Regina Coeli (QUEEN OF HEAVEN), the opening words of the Eastertide anthem of the Blessed Virgin, the recitation of which is prescribed in the Roman Breviary from Compline of Holy Saturday until none of the Saturday after Pentecost inclusively. In choro, the anthem is to be sung standing. In illustration of the view that the anthem forms a “syntonic strophe”, that is, one depending on the accent of the word and not the quantity of the syllable, Albin prints it (“La poesie du breviaire”, Lyons, s. d., p. 102) as follows: Regina coeli laetare, Alleluia, Quia quem meruisti portare, Alleluia, Resurrexit Sicut dixit, Alleluia. Ora pro nobis Deum. Alleluia.
In the first two verses (“Regina” and “Quia”) the accent falls on the second, fourth, and seventh syllables (the word quia being counted as a single syllable); in the second two verses (“Resurrexit”, “Sicut dixit”), on the first and the third syllables. The Alleluia serves as a refrain. Of unknown authorship, the anthem has been traced back to the twelfth century. It was in Franciscan use, after Compline, in the first half of the following century. Together with the other Marian anthems, it was incorporated in the Minorite-Roman Curia Office, which, by the activity of the Franciscans, was soon popularized everywhere, and which, by the order of Nicholas III (1277-80), replaced all the older Officebooks in all the churches of Rome. Batiffol (“History of the Roman Breviary“, tr., London, 1898, pp. 158-228) admits that “we owe a just debt of gratitude to those who gave us the antiphons of the Blessed Virgin” (p. 225), which he considers “four exquisite compositions, though in a style enfeebled by sentimentality” (p.218). The anthems are indeed exquisite, although (as may appropriately be noted in this connection) they run through the gamut of medieval literary style, from the classical hexameters of the “Alma Redemptoris Mater” through the richly-rhymed accentual rhythm and regular strophes of the “Ave Regina Coelorum”, the irregular syntonic strophe of the “Regina Coeli”, down to the sonorous prose rhythms (with rhyming closes) of the Salve Regina. “In the 16th century, the antiphons of our Lady were employed to replace the little office at all the hours” (Baudot, “The Roman Breviary“, London, 1909, p. 71). The “Regina Coeli” takes the place of the “Angelus” during the Paschal Time.
The authorship of the “Regina Coeli” being unknown, legend says that St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) heard the first three lines chanted by angels on a certain Easter morning in Rome while he walked barefoot in a great religious procession and that the saint thereupon added the fourth line: “Ora pro nobis Deum. Alleluia.” For details of the interesting legend, cf. Gueranger, “Liturgical Year”, Paschal Time, Part I, p. 111 (tr. Dublin, 1871). (See also Salve Regina for a similar attribution of authorship.) The authorship has also been ascribed to Gregory V, but without good reason. The beautiful plainsong melodies (a simple and an ornate form) are variously given in the Ratisbon antiphonary and in the Solesmes “Liber Usualis” of 1908, the ornate form in the latter work, with rhythmical signs added, being very attractive. The official or “typical” melody will be found (p. 126) in the Vatican Antiphonary (1911). Only one form of melody is given. The different syllabic lengths of the lines make the anthem difficult to translate with fidelity into English verse. A literal prose rendering is given in the “Baltimore Manual of Prayers”. Seven versions are noted in Julian’s “Dictionary of Hymnology”, but not that of C. H. Esling (“Catholic Record”, May, 1873, p. 12) nor that of Archbishop Bagshawe (“Breviary Hymns and Missal Sequences”, London, 1900, p. 220). The anthem has often been treated musically by both polyphonic and modern composers.
H. T. HENRY