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The title commonly given to the Latin text and vernacular translation of the Canticle of Mary in Luke 1

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Magnificat, the title commonly given to the Latin text and vernacular translation of the Canticle (or Song) of Mary. It is the opening word of the Vulgate text (Luke, i, 46-55): “Magnificat anima mea Dominum”, etc. (My soul doth magnify the Lord, etc.). In ancient antiphonaries it was often styled Evangelium Marice, the “Gospel of Mary”. In the Roman Breviary it is entitled (Vespers for Sunday) Canticum B.M.V. (Canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary). The “Magnificat”, “Benedictus” (Canticle of Zachary—Luke i, 68-79), and “Nunc Dimittis” (Canticle of Simeon—Luke, ii, 29-32) are also styled “evangelical canticles”, as they are found in the Gospel (Evangelium) of St. Luke.

FORM AND CONTENT., Commentators divide it into three or four stanzas, of which easily accessible illustrations may be found in McEvilly, “Exposition of the Gospel of St. Luke” (triple division: verses 4619, 50-53, 54-55); in Maas, “Life of Jesus Christ” (also triple, but slightly different: vv. 46-50, 51-53, 54-55); and in Schaff and Riddle, “Popular Commentary on the New Testament” (division into four stanzas: vv. 46-48, 49-50, 51-52, 53-55). The Magnificat is in many places very similar in thought and phrase to the Canticle of Anna (I Kings, ii, 1-10), and to various psalms (xxxiii, 3-4; xxxiv, 9; cxxxvii, 6; lxx, 19; cxxv, 2-3; cx, 9; xcvii, 1; cxvii, 16; xxxii, 10; cxii, 7; xxxiii, 11; xcvii, 3; exxxi, 11). Similarities are found with Hab., iii, 18; Mal., iii, 12; Job, v, 11; Is., xli, 8, and xlix, 3; Gen., xvii, 19. Steeped thus in Scriptural thought and phraseology, summing up in its inspired ecstasy the economy of God with His Chosen People, indicating the fulfilment of the olden prophecy and prophesying anew until the end of time, the Magnificat is the crown of the Old Testament singing, the last canticle of the Old and the first of the New Testament. It was uttered (or, not improbably, chanted) by the Blessed Virgin, when she visited her cousin Elizabeth under the circumstances narrated by St. Luke in the first chapter of his Gospel. It is an ecstasy of praise for the inestimable favor bestowed by God on the Virgin, for the mercies shown to Israel, and for the fulfilment of the promises made to Abraham and to the patriarchs. Only four points of exegesis will be noted here. Some commentators distinguish the meaning of “soul” (or “intellect”) and “spirit” (or “will”) in the first two verses; but, in view of Hebrew usage, probably both words mean the same thing, “the soul with all its faculties”. In v. 48, “humility” probably means the “low estate” or “lowliness”, rather than the virtue of humility. The second half of v. 48 utters a prophecy which has been fulfilled ever since, and which adds to the overwhelming reasons for rejecting the Elizabethan authorship of the canticle. Finally the first half of v. 55 (As he spoke to our fathers) is probably parenthetical.

MARIAN AUTHORSHIP.—The past decade has witnessed a discussion of the authorship of the Magnificat, based on the fact that three ancient codices (Vercellensis, Veronensis, Rhedigerianus) have: “Et ait Elisabeth: Magnificat anima mea”, etc. (And Elizabeth said: My soul doth magnify, etc.); and also on some very slight patristic use of the variant reading. Harnack in ‘Berliner Sitzungsberichte” (May 17, 1900), 538-56, announced his view of the Elizabethan authorship, contending that the original reading is neither “Mary” nor “Elizabeth“, but merely “she” (said). About two years previously, Durand had criticized, in the “Revue Biblique”, the argument of Jacobe for a probable ascription to Elizabeth. Dom Morin had called attention (`Revue Biblique”, 1897) to the words of Nicetas (Niceta) of Remesiana, in a Vatican MS. of his “De psalmodiae bono”: “Cum Helisabeth Dominum anima nostra magnificat” (With Elizabeth our soul doth magnify the Lord). The works of Nicetas have been edited recently by Burn, and give (De saimodiae bono, ix, xi) evidence of Nicetas’s view (see note 4, p. 79, ibid.). In the introduction to Burn’s volume, Burkitt rejects the reading “Et ait Elisabeth” as wholly untenable in view of the contradictory testimony of Tertullian and of all the Greek and Syriac texts, but contends for the original reading “she” (said) and for the Elizabethan author-ship. He is answered by the Anglican Bishop of Salisbury, who supports the probability of an original reading “she”, but rejects the ascription to Elizabeth (pp. clv-clviii). The witness of the codices and of the Fathers is practically unanimous for the Vulgate reading:” Et ait Maria”; but, apart from this, the attribution of the Magnificat to Elizabeth would, in St. Luke’s context, be highly abnormal. Long before the recent discussion, Westcott and Hort, in the appendix (52) to their “Introduction to the New Testament in the Original Greek” (New York, 1882), had briefly discussed and rejected the reading “Elisabeth”; and this rejection is summarily confirmed in their revised text of the “N. T. in the Original Greek” (London, 1895), 523.

