John Gayford considers the Marian antiphons to be sung after Compline


Salve Regina and her three companions are often called the Marian Anthems or Antiphons. They are:


  • Alma Redemptoris Mater (‘Gracious Mother of our Redeemer’) which is sung through Advent and Christmas until Candlemas.
  • Ave Regina caelorum (‘Queen of heaven we hail you’) which is sung from Candlemas to Maundy Thursday. It is customary not to sing it again until Easter (but the antiphon can be said even kneeling.)
  • Regina caeli laetare (‘O Queen of heaven be joyful’) sung through Easter-tide until Trinity Sunday.
  • Salve Regina mater misericordiae (‘Mary we hail you Mother and Queen compassionate’) which is sung from Trinity Sunday until Advent.


The terms ‘antiphon’ and ‘anthem’ come from the same etymological root, with ‘anthem’ being the anglicized version of the word ‘antiphon.’ Perhaps they should be called the final antiphons of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Antiphonae Finales B.V.M) as they are most usually sung or recited after Compline, the last office of the day (now often called the Night Office). They are extended Marian antiphons, longer than those for psalms and canticles on Marian feast days. In addition Salve Regina has been used as the antiphon for the Magnificat at St Gall. As such they do not form part of the original church office, but were added to the breviary later, contributing to the liturgical and mystical meaning of Mariology. In reality, Marian antiphons are included in other Marian liturgy. Salve Regina is the flag ship and possibly the oldest of the Antiphonae Finales B.V.M., with manuscript evidence from the eleventh century. As such it has sailed majestically through the Middle Ages ahead of its flotilla of other Marian antiphons. This gave rise to the liturgical genre of Salve ceremonies. It could include a procession to a Marian shrine, statue or altar with an added versicle and response and possibly a collect. Sprinkling with holy water may be added before retiring. In monastic houses where the choir was not visible from the main body of the church this became popular. The Dominicans were renowned for this extra liturgy with the possibility of the procession being led by acolytes and/or members of the community carrying candles. A specifically Dominican feature could include the singing of O Lumen Ecclesiae (the antiphon for the Magnificat for the feast of St Dominic) as they once again left sight of the congregation. 

The four principal Antiphonae Finales B.V.M. are sung in rotation throughout the liturgical year. In 1350, Pope Clement VI included the Marian anthems for use in the Roman Office but the custom did not become obligatory until 1563 under Pope Pius V who also gave them their seasonal pattern. The Breviary of Pius V in 1568 made it obligatory to recite Salve Regina after Compline and after Lauds on Sundays from Trinity to Advent. From 1884 to 1964 it was also required that it was said after Low Mass.

Historically, other antiphons have been used instead of the above. The most noted and by far the oldest is Sub tuum praesidum (‘Under your protection’). The Marian antiphons are examples of charming Marian piety expressed in elegant Gregorian chant. There is evidence that the Marian antiphons have been use to teach pious children both a love of Mary and of Latin, as is recounted by the tragic story told by the Prioress in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Mary is addressed with love and warmth as both queen and mother. It has now become customary to sing any of the four Marian antiphons at any time of the year.

Regrettably the origin of the Salve Regina is obscure with more legend than substantiated historical fact. It is hard to decide if some of the antiphons used in the Salve liturgy were composed for the purpose or were taken from antiphons that had been used for the Magnificat or other Marian material in previous liturgy. Some can be traced back to the ninth century. 

The Sub tuum praesidium was for many years thought to be of medieval origin, but in 1917 the John Rylands Library, Manchester, acquired a fragment of Greek text that has been identified as a very early version (third or fourth century) of what is known in Latin as the Marian antiphon Sub tuum praesidium.

A number of suggestions have been made as to the composers of the Marian antiphons, including Athanasius, John Damascene, Petrus Martinez de Monsoncio (Bishop of Compostela 986–1000) and St Bernard of Clairvaux, but we have to admit there is little foundation. St Bernard is reputed to have added the words ‘O Clemens.’ Much attention has been paid to Hermannus Contractus as the author of both the Salve Regina and the Alma Redemptoris and, although it would seem he had the ability, the hard evidence is lacking. Hermannus Contractus: ‘Hermann the Lame’ or ‘Cripple,’ and also known as Hermann of Reichenau (1013–54). In spite of his physical infirmity, he was educated at the monastery of Reichenau on a small island in the western part of Lake Constance, an important centre of culture when St Gall was still insignificant. He later entered the community and was a renowned scholar on a wide range of subjects including mathematics, music chronology and astronomy. Added to this he was a gifted poet so he was assumed to have had the ability to write both the Salve Regina and the Alma Redemptoris. In 1096, Adhemar, Bishop of Le Puy, who had been a knight, was given permission to lead the First Crusade, and it is reputed he composed the Salve Regina as a song to the Queen of Heaven as a marching song asking for her protection. As such it was called the ‘Anthem of Le Puy.’

