Friday, October 16, 2015

A Closer Look at "The Little Office of the Virgin and Mary's Role at Paris"

As we discussed in class, there's not much scholarship on the "why" of the Office of the Virgin. Though its popularity is well established, and Books of Hours, are well documented as an art historical and cultural phenomenon, the rise of the Office and the reasons why it were performed seem to be considered secondary at best. Prof. Fulton Brown mentioned briefly in class that Rebecca Baltzer's article, "The Little Office of the Virgin and Mary's Role at Paris" take a rare stab at generating an argument for the purpose of the Office. Baltzer provides an analysis of the psalms and prayers selected for the Little Office of the Virgin and compares what we have record of at Paris with other Office texts from contemporary churches and monasteries. The question (and I'm paraphrasing), "Are you convinced Baltzer was right?" was posed to the class, and I'd like to take a closer look at Baltzer's argument in light of the temple imagery in the psalms which we've discussed.

Baltzer begins her article by reviewing the evolving form of the Little Office in the 13th century, comparing the Office as it appears in different texts. This provides us with a concept of the Office as a whole, as well as its local particularities, thus providing us an immediate context for the liturgy. It briefly touches on from where these psalms and antiphons are drawn. The article states: "The psalms used in the Little Office of the Virgin are those which are 'ordinary' for Marian feasts, a natural choice for the compilers of the Little Office." (Baltzer 468) Both local Benedictine liturgies and the Feast of the Assumption are mentioned as sources for the Little Office. The article then follows the discrepancies between the texts (468-470) and draws conclusions from these differences. Again, these comparisons provide us with a context for individual variations in the reception and purpose for the books under review, though this context is primarily useful when considering the individual books, rather than the origins and purpose of the Little Office as a whole.

Baltzer does make a claim at the purpose of the Office as it was performed at Notre-Dame de Paris: "In the shape of their liturgy and in the magnificent edifice newly built to house it, the clergy of Notre-Dame of Paris asserted a special role – one closely tied to the Virgin – for their church in the world. At the time of Notre-Dame's construction, the paramount and overriding message that the clerical hierarchy wished to communicate was the idea that the Virgin was the Mother of God, and through her, in this cathedral church built in her honor, salvation could best be found" (Baltzer, 470). To sum up Baltzer's argument then, the Little Office of the Virgin, largely built from other Marian Feast Day Liturgies, was said daily at Notre-Dame because it was a reminder of Mary's role in redemption, that Mary was a type of the Church, and that Notre Dame itself was a physical representation of both of these ideas. Promoting the Virgin was promoting the cathedral, too.

I do find Baltzer's argument convincing for the particular situation at Notre Dame in the 13th century. Even if we disregard the "Mary as type of the Church" idea as a later invention, that the Little Office of the Virgin would be said so frequently at a wealthy and powerful church dedicated to her is no surprise, and Baltzer's argument that the Office served to both advertise and bolster the intertwining of the role of cathedral (and Church) and Mary as sites of God's presence to be well worth considering. However, by focusing so much on the particulars, it does fail to consider the broad popularity that the Office already had (I think the number of texts and their variations make a strong argument for this!), and thus why it was likely chosen to be performed at the cathedral, and why the Little Office was composed the way it was. It is in these two points that the arguments based on Barker's temple imagery and theology discussed in class can provide possible answers.

A number of the psalms used in the Little Office are hymns to be sung at the enthronement of the king in the temple at Jerusalem. As we saw in class, these psalms draw directly on the figures of the temple and Davidic kingship and have a long history as sources of vocabulary for Marian devotion and Christ's kingship. Many of the others belong to the "Gradual Psalms," or Songs of the Ascent. These songs of thanksgiving or the need for deliverance were likely sung by pilgrims on their way to the temple. Not only do they function as general prayers, but they're couched in temple imagery. As we've discussed, the imagery in all of these psalms was tied very closely to Mary by the 8th century, as see in the homilies of Andrew of Crete and Germanos of Constantinople, so their use in the Liturgy for the Feast of the Assumption and the Little Office seems a natural extension of that tradition. It is also worth noting that many of the psalms that don't fall into these categories are sung at Matins, Lauds, or Compline, where the text tends to emphasize pleas for forgiveness or thanksgiving for the day to begin or just completed.

