis; ipsa protegente, non metuis; ipsa duce, non fatigaris; ipsa propitia, pervenis: et sic in temetipso experiris quam merito dictum sit: Et nomen Virginis Maria.

(The Virgin Mary Appears to St Bernard, 1486, by Fra Filippo Lippi. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 

Let us also speak a few words about this name, which is interpreted as ‘Star of the Sea’, and very well suits the Virgin Mother. She is indeed most aptly compared to a star, for just as a star sends out its ray without any corruption of itself, so did the Virgin bring forth a Son without any harm to  herself. The ray does not diminish the brightness of the star, and the Son did not diminish the integrity of the Virgin. Therefore, she is that noble star which arose from Jacob, (Num. 24, 17) whose ray illuminates all the world, whose splendor shines forth in the heavens, reaches even unto hell, lighting up also earth midway, and warming souls rather than bodies, fostering the virtues, and driving out the vices. She, I say, is a bright and outstanding star, lifted up perforce above the great, wide sea, shining with merits, and enlightening by example. Whosoever you are that know yourself to be here not so much walking upon firm ground, as battered to and fro by the gales and storms of this life’s ocean, if you would not be overwhelmed by the tempest, keep your eyes fixed upon this star’s clear shining. If the winds of temptation rise against you, or you run upon the rocks of trouble, look to the star, call on Mary. If you are tossed by the waves of pride, or ambition, or slander, or envy, look to the star, call on Mary. If anger or avarice or the enticements of the flesh beat against the barque if your soul, look to Mary. If the enormity of your sins trouble you, if the foulness of you conscience confounds you, if the dread of judgment appall you, if you begin to slip into the deep of despondency, into the pit of despair, think of Mary. In dangers, in difficulties, in doubts, think of Mary, call upon Mary. Let Her not be away from your mouth or you heart, and that you may obtain the aid of Her prayers, turn not aside from the example of Her conversation. If you follow Her, you will never go astray; if you pray to Her, you wilt never despair; if you keep Her in mind, you wilt never wander. If She holds you, you will never fall; if She leads you, you wilt never be weary; if She helps you, you will reach home safe, and so prove in yourself how rightly it was said, ‘And the Virgin’s name was Mary.’ ”

Laus Beatae Mariae Virginis

The feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, which the Church celebrated yesterday, was imported into the Roman Rite from the Byzantine tradition at the end of the 7th century, along with three other Marian feasts, the Annunciation, the Purification, and the Assumption. Unlike those other three, however, it was slow to catch on, and was still not celebrated in many parts of western Europe even by the beginning of the 11th century. To a large degree, the impetus for its general acceptance came from the preaching of a Saint named Fulbert, who became bishop of Chartres in France in 1006, and held the see for 22 years. His city was already an important pilgrimage center because it possessed an object believed to be a garment of the Virgin Mary herself. Fulbert began rebuilding Chartres Cathedral after it was destroyed by a fire in 1020 in a much larger form, to accommodate the great crowds of pilgrims who came to venerate the relic. (As is so often the case with such projects, it was not completed until after his death. This new church in turn burned down in 1194, leading to the magnificent Gothic building which stands today, rightly recognized as one of the greatest architectural achievements of the Middle Ages.)

One of St Fulbert’s sermons about the Virgin Mary (PL 141, 338C etc.) came to be particularly well known, in part because it was somehow mistakenly attributed to St Augustine. Although it was originally preached on the Annunciation, the standard late medieval custom (still found in the
usus antiquior of the Roman Rite to this day) was to read it on the feast of Mary’s Nativity. In many churches (e.g. Notre-Dame in Paris), the concluding peroration, was read twice a week as part of the daily round of services. One section of it, (“Sancta Maria… commemorationem”) was also set to music and became of the most commonly used antiphons of the Divine Office.

(A stained-glass window in the south ambulatory of the cathedral of Chartres, known as the Our Lady of the Beautiful Window. This is one of the very few stained-glass windows that survived the fire of 1194 in such condition that it could be rescued and reused in the new church.)

