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Agnus Dei (in Liturgy)

Name given to the formula recited thrice by the priest at Mass in the Roman rite

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Agnus Dei (in LITURGY), a name given to the formula recited thrice by the priest at Mass (except on Good Friday and Holy Saturday) in the Roman rite. It occurs towards the end of the Canon, after the prayer “Haec commixtio”, etc. Having finished saying this prayer, the priest covers the chalice with the pall, genuflects, rises, inclines his head (but not his body) profoundly towards the altar and, with hands joined before his breast (and not, therefore, resting on the altar), says with a loud voice: “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis” (Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us), repeats the formula unchanged, and still a third time, substituting now “dona nobis pacem” (grant us peace) for “miserere nobis”, meanwhile striking his breast thrice, once at each “miserere nobis” and once at “dona nobis pacem”, with the right hand (the left hand resting throughout, from the first “miserere”, on the altar). In Requiem Masses, however, the formula occurs at the same part of the rite, but with the substitution of “dona eis requiem” (grant them rest) for “miserere nobis”, and of “dona eis requiem sempiternam” (grant them eternal rest) for “dona nobis pacem.” In this case, the priest does not strike his breast, but keeps his hands joined before his breast throughout the whole formula. These rubrical details are given here for the reason that both the formula and the ceremonial accompanying it have undergone various changes in different ages and different places. Into the symbolic reasons for the present practice it is not necessary to enter here.

Slightly changed in respect of one word, peccata for peccatum (peccatum, however, appearing in other sources, such as the Missal of Stowe and other English MSS., and in the Bangor Antiphonary), the formula appears to have been directly taken from the very ancient chant of the “Gloria in excelsis.” In the text of the Roman and Ambrosian rites: “Agnus Dei, Filius Patris, Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis; Qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram; Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis”, containing all the words of the original formula of the Agnus Dei, we may find the immediate source of its text. Its remoter source was the declaration of the Baptist: “Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce Qui tollit peccatum mundi” (John, i, 29), supplemented by the cry of the two blind men (Matt. ix, 27): “Miserere nostri, fili David.” The scriptural origin of the formula is therefore evident at a glance. Its symbolism, however, is traced in the Apocalypse through the more than thirty references to “the Lamb that was slain from the beginning of the world” (xiii, 8); “the blood of the Lamb” (xii, ii); “they that are written in the book of life of the Lamb” (xxi, 27); and in the following: v, 6, 8, 12, 13; vi, 1, 16; vii, 9, 10, 14, 17; xiv, 1, 4, 10; xv, 3; xvii, 14; xix, 7, 9; xxi, 9, 14, 22, 23, 27; xxii, 1, 3, 14. From the Apocalypse we trace it backward to the First Epistle of St. Peter (i, 19): “the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb unspotted and undefiled”; to the perplexed reading of the eunuch of Queen Candace (Acts, viii, 32, 33): “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb without voice before his shearer, so openeth he not his mouth …;” and thus finally to the great Messianic chapter of Isaias (liii, 7-12), which formed the subject of the eunuch’s query: “I beseech thee, of whom doth the prophet speak this? of himself, or of some other man? Then Philip, opening his mouth and beginning at this scripture, preached unto him Jesus” (Acts, viii, 34, 35). While Isaias compared Our Savior to a lamb, the Baptist was the first actually to bestow this name upon Our Lord (“Behold the Lamb of God“), and doubtless with a determinate sense derived from ancient type and prophecy. The Christian mind will recall such instances in the Old Testament as the Paschal Lamb of the Jews, “without blemish, a male, of one year” (Exod., xii, 5), whose blood, sprinkled on the doorposts, should save from the Destroying Angel—a figure of the Immaculate Lamb whose blood was to conquer death and to open to men the true Land of Promise; and also the perpetual offering of a lamb morning and night (Exod., xxix, 38, 39),—a figure of the perpetual sacrifice of the altar in the New Dispensation. To the ideas of immaculate purity, gentleness, atoning, and eucharistic sacrifice, the Baptist adds that of universality of purpose: “Who taketh away the sins of the world”, and not alone of Israel. From the Baptist the other John caught the fullness of the symbolism and repeated it in the fourth and fifth chapters of the Apocalypse in such a way as to foreshadow the splendors of the Solemn Mass—the Lamb upon the altar as upon a throne; the attendant clergy as four-and-twenty ancients seated, clothed in white vestments; the chanting of the “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus”; the incense arising from golden censers, and the music of harps; and then, as by a sudden change, in the midst of all “a Lamb standing as it were slain” (v, 6). Naturally, the symbolism of types and figures of the Old Testament, the Messianic prophecy of Isaias, the declaration of the Baptist, the mystical revelations of the Apocalypse, were early commemorated in the morning hymn of the “Gloria in excelsis”, which was originally a part of the office of Matins. In a slightly different form it is found in the “Apostolic Constitutions” and in the appendixes to the Bible in the “Codex Alexandrinus” of the fifth century. It first appears in use at Rome, appropriately, in the first Mass of the Nativity. Pope St. Symmachus (498-514) extended its use in episcopal Masses. The distinct and condensed formula of the Agnus Dei itself, however, was not apparently introduced into the Mass until the year 687, when Pope Sergius I decreed that during the fraction of the Host both clergy and people should sing the Agnus Dei: “Hic statuit ut tempore confractionis dominici corporis Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis, a clero et a populo decantetur” (Liber Pontificalis, ed. Duchesne, I, 381, note 42). Duchesne, accepting the view of Sergius’s reason propounded by Cardinal Bona, says: “Il n’est pas defendu de voir, dans ce decret de Sergius, une protestation contre le canon 82 du concile in Trullo, qui proscrivit la representation symbolique du Sauveur sous forme d’agneau ”

