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).
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 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.
Original text (strophes 1, 6 & 7)
Vexilla regis prodeunt:
The Royal Banner forward goes,
Revised text (strophes 1, 6 & 7)
Vexilla Regis prodeunt:
Abroad the Regal Banners fly,
"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
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. Dante's reference is itself later referenced in Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz. 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.
The poet-artist David Jones entitled a 1947 painting "Vexilla Regis", and mentions the hymn in his long poem The Anathemata: fragments of an attempted writing, and also in his book of essays "Epoch and Artist." In "A Commentary on The Anathemata of David Jones" by Rene Hague, the latter makes several references to the "Vexilla Regis."
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- Vexilla Regis (Latin) at The Latin Library
- Vexilla Regis at Thesaurus Precum Latinarum
- Vexilla regis: Text, translations and list of free scores by several composers at the Choral Public Domain Library (ChoralWiki)