O beata Maria, quis tibi digne valeat jura gratiarum ac laudum рræconia impendere, quæ singulari tuo assensu mundo succurristi perdito? Quas tibi laudes fragilitas humani generis persolvat, quæ solo tuo commercio recuperandi aditum invenit? Accipe itaque quascumque exiles, quascumque meritis tuis impares gratiarum actiones: et cum susceperis vota, culpas nostras orando excusa. Admitte nostras preces intra sacrarium exauditionis, reporta nobis antidotum reconciliationis. Sit per te excusabile, quod per te ingerimus: fiat impetrabile quod fida mente poscimus. Accipe quod offerimus, redona quod rogamus; excusa quod timemus. Quia tu es spes unica peccatorum, per te speramus veniam delictorum; et in te, beatissima, nostrorum est exspectatio præmiorum. Sancta Maria, succurre miseris, juva pusillanimes, refove flebiles, ora pro populo, interveni pro clero, intercede pro devoto femineo sexu. Sentiant omnes tuum juvamen, quicumque celebrant tuam commemorationem. Assiste parata votis poscentium, et repende omnibus optatum effectum. Sit tibi studium assidue orare pro populo Dei, quæ meruisti benedicta pretium ferre mundi.

O blessed Mary, who might be able worthily to offer thee due thanks and praise, who by thy unique act of assent, didst come to the aid of a lost world? What praises might the frailty of the human race render to thee, which by thy exchange (with God), found the entrance to new life? Receive therefore these acts of thanksgivings, however meagre, however unequal to thy merits, and when thou shalt receive our request, do by thy prayers obtain pardon for our sins. Admit our supplications into the hallowed presence of thy hearing, give us in return the medicine of reconciliation. Let that prayer which we pour forth through thee find forgiveness, let us obtain what we ask with confidence. Receive what we offer, grant in return what we ask for, remit that which we fear, for thou art the only hope of sinners, through thee do we hope for the forgiveness of our crimes, and in thee, most blessed one, is the hope of our rewards. O Holy Mary, come to the aid of the wretched, help the fearful, comfort to the sorrowful, pray for the people, plead for the clergy, intercede for all devout women; may all that keep thy holy commemoration feel thy assistance. Readily accede to the prayers of those who ask, and render to all the desired effect. Be it thy care to constantly pray for the people of God, thou who are blessed, and merited to bear the ransom of the world.

Vocabula Mira: “Indictio”

The Latin verb “indīcere, indīxī, indictus” (not to be confused with “indĭcāre”), originally meant “to declare publicly, proclaim, announce, to appoint”, and more broadly, “to impose, or inflict”, especially a penalty. From it is derived the noun “indictio”, meaning “the imposition of a tax.” This was originally used most often used to mean the regular reassessment of land taxes, which originally took place on a fifteen-year cycle, first attested in 42 AD. It could also refer to the compulsory purchase of food, clothing and other goods for the use of the army and the courts. (Oxford Classical Dict. ad vocem)

Towards the end of the 4th century, the emperor Diocletian imposed a far-reaching program of financial reform on the Roman Empire. As part of this, “indictio” was used as the general term for the annual assessment of all levies in kind. The date at which such assessments began was September 1st, approximately the end of the harvest season for many crops in the Mediterranean regions, and so an appropriate time to calculate the taxes to be paid on them.

During the reign of Constantine, starting in 312 A.D., “indictio” first appeared in official documents as part of a dating system; so e.g., the period which we call “Sept. 1, 312 to Aug. 31, 313” would be known as “the first year of the indiction”, “Sept. 1, 313 to Aug. 31, 314” as “the second year”, etc. By the middle of the 4th century, this system began to appear on documents unrelated to taxation, and in 537, the emperor Justinian declared that all official documents must include the year of the indiction, a usage which continued throughout the Middle Ages in both East and West. As a technical term, it passed into Greek as either ἰνδικτιών or ἴνδικτος (fem.), and it still used to this day. Over time, September 1st came to be recognized as the official beginning of the civil New Year; it continued as such in the Byzantine Empire until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and in Russia until 1699, when it was changed to Jan. 1 by Tsar Peter I as part of his program of Westernizing reforms.