In the Liturgy of St. James, the priest when signing the Bread, shortly before communicating himself, says: “Behold the Lamb of God, the Son of the Father, who taketh away the sin of the world, sacrificed for the life and salvation of the world.” The formula is thus said but once. At about the same part of the Mass in the present Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the priest divides the Holy Bread into four parts, “with care and reverence” (in the language of the rubric) and says: “The Lamb of God is broken and distributed; He that is broken and not divided in sunder; ever eaten and never consumed, but sanctifying the communicants” (Neale, History of the Holy Eastern Church, Introduction, 650). These words are absent, however, from the ancient Mass of the Saint (ninth century). In the Office of Prothesis (a sort of preparatory Mass, dealing with the preparation of the “Holy Bread”, or “Holy Lamb“, as it is called) now in use, the prophecy of Isaias is more minutely referred to in the ceremonial; and, finally, the deacon, laying the “Lamb” down in the disk, says to the priest: “Sir, sacrifice”; to which the priest, while cutting it crosswise, answers: “The Lamb of God is sacrificed, Who taketh away the sin of the world, for the life and salvation of the world” (Neale, loc. cit., 343, 344). While it is true that, unlike several other liturgies, the Roman contains no longer any chant for the fraction of the Host, the Agnus Dei, although not properly a prayer therefore, occupies the void sufficiently well; and, more condensed than that of St. James, and quite different from that of St. Chrysostorn, quoted above, it appears in the Roman Mass with all the symmetry of ceremonial and of appropriate symbolism possible to a liturgy.

The words of the “Liber Pontificalis” (a clero et a populo decantetur) suggest the question whether previously the formula had been sung by the choir alone, as Mabillon infers, and as was the case in the ninth century and in the time of Innocent III (d. 1216). Originally the celebrant did not recite it himself, as his other functions sufficiently occupied his attention; but certainly by the thirteenth century the introduction of this feature must have become common, Durandus noting that some priests recited it with their hands resting on the altar, others with hands joined before the breast. Originally, too, recited or sung but once, Marten shows that its triple recitation was prescribed in some churches,—for example, in that of Tours, before the year 1000; and Jean Beleth, a canon of Paris, writing in the twelfth century, remarks: “Agnus Dei ter canitur”. About the same time the custom was introduced of substituting “dona nobis pacem” for the third “miserere nobis”; although by way of exception, the third “miserere” was said on Holy Thursday (perhaps because on that day the “kiss of peace” is not given). A sufficient reason for the substitution of “dona nobis pacem” might be found in its appropriateness as a preparation for the “kiss of peace” (the Pax) which follows, although Innocent III ascribes its introduction to disturbances and calamities afflicting the Church. The Lateran Basilica, however, retains the ancient custom of the triple “miserere”. No trace of the Agnus Dei is found in the Roman Mass of the Missal of Bobbio, or in that of Stowe; nor is it found in the Mozarabic, the Gelasian, or Ambrosian (except in Ambrosian Requiem Masses, where it occurs with triple invocation, as in the Roman Missal, but adds to the third invocation the words “et locum indulgentiae cum sanctis tuis in gloria”). It has been said above that the Agnus Dei now follows the prayer “Haec commixtio”. It preceded that prayer, however, in so many manuscripts of the ninth to the thirteenth centuries, that one liturgist looks on the formula as the ordinary conclusion of the Canon of the Mass in the Middle Ages. As in the case of the “Kyrie eleison” and other texts of the Ordinary of the Mass (e.g. the Gloria, Sequence, Credo, Sanctus, Hosanna, Ite, missa est), the words of the Agnus Dei were often considerably extended by tropes, styled by the Romans (in ignorance, perhaps, of their Greek origin) Festiviae Laudes. These additions were prefaces, or intercalations, or concluding sentences or phrases, sometimes bearing a strict connection with the meaning of the text, sometimes constituting practically individual compositions with only a titular relation to the text. Cardinal Bona gives an interesting one:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,

Crimina tollis, aspera mollis, Agnus honoris,

Miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,

Vulnera sanas, ardua planas, Agnus amoris,

Miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,

Sordida mundas, cuncta foecundas, Agnus odoris,

Dona nobis pacem.

