Lanyer’s appropriation of the stabat mater in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum

Lanyer’s appropriation of the stabat mater in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum

This post is part of a series authored by our collaborators on the Intertextual Networks project. For more information, see here. 

By Megan Herrold, University of Southern California

In my project for Intertextual Networks, I trace the use to which early modern women writers put misogynistic conventions. I’m particularly interested in women’s appropriation of female archetypes that are charged with centuries of societal ambivalence. One such example is Aemilia Lanyer’s use of the stabat mater tradition in her 1611 poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. The centerpiece of Lanyer’s book of poems is her meditation on Christ’s passion, but framing that poem are two other sections that are also thematically unified. It begins with a number of dedicatory poems to specific women—including Queen Elizabeth, the Countess of Pembroke, and Queen Anne—and concludes with the country house poem, “The Description of Cook-ham.” Lanyer’s patron, the Countess Dowager of Cumberland, features throughout the entire work: she takes a prominent place among the dedicatory poems, her (temporary) home and daughter are celebrated in the country house poem, and Lanyer features as a particular spectator of Christ’s passion. So while women (and Cumberland in particular) are conceived of as characters and readers throughout the entire work, I will mainly be focusing on the “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum” poem in this post. In its ostensible focus on the Passion of Christ, Lanyer’s version also includes: an apology for Eve spoken by Pilate’s wife, a discussion of the dangers of beauty for women, and commentary on various historical women’s virtue. By bringing figures like Cleopatra, Eve, and the Virgin Mary to bear alongside her discussion of Cumberland’s virtues alongside a feminized Christ, Lanyer self-consciously builds a community of women whose virtues are based upon their celebrations and defenses of each other. It is in this vein that Lanyer uses the stabat mater tradition.

A poetic and musical sequence that constructs a greater emotional connection to Christ’s passion through the contemplation of Mary as she contemplates the crucifixion, the stabat mater was both widely popular and troubling because of its focus on the spectacle of female mourning. 1 It was both suppressed by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century and with the growth of Protestantism, increasingly associated with Catholic (and feminized) public mourning rituals.2 But as she uses the trope in her poem, Lanyer suggests that women’s greater visibility, both as beautiful objects of spectatorship and as mourners, potentially derided as excessive in their expressions of grief, coincides with their greater access to Christian virtue. With her descriptions of the compassion of various women who mourn for Christ (among them are Pilate’s wife, the Maries, the Daughters of Jerusalem and Cumberland herself) Lanyer also includes blazons of Christ’s feminized beauty and his compassion for the grievers around him. Taken together, the ways in which the description of the communal comfort in looking at suffering women is aligned with Christ’s being looked at as a woman. Thus, Lanyer’s appropriation of the stabat mater emphasizes women’s consensual deployment of their spectacular mourning. In doing so, she reclaims a suspect (because feminized and Catholic) convention and presents it as a means through which a self-aware community might be built—a community of virtuous suffering women who see and feel for each other.

My research into this topic is still in its preliminary stages. But what I’m most concerned with in Lanyer’s poem is her emphasis on the visual in her version of the Passion and the ways in which community is built through mutual beholding. Likewise, the stabat mater, over and above other conventional depictions of Mary’s suffering (namely, the pieta and the mater dolorosa), emphasizes the space between the visual and textual description of mourning. The third person ekphrastic description of Mary’s compassion for Christ’s suffering is both visual (as in the pieta and mater dolorosa traditions of art) and textual (as in the planctus Mariae). All of these forms of meditations on Mary’s (and at times Mary Magdalene’s) role in the crucifixion were elaborated during the patristic period and early Middle Ages. The original version of the stabat mater from which the title derives and much elaboration stems is said to have been written by either Jacopone da Todi or Pope Innocent III. For the full text and a literal translation, click here. Though women’s involvement in the Passion has limited precedent in the gospels, Marian devotional works like the stabat mater were quite popular at the turn in the twelfth century and beyond. Versions proliferated in poetry and prose, in Latin and the vernacular, and in art and drama and coincided with a greater emphasis on the humanity of Christ and the co-suffering of Mary (Bestul 112).

