Where did the Stabat Mater come from?

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Most of us know it because it's widely sung during the Stations of the Cross. 

Known as the Stabat Mater Dolorosa ("The Sorrowful Mother Stood"), this medieval hymn is referenced as early as 1388. It was utilized as a liturgical sequence at Mass until the Council of Trent (1545-1563) suppressed this usage along with hundreds of other sequences. It returned to the Roman Missal in 1727 and was recommended for the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows on September 15. Most of us know it because it's widely sung during the Stations of the Cross. Yet its authorship is uncertain.

Among those proposed as the composer of the Stabat Mater was Saint Bonaventure (1221-1274), a doctor of the church. Since the Stations of the Cross were a Franciscan invention [see article "Where do the Stations of the Cross come from?"], it seemed plausible that an eloquent Franciscan might be its author. Pope Innocent III, who gave authorization to Francis of Assisi to begin his order, was also proposed as the writer, with less evidence. One of the Popes Gregory (just which one remains unspecified) and Pope John XXII have likewise been asserted by various period writers as composers of Stabat Mater. These speculations are no better than hearsay.

The most popular contestant was Jacopone da Todi (ca. 1230-1306), a Franciscan brother. Jacopone joined the Franciscans after the sudden loss of his wife in an accident. He was a poet and dramatist known for the composition of many laudireligious songs and poems—as well as theatrical presentations of the gospel. 

Unhappily, Jacopone got swept up in a Franciscan controversy. After the death of Francis, many of his order were keen to relax the rule of absolute poverty. As Franciscans became more involved in apostolic work, some preferred to follow other religious orders in the acquisition of land and housing. A "Spirituals" faction, meanwhile, were repulsed by what they viewed as a sell-out of their ideal. The Spirituals broke from the order, and were excommunicated by Pope John XXII (a competitor with Jacopone as the source of Stabat Mater). Jacopone was imprisoned for writing poems criticizing his opponents—including the pope. A later pope freed him, and the Franciscans reclaimed Jacopone's body after death. These days Jacopone hovers near sainthood. But his penning of the Stabat Mater was thrown into question when a predated copy was found in the prayerbook of some 13th-century Dominican nuns.

Whoever wrote it, the Stabat Mater has enjoyed more than 60 English translations. It's been set to music more than 50 times, including by Vivaldi, Haydn, Schubert, Liszt, Dvoršák, and Verdi—and most recently, by James MacMillan in 2015. 

Scriptures: Luke 2:33-35; John 19:25-27

Book: Stabat Mater: The Mystery Hymn, by Desmond Fisher (Gracewing Publishing, 2015)

E-Resource: The Ultimate Stabat Mater Website - It compares multiple translations of the ancient hymn line by line.  

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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