(An inscription of the year 1238 in the portico of the church of St Eusebius on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, which in the very first line, refers to the “eleventh indiction”, i.e. the eleventh year of the cycle. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0)

This gave rise to the custom by which the Byzantine Rite celebrates the day as the formal beginning of its liturgical year, with the title “Ἀρχὴ τῆς Ἰνδίκτου, ἤτοι τοῦ νέου Ἔτους – the beginning of the indiction, that is, of the New Year.”

In the Byzantine tradition, the creation of the world is also considered to have taken place on the Indiction, a fact to which the liturgical texts of the day refer repeatedly. For example, at the Divine Liturgy, the following texts are sung:

“Maker of all creation, Who settest times and seasons in Thy power, bless the crown of the year of Thy goodness, o Lord, keeping in peace Thy kings and Thy city, by the prayers of the Mother of God, and save us.

Maker and Master of the ages, God of all things, and truly greater than all, bless this year, saving in Thy boundless mercy, o Compassionate One, all that serve Thee, the only Master, and cry out in reverence: o Redeemer, grant a bountiful year to all.”

Many early Christians attempted to calculate the age of the world, as the Jews had before them, working from the relevant statements of the Bible, and, not surprisingly, coming up with varying results. According to the reckoning most commonly accepted in the Byzantine world, the creation began in 5509 B.C, making this Annus Mundi 7531. This reckoning is still used by some Orthodox Christians in conjunction with the western ‘Anno Domini’ system for things like ecclesiastical calendars and the inscription of dates on the cornerstone of a church.

(The Creation of the World; 12th century Byzantine mosaic in the cathedral of Monreale, Sicily. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 

Another Inscription for Fr Foster, by Dr Eric Hewett

Yesterday, we looked at the winning entry in a contest held by the Paideia Institute for an inscription in honor Fr Reginald Foster, who was the teacher of many of us here at VSI, and whose memory is cherished by so many lovers of Latin, especially those who study and teach it as a living language. Our own President, Dr Eric Hewett, who studied with Fr Foster both at the Gregorian University and in his famous summer Latin course, submitted a four-line poem in elegiac couplets, a perfect example of the power of Latin to say a great deal in very few words.

“Qui vive erudiens et amans dictare solebat
   ‘Mortuus ut fuero, consule discipulis
Vertere ne stulti incipiant a voce priori!’
   Illi Fosterio hic positum decori.”

Dr Hewett explains his work as follows:

“My goal was to create a solemn inscription that also includes some of Fr Foster’s favorite stylistic devises in Latin, and his spoken English in the classroom.

English-speaking students frequently begin translating a Latin sentence with the first word, since that is normally the subject in English. When, as so often happens, the first word of the Latin sentence is not the subject, they then wind up mangling the whole translation, forcing active Latin verbs into English passive ones, messing up cases, and so on. This is why Reginald would shout, ‘Never start with the first word!’, and with his flair for hyperbole, often expanded that to ‘When I die, write on my gravestone, “Tell my students never to start with the first word!” ’ Since Fr. Foster himself while alive referred to a memorial inscription for himself that would continue to help students from beyond the grave, I chose this as an especially fitting subject.

Elements that suggest the style of a solemn inscription are the elegiac meter, the positioning of the relative pronoun ‘Qui’ far before its antecedent ‘illi Fosterio’, the contrast between ‘vive’ and ‘mortuus,’ and the use of a participle, a conjugated verb, and an infinitive in the first line.

Of the many funny gestures he employed to mime out Latin grammatical relationships, Fr Foster seemed to feel the most delight while doing a little dance with his arms, moving them at opposite 45-degree angles, whenever he encountered a double dative construction. I feel he would really enjoy seeing his own name incorporated into a double dative on his memorial inscription.

