Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Sub Tuum Praesidium

Guest article by Henri de Villiers, Paris

The Sub tuum praesidium is probably the oldest Christian prayer dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This prayer was long used in both Eastern and Western rites, even if numerous variants existed at the time. In 1917, the John Rylands Library in Manchester managed to acquire a large panel of Egyptian papyrus -- the exact area where they were discovered is unknown -- including an 18 cm by 9.4 cm fragment containing the text of this prayer in Greek.

I. An Egyptian Papyrus of the Third Century

C.H. Roberts published this document in 1938 (cf. Catalogue of the Greek and Latin Papyri in the John Rylands Library, III, Theological and literacy Texts, Manchester 1938, pp. 46-47). Roberts then dated this piece of papyrus back to the fourth century, thinking it was impossible to find an invocation to the Theotokos before this century (we will however see below, that the expression Theotokos was already in use in Alexandria before 250).

However his colleague E. Lobel, with whom he collaborated in editing the Oxyrhynchus papyri, basing his arguments on pure paleographic analysis, argued that the text could not possibly be older than the third century, and most probably was written between 250 and 280. A contributor to Roberts, H.J. Bell, even said that this document might be a "model for an engraver" considering the beauty of the uncials. The Sub tuum praesidium thus precedes by several centuries the Ave Maria in Christian prayer.

On the papyrus, we can read:
That is this greek text:
Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν
Θεοτὸκε· τὰς ἡμῶν
ἱκεσίας μὴ παρ-
ίδῃς ἐν περιστάσει
ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνου
λύτρωσαι ἡμᾶς
μόνη ἁγνὴ
μόνη εὐλογημένη.
A literal Latin version might be:
Sub tuam
Dei Genitrix ! nostras
deprecationes ne des-
picias in necessitatibus
sed a perditione
salva nos
sola pura,
sola benedicta.
And an English translation could be:
Under your
we take refuge,
Mother of God! Our
prayers, do not despise
in necessities,
but from the danger
deliver us,
only pure,
only blessed.

II. A Prayer of Great Value

Like all ancient liturgical prayers, the Sub tuum praesidium has a noble simplicity and conciseness of expression, combined with a fresh spontaneity.

Several biblical references may be seen, the last term, "blessed", referring to Elizabeth's salutation: Benedicta tu in mulieribus - Blessed art thou among women (Luke I, 42).

Historical Value

The supplication to the Virgin Mary by the Christian community in danger places, without doubt, the invocation in the context of persecution (of Valerian or of Decius).

Theological Value

A first remarkable point resides in the fact that the Egyptian Christian community turns directly to Mary and asks for her protection. Christians have realized that the Virgin is close to their suffering and asked her help explicitly, thereby recognizing the power of her intercession.

Three fundamental theological truths are admirably synthesized:

1. The special election of Mary by God ("only blessed").
2. The perpetual Virginity of Mary ("only pure").
3. The Divine Motherhood ("Mother of God"; "Mother" may be considered as a poor translation of Genitrix).

The designation of Mary as Theotokos during the third century, therefore two hundred years before the arguments linked to the theses of Nestorius -- an issue resolved by the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 -- already created problems for C.H. Roberts, the editor of the Egyptian text as stated above. One must realize that the term Theotokos ("Dei Genetrix") is not an invention of the fifth century.

During the fourth century, the term was already quite popular in the area of Alexandria (St. Alexander of Alexandria, St. Athanasius, St. Serapion of Thmuis, Didymus the Blind), and also in Arabia (Tite of Bostra), in Palestine (Eusebius of Caesarea, St. Cyril of Jerusalem), Cappadocia (St. Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzen, Severian of Gabala) and even among the Arians (Asterius the Sophist).

Moreover, the term may be encountered during the third century, precisely in the work of the Alexandrian school. According to the testimony of the ecclesiastical historian Socrates (Hist. Eccl. VII, 32 - PG 67, 812 B), Origen would have used it in his commentary -- unfortunately lost -- on the Epistle to the Romans. His disciple, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, also used the term of Theotokos around the year 250 in an epistle to Paul of Samosata. It is interesting to note that the term did not remain a mere theological concept, considering that it received a liturgical dimension in Egypt during the same period. However, it is difficult to determine if it is the theological discourse that influenced the liturgical prayer, or vice versa.

Still, one can better understand the extraordinary pugnacity of St. Cyril of Alexandria against the Nestorian theses in the fifth century, since obviously, the term Theotokos was already part of the deposit of the faith lived and sung in the liturgy of Alexandria for quite some time.

