Vexilla Regis By Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus 540-600 AD
Vexilla Regis By Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus 540-600 AD
‘They will look on the one they have pierced’ John 19.23
A Reflection by Canon Jim Foley
The Early Years
This Liturgical poem is not the work of four different people but of one man with a very pretentious name, Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus. I have chosen to call him Lucky Venantius for short. Clearly, his luck held out as he moved in the right circles for most of his life. He was born in 540 AD in Treviso, Italy, and educated in the best schools in Ravenna where there was, under Roman influence, a preference for the study of grammar, rhetoric and law, a preference that was still in evidence in my young days in St. Mary’s, Coatbridge.
When he was 25 years of age he headed north over the Alps to Franconia, possibly attracted by the more sophisticated way of life there and, no doubt, by the job opportunities. However, there is one incident in those early years that cast its shadow ahead and should be noted at this stage. He and his family claimed that he was cured of a serious eye infection through the intercession of St Martin of Tours (316-397) who enjoyed great popularity at that time. The memory of this would eventually catch up with him.
At all events, he quickly integrated to his new environment and made many friends in high places, including kings and queens, noblemen and women, and bishops. The latter were, with few exceptions, part of the royal household and depended on royal patrimony. To cut a very long story short, he gained entry as a result of his talent as an orator and poet. There were few society soirées or dinners at which Lucky Venantius did not deliver one of his famous eulogies. He flattered the kings and queens with each word that came out of his mouth and with every bite that went into theirs; he flattered the noble men and women on their birthdays and weddings; he flattered the bishops on their appearance; and it appears that he flattered himself for good measure.
A Talented Orator and Poet
Nonetheless, he knew how to pen an iambic pentameter and, in those enlightened days, this talent opened more doors than did battering rams and hatchets. It was in the middle of all this adulation that he decided to part ways with the royal court. He made, first of all, for Paris, a surprising choice for somebody looking for the quiet life.
Eventually, he found his way to Poitiers and made new friends there of a very different kind. These were mostly saintly people who had never lost sight of their Christian heritage and piety. The focus of their piety was Holy Cross Monastery in Poitiers. There, as the name of the monastery suggests, there was special devotion to the Cross, led by a large community of religious sisters. It was during that period that he took holy orders, became their chaplain and eventually was elected bishop of Poitiers.
Devotion to the Cross
He was captivated by devotion to the Cross, a devotion that gained a powerful impetus as the result of the arrival in Poitiers from Jerusalem of a relic of the true cross, the gift of the Emperor and Empress of Byzantium no less. This focussed his attention even more on that devotion which was gaining ground every day. It also reminded him of his miraculous cure as a young man. He was invited by the abbess to compose a hymn to be sung as the relic was brought in procession to the church. The result of this commission was Vexilla Regis which would eventually find an honoured place in the Liturgy of the Passion throughout the universal Church till Vatican II. Then it went the same way as the Dies Irae!
The accepted wisdom in some Catholic circles was that sin and death had entered the world through the fruit of a tree and, by way of a kind of divine irony, grace and life would be restored by the fruit of another tree, the tree of the Cross. As piety so easily generates its own momentum, it was a small step from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Gethsemane and Mount Calvary, where the tree of the cross was believed to be a direct descendant of one of the trees in the middle of the Garden of Eden. Darwin eat your hat!
Anyway, Saint Paul can accept most of the credit for this association in his strong decisive statement of the unique place of the Cross in the Christian preaching, a statement delivered to a divided community at Corinth: ‘We proclaim Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor 1.23). He need say no more.
Little need be said of the poetic structure and quality of Vexilla Regis. Those well-versed in such matters see it as a singular product of classical Latin poetry on the way to becoming a masterpiece of medieval spirituality. It is composed essentially of iambic dimeters in which a short syllable is followed by a long syllable, almost like a series of sighs. There is a limited but effective use of rime as in verse 2: viscera/vestigia/gratia/hostia and verse 5: brachiis/saeculis/ corporis. Even more sparingly used is alliteration as in the recurrence of ‘c’ in verse 1: quo carne carnis conditor, verse 2:convixa clavis
Of less clinical interest and more arresting is the author’s obvious delight in nature around him and even in relatively trivial matters such as birthday parties and dinners shared among friends, sails on the river Mozelle. These ingredients are probably more in evidence in his secular poems than in his religious compositions but they are never far from his mind.