That this tradition greatly predated the construction of Notre-Dame, and that supplication to the Virgin was understood to provide temporal and spiritual benefits to the supplicant (or servant), as seen in the exempla provided by Peter Damian and later in the Golden Legend, goes a long way to explain the popularity of the Little Office outside of the obvious Marian centers and why the Office was adopted at those centers. When this reading is paired with Baltzer's argument for the centrality of the Office at Notre-Dame, we can begin to see the outline of a culture of devotion building around Marian and temple imagery, and how that imagery was propagated by those heavily invested in the promotion of the cult.



  1. As a sort of post script, I wanted to add this quick guide of the psalms used in the Little Office that I created while reviewing this article. I regret that I used the psalm number, rather than where it appears in the hours, since I think that would have been more interesting, but I think it may still give you a good idea of the general theme of each psalm. I've tried to call out, in broad strokes, any temple imagery that appears, too.

    Psalm 8 – Elevation of humanity over other creation
    Psalm 12 – A personal lament and request for the Lord's protection. Includes a "salvation oracle" (per annotated NRSV) where a temple official assures the petitioner of God's coming intervention
    Psalm 18 – Bridegroom = sun; promise of an obedient servant
    Psalm 23 – A liturgy/hymn on entering the sanctuary
    Psalm 30 - A prayer of thanksgiving for health (and the dedication of the temple)
    Psalm 42 – A song for healing
    Psalm 44 – His mother crowns the king; a wedding song
    Psalm 45 – The Lord of hosts is with us; he makes the city glad and victorious
    Psalm 62 – A medidation on encountering God in the temple
    Psalm 66 – A hymn of thanksgiving for good harvest
    Psalm 86 – The superiority of Zion, the city of God, over all other cities; all temples replaced by Jerusalem
    Psalm 92 – A hymn for the Lord's enthronement
    Psalm 94 – For the enthronement of the Lord. Tied to the (re)enthronement of the Lord and the king
    Psalm 95 – An invitation to temple worship
    Psalm 96 – For the enthronement of the Lord. Kingship imagery
    Psalm 97 – Another enthronement hymn. Lots of temple imagery; the approval of Zion; clouds
    Psalm 99 – The final enthronement him. "Enter his gates with thanksgiving"
    Psalm 109 – A Davidic king; "from the womb of the morning..." King as priest
    Psalm 112 – Praise of the divine name, "praise, O servants of the Lord"
    Psalm 116 – All nations praise the Lord
    Psalm 118 – This psalm is forever. The psalmist desires to be as close to the law as to the temple. It's about being a faithful servant
    Psalm 119 – A call to the Lord for help
    Psalm 120 – A dialogue between a pilgrim to Jerusalem and a priest
    Psalm 121 – A direct address to Jerusalem because it holds the thrones of judgment and the House of David
    Psalm 122 – Song from a servant to the divine king to ask for mercy
    Psalm 123 – Thanksgiving for national deliverance
    Psalm 124 – Thanksgiving for deliverance again. Zion/Jerusalem imagery
    Psalm 125 - Thanksgiving upon return to Jerusalem
    Psalm 126 – "Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord," and thanksgiving
    Psalm 127 – More thanksgiving for family life with references to mothers, sons, and Zion
    Psalm 128 – Blessings to the Lord for deliverance from enemies
    Psalm 129 – The Lord will redeem Israel
    Psalm 130 - Calm me, Lord! Like a weaned child with its mother
    Psalm 131 – The Lord has chosen Zion for his resting place and David as his king
    Psalm 132 – Precious oil anoints the head of Aaron
    Psalm 133 – Come bless the Lord all you servants of the Lord
    Psalm 147 – Praise the Lord, the creator. Direct address to Jerusalem and Zion
    Psalm 148 – All of creation should praise the Lord (not sure on the direct imagery here)
    Psalm 149 – Praise the Lord who will smite your enemies
    Psalm 150 - A hymn of praise to God in the temple


  2. Very nice thought to test what I suggested about Baltzer's argument in class. As I said, she is one of a very few even to attempt a close reading of the Office at all, but I am troubled by the way she concludes. Certainly, the canons at Notre Dame had a vested interest in serving Mary, as their cathedral was dedicated to her, but since they were hardly the only ones performing her office--and Peter Damian recommended it widely both to clergy and laity--we need a close reading of the Paris office in comparison with the offices said or sung elsewhere before we can say that its themes were specific to the canons' circumstances. Your list of the psalms makes an excellent case for reading the Marian office more in the light of the homilies we have been looking at: this is an office about enthroning the king in the womb of his mother. In this context, the clerics serving her do so as priests of the temple sang praises to the LORD. To understand what it meant to say Mary was the "type" of the Church in this period, we need to understand who Mary was. RLFB