Versions of the Text

Besides the Greek text, ancient versions can be found in Coptic, Syriac, Armenian and Latin.

Regarding the latter, the version used by the Roman rite was surely done directly from the Coptic version of the text (as in the case of the Coptic text, it uses the term praesidium instead of misericordia) without really referring to the Greek text. The Ambrosian form of the text depends much more on the Byzantine tradition.

The Roman text:
Sub tuum
sancta Dei Genitrix :
nostras deprecationes
ne despicias
in necessitatibus,
sed a periculis cunctis
libera nos semper,
Virgo gloriosa
et benedicta.
The Ambrosian text:
Sub tuam
Dei Génitrix :
ut nostram deprecatiónem
ne indúcas
in tentatiónem,
sed de perículo
líbera nos,
sola casta
et benedícta.
A literal translation of the Roman text:
Under your
we take refuge
Holy Mother of God;
our petitions,
do not despise
in necessities,
but of all dangers
deliver us always
glorious Virgin
& Blessed.
A literal translation of the Ambrosian text:
Under your
we take refuge
Mother of God;
may our petitions
not be abandoned
into temptation,
but from danger
deliver us,
only pure
& blessed.

In the Roman text the adjective "gloriosa" replaced "casta"; it is a later interpolation. This expression is absent from the oldest extant example of the text (the Antiphonary of Compiègne) and also in the Dominican version; both only say Virgo benedicta. The musical phrasing also affected the sense of the Roman text, wrongly attributing "semper" to "libera nos" when it should clearly be attributed to "Virgo": we should read "libera nos, semper Virgo" instead of "libera nos semper, Virgo". French musicologist Amédée Gastoué (1873 † 1943) thought that the change in allocation of "ever" was made in the Roman antiphon to fit in a preexisting musical phrase, possibly an Eastern one. The Ambrosian text also has an interpolation of the Greek text: "ne inducas in tentationem" -- a clear influence of the Lord's Prayer -- has replaced "ne despicias in necessitate".

Spread and Liturgical Use

The antiphon was used in the Coptic liturgy at Vespers during Christmas time. It is also known in the Byzantine, Roman and Ambrosian rites. In each of these rites, though venerable and ancient, the Sub tuum praesidium has a discreet, humble, even marginal place. Yet despite this modest place within the liturgy, the piety of faithful Christians has always held this venerable prayer in high esteem in both East and West, even before its great antiquity was known by the analysis of the papyrus of the Rylands collection.

* In the Byzantine rite:

The Sub tuum is sung during Vespers in Lent in the middle of the final prayers after 3 troparia: the Ave Maria, a Troparion to St. John the Baptist, and a Troparion to the Holy Apostles. This place assimilates the text to the role of an apolytikion troparion which changes each day during the rest of the year. The apolytikia troparia are related to the singing of the Canticle of Simeon, which begins with the words in Greek Νῦν ἀπολύεις (Nunc dimittis). It is very likely that this series of fixed troparia at the end of Vespers during Lent represents an old state of the rite. Variable troparia were probably substituted for them for other days of the year. Moreover, the Horologion Grottaferrata seems to assign them at the end of ferial Vespers also during the year (Horologion, Rome 1876, p. 104).

In the Russian tradition, the Sub tuum praesidium is often sung for devotion, even outside of Lent, with the addition of the invocation "Пресвѧтаѧ Богородице спаси насъ" ("Most Holy Mother of God, save us") added to the end. Russian believers are very attached to this troparion. Parishes still widely use the text that predates the liturgical reforms of Patriarch Nikon in 1586; this fact is a clear sign of the strength of this attachment (such an attachment to the pre-Nikonian version is not observed for any other famous pieces of the repertoire - for example the Easter Troparion or "More honorable than the Cherubim").

The "Old Believers" text:
Подъ твою милость,
прибѣгаемъ богородице дѣво,
молитвъ нашихъ не презри в скорбѣхъ.
но ѿ бѣдъ избави насъ,
едина чистаѧ и благословеннаѧ.
The reformed text by Nikon:
Подъ твое благѹтробїе
прибѣгаемъ Богородице,
моленїѧ наша не презри во ωбстоѧнїй,
но ѿ бѣдъ исбави ны,
едина Чистаѧ, едина Благословеннаѧ.

Here is the reformed version of Nikon in Slavonic writing:

Among the polyphonic settings, Dimitri Bortniansky's version is the most in favor. Here is a great interpretation:

Our prayer is currently unknown in the Syriac and Armenian liturgies, or only by the Latin influence in the Uniate churches (the Maronites use it with the Litany of Loreto).