19th century Stabat Mater painting. Chapel Nosso Senhor dos Passos, Santa Casa de Misericórdia of Porto Alegre, Brazil. Oil on canvas, 19th century, unknown author. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

From its inception, however, the increased interest in Mary and the subjectivity of women in general could be characterized as ambivalent. While these conventions uphold Mary as an exemplar, not only of women’s righteous behavior, but also as a guide to achieving perfect compassion with Christ, they also circumscribe the role of women in devotional literature and the funeral rite. The tradition at once universalizes Mary’s suffering—the poem asks “quis posset non contristari / Piam Matrem contemplari / Dolentem cum Filio? [Who could not be sorrowful to behold the pious mother grieving with her Son?]”—at the same time that it betrays discomfort with the excesses of “feminine” emotion. For example, as Bestul points out, in the related “quis dabitplanctus tradition, Mary oscillates between passive suffering and hysterical outbursts of grief. So while the tradition expresses an implicit (and at times quite explicit) desire to be feminized, the devotional descriptions of Mary’s mourning ultimately construct the rationale for patriarchal control of female agency—in speech and spectacle—in religious rites. The Reformation would see a doubling down on this control of the “feminized” and Catholic excesses of public mourning rituals, a topic taken on by Katherine Goodland in her work, Female Mourning in Medieval and Renaissance English Drama.

16th century depiction of the pietà. Pietà beneath the Cross by Lucas Cranach the Elder, circa 1510. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s my feeling, however, that Lanyer capitalizes off of the ambivalence of the subject-object blurring in spectacles of compassion in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. As the stabat mater is organized around the Virgin’s spectacle of Christ’s passion, the act of “beholding” and “looking” at suffering permeates Lanyer’s poem. It informs its avowed occasion in depicting Christ’s passion and its effects on spectators including the Virgin Mary, the Daughters of Jerusalem, and the Duchess of Cumberland; and it encodes the particular historical occasion of the poem: Lanyer’s comforting Cumberland amid her legal and familial troubles. In these instances of beholding suffering, Lanyer emphasizes the community-building potential inherent in the public display of mourning. As these women suffer, the spectacles they create evoke compassion from other women including the reader; this occurs even while, and indeed to a greater degree, because the women are aware of the vulnerability to which their spectacular mourning is subject. It is through this awareness of the dangers with which women contend over and above men that Lanyer envisions the formation of a utopic community of women.

But first, she must apologize for Mary’s excessive grief. In the most explicit stabat mater reference, Lanyer describes Mary beholding Christ’s Passion. But Lanyer’s version, unlike others in the genre, seems to anticipate scrutiny of the spectacle Mary creates. Where the traditional stabat asked upon viewing Mary, “Who could not be sorrowful to behold the pious mother grieving with her Son?” Lanyer asks a more defensive rhetorical question while Mary swoons with “griefes extreame”:

How could she choose but thinke her selfe undone,

He dying, with whose glory shee was crowned?

None ever lost so great a losse as shee,

Beeing Sonne, and Father of Eternitie. (1013-1016)

The universality of compassion that the original version assumes is treated defensively here. To combat possible attacks on Mary’s position as spectacular mourner, Lanyer appeals to Mary’s lack of choice in the matter. How could a mother choose otherwise than grieve the loss of her son, Father, Lord and status position? The question begs another: how could we choose but to grieve for her? And for those still uncharitable enough to scrutinize Mary’s grief, we might compare Lanyer’s treatment of the Daughters of Jerusalem. Similarly, Lanyer describes the Daughters’ visible sufferings that together with their verbalizations of grief “intreate[s]” their spectators to pity and compassion:

Poore women seeing how much [Christ’s tormentors] did transgresse,

By teares, by sighs, by cries, intreate, nay proue,

What may be done among the thickest presse,

They labour still these tyrants hearts to moue:

in pitie and compassion to forbeare (995-999)

Lanyer is adamant in presenting the Daughter’s mourning in active verbs: they “labor,” they “entreat,” and they “prove” that spectacle can move an audience. And if members of Lanyer’s audience find themselves unmoved by their grief, Lanyer aligns them with the tormentors of Christ who likewise resist compassion for the women’s spectacular mourning. Indeed, the analogy between Passion (direct experience) and compassion (indirect experience; mourning for another) as suggested by the stabat mater is furthered in Lanyer’s poem when she suggests Christ’s humiliation in the Passion is analogous to Mary’s grief being scrutinized unjustly. Lanyer’s suggests that if we wouldn’t doubt Christ’s pain, his “Bleeding and fainting” while being “Abusede with all their hatefull slaunderous lies,” we shouldn’t doubt Mary’s expressions of grief, especially because we view those humiliations of Christ at the same time that Mary’s “fair eies behold” them (1131-1135). To doubt either sufferer is to choose to further torment them over feeling compassion for them.

