Despite the fact that, from the seventeenth century onwards, the Litany of Loreto has been the subject of endless panegyrics and ascetical writings, there is a great lack of documentary evidence concerning its origin, the growth and development of the litany into the forms under which we know it, and as it was for the first time definitely approved by the Church in the year 1587. Some writers declare that they know nothing of its origin and history; others, on the contrary, trace it back to the translation of the Holy House (1294); others, to Pope Sergius I (687); others, again, to Saint Gregory the Great or to the fifth century; while others go as far back as the earliest ages of the Church, and even Apostolic times. Historical criticism, however, proves it to be of more recent origin, and shows that it was composed during the early years of the sixteenth century or the closing years of the fifteenth. The most ancient printed copy hitherto discovered is that of Dillingen in Germany, dating from 1558; it is fairly certain that this is a copy of an earlier Italian one, but so far, in spite of much careful research, the oldest Italian copy that the writer has been able to discover dates from 1576.
In form, the Litany of Loreto is composed on a fixed plan common to several Marian litanies already in existence during the second half of the fifteenth century, which in turn are connected with a notable series of Marian litanies that began to appear in the twelfth century and became numerous in the thirteenth and fourteenth. The Loreto text had, however, the good fortune to be adopted in the famous shrine, and in this way to become known, more than any other, to the many pilgrims who flocked there during the sixteenth century. The text was brought home to the various countries of Christendom, and finally it received for all time the supreme ecclesiastical sanction.
Appended is a brief résumé of the work published by the present writer on this subject, the reference being to the revised and enlarged French edition of 1900, supplemented by any new matter brought to light since that time.
Sauren claims that the first and oldest Marian litany is a pious laus to the Virgin in the “Leabhar Breac”, a fourteenth-century manuscript, now in the library of the Royal Irish Academy, and written “in the purest style of Gaedhlic”, according to O’Curry, who explained its various parts. This laus of fifty-nine eulogies on the Virgin occurs on fol. 121, and O’Curry calls it a litania, attributing it at the latest to about the middle of the eighth century. But it has not at all the form of a litany, being rather a sequence of fervent praises, like so many that occur in the writings of the Fathers, especially after the fourth century. As a matter of fact, Dr. Sicking has shown that the entire laus of the “Leabhar Breac” is copied almost word for word from the first and third of the “Sermones Dubii” of Saint Ildephonsus.
The earliest genuine text of a Marian litany thus far known is in a twelfth-century codex in the Mainz Library, with the title “Letania de domina nostra Dei genitrice virgine Maria: oratio valde bona: cottidie pro quacumque tribulatione recitanda est”. It is fairly long, and was published in part by Mone, and in its entirety by the present writer. It opens with the usual “Kyrie Eleison”; then follow the invocations of the Trinity, but with amplifications, e.g. “Pater de celis deus, qui elegisti Mariam semper virginem, miserere nobis”; these are followed by invocations of the Virgin Mary in a long series of praises, of which a brief selection will be enough: “Sancta Maria, stirps patriarcharum, vaticinium prophetarum, solatium apostolorum, rosa martirum, predicatio confessorum, lilium virginum, ora pro nobis benedictum ventris tui fructum”; “Sancta Maria, spes humilium, refugium pauperum, portus naufragantium, medicina infirmorum, ora pro nobis benedictum ventris tui fructum”; etc. This goes on for more than fifty times, always repeating the invocation “Sancta Maria”, but varying the laudatory titles given. Then, after this manner of the litanies of the saints, a series of petitions occur, e.g.: “Per mundissimum virgineum partum tuum ab omni immundicia mentis et corporis liberet nos benedictus ventris tui fructus”; and farther on, “Ut ecclesiam suam sanctam pacificare, custodire, adunare et regere dignetur benedictus ventris tui fructus, ora mater virgo Maria.” The litany concludes with the “Agnus”, also amplified, “Agne dei, filius matris virginis Marie qui tollis peccata mundi, parce nobis Domine”, etc.
