Vol. 3, Chapter VIII (Cont’d) – Images of Madonna and Saints


Besides the images of Christ, representations were also made of prominent characters in sacred history, especially of the blessed Virgin with the Child, of the wise men of the east, as three kings worshipping before the manger, of the four Evangelists, the twelve Apostles, particularly Peter and Paul, of many martyrs and saints of the times of persecution, and honored bishops and monks of a later day.

According to a tradition of the eighth century or later, the Evangelist Luke painted not only Christ, but Mary also, and the two leading apostles. Still later legends ascribe to him even seven Madonnas, several of which, it is pretended, still exist; one, for example, in the Borghese chapel in the church of Maria Maggiore at Rome. The Madonnas early betray the effort to represent the Virgin as the ideal of female beauty, purity, and loveliness, and as resembling her divine Son. Peter is usually represented with a round head, crisped hair and beard; Paul, with a long face, bald crown, and pointed beard; both, frequently, carrying rolls in their hands, or the first the cross and the keys (of the kingdom of heaven), the second, the sword (of the word and the Spirit).

Such representations of Christ, of the saints, and of biblical events, are found in the catacombs and other places of burial, on sarcophagi and tombstones, in private houses, on cups and seal rings, and (in spite of the prohibition of the council of Elvira in 305) on the walls of churches, especially behind the altar.

Manuscripts of the Bible also, liturgical books, private houses, and even the vestments of officials in the large cities of the Byzantine empire were ornamented with biblical pictures. Bishop Asterius of Amasea in Pontus, in the second half of the fourth century, protested against the wearing of these “God-pleasing garments,” and advised that it were better with the proceeds of them to honor the living images of God, and support the poor; instead of wearing the palsied on the clothes, to visit the sick; and instead of carrying with one the image of the sinful woman kneeling and embracing the feet of Jesus, rather to lament one’s own sins with tears of contrition.

The custom of prostration before the picture, in token of reverence for the saint represented by it, first appears in the Greek church in the sixth century. And then, that the unintelligent people should in many cases confound the image with the object represented, attribute to the outward, material thing a magical power of miracles, and connect with the image sundry superstitious notions — must be expected. Even Augustine laments that among the rude Christian masses there are many image-worshippers, but counts such in the great number of those nominal Christians, to whom the essence of the Gospel is unknown.

As works of art, these primitive Christian paintings and sculptures are, in general, of very little value; of much less value than the church edifices. They are rather earnest and elevated, than beautiful and harmonious. For they proceeded originally not from taste, but from practical want, and, at least in the Greek empire, were produced chiefly by monks. It perfectly befitted the spirit of Christianity, to begin with earnestness and sublimity, rather than, as heathenism, with sensuous beauty. Hence also its repugnance to the nude, and its modest draping of voluptuous forms; only hands, feet, and face were allowed to appear.

The Christian taste, it is well known, afterwards changed, and, on the principle that to the pure all things are pure, it represented even Christ on the cross, and the holy Child at His mother’s breast or in His mothers arms, without covering.

Furthermore, in the time of Constantine the ancient classical painting and sculpture had grievously degenerated; and even in their best days they reached no adequate expression of the Christian principle.

In this view, the loss of so many of those old works of art, which, as the sheer apparatus of idolatry, were unsparingly destroyed by the iconoclastic storms of the succeeding period, is not much to be regretted. It was in the later middle ages, when church architecture had already reached its height, that Christian art succeeded in unfolding an unprecedented bloom of painting and sculpture, and in far surpassing, on the field of painting at least, the masterpieces of the ancient Greeks. Sculpture, which can present man only in his finite limitation, without the flush of life or the beaming eye, like a shadowy form from the realm of the dead, probably attained among the ancient Greeks the summit of perfection, above which even Canova and Thorwaldsen do not rise. But painting, which can represent man in his organic connection with the world about him, and, to a certain degree, in his unlimited depth of soul and spirit, as expressed in the countenance and the eye, has waited for the influence of the Christian principle to fulfil its perfect mission, and in the Christs of Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Beato Angelico, Correggio, and Albrecht Dürer, and the Madonnas of Raphael, has furnished the noblest works which thus far adorn the history of the art.


112. Consecrated Gifts

It remains to mention in this connection yet another form of decoration for churches, which had already been customary among heathen and Jews: consecrated gifts. Thus the temple of Delphi, for example, had become exceedingly rich through such presents of weapons, silver and golden vessels, statues, etc. In almost every temple of Neptune hung votive tablets, consecrated to the god in thankfulness for deliverance from shipwreck by him. A similar custom seems to have existed among the Jews; for 1Sa_21:1-15 implies that David had deposited the sword of the Philistine Goliath in the sanctuary. In the court of the priests a multitude of swords, lances, costly vessels, and other valuable things, were to be seen.

Constantine embellished the altar space in the church of Jerusalem with rich gifts of gold, silver, and precious stones. Sozomen tells us that Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem, in a time of famine, sold the treasures and sacred gifts of the church, and that afterwards some one recognized in the dress of an actress the vestment he once presented to the church.

