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Raphael’s Sistine Chapel tapestries to head to Victoria and Albert museum
The Gardian (UK), Marc Brown
Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (6 April or 28 March 1483 – April 6, 1520; aged 37)

Marian hymnology and the development of polyphony

Not only is Marian hymnology an immense domain, but it is also an integral part of the story of polyphony. For instance, in the Middle Ages, as polyphonic music was developing, monophonic hymns were sometimes transformed into Motets, a popular polyphonic form. Monks sung and still sing the four Marian Antiphons during the Canonical Hours and do so in Gregorian Chant, hence monophonically, but composers have drawn inspiration in Mariology. The Ave Maria is my best example. This explains the inclusion, in my last post, of polyphonic versions of the four Marian antiphons: Handel, Vivaldi, Mozart…

The Hymns to Mary

There are about 32 songs celebrating the Virgin and these contain the four antiphons. All are listed in Wikipedia, so I will provide the required link: Hymns to Mary.

It is not possible to enter into a discussion of all Marian hymns. For the purposes of this blog, I have therefore chosen to focus on the four prayers that are included in the daily liturgy of Notre-Dame de Paris. The Notre-Dame website is particularly informative. However, services at Notre-Dame are more numerous than in ordinary Parish churches. Some Christians attend Mass daily, but most do so only on Sunday and on Feast days.

Antiphons and Prayers

At Notre-Dame de Paris, Marian hymnology includes the antiphons, named antiphonies, but daily liturgy also comprises four prayers to Mary: the Hail Mary  (Ave Maria), the Angelus, the Magnificat and the Ave Maris Stella. These are canticles (cantiques), not psalms. I have listed them chronologically and all four are recited or chanted before the antiphons or antiennes. I will therefore confine this presentation to the Ave Maria, the Angelus, the Magnificat and the Ave Maris Stella.


1. The Ave Maria or Hail Mary

The Hail Mary or Ave Maria is a prayer composed by Eudes de Sully who was the archbishop of Paris between 1196 and 1208.  Eudes composed the Hail Mary by adding a conclusion to the Marian antiphons “sung during the Annunciation and Visitation festivals.” The text is based on the words spoken to Mary by the archangel Gabriel.

2. The Angelus (Wikipedia)

The Angelus is a prayer introduced by Saint Bonaventure, a disciple of Saint Francis of Assisi (born Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone (1181/1182 – 1226) and a professor of theology in Paris from 1248 to 1257. Saint Bonaventure was also a friend of Saint Thomas Aquinas. He included the Angélus in the services of Franciscan monks when he became general minister of the Friars Minor, in 1257. The Angélus was sung in praise of the “Incarnation of the Son of God three times a day.”At Notre-Dame, the Angélus is recited each morning before the first mass and it is also recited at noon.

3. The Magnificat 

The Magnificat was sung by Mary to her cousin Elizabeth after Elizabeth told Mary she was bearing a child, Saint John the Baptist, at a rather late age. As for Mary, the archangel Gabriel had announced to her that she would bear and give birth to Jesus, the Son of God. The text of the Magnificat “uses the words of several Old Testament songs.” It is a Thanksgiving or Action de Grâces hymn sung at Notre-Dame in Vespers services. The Magnificat could be the earliest Marian hymn.

4. The Ave Maris Stella (FR-Wikipedia)

The Ave Maris Stella (Mary Star of the Sea) is probably, after the Magnificat, the oldest hymn dedicated to Mary. It has been attributed to Bernard de Clairvaux, but it may date back to Saint Venantius Fortunatus (530 – 609) who lived in the sixth century, or to Paulus Diaconus (Paul le Diacre or Paul the Deacon) who lived in the eighth century. The Ave Maris Stella contains seven (7) stanzas, 24-syllable each. Guillaume Dufay (c. 1397– 1474) wrote an Ave Maris Stella(Wikipedia)

It is unlikely that prayers and hymns to Mary I have mentioned constitute a complete répertoire of Marian hymnology. Some undoubtedly belonged to an oral tradition and are lost. In other words, many were not written down, nor were they notated (music).  Notation, as we saw in another blog, starts, quite primitively, with Guido of Arezzo, the author of the Micrologus.


It would be my opinion that what an examination of Marian hymnology reveals, first and foremost, is the degree to which Christians worship the mother of God. The word “intercession” may well hold the key to this phenomenon. Mary is viewed as kind and motherly. She is therefore considered more likely to hear one’s prayers and convey them to a sterner God the Father and to Jesus of Nazareth, the son of God.

All the great medieval Cathedrals of Europe are dedicated to the Virgin Mary, an eloquent tribute to Mary’s presence in the mind of most Christians.

(Please click on the title to see the video or hear the music.)


[i] “Mary”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 26 Dec. 2012

Ave Maris Stella

© Micheline Walker
25 December 2011