The Cardinal does not mention the date of his source; but the poem is given by Blume and Bannister in their “Tropi Graduales” [Analecta Hymnica (Leipzig, 1905), XLVII, 398], with several dated MS. references. This splendid collection contains no fewer than ninety-seven tropes of the Agnus Dei alone. The following trope of the tenth century will illustrate another form, of which there are many examples, in classical hexameters:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,

Omnipotens, aeterna Dei sapientia, Christe, miserere nobis, Agnus Dei … peccata mundi,

Verum subsistens vero de lumine lumen, miserere nobis. Agnus Dei … peccata mundi,

Optima perpetuae concedens gaudia vitae, dona nobis pacem.

Sometimes the tropes were not in measure, whether classical or accentual, but merely in a rude kind of rhymed, or rather, assonantal prose; as the following (tenth century), which has the triple “miserere nobis” instead of “dona …” etc.:

Agnus Dei … peccata mundi,

Omnipotens, pie,

te precamur assidue,

miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei … peccata mundi,

Qui cuncta creasti,

Nobis semper (te) adiunge,

miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei. peccata mundi,

Redemptor, Christe,

Exoramus te supplices,

miserere nobis.

Sometimes they were very brief, sometimes extensive, as the following (of which space will allow but one strophe) of the thirteenth century:

1. Agnus Dei,

Sine peccati macula

solus permanens

cuncta per saecula,

nostra crimina dele,

qui tollis peccata mundi;

Haec enim gloria soli

Domino est congrua;

Miserere nobis.

Two other uses of the Agnus Dei may be mentioned briefly. First, before giving Holy Communion, whether during or outside of Mass, the priest holds a particle up for the faithful to see, saying: “Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi. Domine non sum dignus”, etc. The use of the formula in this connection appears to be of comparatively recent date. Anciently the formula used was simply “Corpus Christi”, “Sanguis Christi”, to which the faithful answered “Amen“, a formula similar to that in the Liturgy of St. Mark: “The Holy Body”, “The precious Blood of Our Lord and God and Savior”. Secondly, at the end of litanies the formula appears as follows: “Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, Parce nobis, Domine” (Spare us, O Lord). “Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, Exaudi nos, Domine” (Graciously hear us, O Lord). “Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis” (Have mercy on us). Thus, for the litany of the Saints and for that of Loreto. The litany of the Most Holy Name of Jesus adds the word Jesu to the last word, and substitutes Jesu for Domine in the previous two endings. In the so-called “Litania Romana”, found in an old MS. sacramentary of St. Gregory the Great, the formula appears but once, and then in the words of the formula used at Mass: “Agnus Dei … mundi, miserere nobis”. The use of the formula in litanies is of comparatively recent date.

It remains to say a word about the musical settings of the Agnus Dei in the Mass. Originally, of course, the melody was plainsong, doubtless very simple and syllabic at first, and subsequently developed into richer forms. Recent studies in musical paleography have succeeded in rescuing the ancient melodies from oblivion, and in the Vatican “Kyriale” (1905) we find twenty settings substantially reproducing the ancient texts. These melodies range from the syllabic up through various grades of the florid into moderately melismatic chants. A rough idea of the melodic forms may be gained by considering that there are eighteen syllables of text in any one of the three invocations, and that the number of notes accompanying any one of these invocations of eighteen syllables ranges from nineteen (in which case only one syllable of the text can receive two notes) up to sixty-one (as in No. V of the “Kyriale”). In No. V the first syllable has nine notes, however; and a mere enumeration of notes is not sufficiently descriptive of the character and flow of the melody, although such enumeration will help towards forming an idea of the melodic richness or poverty. The familiar melody of the Requiem Mass Agnus Dei, with its twenty notes to eighteen syllables, will illustrate a purely syllabic chant, and will serve to explain its assignment to days of penitential character, such as the ferial days in Lent and Advent, Ember and Rogation days, and vigils, to which the “Kyriale” nominally assigns it. With respect to the variety of melody offered in the triple invocation, we find six masses (Nos. I, V, VI, XVIII, XIX, XX) in which the melody remains the same for all three invocations—a form which might be indicated as a, a, a; twelve masses in which the melody of the first and third Agnus Dei are identical, but the second different—type a, b, a; one mass in which the first two are identical, while the third varies—type a, a, b; and one mass in which all three are different (No. VII)—type a, b, c. In type a, b, a, however, many correspondences of melody between a and b are found in certain portions of the text; while in type a, b, c, the melody of “nobis” is common to all three. In all this we can perceive the operation of excellent ideas of symmetry and form amid great variety of melody. The plainsong melodies of the Agnus Dei (as, indeed, of other chants as well, the Kyries exhibiting similar obvious symmetries, while the more melismatic chants of the Proper of the Mass will, under enlightened analysis, yield surprisingly beautiful results) are illustrations of the fact that the ancient composers, although working under very different conceptions of music from those which obtain in our days, had clear perceptions of the province of form in musical art, and had canons of construction and criticism which we have not as yet, in all likelihood, fully appreciated [Wagner, “Einfuhrung in die Gregorianischen Melodien” (Freiburg, Schweiz, 1895), 247-250; also, in the Philadelphia quarterly, “Church Music”, June, 1906, 362-380, two articles on the Introit: “Gaudeamus omnes in Domino”, and March, 1906, 222-232, the article on the “Haec dies”].