A peculiar variety of such gifts, namely, memorials of miraculous cures, appeared in the fifth century; at least they are first mentioned by Theodoret, who said of them in his eighth discourse on the martyrs: “That those who ask with the confidence of faith, receive what they ask, is plainly proved by their sacred gifts in testimony of their healing. Some offer feet, others hands, of gold or silver, and these gifts show their deliverance from those evils, as tokens of which they have been offered by the restored.” With the worship of saints this custom gained strongly, and became in the middle age quite universal. Whoever recovered from a sickness, considered himself bound first to testify by a gift his gratitude to the saint whose aid he had invoked in his distress. Parents, whose children fortunately survived the teething-fever, offered to St. Apollonia (all whose teeth, according to the legend, had been broken out with pincers by a hangman’s servant) gifts of jawbones in wax. In like manner St. Julian, for happily accomplished journeys, and St. Hubert, for safe return from the perils of the chase, were very richly endowed; but the Virgin Mary more than all. Almost every church or chapel which has a miracle-working image of the mother of God, possesses even now a multitude of golden and silver acknowledgments of fortunate returns and recoveries.


113. Church Poetry and Music

J. Rambach: Anthologie christl. Gesänge aus allen Jahrh. der christl. Kirche. Altona, 1817-’33. H. A. Daniel: Thesaurus hymnologicus. Hal. 1841-’56, 5 vols. Edélestand du Méril: Poésies populaires latines antérieures au douzième siècle. Paris, 1843. C. Fortlage: Gesänge der christl. Vorzeit. Berlin, 1844. G. A. Königsfeld u. A. W. v. Schlegel: Altchristliche Hymnen u. Gesänge lateinisch u. Deutsch. Bonn, 1847. Second collection by Königsfeld, Bonn, 1865. E. E. Koch: Geschichte des Kirchenlieds u. Kirchengesangs der christl., insbesondere der deutschen evangel. Kirche. 2d ed. Stuttgart, 1852 f. 4 vols. (i. 10-30). F. J. Mone: Latein. Hymnen des Mittelalters (from MSS.), Freiburg, 1853-’55. (Vol. i., hymns of God and angels; ii., h. of Mary; iii., h. of saints.) Bässler: Auswahl Alt-christl. Lieder vom 2-15ten Jahrh. Berlin, 1858. R. Ch. Trench: Sacred Latin Poetry, chiefly lyrical, selected and arranged for use; with Notes and Introduction (1849), 2d ed. improved, Lond. and Cambr. 1864. The valuable hymnological works of Dr. J. M. Neale (of Sackville College, Oxford): The Ecclesiastical Latin Poetry of the Middle Ages (in Henry Thompson’s History of Roman Literature, Lond. and Glasgow., 1852, p. 213 ff.); Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences, Lond. 1851; Sequentiae ex Missalibus, 1852; Hymns of the Eastern Church, 1862, several articles in the Ecclesiologist; and a Latin dissertation, De Sequentiis, in the Essays on Liturgiology, etc., p. 359 sqq. (Comp. also J. Chandler: The Hymns of the Primitive Church, now first collected, translated, and arranged, Lond. 1837.)

Poetry, and its twin sister music, are the most sublime and spiritual arts, and are much more akin to the genius of Christianity, and minister far more copiously to the purposes of devotion and edification than architecture, painting, and sculpture. They employ word and tone, and can speak thereby more directly to the spirit than the plastic arts by stone and color, and give more adequate expression to the whole wealth of the world of thought and feeling. In the Old Testament, as is well known, they were essential parts of divine worship; and so they have been in all ages and almost all branches of the Christian church.

Of the various species of religious poetry, the hymn is the earliest and most important. It has a rich history, in which the deepest experiences of Christian life are stored. But it attains full bloom in the Evangelical church of the German and English tongue, where it, like the Bible, becomes for the first time truly the possession of the people, instead of being restricted to priest or choir.

The hymn, in the narrower sense, belongs to lyrical poetry, or the poetry of feeling, in distinction from the epic and dramatic. It differs also from the other forms of the lyric (ode, elegy, sonnet, cantata, etc.) in its devotional nature, its popular form, and its adaptation to singing. The hymn is a popular spiritual song, presenting a healthful Christian sentiment in a noble, simple, and universally intelligible form, and adapted to be read and sung with edification by the whole congregation of the faithful. It must therefore contain nothing inconsistent with Scripture, with the doctrines of the church, with general Christian experience, or with the spirit of devotion. Every believing Christian can join in the Gloria in Excelsis or the Te Deum. The classic hymns, which are, indeed, comparatively few, stand above confessional differences, and resolve the discords of human opinions in heavenly harmony. They resemble in this the Psalms, from which all branches of the militant church draw daily nourishment and comfort. They exhibit the bloom of the Christian life in the Sabbath dress of beauty and holy rapture. They resound in all pious hearts, and have, like the daily rising sun and the yearly returning spring, an indestructible freshness and power. In truth, their benign virtue increases with increasing age, like that of healing herbs, which is the richer the longer they are bruised. They are true benefactors of the struggling church, ministering angels sent forth to minister to them who shall be heirs of salvation. Next to the Holy Scripture, a good hymn-book is the richest fountain of edification.

