A Mother’s Heart: Devotion to the Seven Sorrows of Mary

by Liam Tracey, OSM

During last Friday’s morning Mass at the Casa Santa Marta, Pope Francis we are told turned his thoughts to the problems that will arise after the coronavirus pandemic. In the homily as distributed by the Vatican News Service he recalled the figure of Our Lady of Sorrows and thanked her for being our Mother. The Servite Order throughout the world celebrates a particular feast of Mary at the foot of the Cross on Friday of the fifth week of Lent (once called Passiontide) alongside its celebration of Our Lady of Sorrows on 15 September. The Lenten feast focuses on the moment Jesus entrusts his mother to the beloved disciple as recounted in the Gospel of John 19: 25-27. The September feast which is found in the universal calendar of the Church contemplates what tradition has enumerated as seven sorrows throughout the life of Mary and prophesised by Simeon as a sword piercing her heart. 

Pietà, Middle Rhine (Mainz?), ca. 1390. Walnut and polychrome. 80 cm.

The Planctus or lament

Devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows develops in many different places and traditions throughout the High and Late Middle Ages. There is no one source for these outpourings of affection but they all seem to take inspiration from the image of Mary standing near or at the foot of the Cross and of her holding her dead son when he is taken down from the Cross. I have argued elsewhere that an important source for these tradition are the medieval planctus, a genre of lament and one that circulated widely in medieval Europe. These laments were generally over the death of a royal personage or a notable figure, some were found in monastic circles but one particular subset of them place the lament on the lips of the Virgin Mary as she watches him on the way to Calvary; or gazes on him crucified or perhaps most common as she cradles the body of her dead son. In a medieval world marked by the Black Death, civil war and a casual violence, the planctus enables the worshipper to embrace irreplaceable loss and to find an image of one who has gone before them on this path. Pain is transformed through word, gesture and image. They are also profoundly marked by theological changes in this period, both in the realm of scriptural interpretation and changing modes of praying. One of these most notable laments is the Stabat Mater Dolorosa. While the Scriptures served as a source for the planctus, they are original creations and were often used in liturgical settings. By the 15th century they had become so dramatic and exaggerated that they were condemned by the Church. One can note Greco-Roman, Jewish and oriental influences in the texts, coming from funeral traditions and indeed from classical theatre.

The prayer Obsecro te illustrated by a miniature of the Pieta, from the Book of Hours of Angers, 1470s.

The planctus reflect a desire to know more than the sparse Gospel narratives of the passion, to understand and reflect on the presence of Mary at the Cross, and to link in a human way and in a theological way her compassion with the passion of her Son. While at times there were aberrations, in their highest expression especially in liturgical contexts they show forth popular understanding of Mary’s association with the Cross of Jesus. The fascination with the passion of Jesus found in medieval Europe is not just as a result of an exaggerated realism or an ideology of suffering but is also influenced by theological developments especially the influence of Rupert of Deutz (+1129) right throughout the period. 

Flemish Confraternities

Jost de Negker, Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, woodcut, before 1503. Confraternity Prayer Book.

The growth of devotion to the Seven Sorrows of Mary in Flanders has been well documented. The devotion owed its origins and development in Flanders to the work of Jean de Coudenberghe (or Coudenberg) and the confraternities that he founded. He founded a confraternity devoted to the Seven Sorrows of Mary which received royal approval in 1492 from Philip the Fair. De Coudenberghe was responsible for a number of churches and also served as secretary to Philip. He later wrote an account of the development of these groups for Charles V. Flanders at this time was in the throes of civil war following the death of Marie of Austria, Duchess of Burgundy (+1482). For the three churches he was responsible for, De Coudenberghe had an image of the Sorrowful Virgin painted and placed in the church. The image was based on one venerated in the Church of Ara Coeli in Rome. Above the image he placed a poem which explained the Seven Sorrows of Mary. These confraternities spread quickly and soon received papal approval from Alexander VI. An early influence on these groups was the Dominican friar Michel François of Lille (+1502) and later Bishop of Siliwri, which brought him into direct contact with the Court. Michel wrote a book defending the Seven Sorrows devotion and offers indirect evidence about its liturgical celebration. 

