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Stabat Mater

Opening words of two companion hymns, one of which is in liturgical use, while the other is not

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Stabat Mater, the opening words of two companion hymns, one of which (Stabat Mater Dolorosa) is in liturgical use, while the other (Stabat Mater Speciosa) is not. They celebrate the emotions of Our Lady at the Cross and at the Manger—Calvary and Bethlehem—respectively, and may conveniently be differentiated here by the third word (Dolorosa, Speciosa). The Speciosa contains thirteen (double) stanzas of six lines; the Dolorosa, ten. In other respects the two hymns are in quite perfect parallelism of phrase throughout, as the first stanza may serve to illustrate:

Stabat mater—dolorosa/specrosa

Juxta—crucem lacrimosa/fcenum gaudiosa


The question, which is the original, which the imitation, will be discussed under II. THE SPECIOSA.

I. THE DOLOROSA.—The hymn was well known to all classes by the end of the fourteenth century. Georgius Stella, Chancellor of Genoa (d. 1420), in his “Annales Genuenses”, speaks of it as in use by the Flagellants in 1388, and other historians note its use later in the same century. In Provence, about 1399, the “Albati”, or “Bianchi”, sang it during their nine days’ processions. “The Church did not receive the hymn from the heretics, but the heretics despoiled the Church of the Sequence” (Daniel, “Thesaurus Hymnologicus”, II, 140). If the very questionable ascription to Jacopone da Todi be correct, the hymn probably found its way from Francis-can houses into those of other religious bodies and into popular use. It is found in several European (but not English) Missals of the fifteenth century, but was not introduced into the Roman Breviary and Missal until 1727 (Feast of the Seven Dolors B. V. M., assigned to Friday after Passion Sunday.

The September feast of the same name employs other hymns in the Breviary Office). In the Breviary it is divided into three parts: at Vespers, “Stabat Mater dolorosa”; at Matins, “Sancta Mater, istud agas”; at Lauds, “Virgo virginum praeclara”

The authorship of the hymn has been ascribed to St. Gregory the Great (d. 604), St. Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), Innocent III (d. 1216), St. Bonaventure (d. 1274), Jacopone (d. 1306), Pope John XXII (d. 1334), Gregory XI (d. 1378). Of these ascriptions, the only probable ones are those to Innocent III and Jacopone. Benedict XIV gives it without question to Innocent, and quotes three authorities; Mone, in his notes, and Hurter, in his “Life“, give it to the same great pontiff. Duffield, in his “Latin Hymn Writers and their Hymns”, rejects with much positiveness, and Mearns, in Julian, “Dictionary of Hymnology”, questions, the ascription. Gregorovius also denies it to the pope of “the great and cold intellect”; but for a similar reason he might question the ascription of the Corpus Christi hymns, redolent of devotional warmth and sweetness, to the rigorously scholastic mind of St. Thomas Aquinas; he adds, however, a reference to a fourteenth-century manuscript containing poems by Jacopone with an ascription to him of the Stabat. The argument for Jacopone is not satisfactory. While his hymns written in the Umbrian dialect commanded popularity and deserved respect, some of the Latin hymns ascribed to him are certainly not his, and it is doubtful if he ever wrote any—or at all events anything better than imitations of—Latin hymns.

