Friday, April 03, 2020

The Stabat Mater and the Feast of the Seven Sorrows

From 1727 to 1960, the Friday of Passion week was kept on the general calendar of the Roman Rite as the feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary. This devotion originated in German-speaking lands in the early 15th-century, partly as a response to the iconoclasm of the Hussites, and partly out of the universal popular devotion to every aspect of Christ’s Passion, including the presence of His Mother, and thence to Her grief over the Passion. It was known by several different titles, and kept on a wide variety of dates. Before the name “Seven Sorrows” became common, it was most often called “the feast of the Virgin’s Compassion”, which is to say, of Her suffering together with Christ as She beheld the Passion. This title was retained well into the 20th century by the Dominicans, who also had an Office for it which was quite different from the Roman one, although the Mass was the same. It also appears in many missals of the 15th to 17th centuries only as a votive Mass, with no corresponding feast; this was the case at Sarum, where it is called “Compassionis sive Lamentationis B.M.V.” Its popularity continued to grow in the Tridentine period, until Pope Benedict XIII finally extended it to the whole of the Roman Rite in 1727.

The Virgin of Sorrows; the central panel of the Van Belle triptych by Pieter Poubus (1523 ca. - 1580); in the church of St James in Bruges, Belgium. There were different traditions as to which events in Our Lady’s life counted as Her Seven Sorrows; here they are (clockwise from lower left) the Circumcision, the Flight into Egypt, losing the Child Jesus, meeting Christ on the road to Calvary, the Crucifixion, the deposition from the Cross, and the entombment. The Roman version of the Passiontide feast contains no specific list. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
One of the greatest treasures of Latin hymnody, the Stabat Mater, is sung in two different forms on the feast. (Text and translation here.) Divided into three sections, it was sung as the hymn of Vespers, Matins, Lauds; in Italy, this version, in the 6th mode, is still very often sung when the Via Crucis is done. The same text is also sung with a different melody in the 2nd mode, as a Sequence in the Mass.

It was also commonly used as a motet for the ceremonies and devotions of Holy Week; Josquin des Prez’s version is one of the finest among pre-Tridentine composers.
Palestrina’s version was composed a few years before his death in 1594, and traditionally sung on Palm Sunday in Rome.

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