For centuries, the ancient Gregorian chant Tota Pulchra has been the joyful hymn with which the Church, and in particular the Franciscan Order, greets Mary, calling to mind the Mystery of the Immaculate Conception. This hymn of veneration, from the Church’s lips, expresses the devotion of mankind before the spotless and pure beauty of Our Lady.
The Church’s liturgical practices provide an authoritative source of theology and Divine Revelation, for it is an expression of the three sources of theology: Sacred Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. An early teaching of the Church’s Magisterium is seen in her liturgy, when she prays for the conversion of poor sinners, who may be under the impression that they can save themselves without the mediation of the Church. The Church teaches definitively that salvation comes entirely at God’s initiative, but that we must also cooperate with this unmerited grace. From the earliest days of the Church’s ancient liturgies, supplications are being offered up for the salvation of poor sinners.
Tradition is also of essential importance in the Church’s liturgy in order that the law of prayer may support the law of faith. In fact, the liturgy itself is a powerful source of Christian truth. As the Catechism (1124) teaches,
The Church’s faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere to it. When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith received from the apostles — whence the ancient saying: lex orandi, lex credendi. The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays. Liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition.
The doctrines of the Church concerning Mary are especially supported by Sacred Scripture as well. For example, the belief in the Immaculate Conception associated with the line “Tota Pulchra es…” is taken from the Song of Songs 4:7. Also, the Church’s liturgy for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception presents to us a text from Ephesians, which reads:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, …, as He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before Him.” (1:3-6). The Latin Vulgate text actually reads, “… ut essemus sancti et immaculati in conspectu ejus…” — “… to be holy and immaculate in His sight…”.
As early as the 4th century certain verses from the Song of Songs dealing with the bride were applied to Mary. The antiphon Tota Pulchra was first documented at this time, composed of verses from two books of the Old Testament containing “types” referring to Mary. Typology is a form of written prophecy used in the Old Testament which applied to persons, events, or things in the Old Testament prophetic meaning which prefigured, and thus served as a “type” of, the fulfillment of God’s plan in the New Testament. St. Augustine coined the ancient phrase, “The New lies hidden in the Old, and the Old is fulfilled in the New”, referring to types in the Old Testament and archetypes in the New Testament, the realities to which the types pointed. St. Irenaeus from the second century already saw in Eve a type of Our Lady, the New or Second Eve.
The Church especially saw Marian richness in the Song of Songs’ imagery. The early text of the Tota Pulchra antiphon opens with a verse from Song of Songs, accompanied by a verse from the book of Judith:
Tota pulchra es, amica mea,
Tu gloria Jerusalem.
By the 14th century, the word originalis, which makes reference to original sin, was inserted by Franciscan theologian Blessed John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), who successfully explained and defended the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Thus the text makes explicit the popular belief that the Virgin Mary was entirely pure from the very beginning, completely free from all sin, Original and actual, and thus worthy to bear the Christ Child — the God-Man.
Tota pulchra es, amica mea,
et macula non est in te…
Tota pulchra es, Maria. Et macula originalis non est in te.
Franciscan theologian St. Lawrence of Brindisi, who was a Scripture scholar and an expert in the Hebrew language, confirms the belief the Virgin Mary ever being completely free from original sin by presenting the Hebrew text of this verse: “The Hebrew reads: the stain not in you — without the verb is. The statement the stain not in you means that the stain never was, is, or will be in you. Thus it must be understood as not limited to the present tense only. Hence it is written: you — all fair, my love; and the stain — not in you. The singular for you is used: (and not) You all (Tota Tu) — not in you; this denotes the uniquely singular grace of Mary.”
The Church has long used verses from the Old Testament to point to the Virgin’s predestined role in mankind’s redemption. The images of the Church and the Virgin were embodied in the maiden of the Song of Songs, as a type of the bride of God. St. Paul’s description of the Church is a reflection of what was believed in the Apostolic Age:
“that He might present to Himself the Church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that She might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27).
Mary is the mirror of what each of us would have been without sin. Therefore, the Church prays “through her intercession, we, too, may be cleansed and admitted to [God’s] presence.” The role of Mary towards the People of God is a supernatural reality which is active and fruitful. As Mother, she has the task to reproduce in us the spiritual features of her Son. Her role as Mother, entrusted to the human race by her Son at the Cross, is reflected in the person of Judith. In her beheading Holofernes, the enemy of Israel, we recognize the “type” of Mary crushing from the first instant the serpent’s head, the enemy of the human race (cf. Gen. 3:15).
The Tota Pulchra teaches us that Mary is the source of joy and glory, not for her own self, but for all people. Like Judith, Mary is a force to be reckoned with, prophesying the downfall of the proud and arrogant and lifting up the lowly. Nothing can stand in the way of God’s plan for His People, and Mary becomes an instrument of that completion.
Although the first three centuries of Christianity placed its emphasis on veneration of martyrs, early Church Fathers, such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons, began to articulate and write about the Virgin Mary and her role in salvation history. The first references in prayer and liturgy to the Virgin Mary and her Immaculate Conception are found in the writings of Hippolytus of Rome:
“He was the ark formed of incorruptible wood. For by this is signified that His tabernacle was exempt from putridity and corruption.”
With the Edict of Milan, Christians were free to worship openly, and the veneration of martyrs gave way to a further developing veneration of the Blessed Mother which existed already in Apostolic times.
Alongside the Fathers and Doctors of the Faith in the 4th century, St. Ephrem, known for his theological writings and homilies, also composed hymns and prayers for the Church’s liturgical celebrations. His Carmina Nisibena clearly affirms that Mary is the most beautiful creature, who brings to light “the fairest of the sons of men,” Jesus Christ. With her Son, Mary holds the primacy of beauty: “You alone and Your Mother are more beautiful than the others, for there is no blemish in You, nor any stains upon Your Mother.”
Although the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception was not clearly defined, since Mary’s sinlessness was not yet connected to her virginity, the Tota Pulchra became popular after the Council of Ephesus. As religious belief and devotion grew, so too did devotion specifically to the Blessed Mother, of which this hymn depicts. The early text of the Tota Pulchra, set to Gregorian chant notation around the 8th century, became well known in central Italy, Poland, and Hungary.
However, understanding that the Immaculate Conception as Mary’s “fitness” to be the Mother of God continued to be debated throughout the Middle Ages. The Blessed Virgin’s perfect redemption which, from the moment of her conception, preserved her from original sin, “prepared a worthy dwelling for Your Son,” and “endowed with the rich fullness of Your grace, You might prepare a worthy Mother for Your Son and signify the beginning of the Church, His beautiful Bride without spot or wrinkle.” This privilege is connected to our redemption by her Son.
A feast of the Conception was celebrated long before the solemn proclamation: the 8th century in the East; 9th century in Ireland; and the 11th century in England. These feasts are evidence of the traditional veneration of Mary’s spotless holiness, which Blessed Pope Pius IX’s definition only reaffirmed and defined dogmatically.
The Franciscan Order
Next to the person of the Crucified, St. Francis and his first followers were most devoted to the blessed Mother. Among the manifestations of that devotion, best known is the determination with which the Order championed the cause of the Immaculate Conception. Centuries before it was declared a dogma, St. Francis introduced devotion to Our Lady and her Immaculate Conception. At the 2nd General Chapter of 1219, he decreed that a Mass in honor of Our Lady be celebrated every Saturday in all the houses of the Order, unless a feast of high rank takes precedence.
It was St. Bonaventure, as Minister General, who introduced the Feast of the Immaculate Conception into the Franciscan Order in 1263 and directed that a special hymn, Tota Pulchra, be sung to Mary, since she is Queen of the Seraphic Order and because the focus of the hymn reflects the Order’s mission to defend the Immaculate Conception.
The Feast was extended to the Western Church in 1476; it became a holy day of obligation in 1708. The feast continued to be simply the Conception of the Blessed Virgin until the definition of the dogma in 1854.
In 1863 the Feast was given a proper Mass and Office, and in 1879 Pope Leo XIII accorded it a Vigil.
Development of the Complete Hymn
Similar to the development of the Hail Mary, the second part of the Tota Pulchra was added onto the Old Testament verses by early Franciscan tradition.
Tu advocata peccatorum. O Maria!
Tu advocata peccatorum. The Church teaches us that God “… placed her above all others to be for Your people an advocate of grace and a model of holiness.” Through Christ, God’s plan for the salvation of the human race has been accomplished in Mary. She continues, in glory next to her Son, to be our advocate and powerful intercessor.
Virgo prudentissima. St. John Henry Newman wrote, “She is not only the great example of the contemplative life but also of the practical; and the practical life is at once a life of penance and of prudence, if it is to be lived well…. Always vigilant, guarded, fervent, able to act in the best possible way in the varying circumstances each day, denotes a life of untiring mindfulness. Of such a life, Prudence is the presiding virtue. It is through the pain and sorrows of the Virgin Mary’s earthly pilgrimage that we are able to invoke her as Virgo Prudentissima.”
Mater clementissima. We learn from the Seraphic Doctor, St. Bonaventure, that,
This love of Mary for us has not diminished now that she is in Heaven, but it has increased; for now she better sees the miseries of men. Great was the mercy of Mary towards the wretched when she was still in exile on earth; but far greater is it now that she reigns in Heaven.
Several examples are contained in Holy Scripture of Mary’s Mercy and her quickly bringing His Presence to others, such as to Elizabeth in her need as well as to the couple at their wedding feast at Cana.
Ora pro nobis. Intercede pro nobis.
Ad Dominum Iesum Christum.
Ora pro nobis, intercede pro nobis ad Dominum Iesum Christum. The privileges of Mary were given her by God, Who willed to send His Son to be born of a woman. Pope Leo XIII explained that “[N]o man goes to the Father but by the Son, so no man goes to Christ but by His Mother.” Thus, the Church pleads that she who is “conceived without sin, pray for us [to our Lord Jesus Christ] who have recourse to thee”.
The Ejaculation in Honor of the Immaculate Conception. The ejaculation in honor of the Immaculate Conception concludes the Tota Pulchra. Pope Pius VI, by a Rescript of November 21, 1793, at the request of the Seraphic Order, granted to all the faithful, in order to increase the fervor of their devotion to the great mystery of the Immaculate Conception, an indulgence of 100 days, every time they say with devotion the following ejaculation:
In conceptione tua, Virgo Maria, immaculata fuisti:
ora pro nobis Patrem, cujus
Filium Jesum de Spiritu Sancto conceptum peperisti.
Since the 14th century, the Tota Pulchra in its present form has been widespread. Still today, throughout the Franciscan Order, the Tota Pulchra is sung every Saturday and during the Novena of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Moreover, the Franciscans of the Immaculate sing the Tota Pulchra after Lauds every day!
Use in the Liturgy of the Church
In February 1477 Pope Sixtus IV established the Feast of the Conception of the Virgin Mary for the City of Rome, giving it a proper Mass and Office. The first Office was written by Leonardo Nogarolo, followed by the Officium Conceptionis Virginis Mariæ composed by Bernardino Busti in 1492. This Office prescribed that, during Matins, instead of the eighth responsory, the Tota pulchra was to be sung: “Tota Pulchra es, Maria! Et macula originalis non est in te!”
This cry of admiration from the Church’s lips, expresses the devotion of mankind, wounded and under the weight of sin, before the spotless purity of Our Lady. From all eternity God has chosen Mary to be the Mother of the Word Incarnate. He endowed her “with the abundance of all heavenly gifts poured from the treasury of His divinity that this mother, ever absolutely free of all stain of sin, all fair and perfect, would possess that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity than which, under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater, and which, outside of God, no mind can succeed in comprehending fully.”