The book of Psalms is the oldest Christian hymn-book, inherited by the church from the ancient covenant. The appearance of the Messiah upon earth was the beginning of Christian poetry, and was greeted by the immortal songs of Mary, of Elizabeth, of Simeon, and of the heavenly host. Religion and poetry are married, therefore, in the gospel. In the Epistles traces also appear of primitive Christian songs, in rhythmical quotations which are not demonstrably taken from the Old Testament. We know from the letter of the elder Pliny to Trajan, that the Christians, in the beginning of the second century, praised Christ as their God in songs; and from a later source, that there was a multitude of such songs.

Notwithstanding this, we have no complete religious song remaining from the period of persecution, except the song of Clement of Alexandria to the divine Logos — which, however, cannot be called a hymn, and was probably never intended for public use — the Morning Song and the Evening Song in the Apostolic Constitutions, especially the former, the so-called Gloria in Excelsis, which, as an expansion of the doxology of the heavenly hosts, still rings in all parts of the Christian world. Next in order comes the Te Deum, in its original Eastern form, or the καθ ̓ ἑκάστην ἡμέραν, which is older than Ambrose. The Ter Sanctus, and several ancient liturgical prayers, also may be regarded as poems. For the hymn is, in fact, nothing else than a prayer in the festive garb of poetical inspiration, and the best liturgical prayers are poetical creations. Measure and rhyme are by no means essential.

Upon these fruitful biblical and primitive Christian models arose the hymnology of the ancient catholic church, which forms the first stage in the history of hymnology, and upon which the medieval, and then the evangelical Protestant stage, with their several epochs, follow.


114. The Poetry of the Oriental Church

Comp. the third volume of Daniel’s Thesaurus hymnologicus (the Greek section prepared by B. Vormbaum); the works of J. M. Neale, quoted sub §113; an article on Greek Hymnology in the Christian Remembrancer, for April, 1859, London; also the liturgical works quoted §98.

We should expect that the Greek church, which was in advance in all branches of Christian doctrine and culture, and received from ancient Greece so rich a heritage of poetry, would give the key also in church song. This is true to a very limited extent. The Gloria in excelsis and the Te Deum are unquestionably the most valuable jewels of sacred poetry which have come down from the early church, and they are both, the first wholly, the second in part of Eastern origin, and going back perhaps to the third or second century. But, excepting these hymns in rhythmic prose, the Greek church of the first six centuries produced nothing in this field which has had permanent value or general use. It long adhered almost exclusively to the Psalms of David, who, as Chrysostom says, was first, middle, and last in the assemblies of the Christians, and it had, in opposition to heretical predilections, even a decided aversion to the public use of uninspired songs. Like the Gnostics before them, the Arians and the Apollinarians employed religious poetry and music as a popular means of commending and propagating their errors, and thereby, although the abuse never forbids the right use, brought discredit upon these arts. The council of Laodicea, about a.d. 360, prohibited even the ecclesiastical use of all uninspired or “private hymns,” and the council of Chalcedon, in 451, confirmed this decree.

Yet there were exceptions. Chrysostom thought that the perverting influence of the Arian hymnology in Constantinople could be most effectually counteracted by the positive antidote of solemn antiphonies and doxologies in processions. Gregory Nazianzen composed orthodox hymns in the ancient measure; but from their speculative theological character and their want of popular spirit, these hymns never passed into the use of the church. The same may be said of the productions of Sophronius of Jerusalem, who glorified the high festivals in Anacreontic stanzas; of Synesius of Ptolemais (about a.d. 410), who composed philosophical hymns; of Nonnus of Panopolis in Egypt, who wrote a paraphrase of the Gospel of John in hexameters; of Eudoxia, the wife of the emperor Theodosius II.; and of Paul Silentiarius, a statesman under Justinian I., from whom we have several epigrams and an interesting poetical description of the church of St. Sophia, written for its consecration. Anatolius, bishop of Constantinople († 458), is properly the only poet of this period who realized to any extent the idea of the church hymn, and whose songs were adapted to popular use.

The Syrian church was the first of all the Oriental churches to produce and admit into public worship a popular orthodox poetry, in opposition to the heretical poetry of the Gnostic Bardesanes (about a.d. 170) and his son Harmonius. Ephraim Syrus († 378) led the way with a large number of successful hymns in the Syrian language, and found in Isaac, presbyter of Antioch, in the middle of the fifth century, and especially in Jacob, bishop of Sarug in Mesopotamia († 521), worthy successors.

After the fifth century the Greek church lost its prejudices against poetry, and produced a great but slightly known abundance of sacred songs for public worship.

In the history of the Greek church poetry, as well as the Latin, we may distinguish three epochs: (1) that of formation, while it was slowly throwing off classical metres, and inventing its peculiar style, down to about 650; (2) that of perfection, down to 820; (3) that of decline and decay, to 1400 or to the fall of Constantinople. The first period, beautiful as are some of the odes of Gregory of Nazianzen and Sophronius of Jerusalem, has impressed scarcely any traces on the Greek office books. The flourishing period of Greek poetry coincides with the period of the image controversies, and the most eminent poets were at the same time advocates of images; pre-eminent among them being John of Damascus, who has the double honor of being the greatest theologian and the greatest poet of the Greek church.

