The Queen of Heaven, Pleading with Christ

Prayers like the ‘Salve Regina’ and ‘Regina Caeli’ are signs and proof of our devotion to Mary as Queen of Heaven

Diego Velázquez, “Coronation of the Virgin”, ca. 1635
Diego Velázquez, “Coronation of the Virgin”, ca. 1635 (photo: Public Domain)

From the Feast of the Purification (Feb. 2) through the Wednesday of Holy Week, the Ave, Regina Caelorum is the Marian antiphon for Night Prayer (Compline). As an Anglican, Blessed John Henry Newman translated the antiphon in his Tract 75 of the Tracts of the Times, analyzing the Hours of the Roman Breviary:

Hail, O Queen of the heavens
Hail, Lady of Angels
Hail, the root! hail the gate!
Whence to the world light is risen.
Rejoice, O glorious Virgin,
Beautiful above all;
Farewell, O thou most comely,
And prevail on Christ for us by thy prayer.

(Ave, Regina cœlorum!
Ave, Domina Angelorum!
Salve radix, salve porta!
Ex quâ mundo lux est orta.
Gaude, Virgo gloriosa,
Super omnes speciosa;
Vale, o valde decora,
Et pro nobis Christum exora.)

This is one of the four Marian antiphons the Church uses throughout the liturgical year. The Ave, Regina Caelorum/Hail, O Queen of Heaven is prayed from the Purification to the Wednesday of Holy Week. The Church has been singing the Alma Redemptoris Mater since the First Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent through the Feast of the Purification on Feb. 2. The antiphons are omitted during the Holy Triduum.

From Easter Sunday to Pentecost the Regina Caeli/Queen of Heaven with its repeated Alleluias also replaces the Angelus. The Salve, Regina/Hail, Holy Queen is the antiphon during Ordinary Time, from Pentecost to the beginning of Advent.

Although we use the term antiphon for these hymns, they are not really antiphons, which are short chants sung as refrains before and after the psalms and canticles in the Liturgy of the Hours. These Marian antiphons are sometimes called “votive” or “breviary” antiphons to distinguish them from the antiphons used with the psalms.


Blessed Herman the Cripple

Like the Alma Redemptoris Mater, the words of this antiphon are sometimes attributed to Hermannus Contractus (Blessed Herman "the Cripple"), an historian, monk, mathematician, and poet from southwestern Germany who was born in 1013 and died near Lake Constance in 1054. The Ave, Regina Caelorum has been used in the Liturgy of the Hours since the thirteenth century. Father Edward Caswall translated it for his Lyra Catholica: Containing All the Hymns of the Roman Breviary and Missal, with Others from Various Sources, first published in 1849:

Hail, O Queen of Heaven enthroned.
Hail, by angels mistress owned.
Root of Jesse, Gate of Morn
Whence the world's true light was born:

Glorious Virgin, Joy to thee,
Loveliest whom in heaven they see;
Fairest thou, where all are fair,
Plead with Christ our souls to spare.

When the antiphon is recited, this ancient response, taken from the works of St. Ephrem the Syrian, and prayer are added:

V. Allow me to praise thee, O sacred Virgin. 
R. Against thy enemies give me strength.

Grant unto us, O merciful God, a defense against our weakness, that we who remember the holy Mother of God, by the help of her intercession, may rise from our iniquities, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

This Marian antiphon, as the Catholic Encyclopedia states, “recalls the part Mary had in the drama of the reopening of Heaven to men and shows her as reigning there Queen of Angels.” We may be going through a period of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in our own spiritual preparation for Easter, but we know that Christ has triumphed over death.


Chant and Polyphony

Like the other Marian antiphons, the Ave, Regina Caelorum has been part of the Church’s liturgical and musical repertory for centuries. There are settings in the Simple Tone and the Solemn Tone of Gregorian chant. The fifteenth century English composer Leonel Power’s Ave, Regina Caelorum is one of only 40 of his works that have survived.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the great Italian Renaissance composer, emphasized the serenity of the prayer. The Spanish Counter-Reformation composer Tomás Luis de Victoria wrote a motet for five voices and his lesser known countryman, Alonso Lopo composed one too. The Polish Cistercian Stanisław Sylwester Szarzyński (fl. 1692–1713) wrote a version for solo voice and instruments. The Spanish-born composer Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla composed a setting for the choir of the Cathedral of Puebla de los Angeles in Mexico. Finally, the French Baroque composer, Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704), composed a version for women’s voices.


Queen of Heaven

Why do we call Mary the Queen of Heaven? Pope Pius XII, at the end of a Marian year in 1954, issued an encyclical titled Ad Caeli Reginam attesting to the fact that:

From the earliest ages of the Catholic Church a Christian people, whether in time of triumph or more especially in time of crisis, has addressed prayers of petition and hymns of praise and veneration to the Queen of Heaven. And never has that hope wavered which they placed in the Mother of the Divine King, Jesus Christ; nor has that faith ever failed by which we are taught that Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, reigns with a mother's solicitude over the entire world, just as she is crowned in heavenly blessedness with the glory of a Queen.

Before establishing the feast of the Queenship of Mary, Pope Pius surveyed many statements by Fathers of the Church, other saints through the ages, other popes, and cultural evidence for the constant devotion to Mary as the Queen of Heaven. He even cited this antiphon, as well as the Salve, Regina and the Regina Caeli, as signs of that devotion. And he summed up his hopes for the celebration of the new feast: “Let all, therefore, try to approach with greater trust the throne of grace and mercy of our Queen and Mother, and beg for strength in adversity, light in darkness, consolation in sorrow; above all let them strive to free themselves from the slavery of sin and offer an unceasing homage, filled with filial loyalty, to their Queenly Mother.”