5 August 2015


Around 700ish someone wrote a hymn about our Lady, Quem terra, pontus, aethera. It was subsequently divided into two and and thus provided a couple of Office Hymns for the Common of the BVM. The second half began "O gloriosa Femina". This was subsequently altered to "O gloriosa Domina", ["woman" changed to "Lady"] for reasons which are fairly obvious. Urban VIII's revisers changed it to "virginum" ["of virgins"]. They will have disliked "Domina" because the first syllable of that word is short, while this is a metrical hymn in which the first syllable of the word at that place in the line has to be long - as the first syllable of "femina" is.

(Never forget that the corruption of the Roman Rite began, not with Paul VI, not with Pius XII, not even with Pius X, but when, in the 1620s, Papa Barberini aka Urban VIII mucked up the ancient Office Hymns because he wanted them to sound more like Horace. This was the first example of the Roman Catholic Church adopting the "we've-now-got-printing-so-we-can-now-impose-our-latest-revolutionary-fad-almost-overnight-on-the-Universal-Church" syndrome which ultimately led to Bugnini. Protestants like Cranmer, of course, had seen the possibilities of this technology for liturgical devastation much earlier. Back to Pius V should be the traditionalist instinct. That is why, if you want to use English translations of the original texts of the Office Hymns as given in Sarum, Pius V, and the new Liturgy of the Hours, you need to use Anglican translations - done from Sarum by people like J M Neale - rather than RC translations by scholars like E Caswall.)

Vatican II rightly ordered that the text of the Hymns should generally revert to the original texts still for the most part found in S Pius V's original Breviary (not to mention in Sarum and the other medieval local dialects of the Roman Rite). Dom Anselmo Lentini's Coetus proposed, when dealing with the hymn we are considering today, restoring the original reading Femina [woman] on the grounds that " it seems to us very beautiful, since thus the glory of the humble creature raised to so great a dignity shines more brightly; moreover, Domina [Lady] spoils the metre ...". But at some point somebody decided that Domina ... even if unmetrical ... even if unoriginal ... had better go back into the text. I wonder who ... and do you agree with them?

Incidentally, the first part of the original hymn - what we know as Quem terra, pontus, aethera [Urban VIII changed aethera to sidera] - had a third stanza long since omitted, which Lentini wanted to reintroduce, but ... apparently ... here again he was vetoed by somebody. It went (I translate unmetrically):
"Therefore the ages wonder,/That an Angel brings the Seed [Lentini wanted to emend this to "That the Spirit overshadows her"]/ That the Virgin conceives by ear/ And, believing in her heart, gives birth." This, of course, gives a picture which relates to much medieval iconography of the Annunciation, where a piercing ray goes from the Father or the Spirit to our Lady's ear.

Speculate on the problems - and advantages - in that stanza!


Zephyrinus said...

A riveting read, dear Fr.

The Liturgical upheavals, over the years, do indicate the veracity of returning to the originals, I feel.

The Breviary of Pope Saint Pius V, and The Sarum Rite, indicate the correct usage to me.

O that it would happen.

Matthew Roth said...

It seems that there is a problem, if one wishes to see it as such, referring to “seed.” One might get stuck trying to explain that we mortals do not have a way of knowing how Christ was conceived, since someone would probably think of biology I can see where Lentini geta his proposed replacement, from Luke 1, but I find it to be inferior. It’s beautiful as it is.

And why did they insist on restoring hymns only to make further modifications? All the reformers had to do was take the hymns of the Antiphonale Monasticum and use those instead of the Urban hymns.

stebert said...

Father, might we have some further explication on the detail of meter? To the uneducated, Femina and Domina both appear to have similar syllabic emphasis and number... unless Domina is emphasized differently from Dominus? Or is it a vowel difference other than stress?

Fr. Michael LaRue said...

I see the Puritan instinct rearing itself again in wanting to get rid of "seed." It's time we de-Bowdlerized the liturgy, the only real way to face the crisis over human sexuality. We could start here, or perhaps better by insisting that "the horn of salvation" is restored to daily lauds.

Joshua said...

At a Franciscan parish in Adelaide, the start of Christmas Midnight Mass was enlivened by the setting off of fireworks inside the church, while a statue of the Divine Infant was sent flying down a wire from the choir loft to the manger, beside the statues of Our Lady and St Joseph, in which it landed with a plonk - perhaps a rather unorthodox birth!

Stephen Barber said...

Thank you for drawing attention to the original third verse. Few of the books even give it, though Connelly, Lentini and the recent Walsh do. I have been looking for a metrical translation. Julian's dictionary of hymnology says there are around twenty of the hymn as a whole so maybe someone has done it. Or we could make our own.

I like the theory that this hymn is by Venantius Fortunatus though apparently it does not appear in the body of his works.