The flower of Greek poetry belongs, therefore, in a later division of our history. Yet, since we find at least the rise of it in the fifth century, we shall give here a brief description of its peculiar character.

The earliest poets of the Greek church, especially Gregory Nazianzen, in the fourth, and Sophronius of Jerusalem in the seventh century, employed the classical metres, which are entirely unsuitable to Christian ideas and church song, and therefore gradually fell out of use. Rhyme found no entrance into the Greek church. In its stead the metrical or harmonic prose was adopted from the Hebrew poetry and the earliest Christian hymns of Mary, Zacharias, Simeon, and the angelic host. Anatolius of Constantinople († 458) was the first to renounce the tyranny of the classic metre and strike out a new path. The essential points in the peculiar system of the Greek versification are the following:

The first stanza, which forms the model of the succeeding ones, is called in technical language Hirmos, because it draws the others after it. The succeeding stanzas are called Troparia (stanzas), and are divided, for chanting, by commas, without regard to the sense. A number of troparia, from three to twenty or more, forms an Ode, and this corresponds to the Latin Sequence, which was introduced about the same time by the monk Notker in St. Gall. Each ode is founded on a hirmos and ends with a troparion in praise of the Holy Virgin. The odes are commonly arranged (probably after the example of such Psalms as the 25th, 112th, and 119th) in acrostic, sometimes in alphabetic, order. Nine odes form a Canon. The older odes on the great events of the incarnation, the resurrection, and the ascension, are sometimes sublime; but the later long canons, in glorification of unknown martyrs are extremely prosaic and tedious and full of elements foreign to the gospel. Even the best hymnological productions of the East lack the healthful simplicity, naturalness, fervor, and depth of the Latin and of the Evangelical Protestant hymn.

The principal church poets of the East are Anatolius († 458), Andrew of Crete (660-732), Germanus I. (634-734), John Of Damascus († about 780), Cosmas of Jerusalem, called the Melodist (780), Theophanes (759-818), Theodore of the Studium (826), Methodius I. (846), Joseph of the Studium (830), Metrophanes of Smyrna († 900), Leo VI. (886-917), and Euthymius († 920).

The Greek church poetry is contained in the liturgical books, especially in the twelve volumes of the Menaea, which correspond to the Latin Breviary, and consist, for the most part, of poetic or half-poetic odes in rhythmic prose. These treasures, on which nine centuries have wrought, have hitherto been almost exclusively confined to the Oriental church, and in fact yield but few grains of gold for general use. Neale has latterly made a happy effort to reproduce and make accessible in modern English metres, with very considerable abridgments, the most valuable hymns of the Greek church.

We give a few specimens of Neale’s translations of hymns of St. Anatolius, patriarch of Constantinople, who attended the council of Chalcedon (451). The first is a Christmas hymn, commencing in Greek:

Μέγα καὶ παράδοξον θαῦμα.

“A great and mighty wonder,

The festal makes secure:

The Virgin bears the Infant

With Virgin-honor pure.

The Word is made incarnate,

And yet remains on high:

And cherubim sing anthems

To shepherds from the sky.

And we with them triumphant

Repeat the hymn again:

‘To God on high be glory,

And peace on earth to men!’

While thus they sing your Monarch,

Those bright angelic bands,

Rejoice, ye vales and mountains!

Ye oceans, clap your hands!

Since all He comes to ransom,

By all be He adored,

The Infant born in Bethlehem,

The Saviour and the Lord!

Now idol forms shall perish,

All error shall decay,

And Christ shall wield His sceptre,

Our Lord and God for aye.”

Another specimen of a Christmas hymn by the same, commencing ἐν Βηθλεέμ:

“In Bethlehem is He born!

Maker of all things, everlasting God!

He opens Eden’s gate,

Monarch of ages! Thence the fiery sword

Gives glorious passage; thence,

The severing mid-wall overthrown, the powers

Of earth and Heaven are one;

Angels and men renew their ancient league,

The pure rejoin the pure,

In happy union! Now the Virgin-womb

Like some cherubic throne

Containeth Him, the Uncontainable:

Bears Him, whom while they bear

The seraphs tremble! bears Him, as He comes

To shower upon the world

The fulness of His everlasting love!

One more on Christ calming the storm, ζοφερᾶς τρικυμίας, as reproduced by Neale:

“Fierce was the wild billow

Dark was the night;

Oars labor’d heavily;

Foam glimmer’d white;

Mariners trembled

Peril was nigh;

Then said the God of God

 — ‘Peace! It is I.’

Ridge of the mountain-wave,

Lower thy crest!

Wail of Euroclydon,

Be thou at rest!

Peril can none be — 

Sorrow must fly

Where saith the Light of Light,

 — ‘Peace! It is I.’

Jesu, Deliverer!

Come Thou to me:

Soothe Thou my voyaging

Over life’s sea!

Thou, when the storm of death

Roars, sweeping by,

Whisper, O Truth of Truth!