As we have seen, the Popes, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, modern scholars, Christian art, and the liturgy of the Church all bear witness to the “pre-announcement” of Jesus Christ, Redeemer of Mankind, and His Mother Mary, the Immaculate Coredemptrix, contained in Genesis 3:15.
Genesis 3:15 is an extraordinarily rich verse. Not only does it clearly prophesy Jesus Christ, our Redeemer, and Mary, His Mother, but it also serves as the scriptural basis for the Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, and for the doctrine of Marian Coredemption. Moreover, the Scriptural text of Apocalypse 12 depicts Mary as the Woman triumphing over Satan. This Woman eventually became the favored way of depicting the Immaculate Conception that, along with the verses from both the Song of Songs and the Book of Judith, provided the basis for the Tota Pulchra.
Mary’s Beauty Reflects the Holiness of God
Because Mary is without spot or stain of original sin, she perfectly reflects the holiness of God. She is All-holy, Panagia, and therefore is All-beautiful, in perfect obedience to the Will of God. Consequently, the Tota Pulchra and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception invite us to look at Mary, the model with which the Church prepares herself to live the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word. By her kindness and obedience, Mary restored the beauty man had lost and brought forth a new beauty: Jesus Christ, Who, from the Cross, designated His Mother Genetrix of the sons and daughters of the Church, in order that, together, they may praise and glorify the one same mystery. True beauty is summed up in the image of the Cross, by which sin is destroyed and the disciple is given the possibility once more of entering into communion with God, supreme Beauty and fount of all beauty.
In a General Audience held on August 31, 2011, Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI spoke about the universal human response to beauty as reflected in a sculpture, a painting, a poem or a beautiful piece of music. He said that it is “something bigger, something that speaks, capable touching the heart, of communicating a message, of elevating the soul. How many times, then, can artistic expressions be occasions to remind us of God, to help our prayer or the conversion of the heart.” If something beautiful like a song or piece of art can do this, then even more so the most beautiful of all God’s creatures, the Immaculata can draw souls to God. “In Mary Immaculate, a mother resplendent with beauty, the transparency of God’s love, we contemplate in all her beauty and holiness the reflection of the Beauty that saves the world: the beauty of God resplendent on the Face of Christ. In Mary this beauty is totally pure, humble. O Immaculate Mother, help us to let ourselves be attracted by your immaculate purity. Your beauty Tota Pulchra, as we sing today assures us that the victory of love is possible.”
Thus, true beauty is always united to holiness. The “All Holy” Mother of God, the “Panagia” in Greek, is also the “All Beautiful — Tota Pulchra” Immaculate Virgin Coredemptrix. It is the exterior manifestation of interior perfection. The saints celebrated the beauty of Mary with both stupendous words and poetic images, which amounted to saying nothing in comparison to her beauty. Recalling the many times the Virgin Mary has appeared to an individual or groups of persons, how did each respond?
To Juan Diego, she appeared as a beautiful girl with tan complexion and bathed in the golden beams of the sun, and called him by name, Juan Diego! On Mount Sous-Les Baisses, at La Salette, the children reported seeing a beautiful lady weeping bitterly. At the Lourdes Grotto, Bernadette Soubirous saw only the Blessed Virgin, and she was more beautiful than ever! To the Fatima children, she appeared as a beautiful lady brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal glass filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun. St. Maximilian Kolbe addressed the all-beautiful one, Who are you, O Immaculate Conception? St. Faustina writes in her Diary, I saw the Mother of God, unspeakably beautiful. She said to me, ‘My daughter, what I demand from you is prayer, prayer, and once again prayer’.
In each of the above examples, we see the Tota Pulchra, Honor of our Race, Advocate, Virgin Most Prudent, Mother of Mercy. Our response? The Church provides the response: “Tota Pulchra,” “Intercede for us to your Son.” This joyful hymn with which the Church, and in a particular way the Franciscan Order, greets Mary, the glory of Jerusalem and the joy of Israel.
