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Annunciation by Paolo de Matteis, 1712. The white lily in the angel's hand is symbolic of Mary's purity in Marian art.

Annunciation by Paolo de’ Matteis, 1712. The white lily in the angel’s hand is symbolic of Mary’s purity in Marian art. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hymns to the Virgin Mary, or Marian hymnology, as I will call it, constitute a substantial part of sacred music. Moreover, Marian art is abundant. Mary’s main feasts are the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception, three of which are related to the Nativity Cycle. The exception would be the Assumption. Mary did not die. She ascended into heaven.

1. The Annunciation

The Feast of the Annunciation commemorates the day on which the Archangel Gabriel visited Mary to announce that she would bear and give birth to the son of God. The Feast of the Annunciation (see Rubens, below) is celebrated on 25 March, exactly nine months before Christmas Day, when Christians celebrate the birth of Christ. The above image is by Paolo de’ Matteis (9 February 1662 – 26 January 1728). 

2. The Nativity

The central Marian feast is the Nativity. The Nativity is in fact a celebration of the birth of Christ, but Marian feasts are rooted in the Nativity cycle. Where Marian art is concerned, the Nativity includes portrayals of the Shepherds in adoration, of the visit by the Kings of Orient, as well as portrayals of the Presentation of Jesus as firstborn son, and the Purification of Mary. Just below, I have inserted a visit by the Shepherds, by Gerard van Honthorst (4 November 1592 – 27 April 1656), a Dutch Golden Age artist who is also called Gerrit van Honthorst.


The Adoration of the Shepherds, by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

3. The Assumption

Mary did not die. She ascended into heaven and her Assumption is celebrated on 15 August. In the Eastern Church, Byzantine Emperor Maurice selected 15 August as the date of the feast of Dormition and Assumption. The 15th of August is also the Acadian’s Feast Day. Acadians are the French-speaking inhabitants of Canada’s Atlantic provinces. Their national anthem is the Ave Maris Stella. 

The Assumption of the Virgin Mary, by Rubens, 1626

(Please click on the picture to enlarge it.)

4. The Immaculate Conception

According to Roman Catholicism, Jesus was conceived without stain or macula. This dogma is disputed as it is linked with the notion of an inherent fault, the original sin, the sin committed by Adam and Eve. Newborns or infants who die before Baptism do not go to heaven. They are sent to Limbo.



Marian hymnology

As for Marian hymnology, it originally consisted of four antiphons (antiennes, in French) sung in Gregorian Chant. Two (the Alma Redemptoris Mater and the Salve Regina were composed by Hermann of Reichenau, and would have been Gregorian chants. The four Marian antiphons are in fact linked to the Liturgy of the Hours, the Canonical Hours, and commemorate the four seasons.

Antiphons are “responsories” or the response by the choir or the congregation to a psalm or hymn. But they may involve responsorial singing by alternating choirs. Simply expressed, antiphons resemble a refrain. “The refrain was called an antiphon (A). The resulting musical form was A V1 A V2…”[1] Antiphons are not restricted to Marian hymnology. We should also note that Marian feasts are associated with the seasons, as are other Christian feasts. Antiphons are not restricted to Marian hymnology.

The Marian liturgical calendar is divided as follows:

Magnificatio, by Sandro Botticelli

Magnificatio, by Sandro Botticelli

(Please click on the picture to enlarge it.)


The Alma Redemptoris Mater

Traditionally, the Alma Redemptoris Mater is sung at the end of Compline, one of the Canonical Hours. It is said to have been composed by Hermannus Contractus (Herman the Cripple) (1013–1054).

The Ave Regina Cælorum

Traditionally, the Ave Regina Cælorum has been sung at the end of each Canonical Hours, but mainly Compline, between 2 February (Candlemas or Chandeleur in French) until the Holy Week. Candlemas is the day commemorating the Presentation of the Jesus at the Temple and the Purification of the Virgin Mary.

The Regina cœli 

The Regina Cœli or Cæli (Queen of Heaven), is a night prayer (Compline or Vespers).  Its authorship has not been determined but it was sung by Franciscans in the twelfth century.  It was sung in place of the Angelus from Holy Saturday through Pentecost.  It is therefore associated with the celebration of Easter.

The Salve Regina

The Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen) is sung at Compline from the Saturday before Trinity Sunday until the Friday before the first Sunday of Advent. (Wikipedia).  It was composed by German monk Hermann of Reichenau, the above-mentioned Hermannus Contractus (Herman the Cripple) (1013–1054), the composer of the Alma Redemptoris Mater.


However, to the four antiphons, we may add the above-mentioned Ave Maris Stella, Mozart’s breathtaking Ave Verum Corpus, various Ave Maria‘s, the most famous of which are Schubert’s Ave Maria, and the Ave Maria Charles Gounod composed on the first prelude of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Wohltemperierte Klavier (BWV 846-893).  I will discuss these in my next blog.


(Please click on the title to hear the music.)

[1] “antiphon.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2011. Web. 23 Dec. 2011. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/28480/antiphon>


Madonna by Raphaël

© Micheline Walker
3 February 2017