 — ‘Peace! It is I.’”


115. The Latin Hymn

More important than the Greek hymnology is the Latin from the fourth to the sixteenth century. Smaller in compass, it surpasses it in artless simplicity and truth, and in richness, vigor, and fulness of thought, and is much more akin to the Protestant spirit. With objective churchly character it combines deeper feeling and more subjective appropriation and experience of salvation, and hence more warmth and fervor than the Greek. It forms in these respects the transition to the Evangelical hymn, which gives the most beautiful and profound expression to the personal enjoyment of the Saviour and his redeeming grace. The best Latin hymns have come through the Roman Breviary into general use, and through translations and reproductions have become naturalized in Protestant churches. They treat for the most part of the great facts of salvation and the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. But many of them are devoted to the praises of Mary and the martyrs, and vitiated with superstitions.

In the Latin church, as in the Greek, heretics gave a wholesome impulse to poetical activity. The two patriarchs of Latin church poetry, Hilary and Ambrose, were the champions of orthodoxy against Arianism in the West.

The genius of Christianity exerted an influence, partly liberating, partly transforming, upon the Latin language and versification. Poetry in its youthful vigor is like an impetuous mountain torrent, which knows no bounds and breaks through all obstacles; but in its riper form it restrains itself and becomes truly free in self-limitation; it assumes a symmetrical, well-regulated motion and combines it with periodical rest. This is rhythm, which came to its perfection in the poetry of Greece and Rome. But the laws of meter were an undue restraint to the new Christian spirit which required a new form. The Latin poetry of the church has a language of its own, a grammar of its own, a prosody of its own, and a beauty of its own, and in freshness, vigor, and melody even surpasses the Latin poetry of the classics. It had to cast away all the helps of the mythological fables, but drew a purer and richer inspiration from the sacred history and poetry of the Bible, and the heroic age of Christianity. But it had first to pass through a state of barbarism like the Romanic languages of the South of Europe in their transition from the old Latin. We observe the Latin language under the influence of the youthful and hopeful religion of Christ, as at the breath of a second spring, putting forth fresh blossoms and flowers and clothing itself with a new garment of beauty, old words assuming new and deeper meanings, obsolete words reviving, new words forming. In all this there is much to offend a fastidious classical taste, yet the losses are richly compensated by the gains. Christianity at its triumph in the Roman empire found the classical Latin rapidly approaching its decay and dissolution; in the course of time it brought out of its ashes a new creation.

The classical system of prosody was gradually loosened, and accent substituted for quantity. Rhyme, unknown to the ancients as a system or rule, was introduced in the middle or at the end of the verse, giving the song a lyrical character, and thus a closer affinity with music. For the hymns were to be sung in the churches. This accented and rhymed poetry was at first, indeed, very imperfect, yet much better adapted to the freedom, depth, and warmth of the Christian spirit, than the stereotyped, stiff, and cold measure of the heathen classics. Quantity is a more or less arbitrary and artificial device; accent, or the emphasizing of one syllable in a polysyllabic word, is natural and popular, and commends itself to the ear. Ambrose and his followers, with happy instinct, chose for their hymns the Iambic dimeter, which is the least metrical and the most rhythmical of all the ancient metres. The tendency to euphonious rhyme went hand in hand with the accented rhythm, and this tendency appears occasionally in its crude beginnings in Hilary and Ambrose, but more fully in Damasus, the proper father of this improvement.

Rhyme is not the invention of either a barbaric or an overcivilized age, but appears more or less in almost all nations, languages, and grades of culture. Like rhythm it springs from the natural esthetic sense of proportion, euphony, limitation, and periodic return. It is found here and there, even in the oldest popular poetry of republican Rome, that of Ennius, for example. It occurs not rarely in the prose even of Cicero, and especially of St. Augustine, who delights in ingenious alliterations and verbal antitheses, like patet and latet, spes and res, fides and vides, bene and plene, oritur and moritur. Damasus of Rome introduced it into sacred poetry. But it was in the sacred Latin poetry of the middle age that rhyme first assumed a regular form, and in Adam of St. Victor, Hildebert, St. Bernard, Bernard of Clugny, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura, Thomas a Celano, and Jacobus de Benedictis (author of the Stabat mater), it reached its perfection in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; above all, in that incomparable giant hymn on the judgment, the tremendous power of which resides, first indeed in its earnest matter, but next in its inimitable mastery of the musical treatment of vowels. I mean, of course, the Dies irae of the Franciscan monk Thomas a Celano (about 1250), which excites new wonder on every reading, and to which no translation in any modern language can do full justice. In Adam of St. Victor, too, of the twelfth century, occur unsurpassable rhymes; e.g., the picture of the Evangelist John (in the poem: De, S. Joanne evangelista), which Olshausen has chosen for the motto of his commentary on the fourth Gospel, and which Trench declares the most beautiful stanza in the Latin church poetry:

“Volat avis sine meta

Quo nee vates nec propheta

Evolavit altius:

Tam implenda, quam impleta

Nunquam vidit tot secreta

Purus homo purius.”

