Thursday, March 25, 2021

The Annunciation 2021: Dante and the Virgin Mary

This year, Italy is having a series of special celebrations to honor the great poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) on the 7th centenary of his death. The precise date of his birth (sometime in late spring) is unknown, but this Saturday, March 27th, is the anniversary of his baptism, which took place during the Easter vigil of 1266. The language which we call “Italian” today originated as the dialect of his native region of Tuscany (more specifically, of the city of Florence, but with some small differences), essentially because of his best known work, The Divine Comedy, along with those of two other Tuscans, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) and Francesco Petrarch (1304-74).

In the final cantos of the Divine Comedy (Paradiso 31-33), Dante is guided to the final vision of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” by St Bernard of Clairvaux, who at the opening of canto 33, delivers this beautiful prayer to the Virgin Mary. (Translation by Alan Mandelbaum.)

“Virgin mother, daughter of your Son,
more humble and sublime than any creature,
fixed goal decreed from all eternity,

you are the one who gave to human nature
so much nobility that its Creator
did not disdain His being made its creature.

That love whose warmth allowed this flower to bloom
within the everlasting peace—was love
rekindled in your womb; for us above,

you are the noonday torch of charity,
and there below, on earth, among the mortals,
you are a living spring of hope.

Lady, you are so high, you can so intercede,
that he who would have grace but does not seek
your aid, may long to fly but has no wings.

Your loving-kindness does not only answer
the one who asks, but it is often ready
to answer freely long before the asking.

In you compassion is, in you is pity,
in you is generosity, in you
is every goodness found in any creature.”
An illustration of the Divine Comedy by Giovanni di Paolo (1403 ca. - 1482), in a manuscript now in the British Library. At the left, Beatrice, Dante’s guide through heaven, introduces him to St Bernard, while at the right, the Angel Gabriel speaks to the Virgin Mary; below them are St Peter and St Anne. (Paradiso XXXII, 133-135; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
In his encyclical In Praeclara Summorum, written for the 6th centenary in 1921, Pope Benedict XV beautifully sums up this passage as follows: “in this poem shines out the majesty of God One and Three, the Redemption of the human race wrought by the Word of God made Man, the supreme loving-kindness and charity of Mary, Virgin and Mother, Queen of Heaven, and lastly the glory on high of Angels, Saints and men.”

Fr Anselmo Lentini OSB (1901-89), a monk of Monte Cassino and a skilled Latinist, led the subcommittee which revised the Latin hymns of the Liturgy of the Hours. It cannot be denied that they made many questionable decisions in their collective work, not the least of which is that Lentini himself became the single most represented author in the new corpus, by a margin of four-to-one over second-place Prudentius, and almost five-to-one over third-place St Ambrose. However, one of his best ideas was to translate this text into Latin, so it could be used as a hymn for the Saturday Office of the Virgin; the first part, which is assigned to Matins, would also be highly appropriate for today’s feast. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any recording of it available, but the meter is such that it could easily be sung with same music as the traditional hymns of the Virgin Mary for Matins and Lauds, or any other music that fits the 8-syllable iambic dimeter.
Here is the Latin text, and a prose translation.

O Virgo Mater, Filia
tui beata Filii,
sublimis et humillima
præ creaturis omnibus,

Divini tu consilii
fixus ab aevo terminus,
tu decus et fastigium
naturæ nostræ maximum:

Quam sic prompsisti nobilem,
ut summus eius Conditor
in ipsa per te fieret
arte miranda conditus.

In utero virgineo
amor revixit igneus,
cuius calore germinant
flores in terra cælici.

Patri sit et Paraclito
tuoque Nato gloria,
qui veste te mirabili
circumdederunt gratiæ. Amen.
O Virgin Mother, blessed daughter of Thy Son, exalted and most humble above all creatures, Thou art the goal of the divine counsel, fixed from eternity; Thou are the glory and highest dignity of our nature, which Thou didst manifest so noble that its Maker Most High, by marvelous design, through Thee became part of it. In the virginal womb that fiery love so revived by whose heat the flowers of heaven bud forth upon the earth. To the Father and the Paraclete and to Thy Son be glory, who clothed Thee in a wondrous garment of grace. Amen.
The second part is assigned to Lauds, and concludes with the same doxology.
Quæ caritatis fulgidum
es astrum, Virgo, superis,
spei nobis mortalibus
fons vivax es et profluus.

Sic vales, celsa Domina,
in Nati cor piissimi,
ut qui fidenter postulat,
per te securus impetret.

Opem tua benignitas
non solum fert poscentibus,
sed et libenter sæpius
precantum vota prævenit.

In te misericordia,
in te magnificentia;
tu bonitatis cumulas
quicquid creata possident.
Who art the gleaming star of charity, o Virgin, for those on high; for us mortals, the living and flowing font of hope. Such power Thou hast, o exalted Lady, over the most loving heart of Thy Son that he who asks with confidence surely obtaineth through Thee. Thy kindliness bringeth aid not only to them that ask, but often and willingly comes before their prayers. In Thee are mercy and magnanimity; Thou dost heap goodness on whatever any created thing possesseth.
Perhaps the most famous painting of the Annunciation by a Tuscan artist, a fresco of Fra Angelico in the convent of San Marco, the second Dominican church of Florence, 1442. 
In Purgatory X, 34-45, Dante describes a sculpted image of the Annunciation which he sees on the first ledge, where the vice Pride is cured (again in Mandelbaum’s translation).

The angel who reached earth with the decree
of that peace which, for many years, had been
invoked with tears, the peace that opened Heaven

after long interdict, appeared before us,
his gracious action carved with such precision,
he did not seem to be a silent image.

One would have sworn that he was saying, “Ave”;
for in that scene there was the effigy
of one who turned the key that had unlocked

the highest love; and in her stance there were
impressed these words, “Ecce ancilla Dei,”
precisely like a figure stamped in wax.
Perhaps the most famous sculpture of the Annunciation by a Tuscan artist, a work of Donatello known as the Cavalcanti Annunciation, in the Franciscan church of the Holy Cross in Florence, ca. 1435. The grey sandstone known as “pietra serena” is partly gilded; originally made for the now-lost tomb of the Cavalcanti family, this is one of the artist’s very few works still in its original location.

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