Grafting the vine: Liturgy, pilgrimage, and the compassion of Mary at Vadstena Abbey

by Michelle Urberg

One of Sweden’s vibrant, yet relatively unknown, sacred musical traditions can be traced to the late-fourteenth-century abbey at Vadstena, the Ordo Sancti Salvatoris (more commonly known as the Birgittine Order). Over the past year, I delved into the archives at Uppsala University and trekked to Vadstena Abbey itself to understand how these traditions developed and why they became so important in Sweden’s musical and religious history. I came to this project because of my interest in the Birgittine Order and its musico-devotional traditions, but have continued to be sustained by surprising intersections between Birgitta’s reform-minded theology and the veneration of the Virgin Mary’s Compassion that developed at Vadstena in the century after her death.

The Order’s namesake Heliga (Saint) Birgitta (c. 1303-1373) has long been Sweden’s most famous saint. Her prominence can be attributed, in part, to her long list of accomplishments and ability to wield influence over tenuous political situations. In her lifetime she was wife of Swedish nobleman Ulf Gudmarsson, mother of eight children, receiver of many significant mystical texts, an extremely influential visionary intent on reforming contemporary clerical and aristocratic politics, and founder of the Birgittine Order.

The rule for the Ordo Sancti Salvatoris, called the Regula Salvatoris, was relayed to Birgitta in a vision in which the Lord responded: “I will plant a new vineyard for myself, where vine branches will be brought to take root [...] From this vineyard, many other vineyards will be renewed, which have been arid for long, and they will bear fruit after the day of their renewal.” The deteriorated vineyard is suggestive of Birgitta’s loci of reform: the political upheaval within the Swedish monarchy and within the Roman Papal circles. Those called to tend the new vineyard were the sisters and the brothers of the Birgittine Order. Each fulfilled a specific role in this vineyard. Provisions in the Regula state that the sisters were to contemplate the Virgin Mary and her veneration of Christ, while the brothers were to preach Birgitta’s reforms to the laity in the vernacular. The sisters and the brothers were also called to live out their missions through their daily liturgical music.

Birgitta did not compose the liturgy used in her order — that task was left to her confessor, Petrus of Skänninge — but the emphasis on establishing a new vineyard with the sisters and the brothers as moral exemplars is mirrored in how the liturgy developed at Vadstena. The Birgittines sing two liturgies each day: the Cantus Sororum (or “Song of the Sisters) for the sisters and the liturgy for Linköping Diocese for the brothers. By using the liturgy of the local diocese, the brothers shared their devotional practices with the lay community, the aristocratic members of which recieved reprimands from Birgitta. The shared worship experience was a convenient platform for them to preach Birgitta’s reforms to the errant members of the laity. Meanwhile, the Cantus Sororum reflected the contemplative role of the sisters. The Cantus Sororum was composed by Petrus with texts that weave together the events of the Virgin Mary’s life with well-versed themes associated with Salvation History. For example, on Friday the sisters simultaneously explore the suffering and death of Christ on Good Friday, along with Mary’s own death and Assumption into Heaven; on Sunday they rejoice in the Creation and the Trinity, while also celebrating Mary as the ideal mother. These themes facilitate the sisters’ daily contemplation of Mary’s role as the second Eve, sent to redeem humanity. In these liturgical venerations of key moments in Mary’s life, such as the Conception, the Annunciation, the Compassion, and the Assumption, the Birgittine sisters symbolically emulate Mary’s life every week.

The vineyard Birgitta sought to establish was successfully grafted onto the late-medieval Swedish society and beyond. This can be seen in the musico-devotional materials dedicated to venerating Mary’s life and the compassion she felt for her suffering Son. The earliest music at Vadstena for Mary’s Compassion was integrated into the Friday liturgy for the sisters; however, during the first half of the fifteenth century the Linköping liturgy acquired a new Office and Mass for the Feast of the Compassion of Mary (celebrated most often on Friday or Saturday after the third Sunday after Easter). In addition to venerating the Compassion of Mary in the liturgy, the brothers also wrote sermons for the Feast of the Compassion. The secular community almost certainly learned about this feast through the liturgical material for the Feast of the Compassion or sermons about Mary’s life. The attraction of Mary’s life and compassion to the aristocratic laity was born out in their pilgrimages to Vadstena Abbey in the hope of increasing their piety.

Evidence of the Swedish aristocracy’s involvement with the Birgittine Order can be traced to Birgitta’s lifetime, when she persuaded the King of Sweden Magnus Eriksson (Magnus IV) to donate the land for Vadstena Abbey on the shores of Lake Vättern. However, when the Birgittine Order began to flourish during the fifteenth century, wealthy laity from across Europe engaged themselves with the devotional practices at Vadstena Abbey. They sought out Vadstena for the purpose of walking the path of fifteen devotional stations dedicated to what the Virgin Mary saw and felt as she followed Christ from his last days to his ascension. Each station included a devotional image depicting the Road to Calvary to be accompanied by several short prayers, including one specific to the station with a particular word to meditate on, such as CENAT, he ate or ADORAVIT, he prayed. The fifteen devotional stations in the Vadstenian Way are similar to the more commonly-known devotion, the Way of the Cross; nevertheless, they are different in their foci. The former begins with the Last Supper and ends with the Ascension, while the latter begins with Christ condemned to death and ends with his body being placed in the tomb.

Moreover, the fifteen stations are clearly focused on Mary’s life and how she meditated on Christ’s last days and rejoiced in his ascension, instead of focusing solely on Christ’s suffering.

Birgitta sought to renew the ailing vineyard through the Birgittine Order. Many of her desired reforms

within the Swedish aristocracy and the Papacy were not realized in her lifetime. However, the popularity of the Vadstenian Way in the years following the cultivation of Mary’s Compassion in the liturgy and the sermons at Vadstena is a testament that her mission was, at least in part, realized by later generations of Birgittines. Vadstena became a fruitful spiritual vineyard, offering models of piety for those willing to undertake the journey to see it.

During one of my trips to Vadstena, I attempted to trace the path pilgrims might have taken around the cloister grounds. This was possible because the remnants of several stations still remain at Vadstena Abbey, nestled in the walls of the churchyard garden, and because of excavation work done by scholars like Sune Zachrisson. If the grounds of fifteenth-century Vadstena were anything like they are today, this could have indeed been a powerful walk for a pilgrim: while meditating on vibrant images of Christ’s last days with the Marian prayers of the Vadstenian Way, the impressive stature of a cloister church dedicated to the Virgin Mary stood nearby. We can only speculate if the daily liturgies of the brothers and sisters could have been heard by the pilgrims in the churchyard, but it is appealing to think that the sounds as well as the sights invigorated the senses and inspired the hearts and minds of the pious to meditate with Mary on the death of Christ.