While upholding the sincerity of Mary’s grief, Lanyer on the other hand contends with Protestant critiques concerning the faithlessness of the mater dolorosa conventions. Instead of Mary’s grief implying despair of an afterlife, Lanyer’s presents it as celebratory and almost evangelical in its potential for community building. She urges that Mary’s tears “did her good” because they “wash away [Christ’s] pretious blood” so that “sinners might not tread in vnder feet” as they gather on their way “To worship him” (1017-1019). As in the original stabat mater, Mary’s grief in Lanyer’s version is explicitly linked to bringing sinners closer to Christ. Likewise, Lanyer exemplifies the community-building nature of public grief through her description of Christ as the quintessential spectator of grief. Indeed, her Christ is the ultimate stabat mater: he takes time for compassion even amid his Passion.

A 16th century painting of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows (mater dolorosa) found in Eglise de Taisnieres sur Hon. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

Although the mourning of the Daughters of Jerusalem ultimately fails to move Christ’s tormentors, Lanyer urges its effect on a more important spectator: Christ himself. Where Pilate and Herod fail to claim Christ’s attention during his passion:

Yet these poore women, by their piteous cries

Did mooue their Lord, their Louer, and their King

To take compassion, turne about, and speake

To them whose hearts were ready now to breake. (981-984)

In these lines, Lanyer stresses the potential for mutual compassion in the stabat mater model: the Daughter’s compassion for Christ arouses his compassion for them. Lanyer celebrates such mutuality of feeling, established and increased upon in the visual realm through looking at, being looked upon, and being conscious of these acts of mutual beholding:

Most blessed Daughters of Ierusalem,

Who found such fauor in your Sauiours sight,

To turne his face when you did pitie him;

Your tearefull eyes beheld his eyes more bright;

Your Faith and Loue vnto such grace did clime,

To haue reflection from this Heau’nly light:

Your Eagles eies did gaze against this Sunne,

Your hearts did thinke, he dead, the world were done. (985-992)

When Christ and the Daughters lock eyes, the connection between them is made and then elevated by consciousness of their being spectacles. These eyes-beholding-eyes build a community precisely in that ambiguous space between subject beholding and object being beheld.

Because the consciousness of self as a spectacle is something women seem better poised to experience and learn from, Lanyer composes her virtuous community solely of women, including a feminized Christ.3 Through this theme, Lanyer’s seeming digression on the dangers of beauty without virtue (lines 185-248) aligns with her concerns throughout the poem. And in a longer piece, I plan to tease out the connections between that section and her later blazon of Christ’s beauty upon the resurrection (1305-1312). In the blazon, she borrows her modifying phrases from the portion of the Song of Songs detailing both male and female beauty, but the line “His lips like scarlet threeds, yet much more sweet / Than is the sweetest hony dropping dew” alludes to explicitly to the bride’s beauty (Woods 1314n). Through these resonances, Lanyer suggests that, like Christ’s, a woman’s subjectivity is constructed in proximity to physical beauty as a cultural value, through an awareness of the spectacle that beauty may create, and cognizant of the potential vulnerabilities to which that gendered subjectivity is subject. Therefore, also like Christ, she is uniquely poised to feel compassion for other women. Indeed, this theme of women’s particular capacity for compassion is signaled in Lanyer’s prefatory letter “To the Vertuous Reader,” wherein she bemoans the capacity of women “to be condemned by the words of their owne mouthes…as to speake unadvisedly against the rest of their sexe” (Woods 48). And in the poem Lanyer makes good on her maxim, modeling the kind of community she wants to build through her dramatic choices. Her assigning Eve’s apology to Pilate’s wife (761-944), her criticizing Cleopatra’s treatment of Octavia even as she has compassion for her suffering (215-224, 1409-1432), and her exhortations to the (assumed female) reader throughout, form anachronistic communities of women based on compassion they felt for each other’s suffering. And Lanyer builds her envisioned utopic community through her appropriation and emendation of the stabat mater tradition, that microcosm of community built upon the spectacle of mutual compassion and suffering.

Works Cited

Bestul, Thomas H. Texts of the Passion: Latin Devotional Literature and Medieval Society. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

Goodland, Katharine. Female Mourning in Medieval and Renaissance English Drama: From the Raising of Lazarus to King Lear. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005.

Lanyer, Aemilia, and Susanne Woods. The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.


  1. See Thomas H. Bestul’s chapter on gender in his 1996 Texts of the Passion: Latin Devotional Literature and Medieval Society.
  2. See Katharine Goodland’s Female Mourning in Medieval and Renaissance English Drama.
  3. There’s likely a biographical point to be made here as well. Lanyer was by all accounts quite attractive. At 18, she was the mistress of Henry Cary, Lord Hunson at the time he was the Lord Chamberlain under Queen Elizabeth, until she became pregnant and was married off to Alphonso Lanyer (Woods xviii). She experienced the power and vulnerabilities that go along with physical beauty.

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