There is evidence that the Salve Regina had been introduced into the liturgy at Cluny by 1135, where it was sung in procession and also used as an antiphon to the Magnificat and even to the Benedictus on Marian feasts. The use of the Salve Regina as an antiphon to Our Lady after Compline was started by the Dominicans in 1221 and rapidly spread to other religious orders. The various religious orders had a number of different melodies for the Salve Regina and they have their own distinct way of using the antiphon. The Franciscans sang all four Marian antiphons after Lauds and Compline, while the Carthusians used them after Lauds and Vespers. Premonstratensians sang the Salve Regina each morning in procession from the Chapter House to the Choir. The Servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary (now known as the Servites), founded in 1233, sang the Salve Regina after each office and after meals. To give the Salve Regina greater honour the Carmelites began their singing on their knees except on festivals. They also lit candles before the statue of the Virgin Mary where the liturgy took place. Most orders did not sing the Ave Regina Caelorum on Holy Thursday and Good Friday but said it instead. By 1328 the Carmelites were singing Salve Regina after every canonical hour and after Mass. There was a time when they used the Salve Regina instead of the Last Gospel at the end of Mass. The Cistercians reflect St Bernard’s love of Mary and are known to have sung the Salve Regina after compline at Clairvaux since 1251, but they may have sung this at Citeaux before that. Nevertheless it was the Cistercians who popularized the custom of greeting Our Lady at the end of Compline.

The use of the Salve Regina was not confined to monastic use: secular use was both private and public. Most ‘Books of Hours’ contained the Salve Regina and sometimes other Marian antiphons. How frequently the Salve Regina ceremony or liturgy took place in parish churches varied a great deal. It might be sung on a Saturday evening before a statue of Our Lady or an altar dedicated to her. In addition it might be sung on the vigil of feasts dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Candles would be lit and there would be a procession. Wills have been found where money was left to pay for the candles and even the singers, that the donor might be remembered at the Salve liturgy. Guilds were formed sometimes with their own chapels to support the Salve liturgy and chaplains appointed with a stipend, so that Marian masses could be said on a regular basis. 

The Salve Regina, like the other Marion antiphons to be sung after Compline, is well served by the melodies in Gregorian chant, as they have been sung through many centuries. There are minor musical variations as sung by the different religious orders, both simple (in cantu simplici) and solemn formats. The simple are the best known and more widely used and probably the oldest. As would be expected, the solemn formats are musically more complex or ornate and require higher expertise of performance but are well worth the effort. The best known are to be found in Antiphonale Monasticum as used by the Benedictines. Fine recordings of all these antiphons are available, both of the simple and solemn format, usually sung by religious communities. There are musical Gregorian chant versions of these antiphons in English both in the simple and solemn format (as published in The Monastic Diurnal Noted) but these are not so commonly used and therefore less well known than the original Latin. The text of these ancient antiphons has undergone many different translations into English. Latin scholars may prefer to make their own and others with a good Latin/English dictionary can be critical of some of the existing translations. Polyphonic musical versions especially of Salve Regina have been composed in various formats.

The Society of the Holy Cross (Societas Sanctae Crucis: SSC), founded in 1855 by Fr Charles Lowder and other Anglican priests, has endeavoured where possible to sing the simple version of Salve Regina in Latin as the final farewell to a brother priest at the end of his funeral requiem. Salve Regina is a fitting way of ending one’s days and life, with a sense of Mary’s role in salvation history both personally and collectively. The words of these antiphons require some reflection as to their theology, perhaps despite their fond familiarity.

Fr John Gayford is a retired priest.


Suggested further reading:

Crichton, J.C., Our Lady in Liturgy, Columbia Press, Dublin, 1997

O’Carroll, M., ‘Salve Regina’ in Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopaedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Fowler Wright Books Limited, Leominster, 1986. 


Gregorian Chant versions of these antiphons can be found in Latin in Antiphonale Monasticum published for the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes in 1934. English Gregorian Chant versions are found in the Monastic Diurnal noted by Winfred Douglas for St Mary’s Convent Wisconsin in 1952.


‘Salve Regina, mater misericordiae’

We greet you, Queen and merciful mother, and greet our life, our solace and our hope. 

Eve’s banished children call to you. We long for you, we mourn and weep in this vale of tears. So, therefore, turn towards us your compassionate gaze as our advocate. 

And when this our exile is over, show us Jesus, your blessed child.

O our gentle, reconciling and dearest Virgin Mary.


‘Alma Redemptoris mater’

Bountiful Mother of the Redeemer, abiding as the highway into heaven and the sea’s guiding star, who comes quickly to aid the fallen, struggling to rise: the world was astonished you were to bear your holy Creator when, Virgin first and last, Gabriel’s lips pronounced his greeting, have compassion on our sins.


‘Ave Regina caelorum’

We greet the Queen of the heavens, greet the Lady of the Angels; hail O source, O doorway through which the Light was born. Rejoice, O glorious Virgin, beautiful above all other; fare you well, most gracious, and intercede for us with Christ.


‘Regina caeli’

Queen of heaven, rejoice, alleluia: because he whom you were worthy to bear, alleluia, has risen just as he said, alleluia: pray for us to God, alleluia!


‘Sub tuum praesidium confugimus’

Together we hurry to your protection, holy Mother of God: do not despise our prayers in our need: but free us always from the threat of danger, glorious and blessed Virgin.


Sub tuum praesidium confugimus, sancta Dei genitrix: nostras deprecationes ne despicias in necessitatibus: sed a periculis cunctis libera nos semper, Virgo gloriosa et benedicta.