Both Wylkynson’s choice of Assumpta est Maria in celum as the cantus firmus of this setting of Salve regina and its nine-part scoring link the work to the Feast of the Assumption, Eton College’s patronal festival.
In the choirbook each of the voices is named after one of the nine choirs of angels, and the position of a voice in the earthly choir is reflected in that of its associated angelic order within the celestial hierarchy. In ascending rank, the orders are: Angels, Archangels, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Dominations, Thrones, Cherubim and Seraphim.
The connection between the Feast of the Assumption and the nine choirs of angels may be found in The Golden Legend by the thirteenth-century writer Jacobus de Voragine, which was published in English by William Caxton towards the end of the fifteenth century. This was a very popular source of miracle stories, particularly ones about the Virgin. There we read that: ‘The heavens received this day the blessed virgin, the angels were glad, the archangels exulted, the thrones sang, the dominations made melody, the principalities harmonised, the powers harped, cherubim and seraphim sang extollings and praisings, and so brought her with great thankings and lauds unto the seat of the divine and sovereign majesty.’ This narrative was also the inspiration for the Assumption scene painted on the south wall of the nave of Eton College chapel, which would have been clearly visible to those present when Wylkynson’s antiphon was sung.
The symbolism is further illustrated by the fact that the Tenor, the part carrying the cantus firmus, has a range of nine notes, and is named after the Powers. In the theology of the time, this order of angels was believed to have the ability to resist evil spirits. This shows the extraordinary influence attributed to the Virgin in the theology of late medieval England.
SSATTTBarBB, 30 pp, 7 × 10 in.
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