Alma Redemptoris Mater

Marian Antiphon for Advent

The manuscript tradition traces the presently known Alma Redemptoris Mater to the twelfth century. The text, however, is thought by some scholars to have been known in the late Carolingian period in France. The manuscript Ancren Riwle contains the Alma and the Ave Regina Caelorum. The Alma is also found in Chaucer's Prioress Tale.



Alma Redemptoris Mater, quae pervia caeli
porta manes, et stella maris, succurre cadenti,
surgere qui curat, populo: tu quae genuisti,
natura mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem,
Virgo prius ac posterius, Gabrielis ab ore,
sumens illud Ave, peccatorum miserere.
English: Loving mother of the Redeemer,
gate of heaven, star of the sea,
assist your people who have fallen yet strive to rise again.
To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator,
Yet remained a virgin after as before.
You who received Gabriel's joyful greeting,
have pity on us poor sinners.

The Alma Redemptoris Mater is one of the four seasonal antiphons prescribed to be sung or recited in the Liturgy of the Hours after night prayer (Compline or Vespers). It is usually sung from the eve of the first Sunday of Advent until the Friday before the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple.

The form of the poem, six hexameters with simple rhyme, was long thought to have been the style of the monk, Hermann Contractus (Herman the Lame) from the monastery of Reichenau, Lake Constance. The text also is incorporated into a Marian sequence of the twelfth century entitled, Alma redemptoris mater, quem de caelis. The sequence originated in the twelfth century in southern Germany about the same time that the manuscripts of the first musical setting of the Alma in plainchant appeared. Some authors relate the antiphon to another entitled, Ave Maris Stella [Hail, Star of the Sea].

Alma Redemptoris Mater was originally a processional antiphon for Sext in the Liturgy of the Hours for the Feast of the Ascension. It was Pope Clement VI who, in 1350, determined the pattern used today for the seasonal singing of the various antiphons.

Regarding the singing of Marian hymns and their musical settings, it has been estimated that there are fifteen thousand hymns directed to Mary. Many written to honor Mary have been based on other poems or hymns, some four thousand are original compositions. The majority of the Marian hymns were composed in Latin and sung in various modes of plainchant. It is thought that they originated as hymns of praise of the Incarnation, that is, as Christmas hymns. Alma Redemptoris Mater is one such work.

After the pronouncement regulating the seasonal presentation of the antiphons, composers more frequently grouped the four major Marian antiphons together for composition, collections and performance. During the baroque period, the settings of the antiphons gradually shifted from plainchant to more and more elaborate choir pieces. Leonel Power (d. 1445), for instance -- recorded in Germany in 1981 -- recovers an example of the shift from plainchant to pre-baroque setting. Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594) composed an intricate piece for polyphony (six voices), a triumphal piece using brass instruments. Giovanni Palestrina, praised in the post-Trent period as master of religious expression, also set the Alma in his own more reserved polyphonic style.

As a rule, composers retained the character of Advent longing and Christmas adoration in the Alma compositions. The world waits with the Virgin for the wonderment of nature to take its course. God touches earth in her and comes to us in the fullness of time.

Theological Considerations

In 1987, Pope John Paul II wrote an encyclical: Redemptoris Mater [Mother of the Redeemer]. In this letter the pope writes about Mary's pilgrimage of faith. To conclude the letter, he quotes the ancient Alma antiphon and presents it as a reflection on the wonderment of faith. The text invites us to reflect on the words of the ancient hymn and to sing them in anticipation of the turn of the millennium. For our theological reflection on this antiphon, we quote Pope John Paul II's final paragraphs from the encyclical.

51. At the end of the daily Liturgy of the Hours, among the invocations addressed to Mary by the Church is the following:

"Loving Mother of the Redeemer,
gate of heaven, star of the sea,
assist your people who have fallen yet strive to rise again.
To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator!"

"To the wonderment of nature!" These words of the antiphon express that wonderment of faith which accompanies the mystery of Mary's divine motherhood. In a sense, it does so in the heart of the whole of creation, and, directly, in the heart of the whole People of God, in the heart of the Church. How wonderfully far God has gone, the Creator and Lord of all things, in the "revelation of himself" to human beings! How clearly he has bridged all the spaces of that infinite "distance" which separates the Creator from the creature! If in himself he remains ineffable and unsearchable, still more ineffable and unsearchable is he in the reality of the Incarnation of the Word, who became man through the Virgin of Nazareth. ...
[Christmas Image]

At the center of this mystery, in the midst of this wonderment of faith, stands Mary. As the loving Mother of the Redeemer, she was the first to experience it: "To the wonderment of nature
you bore your Creator!"

52. The words of this liturgical antiphon also express the truth of the "great transformation" which the mystery of the Incarnation establishes for human beings. It is a transformation which belongs to his entire history, from that beginning which is revealed to us in the first chapters of Genesis until the final end, in the perspective of the end of the world, of which Jesus has revealed to us "neither the day nor the hour." (Mt 25:13) It is an unending and continuous transformation between falling and rising again, between the person of sin and the person of grace and justice....

These words apply to every individual, every community, to nations and people, and to the generations and epochs of human history, to our own epoch, to these years of the Millennium which is drawing to a close: "Assist, yes, assist, your people who have fallen!"

This is the invocation addressed to Mary, the "loving Mother of the Redeemer," the invocation addressed to Christ, who through Mary entered human history. Year after year the antiphon rises to Mary, evoking that moment which saw the accomplishment of this essential historical transformation, which irreversibly continues, the transformation from "falling" to "rising."
As she goes forward with the whole of humanity towards the frontier between the two Millennia, the Church, for her part, with the whole community of believers and in union with all men and women of good will, takes up the great challenge contained in these words of the Marian antiphon: "the people who have fallen yet strive to rise again," and she addresses both the Redeemer and his mother with the plea: "Assist us."

[Christmas Image]

For, as this prayer attests, the Church sees the Blessed Mother of God in the saving mystery of Christ and in her own mystery. She sees Mary deeply rooted in humanity's history, in the human being's eternal vocation according to the providential plan which God has made for the person from eternity.

She sees Mary maternally present and sharing in the many complicated problems which today beset the lives of individuals, families and nations; she sees her helping the Christian people in the constant struggle between good and evil, to ensure that it "does not fall," or, if it has fallen, that it "rises again."

I hope with all my heart that the reflections contained in the present encyclical will also serve to renew this vision in the hearts of all believers...
Signed: Joannes Paulus pp.II

See CDs, Cassettes, Books at the Marian Library for a list of contemporary recordings of Alma Redemptoris Mater.


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