LITURGICAL USE.—While the canticles taken by the Roman Breviary from the Old Testament are located with the psalms, and are so distributed as to be sung only once a week, the Magnificat shares with the other two “evangelical canticles” the honor of a daily recitation and of a singularly prominent location immediately before the Oratio, or Prayer of the daily Office (or, if there be preces, immediately before these). The “Magnificat” is assigned to Vespers, the “Benedictus” to Lauds, and the “Nunc Dimittis” to Compline. Six reasons are given by Durand us for the assignment of the Magnificat to Vespers, the first being that the world was saved in its eventide by the assent of Mary to the Divine plan of Redemption. Another reason is found by Colvenarius in the probability that it was towards evening when Our Lady arrived at the house of St. Elizabeth. However this may be, in the Rule (written before 502) of St. Csarius of Arles, the earliest extant account of its liturgical use, it is assigned to Lauds, as it is in the Greek Churches of today. The ceremonies attending its singing in the Choir at solemn Vespers are notably impressive. At the intonation “Magnificat”, all who are in the sanctuary arise, and the celebrant (having first removed his birretta “in honor of the canticles”) goes with his assistants to the altar, where, with the customary reverences, etc., he blesses the incense and incenses the altar as at the beginning of solemn Mass. In order to permit the elaborate ceremony of incensing, the Magnificat is sung much more slowly than the psalms. A similar ceremony attends the singing of the Benedictus at solemn Lauds, but not of the Nunc Dimittis at Compline.

At the first word of the Magnificat and of the Benedictus (but not of the Nunc Dimittis, save where custom has made it lawful) the Sign of the Cross is made. In some churches the Magnficat is sung at devotions outside of Vespers. Answering a question from Canada, the “Ecclesiastical Review” (XXIII, 74) declares that the rubrics allow such a separation, but forbids the incensing of the altar in such a case. The same review (XXIII, 173) remarks that “the practice of making the Sign of the Cross at the opening of the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and the Nunc Dimittis in the Office is of very ancient usage and is sanctioned by the very best authority”, and refers to the Congregation of Sacred Rites, December 20, 1861.

MUSICAL SETTINGS.—Like the canticles and psalms, the Magnificat is preceded and followed by an antiphon varying for the feast or ferial Office, and is sung to the eight modes of plain song. The first verse has, however, no mediation, because of the brevity (the one word Magniat) of the first half.. The Canticles of Mary and of Zachary share (even in the Office of the Dead) the peculiar honor of commencing every verse with an initium or intonation. This intonation varies for the varying modes; and the Magnificat has a special solemn intonation for the second, seventh, and eighth modes, although in this case the usual festive intonation applies, in the second and eighth modes, to all the verses except the first. The “musical”, as distinguished from the “plain song”, treating of the canticle has been very varied. Sometimes the chanted verses alternated with harmonized plain song, sometimes with falso bordone having original melodies in the same mode as the plain song. But there are innumerable settings which are entirely original, and which run through the whole range of musical expression, from the simplest harmony up to the most elaborate dramatic treatment, with orchestral accompaniment of the text. Almost every great church composer has worked often and zealously on this theme. Palestrina published two settings in each of the eight modes, and left in manuscript almost as many more. Fifty settings by Orlando di Lasso are in the Royal Library at Munich, and tradition credits him with twice as many more. In our own days, Cesar Franck (1822-90) is said to have completed sixty-three out of the hundred he had planned. In addition to such names as Palestrina, di Lasso, Josquin des Pres, Morales, Goudimal, Animuccia, Vittoria, Anerio, Gabrieli, Suriano, who with their contemporaries contributed innumerable settings, the modern Cecilian School has done much work on the Magnificat both as a separate canticle, and as one of the numbers in a “Complete Vespers” of many feasts. In Anglican services the Magnificat receives a musical treatment not different from that accorded to the other canticles, and therefore quite dissimilar to that for Catholic Vespers, in which the length of time consumed in incensing the altar allows much greater musical elaboration. A glance through the pages of Novello’s catalogue of “Services” leads to the estimate of upwards of one thousand settings of the Magnificat for Anglican services by a single publishing house. Altogether, the estimate of Krehbiel that this canticle “has probably been set to music oftener than any hymn in the liturgy” seems well within the truth.


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