In his hands, however, such apparent trivialities of the natural world, take on a new depth when seen as a manifestation of death and resurrection. Nature itself comes alive again through the death and resurrection of Jesus on the cross. Here, too, our author reflects St Paul’s understanding of the cosmic meaning of the Cross: ‘The Creation itself will be set free from bondage to decay and will attain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (Romans 8, 21).
Latin text of Vexilla Regis
with a literal translation and brief notes:
Vexilla Regis prodeunt;
fulget crucis mysterium,
quo carne carnis conditor
suspensus est patibulo.
The banners of the King unfurl;
the mystery of the Cross shines forth,
in flesh and blood the source of life
is raised upon a shameful cross.
The opening lines of our poem refer to ‘banners’ of the King in the plural, which immediately suggests the image of an army on the march with its colours blowing in the wind for friend and foe to see. This visual effect is typical of the entire poem and fulfils the expectation with which the Evangelist Saint John brings his edition of the Passion of Jesus to a close: ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced’ (John 19.23). Our poet has joined the company of those who stand at the foot of the cross and invites us to join him there.
The eagle of the Roman legions, a symbol of power and force, gives way to the emblem of the cross that replaced it with the power of suffering and innocence. ‘In this sign you will conquer.’ We leave this first line in the conviction that the days of the catacombs are over and the Christian faith must now ‘shine forth’ unashamedly before the entire world. The fugitives in the Upper Room, gathered behind locked doors ‘for fear of the Jews’ (John 20.19), emerge in the power of the Spirit and under the sign of the Cross, as fearless witnesses to their faith in Christ crucified. The remaining lines of this verse give the reason: the source of life, ‘in flesh and blood’, reversed the fate of fallen man, not with a show of power but in the experience of humiliation and suffering ‘raised on a shameful cross’.
Confixa clavis viscera
tendens manus, vestigia,
hic immolata est hostia.
Pierced with a lance deep through the heart
with hands and feet outstretched below,
redemption’s precious gift of grace
himself the victim sacrificed.
The first two lines of Verse 2 sustain the visual impact of the first Verse by closing in on the wounds of Christ crucified: his side pierced with a lance and his hands and feet nailed to the wood of the cross.
The remaining two lines move on from the scene described to the interpretation of that scene: ‘Redemption’s precious gift of grace / himself the victim on the cross’. The crucifixion of Jesus is identified as an event on a completely different level from any other. It was a redemptive act which reversed the fate of mankind and was brought about by Jesus, the victim of a sacrifice of expiation for sin. The Redeemer was himself the victim.
Impleta sunt quae concinit
David fideli carmine,
Regnavit a lingo Deus.
Thus are fulfilled the things foretold
in songs that faithful David sang,
to tell the nations of the earth:
God reigns upon a wooden cross.
It was inevitable that King David would merit an honourable mention in this context as he did in the Dies Irae. So many of the Psalms attributed to him spoke of the final triumph of the innocent. One of these, Psalm 96, seems to be quoted here: ‘Telling every nation on earth, God rules the world from a wooden throne’. Verse 10 of this Psalm is suspect to the extent that some serious scholars argue that the phrase ‘from a wooden throne’ is an addition made by a zealous Christian scribe into a Hebrew psalm. Indeed, many early manuscripts of Psalm 96 do not include this phrase. Predictably, there are those who argue, with equal conviction, that the phrase was expunged from the original text of the Psalm, by an equally zealous Jewish scribe, to escape any suggestion that there was even the remotest connection between the Psalm and the death of the Messiah on a wooden cross.
Arbor decora et fulgida
ornata regis purpura,
electa digno stipite
tam sancta membra tangere.