Lengthy and involved litanies of this type do not seem to have won popularity, though it is possible to find other examples of a like kind. However, during the two centuries that followed, many Marian litanies were composed. Their form remains uncertain and hesitating, but the tendency is always towards brevity and simplicity. To each invocation of “Sancta Maria” it becomes customary to add only one praise, and these praises show in general a better choice or a better arrangement. The petitions are often omitted or are changed into ejaculations in honour of the Blessed Virgin.
A litany of this new form is that of a codex in the Library of Saint Mark’s, Venice, dating from the end of the thirteenth or the beginning of the fourteenth century. It is found, though with occasional variants, in many manuscripts, a sure sign that this text was especially well known and favourably received. It omits the petitions, and consists of seventy-five praises joined to the usual invocation, “Sancta Maria”. Here is a short specimen, showing the praises to be met with most frequently also in other litanies of that or of later times: “Holy Mary, Mother and Spouse of Christ, pray for me [other manuscripts have “pray for us”—the “pray” is always repeated]; Holy Mary, Mother inviolate; Holy Mary, Temple of the Holy Ghost; Holy Mary, Queen of Heaven; Holy Mary, Mistress of the Angels; Holy Mary, Star of Heaven; Holy Mary, Gate of Paradise; Holy Mary, Mother of True Counsel; Holy Mary, Gate of Celestial Life; Holy Mary, Our Advocate; Holy Mary, brightest Star of Heaven; Holy Mary, Fountain of True Wisdom; Holy Mary, unfailing Rose; Holy Mary, Beauty of Angels; Holy Mary, Flower of Patriarchs; Holy Mary, Desire of Prophets; Holy Mary, Treasure of Apostles; Holy Mary, Praise of Martyrs; Holy Mary, Glorification of Priests; Holy Mary, Immaculate Virgin; Holy Mary, Splendour of Virgins and Example of Chastity”, etc.
The first Marian litanies must have been composed to foster private devotion, as it is not at all probable that they were written for use in public, by reason of their drawn-out and heavy style. But once the custom grew up of reciting Marian litanies privately, and of gradually shortening the text, it was not long until the idea occurred of employing them for public devotion, especially in cases of epidemic, as had been the practice of the Church with the litanies of the Saints, which were sung in penitential processions and during public calamities. Hence it must be emphasized that the earliest certain mention we have of a public recital of Marian Litanies is actually related to a time of pestilence, particularly in the fifteenth century. An incunabulum of the Casanatensian Library in Rome, which contains the Venice litanies referred to above, introduces them with the following words: “Oraciones devote contra imminentes tribulaciones et contra pestem”. At Venice, in fact, these same litanies were finally adopted for liturgical use in processions for plague and mortality and asking for rain or for fair weather. Probably they began to be sung in this connection during the calamities of the fifteenth century; but in the following century we find them prescribed, as being an ancient custom, in the ceremonials of Saint Mark’s, and they were henceforth retained until after the fall of the republic, i.e., until 1820.
In the second half of the fifteenth century we meet another type of litany which was to be publicly chanted tempore pestis sive epydimic. The invocations are very simple and all begin, not with the words “Sancta Maria”, but with “Sancta mater”, e.g.: Sancta mater Creatoris; Sancta mater Salvatoris; Sancta mater munditie; Sancta mater auxilii; Sancta mater consolationis; Sancta mater intemerata; Sancta mater inviolata; Sancta mater virginum, etc. At the end, however, are a few short petitions such as those found in the litanies of the saints.