The meter of the Latin hymns is various, and often hard to be defined. Gavanti supposes six principal kinds of verse:

1. Iambici dimetri (as: “Vexilla regis prodeunt”).

2. Iambici trimetri (ternarii vel senarii, as: “Autra deserti teneris sub annis”).

3. Trochaici dimetri (“Pange, lingua, gloriosi corporis mysterium,” a eucharistic hymn of Thomas Aquinas).

4. Sapphici, cum Adonico in fine (as: “Ut queant axis resonare fibris”).

5. Trochaici (as: “Ave maris stella”).

6. Asclepiadici, cum Glyconico in fine (as: “Sacris solemniis juncta sint gaudia”).

In the period before us the Iambic dimeter prevails; in Hilary and Ambrose without exception.


116. The Latin Poets and Hymns

The poets of this period, Prudentius excepted, are all clergymen, and the best are eminent theologians whose lives and labors have their more appropriate place in other parts of this work.

Hilary, bishop of Poitiers (hence Pictaviensis, † 368), the Athanasius of the West in the Arian controversies, is, according to the testimony of Jerome, the first hymn writer of the Latin church. During his exile in Phrygia and in Constantinople, he became acquainted with the Arian hymns and was incited by them to compose, after his return, orthodox hymns for the use of the Western church. He thus laid the foundation of Latin hymnology. He composed the beautiful morning hymn: “Lucis largitor splendide;” the Pentecostal hymn: “Beata nobis gaudia;” and, perhaps, the Latin reproduction of the famous Gloria in excelsis. The authorship of many of the hymns ascribed to him is doubtful, especially those in which the regular rhyme already appears, as in the Epiphany hymn:

“Jesus refulsit omnium

Pius redemptor gentium.”

We give as a specimen a part of the first three stanzas of his morning hymn, which has been often translated into German and English:




“Lucis largitor splendide, Cuius serene lumine Post lapsa noctis tempora Dies refusus panditur: “O glorious Father of the light, From whose efflugence, calm and bright, Soon as hours of night are fled, The brilliance of the dawn is shed:   

“Tu verus mundi Lucifer, Non is, qui parvi sideris, Venturae lucis nuntius Augusto fulget lumine: “Thou art the dark world’s truer ray: No radiance of that lesser day, That heralds, in the morn begun, The advent of our darker sun:   

“Sed toto sole clarior, Lux ipse totus et dies, Interna nostri pectoris Illuminans praecordia.” “But, brighter than its noontide gleam, Thyself full daylight’s fullest beam, The inmost mansions of our breast Thou by Thy grace illuminest.”  


Ambrose, the illustrious bishop of Milan, though some-what younger († 397), is still considered, on account of the number and value of his hymns, the proper father of Latin church song, and became the model for all successors. Such was his fame as a hymnographer that the words Ambrosianus and hymnus were at one time nearly synonymous. His genuine hymns are distinguished for strong faith, elevated but rude simplicity, noble dignity, deep unction, and a genuine churchly and liturgical spirit. The rhythm is still irregular, and of rhyme only imperfect beginnings appear; and in this respect they certainly fall far below the softer and richer melodies of the middle age, which are more engaging to ear and heart. They are an altar of unpolished and unhewn stone. They set forth the great objects of faith with apparent coldness that stands aloof from them in distant adoration; but the passion is there, though latent, and the fire of an austere enthusiasm burns beneath the surface. Many of them have, in addition to their poetical value, a historical and theological value as testimonies of orthodoxy against Arianism.

Of the thirty to a hundred so-called Ambrosian hymns, however, only twelve, in the view of the Benedictine editors of his works, are genuine; the rest being more or less successful imitations by unknown authors. Neale reduces the number of the genuine Ambrosian hymns to ten, and excludes all which rhyme regularly, and those which are not metrical. Among the genuine are the morning hymn: “Aeterne rerum conditor;” the evening hymn: “Deus creator omnium;” and the Advent or Christmas hymn: “Veni, Redemptor gentium.” This last is justly considered his best. It has been frequently reproduced in modern languages, and we add this specimen of its matter and form with an English version:




“Veni, Redemptor gentium, “Come, Thou Redeemer of the earth,   

Ostende partum Virginis; Come, testify Thy Virgin Birth:   

Miretur omne saeculum: All lands admire — all times applaud:   

Talis partus decet Deum. Such is the birth that fits a God.   

“Non ex virili semine, “Begotten of no human will,   

Sed mystico spiramine, But of the Spirit, mystic still,   

Verbum Dei factum est caro, The Word of God, in flesh arrayed,   

Fructusque ventris floruit. The promised fruit to man displayed.   

“Alvus tumescit Virginis, The Virgin womb that burden gained   

Claustrum pudoris permanet, With Virgin honor all unstained   

Vexilla virtutum micant, The banners there of virtues glow:   

Versatur in templo Deus. God in His Temple dwells below.   

“Procedit e thalamo suo, “Proceeding from His chamber free,   

Pudoris aulâ regiâ, The royal hall of chastity,   

Geminae Gigas substantiae, Giant of twofold substance, straight   

Alacris ut currat viam. His destined way He runs elate.   