One striking aspect of his teaching style was a thin crust of orneriness hardly concealing his deep affection (‘amans’) for those attempting to learn his beloved Latin. He would often insult his students, but those with half a heart could see right through the ornery crust and didn’t mind. He once called me an idiot in front of my parents, but I deserved it for thinking I had caught him in a mistake. The predicate nominative ‘stulti’ describing students who start translating from the first word reflects this habit.

Speaking of mistakes, the lack of elision between ‘Fosterio’ and ‘hic’ seems like one, but such hiatuses are in fact permitted in the pentameter of an elegiac couplet across the major caesura. This was exactly the kind of detail about Latin that Fr Foster reveled in. He never let his students rest on their laurels by learning just the basics and the rules; he also encouraged them to master all the little exceptions that make the study of any language intriguing.

Lastly, funerary inscriptions are often include a plural imperative (‘orate pro eo’), but ‘consule’ is singular, because Reginald is saying this to each individual Latin teacher whom he had in his classes over so many years, for whom he took such care, and who are now passing on his legacy to their own students.”

“For the honor of the famous Foster, who as he was teaching so vivaciously, used to lovingly say, ‘When I’m dead, take care for your students, that they don’t foolishly start translating from the first word!’ ”

Macte virtute esto, optime!

(Fr Foster with VSI Vice-President Nancy Llewellyn, at his 80th birthday party, which was held in November of 2019 at the shine of  Holy Hill in his native Wisconsin. Although he spent over 40 years in Rome, Fr Foster was always a member of the Discalced Carmelite community that runs the shine, on loan, so to speak, to the Holy See so that he could work in the office that composes the official Latin texts of the Church’s documents, and teach at the Gregorian University.)

An Inscription in Honor of Fr Foster

Earlier this year, the Paideia Institute, which also works to promote the study of classical languages and literature, held a contest to write a dedicatory inscription in honor of Fr Reginald Foster, the teacher, mentor, and friend of many of their staff, as also of our own. A winning entry was decided and announced in June, and we congratulate the winner, Mr Jonathan Meyer, one of his students. The inscription has recently been set on a bronze plaque on one of the benches in the garden of the Theresianum, the place where Fr Foster used to hold his sub arboribus sessions. These were the optional extra sessions which he would conduct four times a week during the eight weeks of his annual summer Latin program. Each session started about 8pm, and lasted until there was no longer enough sunlight to read by. Two of the sessions were just spontaneous conversation de qualibet re; I vividly remember someone trying to explain to him at one of these session who the “Grati Mortui – the Grateful Dead” were. This, by the way, was after he had held three ninety-minute sessions over the afternoon, at 2, 4, and 6pm, another example of his extraordinary devotion to his students, and to the study of Latin.


“To the memory of Reginald Foster, Carmelite priest, extraordinary cultivator of the Latin language, and the best teacher, who possessed so much simplicity in his life, diligence in his doing, and acuity in his teaching that no one was able do anything but love him, praise him, and wonder at him. The Paideia Institute, relying on the supreme generosity of his friends and students, oversaw the placing of this monument. On July 1, in the year of our salvation 2022.”

A good friend of Fr Foster and of VSI, Mr John Byron Kuhner, who has written his biography, studied with him several times over the years, and got to know his style of pedagogy and speaking as well as anyone. On his Medium page In Medias Res, he recently published an explication of this inscription, written as if Fr Foster himself were using it to give a lesson. Anyone who knew and studied with Foster will immediately recognize this as a scarily accurate representation of his manner of speaking. We reproduce this excerpt here with Mr Kuhner’s permission, but do go over to his page and read the whole thing. (The italics represent Fr Foster’s voice.)

