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Star of the Sea: Hymns to the Virgin Mary

  • Historic Calvary St. Andrew Church 95 Averill Avenue Rochester, NY, 14620 United States (map)

Among the many images and titles associated with the Virgin Mary, the metaphorical “Star of the Sea” is one of the oldest and most pervasive. In this description, Mary’s nurturing nature combines with her uniquely human perspective; just as she leads adrift sailors to safe harbor, she brings the prayers of the faithful to God, interceding on man’s behalf. This understanding of Mary’s intermediate role features prominently in the opening lines of one of the four Marian Hymns, “Ave maris stella:”

Ave, maris stella,
Dei mater alma,
atque semper virgo,
felix cœli porta.

(Hail, star of the sea,
Nurturing Mother of God,
And ever Virgin
Happy gate of Heaven.)

Mary is both the star offering guidance and the gate connecting heaven and earth. Referring to Mary as the “Star of the Sea” was popularized in the 12th century by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who championed Mary as the mediatrix, the ultimate mediator and intercessor. In one sermon, he extended the central metaphor to characterize the relationship between Mary and God’s struggling faithful. “If you are tossed upon the waves of pride, of ambition, of envy, of rivalry,” he assured, “look to the star, call on Mary. Should anger, or avarice, or fleshly desire violently assail the frail vessel of your soul, look at the star, call upon Mary." The astral imagery firmly situates Mary as a link between heaven and earth, an empyrean light offering hope and guidance for mankind. Based on the connection forged between Mary and the North Star in such lines, it is, perhaps, no surprise that travelers continue to rely on the prayer Ave Maris Stella and that many coastal churches share the name Stella Maris.

It is also unsurprising that countless hymns and motets were composed to celebrate the Star of the Sea. The pillars of our program are three settings of “Ave maris stella,” each with entirely different musical textures. Motets that use the hymn as the basis of extravagant polyphony weave among Italian laude and some of Hildegard’s finest Marian antiphons.

Earlier Event: November 15
Early Music Festival Gala Concert