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Song of Songs

Mariolatry - the cult of Mary

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In medieval times, many parts of the Song of Songs  were amalgamated into mariolatry, the cult of the virgin Mary, and were used in the "Books of Hours of the Holy Virgin Mary - Horae Beatae Mariae Virginis." The "Hours" were books of prayers for lay Catholics for the different times of day, and often included calendars as well. The texts  drew on parts of three different books, chiefly Isaiah, Ecclesiasticus (the Preacher) and the Song of Songs. In the Middle ages there was a flourishing cult of the virgin Mary, called "mother of God," and the Hours interpreted the Song of Songs as a song of God's love for the Virgin Mary. Therefore, illustrations from the manuscripts included illustrations of Mary with themes from the Song of Songs. 

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Song of Songs in the books of Hours

The sources for text in Books of Hours were primarily three books of the Old Testament. The psalms were used most, Ecclesiasticus furnished most of the capitula (chapter heads) in the Hours of the Virgin (with the important predictions taken from Isaiah), and the Song of Songs (Canticum Canticorum) was the foundation of the general Marian vocabulary, and source for a large number of responses (antiphons) and chapters.

The Song of Songs, in the Latin Vulgate bible the Canticum Canticorum, is a beautiful oriental erotic poem, considered in Jewish tradition to be about the love of God for Israel, in much Christian tradition to be about the love of Christ for the church, and in the medieval hours, as  song of praise for the Virgin Mary. The vocabulary  penetrated all veneration of the Virgin, including the Horae beate Marie Virginis from the very beginning in the 12th century. The responses (antiphons) were already present in the earliest regular liturgical offices for the special feasts of the Virgin during the year.

Quotations from the Song of songs became parts of prayer responsa (antiphons) and capitula (chapter heads) and were used all over Western Europe (some are still found in the Officium parvum in the Roman Breviary). In some local uses other parts of the text also included, and quotations of single phrases are found everywhere. The publication of a xylographic Flemish edition of Canticum Canticorum as a beautifully illustrated block-book in the 15th cent. is well known. The reasons for the publication must be seen in the light of the dramatic increase in Marian devotion towards 1500, which eventually became so appalling to humanist intellectuals (like Melancthon), that it contributed to the Protestant movements. In a 13th century Hours from Liège  the Song of Songs also provided three lessons at Matins (2nd Nocturn) with responsories and versicles.

Song of Songs: Mariolatry - the cult of Mary in the Book of Hours

The Latin Vulgate text was taken literally, as it is illustrated in a French woodcut from around 1500 cut after a model by a good miniaturist working in Paris, and used in several Parisian editions of Horae (prints among others by Th. Kerver and G. Hardouin), where scrolls of text are shown with a corresponding visualisation of the symbols and so-called "Names of Mary". Without knowledge of the imposed Marian symbolism in Canticum Canticorum the picture is  unintelligible: Lines like "Veniat dilectus meus in hortum suum" (5:1 I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse ), or: "Descendi in hortum nucum, ut viderem poma convallium ( 6:11 "I went down into the garden of nuts to see whether... the pomegranates budded")  and "Dilectus meus descendit in hortum suum --- et lilia colligat." (6:2 "My beloved is gone down into his garden... to  gather lilies ") are the background settings for the picture.

At the top is God as ruler of the World, saying:

Tota pulchra es amica mea et macula non est in te. (4:7 "Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee." )[Cant. 4,7 - common antiphon]

To the left of the Virgin:

Pulchra ut luna (Beautiful as the Moon). [Picture of the Moon, Cant. 6:10]
electa ut sol, (clear as the Sun) [Picture of the Sun, Cant. Cant. 6:10]
Porta celi. [A city gate]
Plantacio rose. [A rose bush]
Cedrus exsaltata. [Scroll around a tree]
Puteus aquarum viventium (a well of living waters) [Water font in stone, Cant. 4,15]
Virga iesse floruit. [Branch in blossom, common typology to the birth of the Virgin, from Isaiah 11,1]
Ortus conclusus. [Enclosed garden, - "A garden inclosed is my sister" Cant. 4,12 - common antiphon, cf. Speculum humane salvationis chapter 3: Ortus conclusus et fons signatus significat Mariam.]

To the right of the Virgin:

Stella maris. [A star, cf. the hymn: Ave maris stella, found in all Horae]
Sicut lilium inter spinas. (2:2 like a lily among the thorns) [A lily, Cant. 2,2 - Parisian and Carthusian antiphon]
Turris david cum propugnaculis.(" 4:4 Thy neck is like the tower of David builded for an armoury") [Tower in a city, Cant. 4,4 - Typology to the Marriage of Mary and Joseph in Speculum Hum. Salv. chapter 6]
Oliva speciosa. [Scroll around a tree]
Speculum sine macula. [A round mirror]
Fons ortorum. ("4:15 A fountain of gardens") [A fountain, Cant. 4,15 - common antiphon]
Civitas dei. [The city of God, i.e. the Heavenly Jerusalem]


 Adapted from http://www.chd.dk/tutor/canticum.html

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