The text of the Agnus Dei, triple in repetition, and, therefore, possessing its own rights of textual symmetry, was respected by the medieval composers; and the one fact which, in this respect, discriminates their forms of treatment from those of the master-composers of modern church music, is the absence of any separate treatment of the “Dona nobis pacem”, that grand finale movement in which the moderns have been so accustomed to assemble all their energies of technique, voices, and instruments, and to which they assign a movement entirely different from the preceding one. Familiar examples of this are found in Bach’s great Mass in B-minor, where the first two Agnus Deis are alto solos, followed by the “Dona” in four-part fugue. Significant of the musical and liturgical aloofness of the “Dona” from the Agnus Dei in this composition, is the fact that no third Agnus Dei occurs at all. In Beethoven’s monumental Mass in D, solo and chorus sing the “Agnus … nobis” thrice adagio, the “Dona” forming a new movement in allegretto vivace and requiring more than three times as many pages as the thrice-repeated “Agnus”; so, too, in his Mass in C, the “Dona”, allegro ma non troppo, takes thrice as many pages as the whole preceding text in poco andante. So, too, Haydn’s “Third” (“Dona”, allegro vivace, twice as many pages as all the rest adagio); his “First” (“Agnus”, adagio, strings only—”Dona”, allegro, oboes, trumpets, tympani, and strings); his “Sixth” (“Agnus”, adagio, ¬æ—”Dona”, allegro con spirito, 4/4); his “Sixteenth” (“Agnus,” adagio,4/4— “Dona”, allegro, ¬æ strings, clarinets, trumpets, tympani, and organ). Illustrations might be multiplied without number from other masses, of Mozart, Schubert, and the rest. A very interesting exception is found in the masses of Gounod (quite naturally, in view of his training and polyphonic studies), which respect the triple symmetry of the text; and we find in his “Agnus” almost the primitive plainsong symmetry. Thus, his second mass of the “Orpheonistes” gives us the type a, a, b; his first of the Orpheonistes, the type a, b, c (agreeing, curiously enough, with the single illustration of that type in the “Kyriale”, in having for the two “nobis” and the “dona” the one musical formula); his “Sacred Heart Mass”, the type (with slight variations) a, b, a; his “St. Cecilia” (omitting the interpolation of the “Domine non sum dignus,” etc.), the type a, a, a (with slight variation). Gounod’s interpolation of “Domine non sum dignus” has been very severely criticized as a great liturgical offense—and so it is; but it is additionally interesting to note, even here, an echo of the medieval custom spoken of in the preceding part of this article, of the trope-treatment of the liturgical texts. Gounod’s trope was built up out of his own fancy, but was at least wholly liturgical in the selection of the intercalated text; it was also singularly appropriate to the portion of the Mass then reached, namely, the Communion of priest or of people. Of the quasi-dramatic treatments which the Agnus Dei has received in modern times, it is not worth while to speak (e.g. Haydn’s Mass in tempore belli, Beethoven’s in D, with the roll of drums accentuating the blessings of peace in contrast with the horrors of war), or of the treatments which have thoroughly disfigured, by omissions, insertions, and additions of words, the beauty of the liturgical text; or have so interposed the words as to make nonsense (e.g. Poniatowski’s “Mass in F”—to select from the lesser order, which indiscriminately assigns to each of the “Agnus … mundi” a confused jumble of “miserere” and “dona”—a conceit, the symbolism of which is not clearly intelligible). In general, these liturgical excesses resulted from the dramatic instinct working in the field of sacred music.


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