Have you ever heard of the Stabat Mater speciosa, the joyful Marian hymn that contrasts the sorrowful Stabat Mater dolorosa?
Catholics are of course familiar with the Stabat Mater dolorosa (At the Cross her station keeping stood the mournful Mother weeping), the sequence for the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady and the hymn sung during the Stations of the Cross. This Marian hymn focuses on the sorrowful sentiments of Our Lady while witnessing her Divine Son’s Passion.
However, many are perhaps unaware of the contrasting Marian song, Stabat Mater speciosa (The beautiful Mother stood joyously at the crib), considered by some to be one of the seven greatest Latin hymns of all time.
Taking its inspiration from the Gospel accounts, the Speciosa gives an account of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s joyful reaction to the Nativity of the Divine Babe. Thus, this Marian hymn is an admirable parallel of the sorrowful Dolorosa—just like the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary are "the other side of the coin" for the Joyful Mysteries.
This Latin poem in tribute of the Blessed Mother dates from the 13th century and has been generally attributed to the Italian Franciscan poet, Fr. Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306). While his authorship of this Marian hymn has not been proven beyond a doubt, in consideration of the Franciscan’s general devotion to Our Lord’s Incarnation (stemming from their saintly founder’s love of His great humility and poverty), this would seem certainly probable.
In connection with this point, it might interest our readers to learn that this same devotion of the Franciscans was the cause of two particular practices being introduced (and later codified in 1570) into the Roman Mass:
- the genuflection of celebrant during the Credo at the phrase “Et incarnatus est…”.
- the inclusion of the Last Gospel, or Prologue of St. John (a historical account of Our Lord’s birth), also containing a genuflection for a similar verse about Christ’s incarnation.
In addition to an excerpt about both the Stabats, we offer below the Latin verses of the lesser-known Speciosa, as well as three modern compositions that have put these words to music.
Stabat Mater speciosa
Cuius animam gaudentem
O quam laeta et beata
Quae gaudebat et ridebat,
Quis est, qui non gauderet,
Quis non posset collaetari,
Pro peccatis suae gentis
Vidit suum dulcem natum
Nati Christus in praesepe
Stabat senex cum puella
Eia Mater, fons amoris
Fac, ut ardeat cor meum
Sancta Mater, istud agas,
Tui nati coelo lapsi,
Fac me tecum congaudere
In me sistat ardor tui
Hunc ardorem fac communem,
Virgo virginum praeclara,
Fac, ut portem pulchrum fortem
Fac me tecum satiari,
Inflammatus et accensus
Fac me nato custodiri
Quando corpus morietur,
The beautiful Mother
Through her exultant soul
O how jubilant and blessed
O how happy and laughing
Who would not rejoice
Who would not jubilant too
For the sins of His people
She saw her sweet offspring
For just-born Christ in his crib
The old man stood at his young wife
Oh Mother, fountain of love
Make my heart burn
Blessed Mother, be not harsh
With your child from heaven
Make me rejoice with you,
May your ardour fill me
Familiarize me with this ardour
Virgin, most exalted among virgins,
Let me have the strength of him,
Let me be with you fulfilled,
Thus aflame with fire of love,
May the first-born protect me,
When my body dies,
Entry from The Catholic Encyclopedia
An edition of the Italian poems of Jacopone published at Brescia in 1495 contained both Stabats; but the Speciosa fell into almost complete oblivion until A.F. Ozanam transcribed it from a 15th-century manuscript in the Bibliotheque Nationale for his Poetes Franciscains en Italie au Treizieme siecle, Paris, 1852.
He thought Jacopone had composed both Stabats at the same time; and remarking of the Dolorosa that "this incomparable work would have sufficed for the glory of Jacopone", he confesses that he gave up the attempt to translate the Speciosa in verse, and concluded to present both hymns in simple prose, because "the untranslatable charm of the language, of the melody, and of the old quaintness, I feel are escaping me".
The Anglican hymnologist, Dr. J. M. Neale, introduced the Speciosa to the English-speaking world in 1866, and ascribed it to Jacopone. Dr. Schaff dissents. "This is improbable. A poet would hardly write a parody on a poem of his own."
Noting the unfinished style and the imperfect rhyme of the Speciosa, Neale thought it indicated the work of an apprentice shaping his hand to the work of Latin verse—in which case it must have preceded the Dolorosa, which is a perfect piece of work. Schaff, however, points out that the opening words of the Dolorosa were borrowed from the Vulgate Latin (John 19:25) "with reference to Mary at the Cross, but not at the Cradle", and also that the sixth line, "Pertransivit gladius", might have suggested the similar line of the Speciosa, "Pertransivit jubilus", but not vice versa. Coles doubts "a simultaneous birth, or even a common parentage".
In his "Essay on Minor Rites and Ceremonies" Cardinal Wiseman seized on the parallelism of contrast in the two poems—similarity of form and phrase, and complete antithesis of theme and thought. Finally, it should be said that the great ruggedness of the Speciosa may be due to the carelessness of copyists.
Some musical selections available on YOUTUBE: