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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Stabat Mater: Working through the Unimaginable

Placing a song from Hamilton. The Musical (2015) beside a Latin prayer may seem obtuse. The line ‘he is working through the unimaginable’ is from the song ‘It’s Quiet Uptown is about the the American founding father, economist and politician Alexander Hamilton grieving after his son is killed in a duel. On Saturday, perched in the Grand Circle of the Palace Theatre Manchester I watched and heard it performed with tears streaming down my face. It is *that* moment where there would be a rare dry eye in the theatre. It was for me particularly cathartic as it was 9 years to the day that I had learnt that Emily, my 6 day old baby was so brain damaged, she could not live. My husband and I made the decision to let family say goodbye, then stay with her until she breathed her last. It is, of course, a different kind of grief for a child. But the song reminded me of how I listened to a musical setting of the prayer Stabat Mater repeatedly, usually numbly in bed, at other times groaning in physical and mental pain.


When I came home from hospital without Emily, my foreshortened pregnancy left a tiny body to mourn, with stitches and leaking fluids from what seemed like everywhere in my own body. When she died, the unseen scars from being ‘barren’, having had years of infertility treatment, then being bereaved of an unexpected baby mingled into each other. During my early grief, my weeping body seemed a physical expression of these scars. I was the personification of the abject – messy bodily fluids and mental anguish othered (according to feminist theory) by a patriarchal privileging of ‘clean’ dry bodies. I could not think or say what I felt, could just absorb. I listened to a musical setting of Stabat Mater by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) continuously for the first few weeks after Emily’s death, it seemed to articulate the feelings that I couldn’t.

Painting of a dead man being mourned
Andrea Mantegna, Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1483)

Pergolesi wrote this setting while he himself was dying of tuberculosis at the age of 26. The intensity of the text, sung by a counter tenor and mezzo soprano so the tone of the voices are ungendered, is underlined in an almost parodic manner by his music. This thirteenth-century prayer in Latin, translated as Mother Standing, imagines the feelings of Mary, Jesus Christ’s mother, watching her son be crucified. The Latin text draws out the agony of the mother’s suffering as she watches her son die so horribly. It begins ‘stabat mater dolorosa’ or ‘the mother stood grieving’. The text uses different Latin words and derivations of them for weeping (lacrimosa, gementem, fleret), sorrow or grief (dolorosa, doloris, dolebat, lugeam) and mourning (moerebat). Occasionally I listened to Vivaldi’s setting in F Minor, sung by a contralto, in which parts of Quis est Homo (who is the man who would not weep) are seemingly whispered – at least in the version I listened to. And who is the man (and woman) who would not weep on seeing Mantegna’s depiction of Mary weeping over her dead son in his painting in the Gallery Brera Milan?


The French feminist Julia Kristeva used Stabat Mater as a text through which to think around the maternal body, loss of identity for women after motherhood and physical love for a child.[1] It was first published in French in 1977 and, when I could think again, I sought it out from amongst my papers, vaguely recalling that it explored how maternity changes female identity. Kristeva is most famous for identifying the abject, or its idea, as an oppressive concept. It was not just the loss of Emily that haunted me but the loss of my identity as a woman unable to physically have children. It had taken me a long while to come to terms with that and to recognise my grief for my imagined children. Now I was no longer an infertile woman who had become an adoptive mother, then an unexpectedly expectant woman. I was both bereaved and a mother, with one child to mourn and another to look after. On reading it. I realised that part of the issue was that I was not sure who I was. I lay in my bed leaking blood, milk, and tears. My breasts were tied with a bandage and I was still bleeding heavily from the birth. I embodied an abject form of motherhood and was drenched in self-loathing.


In Stabat Mater the grieving mother stands for hours watching her son die, despite the taunting crowds. While Emily was alive, I did not care about the effects of her birth on my body but sat on a hard plastic chair by her incubator. My body had been literally torn apart and it was painful to sit upright. On advice from the midwife who had visited, S hired a donut cushion for me to sit on when our son was at home so I could be with him. When he was out, I lay on my bed next to my old cat, who stretched himself alongside me. Outside my bedroom, the happy festivities for Christmas mocked me. That raw pain manly ebbed away within 6-8 weeks but there are times, even now, when it clutches me again. Sometimes I need to let go of the world and lean into it: to admit the abjection, the pain, the raw emotion into my body and mind again. And normalise tears and weeping fluids over dry eyes and bodies.

[1] Julia Kristeva, trans & ed. Toril Moi (1986), ‘Stabat Mater’, The Kristeva Reader, Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 160-186.

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