Before going further, it may be well to say a few words on the composition of the litanies we have been considering. With regard to their content, which consists mainly of praises of the Blessed Virgin, it would seem to have been taken not so much from the Scriptures and the Fathers, at least directly, as from popular medieval Latin poetry. To be convinced of this, it suffices to glance through the Daniel and Mone collections, and especially through the “Analectica Hymnica medii ævi” of Dreves-Blume. In the earlier and longer litanies whole rhythmic strophes are to be found, taken bodily from such poetry, and employed as praises of the Blessed Virgin. With regard to their form, it is certain that those who first composed the Marian litanies aimed at imitating the litanies of the Saints which had been in use in the Church since the eighth century. During the Middle Ages, as is well known, it was customary to repeat over and over single invocations in the litanies of the saints, and thus we find that the basic principle of the Marian litanies is this constant repetition of the invocation, “Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis.” And in order that this repetition might not prove monotonous in the Middle Ages recourse was had to an expedient since then universally used, not only in private devotions but even in liturgical prayer, that of amplifying by means of what are called tropes or farcituræ. They had a model in the Kyrie of the Mass, e.g. “Kyrie, fons bonitatis, pater ingenite, a quo bona cuncta procedunt, eleison.” It was an easy matter to improvise between the “Sancta Maria” and the “Ora pro nobis”, repeated over and over, a series of tropes consisting of different praises, with an occasional added petition, imitated however broadly from the litanies of the saints. Thus the Marian litany was evolved.
Gradually the praises became simpler; at times the petitions were omitted, and, from the second half of the fifteenth century, the repetition of the “Sancta Maria” began to be avoided, so that the praises alone remained, with the accompaniment “Ora pro nobis”. This made up the new group of litanies which we must now consider. The connecting link between the litanies we have discussed and this new group may have been a litany found in a manuscript of prayers, copied in 1524 by Fra Giovanni da Falerona. It consists of fifty-seven praises, and the “Sancta Maria” is repeated, but only at intervals of six or seven praises, perhaps because the shape or size of the parchment was so small that it held only six or seven lines to the page, and the copyist contented himself with writing the “Sancta Maria” once at the head of each page. But, because of its archaic form, this litany must be considerably anterior to 1524, and may have been copied from some fifteenth-century manuscript The praises are chosen in part from previous litanies, and in part they are original. Moreover, their arrangement is better and more varied. The first place is given to praises bestowed on the name of “Mater”; then come those expressing the Blessed Virgin’s tender love for mankind; then the titles given her in the creeds; then those beginning with “Regina”, which are identical with those we now have in the Litany of Loreto. Two new titles are introduced: “Causa nostræ lætitiæ” and “Vas spirituale”, which are not found in earlier litanies. Noteworthy also are three invocations, “Advocata christianorum”, “Refugium desperatorum”, “Auxilium peccatorum”, which passed by an easy change into the “Refugium peccatorum” and “Auxilium christianorum” of the Litany of Loreto. In a word, if we omit the petitions of this older form, and its reiteration of the “Sancta Maria”, we have a litany which in the choice and arrangement of praises comes very close to the Litany of Loreto.
Now there are many similar examples in which the litany consists of praises alone without the repetition of the “Sancta Maria”, and in which arrangement and form come nearer and nearer to the Litany of Loreto. Such are: (1) a litany in a manuscript of the Biblioteca Angelica in Rome (formerly, No. 392; second half of the fifteenth century; fol. 123). Except for light variants, it is identical with one printed at Venice in 1561, and another printed at Capri in 1503; (2) a litany found in a manuscript missal of the sixteenth century; (3) a litany printed at Venice in two different editions of the “Officium B. Virginis” in 1513 and 1545; (4) a litany found in a codex of the “Compagnia della Concezione di Maria SS.” of Fiorenzuola d’Arda (Piacenza), founded in 1511; (5) a litany found in a codex of the priory of Saints Philip and James, Apostles, at Montegranaro, in which the baptisms during the years 1548-58 are recorded. This litany is the shortest of all and the closest in similarity to that of Loreto.