“Egressus ejus a Patre, “From God the Father He proceeds,   

Regressus ejus ad Patrem, To God the Father back He speeds:   

Excursus usque ad inferos Proceeds — as far as very hell:   

Recursus ad sedem Dei. Speeds back — to light ineffable.   

“Aequalis aeterno Patri, “O equal to the Father, Thou!   

Carnis tropaeo cingere, Gird on Thy fleshly trophy (mantle) now   

Infirma nostri corporis The weakness of our mortal state   

Virtute firmans perpeti. With deathless might invigorate.   

“Praesepe jam fulget tuum, “Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,   

Lumenque nox spirat novum, And darkness breathe a newer light,   

Quod nulla nox interpolet, Where endless faith shall shine serene,   

Fideque jugi luceat.” And twilight never intervene.”  


By far the most celebrated hymn of the Milanese bishop, which alone would have made his name immortal, is the Ambrosian doxology, Te Deum laudamus. This, with the Gloria in excelsis, is, as already remarked, by far the most valuable legacy of the old Catholic church poetry; and will be prayed and sung with devotion in all parts of Christendom to the end of time. According to an old legend, Ambrose composed it on the baptism of St. Augustine, and conjointly with him; the two, without preconcert, as if from divine inspiration, alternately singing the words of it before the congregation. But his biographer Paulinus says nothing of this, and, according to later investigations, this sublime Christian psalm is, like the Gloria in excelsis, but a free reproduction and expansion of an older Greek hymn in prose, of which some constituents appear in the Apostolic Constitutions, and elsewhere.

Ambrose introduced also an improved mode of singing in Milan, making wise use of the Greek symphonies and antiphonies, and popular melodies. This Cantus Ambrosianus, or figural song, soon supplanted the former mode of reciting the Psalms and prayers in monotone with musical accent and little modulation of the voice, and spread into most of the Western churches as a congregational song. It afterwards degenerated, and was improved and simplified by Gregory the Great, and gave place to the so-called Cantus Romanus, or choralis.

Augustine, the greatest theologian among the church fathers († 430), whose soul was filled with the genuine essence of poetry, is said to have composed the resurrection hymn: “Cum rex gloriae Christus;” the hymn on the glory of paradise: “Ad perennis vitae fontem melis sitivit arida;” and others. But he probably only furnished in the lofty poetical intuitions and thoughts which are scattered through his prose works, especially in the Confessions, the materia carminis for later poets, like Peter Damiani, bishop of Ostia, in the eleventh century, who put into flowing verse Augustine’s meditations on the blessedness of heaven.

Damasus, bishop of Rome († 384), a friend of Jerome, likewise composed some few sacred songs, and is considered the author of the rhyme.

Coelius Sedulius, a native of Scotland or Ireland, presbyter in the first half of the fifth century, composed the hymns: “Herodes, hostis impie,” and “A solis ortus cardine,” and some larger poems.

Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius († 405), an advocate and imperial governor in Spain under Theodosius, devoted the last years of his life to religious contemplation and the writing of sacred poetry, and stands at the head of the more fiery and impassioned Spanish school. Bently calls him the Horace and Virgil of Christians, Neale, “the prince of primitive Christian poets.” Prudentius is undoubtedly the most gifted and fruitful of the old Catholic poets. He was master of the classic measure, but admirably understood how to clothe the new ideas and feelings of Christianity in a new dress. His poems have been repeatedly edited. They are in some cases long didactic or epic productions in hexameters, of much historical value; in others, collections of epic poems, as the Cathemerinon, and Peristephanon. Extracts from the latter have passed into public use. The best known hymns of Prudentius are: “Salvete, flores martyrum,” in memory of the massacred innocents at Bethlehem, and his grand burial hymn: “Jam moesta quiesce querela,” which brings before us the ancient worship in deserts and in catacombs, and of which Herder says that no one can read it without feeling his heart moved by its touching tones.

We must mention two more poets who form the transition from the ancient Catholic to medieval church poetry.

Venantius Fortunatus, an Italian by birth, a friend of queen Radegunde (who lived apart from her husband, and presided over a cloister), the fashionable poet of France, and at the time of his death (about 600), bishop of Poitiers, wrote eleven books of poems on various subjects, an epic on the life of St. Martin of Tours, and a theological work in vindication of the Augustinian doctrine of divine grace. He was the first to use the rhyme with a certain degree of mastery and regularity, although with considerable license still, so that many of his rhymes are mere alliterations of consonants or repetitions of vowels. He first mastered the trochaic tetrameter, a measure which, with various modifications, subsequently became the glory of the medieval hymn. Prudentius had already used it once or twice, but Fortunatus first grouped it into stanzas. His best known compositions are the passion hymns: “Vexilla regis prodeunt,” and “Pange, lingua, gloriosi proelium (lauream) certaminis,” which, though not without some alterations, have passed into the Roman Breviary. The “Vexilla regis” is sung on Good Friday during the procession in which the consecrated host is carried to the altar. Both are used on the festivals of the Invention and the Elevation of the Cross. The favorite Catholic hymn to Mary: “Ave maris stella,” is sometimes ascribed to him, but is of a much later date.

