With Mary & a Cloud of Witnesses by Ken Myers

From Heavenly Harmony

With Mary & a Cloud of Witnesses

There are many texts that have been employed in the music of Holy Week. The Passion accounts in the Gospels are the most immediate candidates, and have produced—augmented with sensitive and theologically alert poetry—some of the most memorable works in the canon of sacred music (e.g., J. S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion).

The book of Lamentations is another biblical source for musical expression during Holy Week (see last year's column, "The Depths of Solemn Grandeur"). Beginning in the fifteenth century, many of the greatest composers working in the Western Church wrote settings of Lamentations to be used at matins on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Last year, I singled out Robert White's little-known setting, but also notable are those by Morales, Tallis, Palestrina, Lassus, Byrd, and Victoria. Readers would do well to spend time in the week before we celebrate the Resurrection to allow the expression of sorrow conveyed in the work of one or more of these servants of the Word to get into their ears and heart.

Another text that has inspired a huge catalog of music for Holy Week is the medieval poem Stabat Mater Dolorosa, "The Sorrowful Mother Was Standing." While its authorship has been attributed to various hands, including St. Gregory the Great, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Pope Innocent III, St. Bonaventure, Pope John XXII, and Pope Gregory XI, it was likely (but not certainly) the work of Jacopone da Todi (c. 1230–1306). Born into a noble family in northern Italy, Jacopone had been a successful lawyer until the tragic death of his pious wife prompted a dramatic conversion. He wrote many hymns, mystical poems, and satirical verses in addition to Stabat Mater Dolorosa, a 20-stanza poem probably intended for private devotional rather than liturgical use.


Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He also serves as music director at All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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