“To the memory of Reginald Foster, Carmelite priest.” Fine, friends. Go on. “Remarkable cultivator of the Latin language.” Remarkable — hmm, well, yes. Everyone, look in your Lewis and Short for eximius. See the first meaning there is ‘exempt’! What else do we see? ‘Select, choice, distinguished, extraordinary, uncommon, excellent.’ You see the basic idea is someone who is different from everyone else, in a good way. Then look: they give you synonyms: Egregii Praeclari Divini Lauti Magnifici Linguae Latinae Cultoris. It’s music, that’s what it is!

Saint “Added-On”

Since well before the middle of the sixth century, August 30th has been the feast of two Roman martyrs, a priest named Felix, and a man who after his martyrdom was given the name “Adauctus”, meaning “added-on” or “increased.” The reason for this is explained in their “passio”, the account of their martyrdom read in the Divine Office. This version is taken from a Roman Breviary printed in 1529; even at the height of the Italian Renaissance and its cultivation of “proper” Ciceronian Latin, the stories of the Saints’ lives were still often read in their medieval forms, which are stylistically quite simple, and all the more pleasing for it.

“(Felix) jussione imperatorum cum ad secretarium judicis esset perductus juxta templum Serapis, dum cogereretur ad sacrificandum, exsufflavit in faciem statuæ, et statim cecidit. Item ductus ad Mercurii statuam in alia ædicula, simili modo in illam exsufflavit, et mox cecidit. Item ad simulacrum Dianæ, quod pari modo dejecit. Reductus autem ad præfectum, in equuleo ponitur, et inquisitus quibus maleficiis hoc fecisset, beatus Felix respondit: ‘Non maleficiis diaboli, sed beneficiis omnipotentis Dei mei hoc feci.’

Furore itaque accensus præfectus, jussit eum duci extra urbem, via Ostiensi, quia illic arbor excellentissima astabat dæmonibus consecrata, juxta quam erat templum, ut ibi ad sacrificandum compelleretur. Quo perductus, oratione facta, dixit ad arborem, ‘Præcipio tibi in nomine Domini nostri Jesu Christi, ut radicitus corruas, ac templum et simulacrum vel aram ejus comminuas, ut culto tuo amplius animæ non decipiantur.’ Quæ statim ad verbum ipsius ita eversa est, ut templum et simulacrum comminueret, … Quod cum nunciatum fuisset præfecto, statim jussit eum decollari, …

Lata sententia, obvius ei fuit quidam vir Christianus, hominibus quidem absconsus, Deo vero manifestus. Hic cum didicisset quod beatus Felix duci fuisset jussus, coepit clamare et dicere, ‘Et ego ex eadem lege sum, et ipsum quem hic sanctus presbyter confitetur, Dominum Jesum Christum colo.’ Mox et ipse ab officio præfecti comprehensus, pariter dato sibi osculo, cum beato Felice decollatus est. Hujus nomen quia non invenerunt Christiani, postea Adauctum eum vocaverunt, quia sancto martyri Felici adauctus sit ad coronam, ipsiusque pro fidei confessione corona sit aucta. Christiani itaque hos invenientes, in eodem loco ubi arbor steterat … eos sepelierunt … ubi pacis tempore digna martyrum memoria exculta est.

(A fresco of the Virgin and Child with Ss Felix (right) and Adauctus (left), painted in the catacomb of Comodilla, close to the site of their burial off the Via Ostiense, ca.  530 A.D. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

When by the emperors’ order Felix had been brought to the judge’s chamber next to the temple of Serapis, as they tried to force him to sacrifice, he breathed on the statue’s face, and it immediately fell down. Again being brought to a statue of Mercury in another temple, in the same way he breathed upon it, and it fell down at once. Again (he was brought) to an idol of Diana, which he cast down in the same way. Having been brought back to the prefect, put on the “little horse” (i.e. the rack, an instrument of torture) and asked by what sorceries (maleficiis) he had done this, the blessed Felix responded, “Not by the sorceries of the devil, but by the benefits (beneficiis) of my almighty God have I done this.”