 Brother André Marie, “Lex Orandi—Lex Credendi,” April 18, 2009, https://catholicism.org/lex-orandi-lex-credendi.html.
 Wikipedia, German version.
 Fr. Andres B. Rañoa, Jr., OFM, “A Hymn that honors the Blessed Virgin Mary,” https://ofmphil.com/tota-pulchra-es-maria.
 Novena to the Immaculate Conception. Day 6 Meditation, from the Writings of St. Lawrence of Brindisi (1559-1619).
 Collect: Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.
 “Novena to the Beauty of Mary,” https://nunspeak.wordpress.com/2011/11/29/tota-pulchra-es-maria/
 Email from Fr. Jim Sabak, OFM
 Orations Inillud, ante A.D. 235
 Psalm 45:2
 Fr. Luca M. Genovese, “Mary, Mirror
of Divine Beauty in Saint Ephrem the Syrian,” January 14, 2017; cf. Song of Songs 4:7
 Email from Fr. Jim Sabak, OFM
 Collect: Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
 Preface: “The Mystery of Mary and the Church,” Liturgy of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
 St. Bonaventure, Leg. Mai. IX
 Heribert Holzapfel, “History of the Franciscan Order: Influence upon Ecclesiastical Liturgy and Religious Devotions,” par. 45
 Email from Fr. Jim Sabak, OFM
 Pope Sixtus IV —reigned 1471-1484
 Pope Clement XI — reigned 1700-1721
 The Carmelites supported the Franciscans in their upholding of the dogma.
 Pope Pius IX
 The first part of the Hail Mary is taken from the Gospel. The second part began as an outcry during the Black Plague of 14th century Europe, officially recognized after the publication of the Catechism of the Council of Trent, then as a full prayer included in the Roman Breviary of 1568.
 Comprised of early-known Marian titles, which came to be part of the Litany of Loreto, approved by Pope Sixtus V, OFMConv., 1587.
 Preface: “The Mystery of Mary and the Church,” Liturgy of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
 John Henry Cardinal Newman, Blessed Art Thou Among Women: Meditations on Mary, pgs. 59, 60.
 MT 5:7; cf. Ps. 103:8.
 Quoted by St. Alphonsus Ligouri, “Mary’s Charity Toward Her Neighbor,” The Glories of Mary.
 cf. Marian antiphon Beata Mater et intacta Virgo, gloriosa Regina mundi. Intercede pro nobis ad Dominum, Magnificat antiphon, Officium parvum B.M.V.
 Pope Leo XIII, Octobri Mense: On the Rosary, 1891, par. 4.
 Email from Fr. Noel Muscat, OFM.
 First Antiphon, Vespers, Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.
 Pope Bl. Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus: The Immaculate Conception, 1854, par. 1.
 Fra Gabriel M. Mesina, FI, “Christ and Mary Revealed in Genesis 3:15,” Missio Immaculatae International Magazine, 2017.
 Ibid., Mesina, FI.
 Buffer & Horner. The Art of the Immaculate Conception, pages 192-195. Accessed from ecommons.udayton.edu/marian_studies/vol55/iss1/11.
 Fr. Luca M. Genovese, “Mary, Mirror of Divine Beauty in Saint Ephrem the Syrian,” January 14, 2017.
 “Pope Benedict XVI Affirms Beauty, Revealed in Art and Music, is a Path to God”, accessed at https://www.catholic.org/news/international/europe/story.php?id=42635
 Pope Benedict XVI, accessed at http://aquinasactusessendi.blogspot.com/2013/12/0315-reflections-on-solemnity-of.html.
 Fr. Stefano M. Miotto, FI. “The Beauty of the Immaculate,” Missio Immaculatae International Magazine, May/June 2016, pgs. 3-4.
 St. Faustina Kowalska, Divine Mercy in My Soul (Marian Press: Stockbridge, MA 2014), n. 325.