Monday, April 22, 2019

Medieval Vespers of Easter

In the Breviary of St Pius V, Vespers of Easter Sunday and the days within the octave present only one peculiarity, namely, that the Chapter and Hymn are replaced by the words of Psalm 117, “Haec dies quam fecit Dominus; exsultemus et laetemur in ea. – This is the day that the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice therein.” In the Office, this is labelled an “antiphon”, but it is really the first part of the Gradual of the Mass, and is also sung at Lauds and the minor Hours.

The vast majority of medieval liturgical Uses, however, apart from those of the monastic orders, had a special form of Vespers which was used only in this week. I will summarize it broadly here (without giving every detail) from the critical edition of the Sarum Breviary published by Francis Procter and Christopher Wordsworth in 1882, since the rubrics of the Sarum liturgical books are generally more complete than those of others Uses. There were a great many variants to this ceremony, far too many to note here, but the basic outline is the same from one Use to another.

A page of a Dominican Breviary printed at Venice in 1477; Vespers of Easter Sunday begins in the 10th line of the left column. Although the Kyrie in place of ‘Deus in adjutorium’ at the beginning is one of the most consistent features of these Vespers, it was later removed from the Dominican Use, as were the verse of the gradual, the alleluia, and the sequence.
Essentially, the first part of these Vespers corresponds in form to the Mass of the Catechumens, with the psalmody representing the Epistle, and the Magnificat representing the Gospel. The chants which are sung between the Epistle and Gospel in the Mass are repeated between the Psalms and the Magnificat, with certain variations. The second part consists of a series of processions: first to the baptismal font, which is the most important part of the ceremony, and its raison d’être, then “ad crucem”, which is to say, to a chapel with a Crucifix as its main feature, where Masses for the Dead were traditionally said, and then to a chapel of the Virgin Mary. (At Sarum, where the cathedral itself was dedicated to the Virgin, this last part was done as the procession returned to the main choir.)

At the beginning, the customary “Deus in adjutorium” is replaced by the Kyrie of the Mass Lux et origo, which is given as Mass I in the modern Liber Usualis. The first three psalms of Sunday Vespers, 109, 110 and 111, are sung with a single antiphon consisting of four Alleluias, followed by the gradual and alleluia of the Mass. The second part of the gradual varies from day to day, just as it does at the Mass; the alleluia is often different from that of the day’s Mass, or made longer by the addition of a second verse. In many Uses, but not that of Sarum, the sequence Victimae Paschali was said as well. There follow the Magnificat with its antiphon, and a prayer, in the customary manner.

At this point, the procession to the baptismal font is formed in the following order: the cross-bearer, two acolytes carrying candles, the thurifer, two deacons who carry the holy oil and the chrism, a server to carry the book, and the celebrant, followed by the leaders of the choir (called “rectors” at Sarum), and the rest of the clergy. A rubric of the Sarum Breviary notes that it was not their custom to carry the Paschal candle at the head of this procession, indicating that this was certainly done elsewhere.

Before the procession starts, the rectors intone an antiphon, “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia,” which is completed by the choir. They then begin the fourth psalm of Sunday Vespers, 112; one “Alleluia” is sung after each verse, and the procession begins moving after the first verse is completed. It makes it way to the baptismal font, where the first verse of the psalm and then the antiphon are repeated, and the font is incensed, after which the celebrant sings a versicle, the choir sings the response, and the celebrant sings a prayer. Many Uses added the Vidi aquam to this part of the ceremony.

The Baptistery of St John in the Lateran in Rome, photographed by William Henry Goodyear (1846-1923); from the Brooklyn Museum archives via Wikimedia Commons. (The current baptismal font of Salisbury Cathedral is comically hideous.)
The procession then goes to the chapel of the Cross, while singing the fifth psalm of Sunday Vespers, 113, repeating an antiphon of just one “Alleluia” after each verse. (In many places, Psalm 113 was sung while processing to the font together with Psalm 112, and a responsory was sung here instead.) The Cross is likewise incensed, followed by another versicle, response and prayer.

The procession then returned to the main choir, while singing a Marian antiphon, also followed by another versicle and prayer; at Sarum, this antiphon varied each day of the octave, while in other Uses, such as that of the Dominicans, the Regina caeli was sung every day. At the end, Benedicamus Domino and Deo gratias are sung with two Alleluias as in the Roman Rite.

It should be obvious that this ritual had its origins in the very ancient days of the Church, when the newly baptized would return each day of the Easter octave to the font where they had been reborn in Christ on the eve of Holy Saturday. The eminently baptismal character of the ceremony also explains why it is not in the Roman Breviary, a form of the Office originally used in the chapel of the Papal court, which was not a parish, and hence had neither catechumens nor a font. In fact, the Ordinal of Pope Innocent III, which lays out this form of the Office in the early 13th century, contains a rubric noting that Vespers of Easter was done in a completely different manner in the Lateran Basilica from that done in the Papal chapel. This is also why we find that in the Dominican Use, the entire portion which was sung while processing to the font (Psalms 112 and 113) is simply dropped, since the earliest Dominican churches would not have been parishes, and hence not had baptismal fonts.

The most common variant of this rite, as noted above, was the singing of a responsory while processing to chapel of the Cross, instead of Psalm 113 as at Sarum. This beautiful text is attributed to King Robert II of France (972-1031), also known as Robert the Pious.

R. Christus resurgens a mortuis jam non moritur, mors illi ultra non dominabitur: * Quod enim vivit, vivit Deo, alleluia, alleluia. V. Dicant nunc Judaei, quomodo milites custodientes sepulchrum perdiderunt Regem ad lapidis positionem: quare non servabant petram justitiae? Aut sepultum reddant, aut resurgentem adorent nobiscum, dicentes: Quod enim vivit.

R. Christ rising again from the dead, dieth now no longer, death shall no longer have dominion over Him: * For in that He liveth, He liveth unto God, alleluia, alleluia. V. Let the Jews now say how the soldiers that guarded the tomb lost the King where the stone was laid: why did they not keep the stone of justice? Let them either give back Him that was buried, or with us adore Him as he riseth, saying: For in that He liveth…

To catalog of all the variants of this ceremony found in medieval liturgical Uses would be a truly Herculean task, since there do not seem to be two cathedrals in all of Europe that did it in quite the same way. One more text, this remarkable antiphon from the Use of Paris, calls for particular notice; the very simple rubrics of the Parisian Breviary of 1492 simply say that it was sung “ad crucem.”

Aña Ego sum Alpha et Ω, (omega) primus et novissimus, initium et finis, qui ante mundi principium et in saeculum saeculi vivo in aeternum. Manus meae, quae vos fecerunt, clavis confixae sunt; propter vos flagellis caesus sum, spinis coronatus sum; aquam petii pendens, et acetum porrexerunt; in escam meam fel dederunt et in latus lanceam; mortuus et sepultus, resurrexi, vobiscum sum. Videte, quia ego ipse sum et non est Deus praeter me, alleluia.

Aña I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and last, the beginning and the end, who before the beginning of the world, and unto all ages live forever. My hands, which made ye, were fixed with nails; for ye I was scourged, I was crowned with thorns; as I hung, I asked for water, and they offered vinegar. They gave Me gal for food, and a spear in My side. Being dead and buried, I rose, I am with ye. See that it is I, and there is no God beside me, alleluia.

The reliquary of the Crown of Thorns, by Viollet-Le-Duc in 1862 and preserved at Notre-Dame de Paris. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by PHGCOM.) The cross before which the antiphon given above was said during Easter Vespers was probably destroyed during the French Revolution.

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