The inner truth of Stabat Mater

Stabat Mater: The Mystery Hymn

by Desmond Fisher

(Gracewing, €9.99)

Joe Carroll

Desmond Fisher, who died last December aged 95, was first and foremost a journalist with a long and distinguished career. For much of the time he was dealing with hard news, in The Irish Press in London, The Catholic Herald, RTÉ and finally the Carlow Nationalist, where he had begun his career.

He reported on Vatican II and the experience left him with an enduring interest in how the Catholic Church adapted or failed to adapt to the council documents.

It might seem strange that in his final years he would toil over his own translation of the Latin medieval hymn Stabat Mater. He does not explain why exactly he embarked on this task. Clearly he was dissatisfied with the numerous existing English versions and saw it as a challenge to produce one that would be the most faithful to the original, but why he choose Stabat Mater over other hymns he does not tell us.


As he pursued his research into the origins of the hymn and its probable author, Jacopone da Todi, a Franciscan friar who died in 1306, he felt the pull of the chase and delved deeply into all sources, much of it through the internet. As a Latin and Greek scholar, he was well suited for this task.

He became convinced that many previous commentators have missed the point of the hymn which describes the suffering of Mary, the mother of God, at the foot of the cross on Good Friday. For many it is just that – a description of the dreadful experience of watching her son die in agony.

But for Desmond Fisher, this was not the real intention of the author. The author hoped that this harrowing picture of the first Good Friday would “enkindle in his listeners, readers and singers an intense remorse and generate in them a near-hypnotic impulse to practise intense self-punishment”.

Thus Fisher links the hymn explicitly with the flagellanti, groups of men who walked around scourging themselves to atone for their sins and those of others.

During the 13th Century plagues, the movement spread from Italy to other countries like France, Austria, Germany and even Sweden.

During these penitential exercises, the flagellanti would sing the Stabat Mater and Fisher believes that the heavy rhythm of the hymn with emphasis on first syllables was ideally suited for their slow marching. Hence he also believes that existing translations are often too sentimental and sugary. 

He ensures that his own meticulous translation uses the same metric and rhyming arrangements as the original and “more faithfully reproduces the emotional mood” of the original Latin hymn.

It will be for the reader to judge how good this new translation is. Fisher has done an impressive job in setting the hymn into its historical context and drawing attention to its haunting rhythms and what he calls its “mystery”. It was fitting that he lived to complete his goal.