Liturgical Celebration of the Sorrow of Mary

The first definite information we have about a liturgical celebration of the Sorrow of Mary comes from a local Church, that of Cologne. On 22 April 1423, the Synod of Cologne introduced a feast entitled Commemoratio angustiae et doloribus Beatae Mariae Virginis. The feast was intended a reparation for attacks by the Hussites on images of the Cross and Mary at the Foot of the Cross, it was to be celebrated on the Friday after the Third Sunday of Easter, except when another feastday fell on that day when the celebration was to be moved to the following Friday.

In the decades following the Synod of Cologne we find the celebration of the feast of the Compassion of Our Lady appearing in the calendar of various religious orders. What is not clear is whether these are independent developments or as a result of the Synod of Cologne. It is the Carthusians who seemed to have been particular active in this regard. The Solemnity of the Compassion of Our Lady was added to their calendar in 1477. The feast could be celebrated on the Saturday before Palm Sunday or moved to after the Octave of Easter. The spread of the feast amongst the Carthusians was mainly due to the efforts of Henry of Saxony or sometimes called Henry Arnold, after serving as a notary at the Council of Basel, he entered the Charterhouse of that city and later served as it’s Prior. He died in 1487. Various Carthusian sources note that he composed an office for the Feast and was responsible for having it celebrated in the city of Basel. 

Pierre Raymond. Our Lady of Sorrows. Enamel on copper. 1541.

Liturgical formulae for the celebration of Our Lady of Compassion or Pity or even the Sorrows are also to be found amongst the Cistercians, Premonstratensians, Carmelites, Augustinians, Crosiers, Dominicans, and the Order of the Annunciation founded by Joan de Valois (+1505) which also had a mass of the Seven Sorrows with the rather controversial title of Spasmo.  The day indicated in the various Missals is either the Friday before Palm Sunday or after the Octave of Easter.

It is Pope Sixtus IV who is regarded by many as having in 1482 inserted a Mass of Our Lady of Pity in the Roman Missal. The source for this affirmation is the work of Lépicier and has been repeated fairly consistently by those writing on the liturgical development of the cult of Our Lady of Sorrows. However, it is impossible to discover where Lépicier derived his information. In examining his papers, the only source I have been able to discover is a small manual of piety published in Lyon in 1904. Its author, Perretant, went onto note that the Mass can be found under the same title in Roman Missals published in Lyons in 1501, 1507 and 1511; in Paris in 1507 and in a Missal of Paul III (1534-1549) under the title of Our Lady of Compassion. Unfortunately, Perretant does not give any firm indications about these misslas, where he found them and what formularies they contain for the liturgical celebration; nor it is actually clear whether he had a chance to personally examine them. His claims mirror those of the Marian Calendar of George Colvener (1564-1649) which was published in Douai in 1628. The Roman Marian scholar, Ippolitio Marracci (1604-1675) suggested in his work that the liturgy of the feast came from Franciscan circles. At this point , my own position is similar to that of Emilio Campana who argued that Sixtus IV who was known for his Marian devotion may well have approved a Mass formulary for this feast it may not have been celebrated in Rome at this time, hence it appearance in Roman Missal printed outside Rome after 1500 and as a sign of its growing popularity it was maintained in the calendar reform of Pius V. His affirmation regarding the reform of the calendar is not borne out by examining the published missals after Trent! Richard Pfaff summarises the current state of knowledge as follows:

Among the four different masses having to do with the Compassion which appeared in printed Roman misssals before 1570 there is not only the mass of the Sarum Missals but also a ‘Missa nostre domine pietatis per papam sixtum quartum edita’, which begins ‘Cumque vidisset’ and is almost entirely different from the mass in the Sarum books, ‘Vide Domine, quoniam tribulor’. As in the case of the Visitation, ‘edita’ should probably more accurately be ‘approbata’: it does seem that Sixtus IV approved the mass and had it entered in the martyrology.

Chiesa San Carlo Borromeo. Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, ca. 1780. Turin.

