The Magnificat is a song of praise uttered by the Virgin Mary, found within the pages of St Luke’s gospel. The words of the song are based on a dramatic speech Mary made in the house of her elderly relative, St Elizabeth.
Mary had just arrived there to share the news that she too was now pregnant. On hearing Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth praised her out loud, which led Mary to give a poetic speech in response. This speech became known as the Magnificat, after its first line in Latin (‘Magnificat anima mea Dominum’).
Pope Benedict XVI referred to the Magnificat as “that great poem inspired by the Holy Spirit that came from Mary’s lips, indeed, from Mary’s heart.” He explained: “This marvellous canticle mirrors the entire soul, the entire personality of Mary. We can say that this hymn of hers is a portrait of Mary, a true icon in which we can see her exactly as she is.”
The Pope went on to analyse the song in more detail. He said: “It begins with the word “Magnificat”: my soul “magnifies” the Lord, that is, “proclaims the greatness” of the Lord. Mary wanted God to be great in the world, great in her life and present among us all. She was not afraid that God might be a “rival” in our life, that with his greatness he might encroach on our freedom, our vital space. She knew that if God is great, we too are great.”
He also remarked on how it reveals Mary’s familiarity with Scripture: “A second observation: Mary’s poem – the Magnificat – is quite original; yet at the same time, it is a “fabric” woven throughout of “threads” from the Old Testament, of words of God. Thus, we see that Mary was, so to speak, “at home” with God’s Word.”
In particular, the Magnificat draws on several songs from the Old Testament, such as the hymn of Hannah and the first Hallel psalm (1 Samuel 2:1-10; Psalm 113). Its themes include God’s preference for the lowly, as well as the fulfilment of his promises to Abraham. The song is now used as part of the Church’s daily worship, in the prayers of the Divine Office. Many classical composers, such as Palestrina, Mozart and Schubert, have also set it to music.
This stained glass scene of the Magnificat was designed by Sir Ninian Comper and dates to the period 1899-1926. It’s found within the Lady Chapel of Downside Abbey, in Somerset. The window features the Virgin on the left, surrounded by the first line of her poem in Latin. Facing Mary is her relative Elizabeth, uttering her own words of praise, which are taken from Luke 1:42.
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Where to see this work of art
Downside Abbey, Somerset
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