In Mortis Examine -
 a Note on Ave Verum Corpus Natum

 

L. Jean Lauand
Universidade de São Paulo jeanlaua@usp.br
Translated into English by Diogo Rosas Gugisch

 

This is a short note on one of the most beautiful pieces of medieval religious poetry: Ave Verum Corpus Natum, composed by an anonymous author – or so it seems – of the XIV century. Besides the sweet traditional Gregorian melody, Mozart, Schubert, Gounod and many others have also composed music for its words.

From the examination of the verses that the liturgical tradition conserves to the present day, I outline some observations that might perhaps be useful to rescue the original text in face of the doubts historical criticism has been subject to.

It is a short poem, composed of only five verses, but theologically speaking it is of great density, celebrating the mysteries of the Incarnation of the Word, the Passion and the Eucharist [1] . The text officially sung today is the following:

Ave verum corpus natum de Maria Virgine
Vere passum, immolatum in cruce pro homine
Cuius latus perforatum fluxit aqua et sanguine
Esto nobis praegustatum mortis in examine
O Iesu dulcis, o Iesu pie, o Iesu fili Mariae.
Hail, true Body, truly born of the Virgin Mary mild
Truly offered, wracked and torn, on the Cross for all defiled,
From Whose love pierced, sacred side
Flowed Thy true Blood's saving tide:
Be a foretaste sweet to me
In my death's great agony.
O my loving, Gentle One,

Sweetest Jesus, Mary's Son
[2]

In his judicious article written for the Catholic Encyclopedia, Igino Cecchetti points out the doubts regarding the original form of the text of Ave Verum, given the diversity of versions in the compositions and codices [3] :

- In the fourth verse, the variation in mortis examine (instead of mortis in examine).

- In the third verse, unda fluxit et sanguine (instead of fluxit aqua et sanguine).

- In the fifth verse, O dulcis, o pie, o Iesu fili Mariae (instead of O Iesu dulcis, o Iesu pie, o Iesu fili Mariae).

In trying to re-establish, from these alternatives – and from a specific point of view –, the original text, it seems that only the first one should be accepted. This means that the Ave verum – as composed by its author – is probably the one we sing nowadays, substituting only in mortis examine for mortis in examine in the fourth verse.

What is the reason for this affirmation? The internal analysis of the text according to the medieval patterns of writing. As one knows, ancient authors did not separate the words when they wrote, thus the poem would present itself as follows:

AVEVERUMCORPUSNATUMDEMARIAVIRIGINE
VEREPASSUMIMMOLATUMINCRUCEPROHOMINE
CUIUSLATUSPERFORATUMFLUXITAQUAETSANGUINE
ESTONOBISPRAEGUSTATUMMORTISINEXAMINE
OIESUDULCISOIESUPIEOIESUFILIMARIAE

It is also well known how fond medieval authors were of acrostics and other arrangements of letters in poetry – and, of course, in the chanting the vowels, the sequence of vowels become worthy of interest (one may think of the example from the Salve Regina). In the present case, the first vowel, A, as the first letter of the first verse; E, as the second letter of the second verse, etc. up to U as the fifth letter of the fifth verse would constitute a typical example of such a procedure. Due to this arrangement, we can reject the alternative proposal – a late proposal, incidentally – that presents the fifth verse as: O dulcis, o pie, etc. Finally, the termination UM was in those times abbreviated to Û, and if we accept – following some old codices – the variation in mortis examine, we have:

AVEVERÛCORPUSNATÛDEMARIAVIRGINE
VEREPASSÛIMMOLATÛINCRUCEPROHOMINE
CUIUSLATUSPERFORATÛFLUXITAQUAETSANGUINE
ESTONOBISPRAEGUSTATÛINMORTISEXAMINE
OIESUDULCISOIESUPIEOIESUFILIMARIAE

In this form there is another intentional arrangement of vowels, a sequence A, E, I, O, U, which is very unlikely to have happened by chance – the probability of an arrangement of this type is one in ten thousand. 

Hence it seems more plausible to reject the formulations unda fluxit et sanguine and the present mortis in examine, and to consider that the original text may be the one presented above. Such a conjecture would demand documentary confirmation, as would anything related to history.



[1] 1. A theological commentary by John Paul II (June 1983) to Ave Verum may be found at:
http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/6832/angelus.htm. Cf. also: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/speeches/john-paul-ii_speech_18-march-1994_address-to-pc-culture_english.shtml  e
 http://www.vatican.va/news_services/or/viag_ap/bolod_ita.htm).

[2]. Translation by Fr. Edward Francis Garesche, SJ (1876-1960) (Translator’s Note)
[3]. We are not discussing here the authorship, but only the internal critic of the text. In the latest edition of Manuel-A. Marcos Casquero & José Oroz Reta Lírica Latina Medieval II - Poesía Religiosa, Madrid, Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1997, the authors present (p.698) Thomas Aquinas as the author of Ave Verum Corpum Natum and give the following text of the poem: Ave, verum Corpus natum / Ex Maria Virgine / Vere passum, immolatum / In cruce pro homine / Cuius latus perforatum / Vero fluxit sanguine / Esto nobis praegustatum / Mortis in examine / O dulcis, o pie / O Fili Mariae.