After examining a large number of Roman Missals printed in Venice, Angers, Paris and Lyon from 1511 onwards, an increasing number of Mass formulae for this feast are to be found. The title of the celebration varies form De Doloribus et compassionis to De Spasmo and some variations in the prayer texts. The Gospel text is either the John passage 19:25-27 or the prophecy of Simeon in Luke 2:33-36. However, there is little light to be shed on the actual sequence of development of the liturgical celebration. Mass formulae for this liturgical feast are also to be found in local English, Spanish and Swiss Missals. None of them add anything further to the affirmation of Pfaff. Despite attempts by the Servite Order from 1620’s onward to receive approval for a Mass of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows they only received papal approval for their mass in 1668. The mass was reserved to the friars of the Order. In 1714, the Sacred Congregation of Rites granted the Order the possibility of celebrating a Mass and office of the Seven Sorrows on the Friday after Passion Sunday. 

In 1671 Queen Marian of Spain requested permission from the Holy See to celebrate the feast of the Seven Sorrows with Servite texts in Spain. The feast as celebrated in Passiontide was granted to the German Empire in 1672 and the diocese of Rome received permission 1725. The possibility of celebrating the Passiontide feast was extended to the whole Church by Benedict XIII in 1727. This in turn led to a unification in the title and the day of celebrating this feast. Pius VII in 1814 extended the September celebration of the Seven Sorrows on the third Sunday of September to the whole Church, using the formularies for the Liturgy of the Hours and the Mass already in use by the Servite Order. His decision seems to have been influenced by his suffering at the hands of Napoleon. As a result of the liturgical reforms of Pius X and his desire to restore the centrality of Sunday, the September celebration was moved to 15th September. The celebration on the Friday of Passion week was reduced to a commemoration in the rubrical reforms of 1960. It was completely dropped in the calendar reforms of 1969 and the September feast was reduced to a memorial with the title of B. Mariae Virginis Perdolentis

Bernard van Orley. Triptyque de Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs, ca. 1530. Oil on wood. Orley – Musée des Beaux-Arts de Besançon.

Servites continue to celebrate the two dates; the feast during Lent is celebrated on the Friday after the Fifth Sunday of Lent with the title B. Mariae Virginis iuxta crucem. The feast in September is now celebrated as a solemnity with the title B. Mariae V. Perdolentis Ordinis Nostri Patronae Principalis. To note is the dropping of the number seven in its current title. Also in the Servite Proper of 1972 there is now a memorial of the Compassion of the Blessed Virgin Mary inserted into the solemn liturgical action of Good Friday which takes place after the veneration of the Cross.

The traditional Seven Sorrows are:

1: Mary accepts in faith the prophecy of Simeon
2: Mary flees into Egypt with Jesus and Joseph
3: Mary seeks Jesus lost in Jerusalem
4: Mary meets Jesus on the way to Calvary
5: Mary stands near the Cross of her Son
6: Mary receives the body of Jesus taken down from the Cross
7: Mary places the Body of Jesus in the tomb, awaiting the resurrection.

As for the seven  sorrows, it is possible that the number seven was determined by devotion to the already existing seven joys of Mary in the 13th century. When the joys of Mary were fixed at five, there were five sorrows and both later expanded to seven. However, the medieval authors did not limit this number to the seven episodes of the life of Mary, seeing her rather as ‘full of sorrows.’ They would have been aware of the symbolic significance of the number seven, a number that suggests abundance, fullness and completeness. These are often meditated upon by reciting the Rosary of Our Lady of Sorrows and its attendant Litany.

Liam Tracey, OSM is Professor of Liturgy at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Co. Kildare

One comment

  1. It is interesting that in the West we don’t have a feast commemorating the joys of Mary. (I know about the joyful and glorious mysteries, but that’s not a feast or a title of Mary) Too often we focus on the negative. Holy Week does not end with a dead Jesus. It takes us to an empty tomb and unites us with the Risen Lord who is present to us always. The sorrows we remember and relate to, but they are past and passed. But the joys of the resurrection and the Queen of Heaven are in the present and the future. I think we as Catholics need to highlight more the joyful dimensions of our faith, without abandoning things like the seven dolors. Some people pray the Sorrowful Mysteries during Easter week and on Christmas if it falls on the right day. And the Glorious or Joyful ones on the feast of O.L. of Sorrows. And the Stations of the Cross on Easter Sunday. As Augustine said, “We are an Easter people…”
    I remember seeing an apocryphal text that said that before Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene or anyone else, he first appeared to his mother. A beautiful but forgotten tradition. Worth reflecting upon this week.

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