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Virgin and Child by Tilman Riemenschneider, c. 1520, at Dumbarton Oaks.

Virgin and Child by Tilman Riemenschneider, c. 1520, at Dumbarton Oaks.

Tomorrow afternoon around 100 musicians will gather in Holy Comforter-Saint Cyprian church – my resident parish here in Washington, D.C. – to rehearse and perform Thomas Tallis’s epic forty part motet, Spem in alium. The performance is at 3.30 p.m., and is free and open to the general public. You are very warmly invited and welcome! More details are available here.

Composed around 1570, the text of the work is a Sarum Rite responsory for Mattins adapted from the deuterocanonical book of Judith. It was Judith whose great beauty enabled her to ingratiate herself with the enemy leader, Holophernes, get him inebriated, and then behead him and return to the Israelite camp with her trophy. She was praised by the Jewish princes as a courageous and somewhat tenacious woman. A striking depiction of the decollation of Holophernes was painted by Carravagio between 1598-99, and now hangs in the Palazzo Barberini, Rome (the painting, that is, not the head).

The English editor of early music, Philip Brett, comments that Tallis’s motet was likely written in ‘the spirit of patriotic endeavour’ to honour either Queen Mary or Queen Elizabeth, either of whom the composer would have been eager to honour with titles equivalent to those given to Judith. More recent scholarship suggests that it is more likely written for Mary than Elizabeth, not least because the text came from the Sarum missal, and the gruesome fact that Queen Mary had herself beheaded (well, not by her own hand, but…) the Duke of Northumberland, John Dudley, who had sought to usurp her claim to the throne with the Protestant, Lady Jane Grey.

Saint Jerome, however, holds Judith as a type of the Church and as a precursor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, describing her virginity and chastity as a sign of ‘the gift [which] has been bestowed most richly upon women’. Judith’s fortitude, killing the enemy of the people of Israel, is also a sign of Mary’s own victory over the serpent – the undoing of Eve’s disobedience, and the reversal of the temptation in Eden. Just as Judith saved the people of the old covenant, so through Mary’s obedience to God’s will the people of the new covenant are offered salvation in Christ. On her return to the Israelite camp, the High Priest and the leaders of the people honour Judith with these words: “You are the exaltation of Jerusalem, you are the great glory of Israel, you are the great pride of our nation” (15:9). These same words are sung in the liturgy of the Roman rite to honour Our Lady, and so the words of Judith – set exquisitely by Tallis – also echo the sentiments of Mary, and thus the whole Church – and us!

I have never put my hope in any other but in You, O God of Israel, who can show both anger and graciousness, and who absolves all the sins of suffering man. Lord God, creator of heaven and earth be mindful of our lowliness.