A large literature has grown about the hymns, Protestants sharing with Catholics a deep, and often glowingly expressed, admiration for its pathos, its vividness of description, its devotional sweetness and unction, its combination of easy rhythmic flow with exquisite double rhyming and finished stanzaic form. Daniel styles it “the queen of sequences” (op. cit., V, 59) and devotes much space to its praise (II, 136-138). Dr. Philip Schaff (in “Literature and Poetry”, 191) says: “The secret of the power of the `Mater Dolorosa’ lies in the intensity of feeling with which the poet identifies himself with his theme, and in the soft, plaintive melody of its Latin rhythm and rhyme, which cannot be transferred to any other language.” Dr. Coles, a physician, devotes a long “Proem” to his own translation, to an estimate of the hymn, and thinks the hymn “powerful in its pathos beyond almost anything that has ever been written”. Mingled with his praise is much very strong denunciation of its “Mariolatry.” Schaff also notes the usual Protestant objection, but gently answers his co-religionists, concluding with the reminder that Catholics “do not pray to Mary as the giver of the mercies desired, but only as the inter-ceder, thinking that she is more likely to prevail with her Son than any poor unaided sinner on earth”. This affection of Protestants for the hymn has resulted in manifold translation. Dean Trench, however, excluded the hymn from his “Sacred Latin Poetry”, and Saintsbury, in “The Flourishing of Romance” (p. 77, footnote), characterizes the exclusion as “a little touch of orthodox prudery”. There are over sixty translations into English (in whole or in part), Caswall’s being the most extensively used in hymnals. Amongst the translations are those of D. F. McCarthy, Aubrey de Vere, and Father Tabb.

Because of its vividly epic and lyric character, the hymn has received multiform musical setting. There are four well-known plainsong settings, the authentic form being found in the Vatican Gradual (1908). Josquin des Pres (fifteenth century) wrote a Stabat as elaborate as any of his “most highly developed Masses” (Rockstro). His great effort was distanced by the immortalizing twain of settings by Palestrina. Of Pergolesi’s Stabat the German poet Tieck confesses: “I had to turn away to hide my tears, especially at the place, `Vidit suum dulcem natum”‘ Haydn’s Stabat is considered “a treasury of refined and graceful melody”. Some less familiar names in the long list are Steffani, Clari, Astorga, Winter, Raimondi, Vito, Lanza, Neukomm. Rossini had written his “William Tell” before he essayed his much-abused Stabat. While it is not indeed fitted for liturgical use, Father Taunton (History and Growth of Church Music, 78-9) defends it; and Rockstro, refusing to discuss the question whether its sensuous beauty befits the theme, thinks that “critics who judge it harshly, and dilettanti who can listen to it unmoved… must either be case-hardened by pedantry, or destitute of all ‘ear for music'”. The long list may close with Dvorak, who, in his original musical phrases, illustrated anew the perennial freshness of the theme.

II. THE SPECIOSA.—An edition of the Italian poems of Jacopone published at Brescia in 1495 contained both Stabats; but the Speciosa fell into almost complete oblivion until A. F. Ozanam transcribed it from a fifteenth-century manuscript in the Bibliotheque Nationale for his “Poetes Franciscains en Italie au Treizieme siecle”, Paris, 1852. He thought Jacopone had composed both Stabats at the same time; and, remarking of the Dolorosa that “this incomparable work would have sufficed for the glory of Jacopone”, he confesses that he gave up the attempt to translate the Speciosa in verse, and concluded to present both hymns in simple prose, because “the untranslatable charm of the language, of the melody, and of the old quaintness, I feel are escaping me”. The Anglican hymnologist, Dr. J. M. Neale, introduced the Speciosa to the English-speaking world in 1866, and ascribed it to Jacopone. Dr. Schaff dissents: “This is improbable. A poet would hardly write a parody on a poem of his own.” Noting the unfinished style and the imperfect rhyme of the Speciosa, Neale thought it indicated the work of an apprentice shaping his hand to the work of Latin verse—in which case it must have preceded the Dolorosa, which is a perfect piece of work. Schaff, however, points out that the opening words of the Dolorosa were borrowed from the Vulgate Latin (John,) ix, 25) “with reference to Mary at the Cross, but not at the Cradle”, and also that the sixth line, “Pertransivit gladius”, might have suggested the similar line of the Speciosa, “Pertransivit jubilus”, but not vice versa. Coles doubts “a simultaneous birth, or even a common parentage”. In his “Essay on Minor Rites and Ceremonies” Cardinal Wiseman seized on the parallelism of contrast in the two poems—similarity of form and phrase, and complete antithesis of theme and thought. Finally, it should be said that the great ruggedness of the Speciosa may be due to the carelessness of copyists.


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