Salve Regina

Marian Antiphon for Ordinary Time [Easter to Advent]

The best known and perhaps most frequently sung antiphon is the Salve Regina. Reference was made to the hymn in the introduction above. It is prescribed from Trinity Sunday (after the Easter season) to the eve of the first Advent Sunday. It is attributed to a wide variety of authors: Bernard of Clairvaux, Peter of Compostela (b. 930) who may have translated it from the Greek, Adhemar de Monteil of Puy (ca. 1080), Hermann the Cripple, Athanasius, John Damascene, and Pope Gregory IX. The earliest known manuscript was found at Reichenau, latest early eleventh century. 

There are legends attached to the Salve Regina, which attest to its popularity: Jean l'Hermite dreamt that Bernard of Clairvaux heard the entire hymn sung by heavenly choirs; he then repeated the words to Pope Eugene III. In an extension of this legend, it is reported that Bernard visited the great cathedral of Speyer in 1146. When he entered the cathedral, he reverenced Our Lady's statue, chanting: "O thou deboner, o thou meke, o thou swete maide Marie." [These words are found in the Cambridge primer of the fifteenth century.] Historically, the story seems unlikely, since the Swabian manuscript which preceeds Bernard, contains the entire text.


Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae;
vita, dulcedo et spes nostra, salve.
Ad te clamamus, exsules filii Hevae.
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes
in hac lacrimarum valle.
Eia ergo, advocata nostra,
illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte.
Et Iesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui,
nobis post hoc exsilium ostende.
O clemens, o pia, o dulcis Virgo Maria.

English: Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy,
hail, our life, our sweetness, and our hope.
To you we cry, the children of Eve;
to you we send up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this land of exile.
Turn, then, most gracious advocate,
your eyes of mercy toward us;
lead us home at last
and show us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus:
O clement, O loving, O sweet virgin Mary.


Historical Origins

The anitphon is associated with evening and evensong. Fr. Juniper B. Carol, OFM writes in his Mariology, Volume 3,

Its occurrence after compline is probably traceable to the monastic practice of intoning it in the chapel and chanting it on the way to sleeping quarters. (76)
Carol continues,
There is considerable evidence that the hymn was popular as a song of exultant joy, a tribute more to its lilting melody [the original plainchant is indicated here] than to its references to mourning, weeping and exile. Seafaring men doubtless came to favor it because it was so eminently singable. It came to be used as part of the ritual for the blessing of a ship, and the core of evening service on shipboard. The mention of it in Columbus' journal is well-known. (76)
This antiphon can be traced to formulas taught on missionary journeys, especially in the Caribbean. It was popular at medieval universities as evening song, and was the frequent setting for devotions known as Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Chantries were established in the medieval and Renaissance periods for the singing of the Salve, especially on Saturday evenings. [A chantry is an endowment or foundation for the chanting of masses and offering of prayers for particular persons or intentions.]Regardless of its historical origin, it was well known and established in France and Germany by the twelfth century. It was definitely part of the liturgical prayer of many monasteries and part of the common prayer of many religious orders.

Carol writes, that the monastery at Cluny used it as "a processional hymn on the feast of the Assumption and other feasts which had no canticle proper to a saint, as the community made its way to Mary's chapel." (75)

The text has been altered slightly over the centuries. It originally began with the sentence, Hail, Holy Queen of Mercy; however, at Cluny it became, Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy. Mary was called upon to be the advocate before the Lord.

Both Erasmus and Luther found the Salve Regina too extravagent in its application to Mary's place in salvation history. As time went on, the hymn became a symbol of Tridentine mariology and Catholic Reformation devotion. The hymn was defended, sung "with a loud voice," and inserted in older manuscripts. Peter Canisius (d. 1597) countered these oppositions by writing that we praise God in Mary, namely, the work that he has done in her, when we turn to her in song.

The Salve Regina was used as the outline for Part I of Alphonsus de Liguori's treatise, The Glories of Mary, which has been published in over eight hundred editions since 1750. Each phrase was further subdivided into sections dealing with praise of Mary and turning to her as Advocate. For example chapter 6, part 2 is titled: Mary is so tender an Advocate, that she does not refuse to defend the cause even of the most miserable.