A comely and resplendent tree
bedecked with purple dignity,
elected from a worthy source
to touch such sacred limbs as these.
This verse moves gently from the painful details of the wounded and dying Christ on the cross to a eulogy of the cross itself and does so in language that is highly allegorical. Notwithstanding the image of a tree ‘drenched with royal blood’ the tree is described as ‘comely and resplendent.’ The reference to a ‘worthy sapling’ echoes the pious but ill-founded tradition that the wood of the cross was descended from one of the trees in the centre of the Garden of Eden. This tradition was fuelled by Christian art and nourished by idle speculation. It is, no doubt, based on the conviction that nothing less than a sapling from the Tree of Life would be a fitting resting place for the sacred limbs of the dying Redeemer.
Beata cuius brachiis
pretium pependit saeculi:
Statera facta coporis,
praedam tulitque Tartari.
A blessed tree upon whose arms
was raised the ransom of our world:
A human body now the price
that saved the prey from Satan’s grasp.
The focus moves from the tree to its branches whose very shape takes the form of a balance with the sin and suffering of our world on one side and the ransom paid by Christ crucified on the other. The incarnate Redeemer is the ransom that saves the sinner from the abyss of Tartarus. The use of this ancient Greek title for Hell reflects the poet’s classical background and just how far he is prepared to travel into that world in his search of his images.
Eve had made the excuse that the wily serpent had ‘beguiled her’ into eating the fruit of the tree (Genesis 3.1ff). The Book of Wisdom, evidently commenting on this scene, identified the serpent with the devil himself and offers a first attempt to explain this ‘beguilement’ further:
For God created human beings to be immortal,
He made them as an image of his own nature;
Death came into the world only through the Devil’s envy,
As those who belong to him find to their cost’ (Wisdon 2.23f)
Envy is an invidious vice that harbours resentment at the success of others and can generate a homicidal hatred directed at those who seem to do well.
O Crux ave, spes unica,
hoc passionis tempore!
Piis adauge gratiam,
Reisque dele crimina.
O Cross, ave, our only hope,
so cherished at this Passion Time!
The pious now enrich with grace,
the guilty free from every crime.
These last two verses take the form of an extended doxology, probably composed by another hand and addressed directly to the wood of the cross. It renders the hymn more suitable for inclusion in public worship, particularly during Holy Week and on the Solemnity of the Holy Cross.
The Vexilla Regis has survived for more than 1000 years and, inevitably, has suffered some damage along the way at the hands of careless scribes and editors.
In more recent times it has suffered the same fate as the Dies Irae and fallen out of the Roman Missal in the wake of Vatican II. It survives in the Prayer of the Church as an optional choice of hymn during Holy Week. The hymnbooks of most Christian Churches include an English version of at least part of the hymn. Congregations would do well not to lose sight of this spiritual gem no matter what the language.
The Final Doxology
Te, fons salutis Trinitas
collaudet omnis spiritus:
quos per Crucis mysterium
salvas, fove per saecula. Amen.
Of our new life the Triune source
let every spirit sing your praise:
those whom the mystery of the cross
has called to share eternal life. Amen.
Vexilla Regis takes up the deeply moving remark of the Evangelist Saint John with which he brings his description of the Passion to a close and engages the attention of future generations, including our own. ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced’ (John 19.23). We are indebted to Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus for sharing with us his view from the foot of the Cross.
The Three Crosses
An etching by Rembrandt (1606-1669)
Much of the drama of events at the foot of the Cross is almost lost in the shadows, leaving Christ crucified as the main focus of attention towards which our eyes are drawn, but not exclusively so. The centurion has moved out of the shadows and rises on horseback high above the disarray below. His obscure features are a portrait of sadness, such sadness that he cannot even bring himself to look on Christ crucified. His pretentious hat may mark him out as a man of substance but his last word is a humble profession of faith in the mystery of a crucified Messiah, both man and God:
‘This man was indeed the Son of God’ (Mark 15.39)