We give as specimens his two famous passion hymns, which were composed about 580.




Vexilla Regis Prodeunt.   

“Vexilla regis prodeunt, “The Royal Banners forward go:   

Fulget crucis mysterium, The Cross shines forth with mystic glow:   

Quo carne carnis conditor Where He in flesh, our flesh who made,   

Suspensus est patibulo. Our sentence bore, our ransom paid.   

“Quo vulneratus insuper “Where deep for us the spear was dyed,   

Mucrone diro lanceae, Life’s torrent rushing from His side:   

Ut nos lavaret crimine To wash us in the precious flood,   

Manavit unda et sanguine. Where mingled water flowed, and blood.   

“Impleta sunt quae concinit “Fulfilled is all that David told   

David fideli carmine In true prophetic song of old:   

Dicens: in nationibus Amidst the nations, God, saith he,   

Regnavit a ligno Deus. Hath reigned and triumphed from the Tree.   

“Arbor decora et fulgida “O Tree of Beauty! Tree of Light!   

Ornata regis purpura, O Tree with royal purple dight!   

Electa digno stipite Elect upon whose faithful breast   

Tam sancta membra tangere. Those holy limbs should find their rest!   

“Beata cuius brachiis “On whose dear arms, so widely flung,   

Pretium pependit saeculi, The weight of this world’s ransom hung   

Statera facta saeculi The price of human kind to pay,   

Praedamque tulit tartaris.” And spoil the spoiler of his prey!”  


Pange, Lingua, Gloriosi Proelium Certaminis.

“Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle, with completed victory rife,

And above the Cross’s trophy, tell the triumph of the strife;

How the world’s Redeemer conquer’d, by surrendering of His life.

“God, his Maker, sorely grieving that the first-born Adam fell,

When he ate the noxious apple, whose reward was death and hell,

Noted then this wood, the ruin of the ancient wood to quell.

“For the work of our Salvation needs would have his order so,

And the multiform deceiver’s art by art would overthrow;

And from thence would bring the medicine whence the venom of the foe.

“Wherefore, when the sacred fulness of the appointed time was come,

This world’s Maker left His Father, left His bright and heavenly home,

And proceeded, God Incarnate, of the Virgin’s holy womb.

“Weeps the Infant in the manger that in Bethlehem’s stable stands;

And His limbs the Virgin Mother doth compose in swaddling bands,

Meetly thus in linen folding of her God the feet and hands.

“Thirty years among us dwelling, His appointed time fulfilled,

Born for this, He meets His Passion, for that this He freely willed:

On the Cross the Lamb is lifted, where His life-blood shall be spilled.

“He endured the shame and spitting, vinegar, and nails, and reed;

As His blessed side is opened, water thence and blood proceed:

Earth, and sky, and stars, and ocean, by that flood are cleansed indeed.

“Faithful Cross! above all other, one and only noble Tree!

None in foliage, none in blossom, none in fruit thy peers may be;

Sweetest wood and sweetest iron, sweetest weight is hung on thee!

“Bend thy boughs, O Tree of Glory! thy relaxing sinews bend;

For awhile the ancient rigor, that thy birth bestowed, suspend;

And the King of heavenly beauty on thy bosom gently tend.

“Thou alone wast counted worthy this world’s ransom to uphold;

For a shipwreck’d race preparing harbor, like the Ark of old:

With the sacred blood anointed from the wounded Lamb that roll’d.

“Laud and honor to the Father, laud and honor to the Son,

Laud and honor to the Spirit, ever Three and ever One:

Consubstantial, co-eternal, while unending ages run.

Far less important as a poet is Gregory I. (590-604), the last of the fathers and the first of the medieval popes. Many hymns of doubtful origin have been ascribed to him and received into the Breviary. The best is his Sunday hymn: “Primo dierum omnium.”

The hymns are the fairest flowers of the poetry of the ancient church. But besides them many epic and didactic poems arose, especially in Gaul and Spain, which counteracted the invading flood of barbarism, and contributed to preserve a connection with the treasures of the classic culture. Juvencus, a Spanish presbyter under Constantine, composed the first Christian epic, a Gospel history in four books (3,226 lines), on the model of Virgil, but as to poetic merit never rising above mediocrity. Far superior to him is Prudentius († 405); he wrote, besides the hymns already mentioned, several didactic, epic, and polemic poems. St. Pontius Paulinus, bishop of Nola († 431), who was led by the poet Ausonius to the mysteries of the Muses, and a friend of Augustine and Jerome, is the author of some thirty poems full of devout spirit; the best are those on the festival of S. Felix, his patron. Prosper Aquitanus († 460), layman, and friend of Augustine, wrote a didactic poem against the Pelagians, and several epigrams; Avitus, bishop of Vienne († 523), an epic on the creation and the origin of evil; Arator, a court official under Justinian, afterwards a sub-deacon of the Roman church (about 544), a paraphrase, in heroic verse, of the Acts of the Apostles, in two books of about 1,800 lines. Claudianus Mamertus, Benedictus Paulinus, Elpidius, Orontius, and Dracontius are unimportant.