The Love Story behind this Hymn sung during Lent

Jacopone and his wife Vanna di Bernardino di Guidone

A Reflection for Holy Week

by Fr Brennan Sia, CYM Chaplain 

If you’ve ever been to Stations of the Cross or a service on Good Friday, you probably would have heard a hymn called Stabat Mater in Latin which, in English, is translated as At the Cross, her station keeping. It’s a haunting hymn which describes the suffering of Mary during Jesus’ crucifixion. It was written by Fra Jacopone da Todi who was a Franciscan friar in the 1200’s.

As a young boy, Jacopone was a member of the nobility and was very undisciplined, often getting into street fights. His father had arranged for him to study law but, as a university student, Jacopone was enjoying the high life trying to throw the best parties, wearing the best clothes and indulging in gambling and running up huge debts. With his mates, they often engaged in street brawls with other gangs. He was known to be vain, arrogant and materialistic. However, underneath all this wild behavior, there really was a very creative energy which would show in his talent for writing poetry.

Jacopone got through university and became a successful lawyer and his wealth allowed him to not only pay off his debts but maintain his expensive lifestyle. However, in his late twenties, he ended up marrying a young woman named Vanna di Bernardino di Guidone who was also a member of the nobility. In stark contrast to Jacopone, Vanna was known to be a deeply religious, virtuous and generous woman. It’s said that she tried to convince him to change his ways but, instead, he insisted that she join him for all the big public social events all dressed up, which she reluctantly agreed to.

Jacopone and his young wife Vanna di Bernardino di Guidone

During their first year of marriage, Vanna attended one of these social events and, with the other noble ladies, she was on a balcony when it collapsed. Everyone was generally unhurt except for Vanna who was tragically was killed in the accident. Seeing the disaster, Jacopone immediately rushed to his wife’s side and, upon recovering her body, it was discovered (to his shock) that, under her rich and elegant clothes, she was wearing a hairshirt. Knowing his wife, he realized that she had been wearing the hairshirt as a penance for his conversion.

Jacopone decided then to change his life. He gave up his legal practice and eventually became a Franciscan brother. The friars initially were reluctant to take Jacopone in due to his worldly reputation but he managed to convince them through writing some poetry in which he renounced his former ways and lifestyle. He went on to write a number of religious poems and hymns and the most famous that has been attributed to him is the Stabat Mater which is often sung at the Stations of the Cross and on Good Friday.

In the hymn, it’s possible to sense a tribute by Jacopone to the love of his wife and/or his mother (who had an excruciating experience in giving birth to him) which is a love shown in making sacrifices and even the greatest sacrifice but which brought about his conversion to a better life in which now he was less self-centered, less greedy and more generous, honest and selfless. There is a process for his canonization but, unofficially, he is already often referred to as Blessed Jacopone.

Fra Jacopone da Todi who was a Franciscan friar in the 1200’s

Jacopone, a Franciscan friar in the 1200’s

A classic Catholic definition of love is that it is “willing the good of the other” – it is wanting what is good for the other person – and Vanna was able to achieve this for Jacopone as a wife in her prayers, penances and sacrifices for Jacopone and, in her death, he became aware of it and this set him on a whole new and better course in life and it was Vanna’s love for Jacopone that eventually helped him become a saint. This is what Love is really all about: helping us become more of the kind of people God created us to be.

While the Stabat Mater is about the love of Mary for her dying son, Jesus on the Cross, the Love Story behind the hymn, ultimately, is the Love of God shown in Jesus’ Sacrifice on the Cross for each and every one of us and that is really the greatest Love Story ever told. It is a Love Story that we will celebrate during Holy Week and Love that never gives up on us and is willing to go to any length for us: even to the Cross and back, purely out of love for each and every one of us.