Stabat Mater: A New Translation

Lamentation Beneath the Cross -- Cranach the Elder (1503)

Sometimes I’m blown away by the creativity and giftedness of others. A parishioner of mine named Tom Barber, a physician, has written a new translation of the Stabat Mater, the medieval poem that reflects upon the suffering of Mary during the crucifixion. Tom is a member of the St. John’s choir and an insightful and wise soul — and no I’m not just saying this because he was on the search committee that brought me here. For those of you who “habla” click here for the Latin translation.

What follows are Tom’s reflections upon the process of writing this and then his new version, titled “His Mother Wept.” I commend this to you as a fruitful devotion in the days ahead.

The medieval poem Stabat Mater, has been attributed to Pope Innocent III (1160 or 1161 – 16 July 1216) or to Jacopone da Todi, a Franciscan friar from Umbria, Italy (1236-1306).  This beautiful meditation imagines the sorrow of the mother of Jesus as she witnesses His death. Its author seeks solace and healing through his entreaties to the Virgin Mary. The poem has inspired many pieces of music, and it remains in use as a devotional prayer in the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions. The title is taken from the first line: Stabat mater dolorosa, usually translated as “The sorrowful mother stood.”

There have been many translations from the Latin into English, some of which translate the text literally, and others which attempt to replicate the meter, rhyming scheme and spirit of the original poem. Several of these translations can be found easily on the Internet. The original poem consists of 21 stanzas of three verses each, except for the last stanza which contains two verses. The poem’s basic meter is trochaic tetrameter, with each line constructed on 8 syllables. The first and second lines of each stanza rhyme, and the last verse of the stanza rhymes with the last verse of the following stanza.

This structure is very difficult to replicate in English, especially if the translator wishes to express the deep emotions of grief and the hope for consolation that are present in the original. The following “interpretive translation” is an attempt to honor the straightforward, declarative language of the medieval poem using contemporary language. I have relaxed the meter and chosen more subtle rhymes than appear in the original or in several other rhymed translations. I have also opted to echo the sounds at the end of every other stanza for the first half of the poem, and then sequential stanzas for the second half of the poem. But structure must serve meaning, and the meaning here is that for the faithful, meditation upon the death of Christ and the love of his mother is a transformative experience leading not to despair but to hope, love and life.            Dr. Tom Barber 2010

His Mother Wept

His mother wept. She stood
beside the cross. Upon its wood
hung the body of her Son.

Her spirit moaned
with sadness, pained
and punctured.

How grieved and lost,
and yet how blessed,
childless and alone

In sadness,
trembling, witness
to His despair.

Who would not ache
to see such pain?
Christ’s mother –

Imagine any mother –
the loss of any other
mother’s love… 

She beheld his torment,
Punishment — 
for us, for sins. There

She stayed. She was there
in that place where
he gave his spirit up.

Mother, source of love,
join me when I grieve –
mourn with me.

Make my heart strong
in love of Christ. I long
to please.

Holy Mother, help me understand
the meaning of the wounds. 
Help me to believe

All injuries,
all penalties
are His, for me.  

Let me ever share
the weight you bear,
the crucifixion.

Let me also stand
beside the cross, in
witness to His passion.

Woman among women,
mother, also virgin,
please be kind.

Let me also know His death,
hear with you his parting breath,
healed, no longer blind.

Scales lifted from my eyes,
mind open, alive
for His love’s sake.

Spread light, sow love,
Virgin, lift me up
in my last days.

Let the cross protect
by faith, in life and death,
with grace.

And when my body dies
grant me paradise!
A new beginning, not an end.


Amen forever, Amen.

3 Comments on “Stabat Mater: A New Translation”

  1. Bill Cruse says:

    Thank you for sharing this. If Tom will permit me, I’m reaching out to several composer friends. Maybe by next Good Friday this can be sung as part of the liturgy.


  2. Father Tim says:

    What a great idea, Bill! I’m sure her wouldn’t mind but I’ll email you his address.

  3. Beth Logan says:

    Thank you, Tom.

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