* In the Ambrosian rite:

In the Ambrosian rite this piece is sung as the 19th antiphon of the procession of the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin on Feb. 2, a procession of 21 antiphons, many of which are originally Greek. It's music is similar to that of a Roman second tone. The 20th antiphon of the procession, that follows, presents a text quite similar to the previous one and is built on the same melody:

It seems very likely that this antiphon, introduced in the Ambrosian rite for this procession, was of Oriental origin (remember, Pope St. Sergius I, born in Antioch, is said to have brought the procession of Candlemas from the East to Rome).

However, the antiphon has been reused in other parts of the Ambrosian liturgy. In the Middle Ages, the antiphon is a litanic psallenda for the sixth Sunday of Advent (according to the codex T 103 Sup. from the Bibliotheca Ambrosiana). Today it also used as the Antiphona Post Evangelium for the two votive Masses (ferial and solemn) of the Holy Virgin on Saturdays. Two feasts, on July 16 (Our Lady of Mount Carmel) and August 5 (Dedication of St. Maria-ad-Nives), employ both pieces of the votive Mass on Saturdays, and therefore also have it as Antiphona Post Evangelium. The singing of this antiphon was favoured by the people of Milan.

* In the Roman rite:

The Sub tuum praesidium is used as an antiphon at the Nunc Dimittis for Compline of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin. Here is the plain-song of tone VII, from the Roman Antiphonal of 1912:

More anecdotally, the Sub tuum praesidium is quoted as verse of the fifth responsory of the second nocturn of the feast of the Motherhood of the Virgin on October 11th, a feast instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1931 to celebrate the 15th centennial of the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus.

Historically, the oldest extant example of the use of Sub tuum in the Roman rite is found in the antiphonal of Compiègne (from the 9th-10th century), which provides it among the Benedictus antiphons for the Feast of the Assumption (Migne, PL 78, 799).

* In the Dominican rite:

As in the Roman liturgy, the Dominican rite also uses the Sub tuum as an antiphon for the Nunc dimittis at Compline for several feasts of the Virgin and at the office on Saturdays. The brothers kneel for the singing the antiphon after the Nunc dimittis. Here are the plainsong and the rubrics from the book of Compline of 1949:

The list of feasts where the Sub tuum is used was originally smaller, as we can see in the antiphonal of 1862:

* In the Monastic use:

The antiphon is for devotional use. Here is the Sub tuum as contained in the Appendix of the Antiphonale Monasticum of Solesmes published in 1934:

* In the other Western uses and the piety of the faithful:

The former medieval and post-medieval practice in several dioceses, especially in France, was to use the Sub tuum as the final antiphon at Compline -- as in the rite of Paris until the 19th century -- instead of the Salve Regina, by devotion.

Outside the strict frame of the liturgy, piety favoured the ancient prayer. Dom André Wilmart published in 1932 a curious medieval Office in honour of the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary which is attributed to Innocent IV (Authors spiritual, Paris, 1932, pp. 518, 523-26), in which the Sub tuum praesidium is the opening prayer of every hour instead of the Pater or the Ave Maria.

In modern times the Salesians used it in honor of Mary Help of Christians, while the Jesuits employed it for their exercises of piety in common.

In France, the catechism sessions organized by the Fathers of Christian Doctrine or the Jesuits included prayers easy to sing by children, among them the Sub tuum. Thus, Marc-Antoine Charpentier wrote his Sub tuum praesidium (H. 352) to be sung as "second motet for catechism, for the middle break." Here is its elegant melody:

Still in France from the nineteenth century onwards, the Sub tuum is frequently used for benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The Sub tuum is often associated with the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, as, for example, in the ordo of the procession made for the vow of Louis XIII in the proper of the diocese of Paris. Many old French liturgical books present the Sub tuum in a beautiful plainsong melody of the tone II. Here it is, taken from an edition of Digne of 1858:


At the end of this small study of comparative liturgy, it is interesting to track that this Egyptian antiphon of the third century has remained consistently linked to the end of Evening prayer, as we have seen in the Byzantine liturgy and in the Roman liturgy; the sung context of this piece is related to the end of the evening service and more specifically to the singing of the Canticle of Simeon (a hymn which is also at the heart of the feast of the Purification). From the trusting abandonment into the hands of Divine Providence that the Canticle of Simeon proclaims (Now Thou dost dismiss Thy servant, O Lord, according to Thy word in peace), the piety of the faithful have added the same confident abandonment into the protection of our Heavenly Mother.

A partial indulgence is attached to the recitation of the Sub tuum praesidium.

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