Another literary genre, known simply as The Salve, is the hymn book. After the invention of the printing press, the first hymn book published was by the Lutheran, Johannes Walter, 1524 in Wittenberg. This was quickly followed by two Catholics who privately published their own hymnals in 1537 and 1567 respectively. The first officially published Catholic hymnal was the Book of Bamberg in 1575. By 1882, a hymnal published by Bishop Joseph Georg von Ehrler, was given the official title Salve Regina, which in some south German dioceses remains true today. The four seasonal antiphons are usually found in these hymnals, which consist of devotions as well as hymns. The 1882 edition numbered 788 pages and reached forty-eight editions until it was replaced with yet another Salve Regina in 1929.

Finally, in our discussion of the hymn's history, the prayer in its vernacular forms were prescribed by Pope Leo XIII to be prayed after the low masses (that is, after masses in which there was no singing). This regulation lasted until the reforms of the second Vatican Council. Earlier history records instances of the Salve being prayed before mass, and by various religious communities, before the reading of the final Gospel.

We have yet to discuss the musical settings of the Salve Regina that developed through the centuries. The first known is the solemn plainchant. Since both the solemn and simple plainchant were so familiar and much loved, this may have contributed to the fact that relatively few musical settings (in comparison to the Regina Coeli, for instance) took root or grew in popularity for liturgical use. The plainchant Salve, unlike the other antiphons, can be found in troped versions, that is, by intermingling expanded text with the original base text. A Munich manuscript typifies this: Salve virgo virginum, Virgo clemens, Dulce commercium, Tu es ille fons signatus, [Hail Virgin of virgins, merciful virgin, sweet exchange, you are the sealed fountain.] These texts of the Fathers of the Church, with their biblical illusions to the Songs of Songs, are interwined with the text of the antiphon. Examples of the hymn are found in every period. Examples: Leonel Power, d. 1445; Johannes Ockeghem, d. 1496?; Orlando di Lasso, d. 1594; Joseph Haydn, d. 1809; Marcel Dupre, d. 1971. The patterns of interpretation as discussed for the Regina Coeli are applied also to the Salve Regina.

Theological Considerations

Chapter 8 of Lumen Gentium during the Second Vatican Council, pointed out Mary's role among the People of God. The ancient term Advocate, used by the Fathers and a title given to Mary in the Salve Regina, was quoted in paragraph 62. The Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes several paragraphs to Mary. Mary is a "preeminent and...wholly unique member of the Church"; indeed, she is the "exemplary realization" (typus) of the Church. (967)

Her role in relation to the Church and to all humanity goes still further. "In a wholly singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope, and burning charity in the Savior's work of restoring supernatural life to souls. For this reason she is a mother to us in the order of grace." (LG 61; CCC 968)

 "This motherhood of Mary in the order of grace continues uninterruptedly from the consent which she loyally gave at the Annunication and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation... Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix." (LG; CCC 969)

This is the meaning of the Salve Regina. It is our belief that she has been drawn to heaven but does not forget those who still journey on this earth. She can assist us only because God so wills it. She reflects for us the promises of God, that God makes to all human beings. One day our hope will be rewarded, our trials ended, as were Mary's. We look to her and ask: When our exile is done, O Maria! Show us your Son!

The Salve Regina Today

The plainchant Salve Regina is well known by those who pray the official prayer of the Catholic Church, The Liturgy of the Hours. Members of religious communities, those in seminary formation, many lay groups, etc. know and sing the Salve to conclude meetings or prayer at the end of the day. Many of the faithful elect to pray a form of the Salve Regina to close the Rosary devotion. We gather, the saints and sinners of earth, with the angels and saints of heaven, to thank the woman who brought us Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life, and to ask her to graciously help us to know him, love him and serve him as she did.

Perhaps we can identify with a quote from Alphonsus di Liguori's Glories of Mary:

Blessed Amadeus says, 'that our Queen is constantly before the Divine Majesty, interceding for us with her most powerful prayers.' And as in heaven 'she well knows our miseries and wants, she cannot do otherwise than have compassion on us; and thus, with the affection of a mother, moved to tenderness towards us, pitying and gentle, she is always endeavoring to help and save us'. (167)
See CDs, Cassettes, Books at the Marian Library for a list of contemporary recordings of Salve Regina.


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