Vexilla Regis

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Foreword[edit]

The "Vexilla Regis" is a Latin hymn in long metre by the Christian poet Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers. It takes its title from its opening stanza:

Vexilla regis prodeunt,
fulget crucis mysterium,
quo carne carnis conditor
suspensus est patibulo.
The banners of the king issue forth,
the mystery of the cross does gleam,
where the creator of flesh, in the flesh,
by the cross-bar is hung.

History[edit]

The hymn was first sung in the procession (November 19, 569) when a relic of the True Cross, sent by the Byzantine Emperor Justin II from the East at the request of St. Radegunda, was carried in great pomp from Tours to her monastery of Saint-Croix at Poitiers. Its original processional use is commemorated in the Roman Missal on Good Friday, when the Blessed Sacrament is carried in procession from the Repository to the High Altar. Its principal use however, is in the Divine Office, the Roman Breviary assigning it to Vespers from the Saturday before Passion Sunday daily to Maundy Thursday, and to Vespers of feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14), and in pre-Vatican II breviary also for the feast of the Finding (May 3), and of the Triumph of the Holy Cross (July 16).

Textual variations[edit]

Originally the hymn comprised eight stanzas. In the tenth century, stanzas 7 and 8 were gradually replaced by new ones ("O crux ave, spes unica", and the doxology, "Te summa Deus trinitas"), although they were still retained in some places.

In the seventeenth century the correctors of the Breviary under Urban VIII revised the whole hymn in the interest of classical prosody. The Commission on Commission on Plain Chant under Pius X restored the ancient form of the text. The Graduale Romanum (1908) gives only the ancient form of the hymn, while the Antiphonary (2012) gives only the revised form. The Processionale (1911) gives both forms.[1]

Original text (strophes 1, 6 & 7)

Vexilla regis prodeunt:
Fulget crucis mysterium
Quo carne carnis conditor,
Suspensus est patibulo.

O Crux ave, spes unica,
Hoc passionis tempore
Auge piis justitiam,
Reisque dona veniam.

Te, summa Deus Trinitas,
Collaudet omnes spiritus:
Quos per crucis mysterium
Salvas, rege per saecula. Amen.
[2]

The Royal Banner forward goes,
The mystic Cross refulgent glows:
Where He, in Flesh, flesh who made,
Upon the Tree of pain is laid.

O Cross! all hail! sole hope, abide
With us now in this Passion-tide:
New grace in pious hearts implant,
And pardon to the guilty grant.

Thee, mighty Trinity! One God!
Let every living creature laud;
Whom by the Cross Thou dost deliver,
O guide and govern now and ever! Amen.[3]

Revised text (strophes 1, 6 & 7)

Vexilla Regis prodeunt:
Fulget Crucis mysterium,
Qua vita mortem pertulit,
Et morte vitam protulit.

O Crux ave, spes unica,
Hoc Passionis tempore
Piis ad auge gratiam,
Reisque dele crimina.

Te, fons salutis Trinitas,
Collaudet omnis spiritus:
Quibus Crucis victoriam
Largiris, adde praemium. Amen.
[3]

Abroad the Regal Banners fly,
Now shines the Cross's mystery;
Upon it Life did death endure,
And yet by death did life procure.

Hail, Cross, of hopes the most sublime!
Now in this mournful Passion time,
Improve religious souls in grace,
The sins of criminals efface.

Blest Trinity, salvation's spring,
May every soul Thy praises sing;
To those Thou grantest conquest
By the holy Cross, rewards apply. Amen.[3]

"Vexilla" has been interpreted symbolically to represent baptism, the Eucharist, and the other sacraments. Clichtoveus explains that as vexilla are the military standards of kings and princes, so the vexilla of Christ are the cross, the scourge, the lance, and the other instruments of the Passion "with which He fought against the old enemy and cast forth the prince of this world". Johann Wilhelm Kayser dissents from both, and shows that the vexillum is the cross which (instead of the eagle) surmounted, under Constantine, the old Roman cavalry standard. This standard became in Christian hands a square piece of cloth hanging from a bar placed across a gilt pole, and having embroidered on it Christian symbols instead of the old Roman devices.

The splendour and triumph suggested by the first stanza can be appreciated fully only by recalling the occasion when the hymn was first sung--the triumphant procession from the walls of Poitiers to the monastery with bishops and princes in attendance and with all the pomp and pageantry of a great ecclesiastical function. "And still, after thirteen centuries, how great is our emotion as these imperishable accents come to our ears!" (Pimont). There are about forty translations into English verse.

References in later works[edit]

Both words and tune are quoted in a number of musical works. Gounod took a very plain melody based on the chant as the subject of his "March to Calvary" in the oratorio "La rédemption" (1882), in which the chorus sings the text at first very slowly and then, after an interval, fortissimo. Franz Liszt wrote a piece for solo piano, Vexilla regis prodeunt, S185, and uses the hymn at the beginning and end of Via Crucis (The 14 stations of the Cross), S53. Anton Bruckner composed a motet based on strophes 1, 6 and 7 of the text (1892). Gustav Holst used both the words and the plainchant melody of Vexilla regis in The Hymn of Jesus (1917).

Dante makes an early literary allusion in Inferno, where Virgilius introduces Lucifer with the Latin phrase Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni. Vexilla regis is mentioned in Stephen's discussion of his aesthetic theory in chapter V of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce.

References[edit]

  1. ^ History of Vexilla Regis Prodeunt on Catholic Encyclopedia
  2. ^ Original Latin text on ChoralWiki
  3. ^ a b c Vexilla regis on ChoralWiki

External links[edit]

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company.