Enraged by this, the prefect ordered him to be brought outside the city on the Ostian way, because in that place there stood a very tall tree consecrated to demons, next to which there was a temple, so that he might be forced to sacrifice there. When he was brought there, having prayed, he said to the tree, “I command you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to fall down from the roots, and smash the temple and its idol or altar, so that souls may long no longer be deceived by your worship.” And immediately at his word it was overturned, so that it smashed the temple and the idol. … and when this was announced to the prefect, he immediately ordered him to be beheaded. 

When the sentence was handed down, a certain Christian man came to meet him, one who was hidden from men, but manifest to God, and when he had learned that the blessed Felix had been ordered to be lead (to his death), he began to cry out and say, “I am also of the same law, and I worship the very Lord Jesus Christ whom this holy priest confesses.” He was immediately seized by the prefect’s servants, and when when they had exchanged a kiss, he was beheaded with the blessed Felix. Because the Christians did not learn his name, afterwards they called him Added-on (Adauctus), because he was added on to the holy martyr Felix for his crown, and his own crown was increased in accord with his confession of faith. Therefore the Christians, having found them, buried them in the same place where the tree had stood, and there in the time of peace their memory was worthily kept.”

(The Glorification of Ss Felix and Adauctus, ca. 1759, by Carlo Innocenzo Carlone. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

For various reasons, this story is not considered historically reliable, but the phenomenon which it describes is very real. In the annals of Christian hagiography, there are many stories of people who were spontaneously converted to the Faith by seeing the constancy of the martyrs in the midst of their torments; it is not rare for such persons to become martyrs themselves, even joining the suffering Christians of their own will right on the spot. In 2015, a Ghanaian named Matthew Ayariga was seized in Libya by terrorists, along with a group of twenty Egyptian Copts. Although he was not a member of the Coptic Church, he refused to embrace Islam, even at the threat of being beheaded; seeing how the others prayed and called upon the Holy Name of Jesus as they died, he said of them, “Their God is my God,” and was slain in their company.

Vocabula Mira: “Speculator”

Today is one of the oldest and most widespread feasts of the Christian liturgical tradition, the commemoration of the beheading of St John the Baptist. At Mass, the majority of rites, including the Roman, read the most complete account of this event among the Gospels, from St Mark, chapter 6, 17-29. At verse 27, when King Herod orders the Saint to be killed, the Latin reads as follows: “sed misso spiculatore præcepit afferri caput ejus in disco – but having sent the executioner, he commanded that his head be brought on a platter.”

(The Beheading of St John the Baptist, 1608, by Caravaggio. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The Latin word for “executioner” here, “speculator”, underwent a curious evolution. It is an agent noun from the deponent verb “speculari – to spy out, watch (for), observe, examine, explore”; in St Jerome’s translations of the Hebrew Old Testament, it is most often used to mean “a watchman.” In the Roman army, however, it came to mean a member of a reconnaissance unit, hence “a scout” or “a spy.” In the early years of the empire, such military scouts began to be employed as military adjutants, body-guards and couriers, and this is the sense most often employed by Suetonius. But they might also be used as executioners, and by the time St Mark wrote his Gospel in the middle of the 1st century, this sense was obviously well-known, since he writes the word in Greek, “σπεκουλάτωρα”, rather than translate it.

From a very early period, Latin-speaking Christians did not translate the Greek names of most ranks of the clergy, but adopted the Greek words as technical terms. Hence, “acolythos”, “diaconos” and “presbyteros” find their way into English through Latin as “acolyte”, “deacon” and “priest.” The name of the highest rank, “episcopos”, which literally means “overseer” (i.e. the one who oversees what is happening in the local church), also finds its way into English through Latin as “bishop”, but was also, rarely, translated as “speculator.” By the time this first appears in the 4th century, the Latinized form “episcopus” was already of very long-standing use, and we may reasonably speculate (ahem…) that the translated form “speculator” might have sounded very pretentious to the ordinary Latin-speaking Christian, just as it would be pretentious to call a bishop an “overseer” nowadays.

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