This form of litany was widely circulated, both in script and in print, during the sixteenth century. A comparison of the texts will show that they contain the praises in the Loreto Litany, with two exceptions: the “Virgo prudentissima” of the Loreto Litany is found as “Virgo prudens”, and the “Auxilium christianorum”, though it appears in no text before this time, is, as remarked above, an easy variant of the litany of 1524. So far no manuscript of the Loreto Litany has been discovered, but it cannot be doubted that it is nothing more than a happy arrangement of a text belonging to the last group. And, moreover, it may be laid down as probable that the Loreto text became customary in the Holy House towards the close of the fifteenth century, at a time when in other places similar litanies were being adapted for public use to obtain deliverance from some calamity. It is only in 1531, 1547, and 1554, that the documents afford indications of litanies being sung in that sanctuary, though the text is not given.
The earliest printed copy of the Litany of Loreto so far known is that of Dillingen, which is undated and seems to belong to the end of 1557 or the beginning of 1558. As Dr. Paulus, following up a discovery made by Gass, has observed, it was probably published and circulated in Germany by Blessed Canisius. It is entitled: “Letania Loretana. Ordnung der Letaney von unser lieben Frawen wie sie zu Loreto alle Samstag gehalten” (Order of the Litany of Our Lady as said every Saturday at Loreto). The text is just the same as we have it to-day, except that it has “Mater piissima” and “Mater mirabilis”, where we have “Mater purissima” and “Mater admirabilis”. Further, the invocations “Mater creatoris” and “Mater salvatoris” are wanting, though this must be due to some oversight of the editor, since they are found in every manuscript of this group; on the other hand, the “Auxilium christianorum” is introduced though it does not occur in the other texts. We find this title in a Litany of Loreto printed in 1558. As already shown in the writer’s book on this subject, Pope Pius V could not have introduced the invocation “Auxilium christianorum” in 1571 after the Battle of Lepanto, as stated in the sixth lesson of the Roman Breviary for the feast of S. Maria Auxiliatrix (24 May); and to this conclusion the Dillingen text adds indisputable evidence.
The Litany of Loreto had taken root at Loreto, and was being spread throughout the world, when it ran the grave risk of being lost forever. Saint Pius V by Motu Proprio of 20 March, 1571, published 5 April, had prohibited all existing offices of the B. V. Mary, disapproving in general all the prayers therein, and substituting a new “Officium B. Virginis” without those prayers and consequently without any litany. It would seem that this action on the part of the pope led the clergy of Loreto to fear that the text of their litany was likewise prohibited. At all events, in order to keep up the old time custom of singing the litany every Saturday in honour of the Blessed Virgin, a new text was drawn up containing praises drawn directly from the Scriptures, and usually applied to the Bl. Virgin in the Liturgy of the Church. This new litany was set to music by the choirmaster of the Basilica of Loreto, Costanzo Porta, and printed at Venice in 1575. It is the earliest setting to music of a Marian litany that we know of. In the following year (1576) these Scriptural litanies were printed in two different handbooks for the use of pilgrims. In both they bear the title: “Litaniæ deipare Virginis ex Sacra Scriptura depromptæ quæ in alma Domo lauretana omnibus diebus Sabbathi, Vigiliarum et Festorum decantari solent”. But in the second handbook, the work of Bernardine Cirillo, archpriest of Loreto, the old text of the litany is also printed, though with the plainer title, “Aliæ Litaniæ Beatæ Mariæ Virginis”, a clear sign that it was not quite forgotten.
On 5 Feb., 1578, the archdeacon of Loreto, Giulio Candiotti, sent to Pope Gregory XIII the “Laudi o lettanie moderne della sma Vergine, cavate dalla sacra Scrittura” (New praises or litanies of the most holy Virgin, drawn from Sacred Scripture), with Porta’s music and the text apart, expressing the wish that His Holiness would cause it to be sung in Saint Peter’s and in other churches as was the custom at Loreto. The pope’s reply is not known, but we have the opinion of the theologian to whom the matter was referred, in which the composition of the new litany is praised, but which does not judge it opportune to introduce it into Rome or into church use on the authority of the pope, all the more because Pius V “in reforming the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin completely abolished, among other things, some proper litanies of the Blessed Virgin which existed in the old [office], and which (if I remember rightly) were somewhat similar to these”. The judgment concludes that the litany might be sung at Loreto as a devotion proper to this shrine, and if others wanted to adopt it they might do so by way of private devotion.
