The seven great hymns of the mediaeval church/Stabat Mater and Mater Speciosa


THE Stabat Mater, with the Dies Iræ, possesses the power of imparting a shadowy impression of its meaning by the melody of its verse. Its soft, sad cadence echoes the feeling of its pathetic words. In fame it ranks next to the Dies Iræ, yet is neither so simple nor so grand; nor does it rise, like the Great Hymn, above sectarian faults. It has attracted the same great admiration, and been praised and repeated by the fame great admirers, but always in a lesser degree. As the Dies Iræ has been pronounced the greatest, so the Stabat Mater universally is deemed the most pathetic of hymns.

The life of its author was in fit keeping with its plaintive utterances. He was born at Todi, of the noble Italian house of Benedette, and rose to distinction as a jurist. A few years after the Dies Iræ was written (1268), he lost his wife, and, broken-hearted, renounced the world to join, like Thomas of Celano, the Order of St. Francis. In the ardor of his devotion, he tried to atone by self-sought tortures not only for his own sins, but, like our Saviour, for the sins of others. At laft his sorrows sank into infancy and ended in death.

Dying about the time that Petrarch was born, and while Dante was still a young man, his Cantate Spirituali mark the dawning day of the Italian language. In an old Venetian copy of these, the historian of the Franciscans (Wadding) found a number of Latin poems, amongst which was the Stabat Mater, and thus established for the Order of St. Francis the honor of producing, within the same century, the two most celebrated of Latin hymns.

When the first edition of this book was published, there was a weakness in the English exposition of the STABAT MATER which no search after fitting translations could cure, and the reader was warned that few English versions had been made, and not one that strictly preserved its measure. That of Lord Lindsay was selected, and is still retained, as best expressing the pathos of the original. Since then, however, this portion of our literature has received such additions as will render the exposition of the most pathetic of hymns as complete as it probably ever can be made.

The first of these new versions is by the accomplished soldier whose version of the Dies Iræ previously is given. The fact is noticeable that while his accurate rhythmic translation of the "Great Hymn" was written amidst the din of war, and while its author was on duty in the field, this pathetic version of the STABAT MATER has been composed while its author was surrounded by the gayeties of the French capital, and engrossed in his duties as Minister Plenipotentiary. In a private letter, General Dix says:—

"As I proceeded, I could not but think under how much more favorable circumstances than mine Jacobus de Benedictis must have written the immortal hymn. He was in all probability fitting in his narrow cell, the external world entirely shut out, with nothing before him but a crucifix, to which it was only necessary to lift his eyes for aid when he felt the spirit of inspiration flagging. On the other hand, I was compelled to write in a Parisian saloon, amid the glare of meretricious gilding, almost under the shadow of the great triumphal arch—one of those gigantic memorials of human victories which for the cause of human civilization had much better be forgotten than commemorated; the canvas on the walls swarming with young fauns, cupids, and other Pagan devices.

"In making the translation I kept in view three or four leading objects which I will briefly state.

"1. An inflexible adherence to the rhythm.

"2. A faithful preservation of every thought contained in the original.

"3. A vigorous exclusion of every thought not contained in it.

"4. A preservation as far as possible, of the tenderness of feeling and expression, which is the characteristic of the hymn."

The second of the new translations is by that accomplished author, two of whose remarkable renderings of the Dies Iræ already enrich this work. Of the version now given a distinguished scholar says, " The English double rhyme rarely expresses the melody and pathos of the Latin. Dr. Abraham Coles, of Newark, has probably best succeeded in a faithful rendering of the Mater Dolosa."—Dr. Philip Schaff.

A further exposition of the Stabat Mater is given in the newly found companion-hymn, Stabat Mater Speciosa, with its translation, the last work of Dr. John Mason Neale. This long-lost lyric has recently been introduced to American readers by Dr. Schaff, who has briefly told its story, and thus admirably analyzed its relation to the Stabat Mater:—

"While the latter has been known and admired for nearly five centuries, the former, though probably as old, was buried in obscurity, until it was brought to light in our day by A. F. Ozanam in his work on the Franciscan Poets, and in the improved German edition of this work by Julius, with an admirable translation of the hymn by Cardinal Diepenbrock, then bishop of Breslau. The poem has also attracted the attention of English hymnologists, and been translated for the first time into English by the late Dr. John Mason Neale, who published the original Latin with the translation a few days before his death, in August, 1866, thus closing his useful and brilliant hymnological labors.

The Mater Speciosa and the Mater Dolorosa are, apparently, the product of the same genius. They are companion-hymns, and resemble each other like twin sisters. The Mater Dolorosa was evidently suggested by the Scripture scene, as briefly stated by St. John, Stabat juxta crucem mater ejus; and this again, suggested the cradle-hymn as a counterpart. It is a parallelism of contrast which runs from beginning to end. The Mater Speciosa is a Christmas hymn, and sings the overflowing joy of Mary at the cradle of the new-born Saviour. The Mater Dolorosa is a Good Friday hymn, and sings the piercing agony of Mary at the cross of her divine human Son. They breathe the same love to Christ, and the burning desire to become identified with Mary by sympathy in the intensity of her joy as in the intensity of her grief. They are the same in structure, and excel alike in the Angularly touching music of language, and the soft cadence that echoes the sentiment. Both consist of two parts, the first of which describes the objective situation; the second identifies the author with the situation, and addresses the Virgin as an object of worship. Both bear the impress of their age and the monastic order which probably gave them birth. The mysterious charm and power of the two hymns are due to the subject and to the intensity of feeling with which the author seized it. Mary at the manger, and Mary at the cross, opens a vista to an abyss of joy and of grief such as the world never saw before. Mary stood there not only as the mother, but as the representative of the whole Christian church, for which the eternal Son of God was born an infant in the manger, and for which he suffered the most ignominious death on the cross.