Stabat Mater, the Hymn of the Sorrowful Virgin

Gregory DiPippo

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

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