This attempt having failed, the Scriptural litany straightway began to lose favour, and the Loreto text was once more resumed. In another manual for pilgrims, published by Angelita in that same year 1578, the Scriptural litany is omitted, and the old Loreto text appears with the title: “Letanie che si cantano nella Santa Casa di Loreto ogni Sabbato et feste delle Madonna”. In a new edition (1584) of Angelita’s book, the Scriptural litany is restored but relegated to a secondary position, though included under the title “Altre letanie che si cantano”, etc. From this it is clear that for a time both litanies were in use at Loreto. But in subsequent editions of Angelita’s manual, and in other manuals of devotion, the Scriptural litany is printed with the bare title “Litaniæ ex S. Scriptura depromptæ”, until the seventeenth century when it disappears altogether. Meanwhile, thanks to Angelita’s manuals, the Loreto text was introduced elsewhere, and even reached Rome, when Sixtus V, who had entertained a singular devotion for Loreto, by the Bull “Reddituri” of 11 July, 1587, gave formal approval to it, as to the litany of the Holy Name of Jesus, and recommended preachers everywhere to propagate its use among the faithful.
On the strength of this impulse given to the Litany of Loreto, certain ascetical writers began to publish a great number of litanies in honour of the Saviour, the B. Virgin, and the saints, often ill-advised and containing expressions theologically incorrect, so that Pope Clement VIII had promulgated (6 Sept., 1601) a severe decree of the Holy Office, which, while upholding the litanies contained in the liturgical books as well as the Litany of Loreto, prohibited the publication of new litanies, or use of those already published in public worship, without the approbation of the Congregation of Rites.
At Rome the Litany of Loreto was introduced into the Basilica of S. Maria Maggiore by Cardinal Francesco Toledo in 1597; and Paul V, in 1613, ordered it to be sung in that church, morning and evening, on Saturdays and on vigils and feasts of the Madonna. As a result of this example the Loreto Litany began to be used, and is still largely used, in all the churches of Rome. The Dominicans, at their general chapter held at Bologna in 1615, ordered it to be recited in all the convents of their order after the Office on Saturdays at the end of the customary “Salve Regina”. Before this they had caused the invocation “Regina sacratissimi rosarii” to be inserted in the litany, and it appears in print for the first time in a Dominican Breviary dated 1614, as has been pointed out by Father Walsh, O.P., in “The Tablet”, 24 Oct., 1908. Although by decree of 1631, and by Bull of Alexander VII (1664), it was strictly forbidden to make any additions to the litanies, another decree of the Congregation of Rites, dated 1675, permitted the Confraternity of the Rosary to add the invocation “Regina sacratissimi rosarii”, and this was prescribed for the whole Church by Leo XIII (24 December 1883). By decree of 22 April, 1903, the same pope added the invocation “Mater boni consilii”, which, under the form of “Mater veri consilii”, was contained in the Marian litany used for centuries in Saint Mark’s Venice, as indicated above. In 1766 Clement XIII granted Spain the privilege of adding after “Mater intemerata” the invocation “Mater immaculata”, which is still customary in Spain, notwithstanding the addition of “Regina sine labe originali concepta”. This last invocation was originally granted by Pius IX to the Bishop of Mechlin in 1846, and, after the definition of the Immaculate Conception (1854), the congregation by various rescripts authorized many dioceses to make a like addition, so that in a short time it became the universal practice.
- Angelo de Santi. “Litany of Loreto”. . CatholicSaints.Info. 24 July 2013. Web. 6 May 2015. <>