...Say the 'Agnus Dei...' at Mass?

By Paul Stenhouse, MSC PhD

AGNUS DEI' is latin for 'Lamb of God'. In the Mass, this ancient prayer of petition occurs at the 'fractio corporis' or the 'breaking of the body of the Lord,' when the priest breaks off a small part of the consecrated Host and puts it into the chalice, with the Precious Blood.

The complete phrase is 'Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us' (repeated once) and then 'Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace'.

The term was first used of Jesus by St John the Baptist when he saw Mary's son, and his cousin by the Jordan river. 'Look,' he said, 'there is the Lamb of God; it is he who takes away the sins of the world'.1


A NEW power has suddenly appeared, a power which it is impossible yet to judge fully, but which is certainly a wholly different force from middle-class liberalism; different in its cardinal points of belief, different in its tendencies in every sphere. It loves and admires neither the legislation of middle-class Parliaments, nor the local self-government of middleclass vestries, nor the unrestricted competition of middleclass industrialists, nor the dissidence of middle-class Dissent and the Protestantism of middle-class Protestant religion. I am not now praising this new force, or saying that its own ideals are better; all I say is, that they are wholly different. And who will estimate how much the currents of feeling created by Dr Newman's movements, the keen desire for beauty and sweetness which it nourished, the deep aversion it manifested to the hardness and vulgarity of middle-class liberalism, the strong light it turned on the hideous and grotesque illusions of middle-class Protestantism, - who will estimate how much all these contributed to swell the tide of secret dissatisfaction which has mined the ground under the self-confident liberalism of the last thirty years, and has prepared the way for its sudden collapse and supersession? It is in this manner that the sentiment of Oxford for beauty and sweetness conquers, and in this manner long may it continue to conquer!

- Matthew Arnold, [1822-1888]. Son of the great Dr Arnold of Rugby, he was an outstanding literacy critic.

The early Christians followed John the Baptist's lead and saw, in the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb common amongst the Hebrew people, a foreshadowing of the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo

The earliest known liturgical use of the phrase, and its repetition, is to be found in the well-known hymn of praise Gloria in Excelsis Deo,2 which pope Symmachus (498-514 AD) made obligatory throughout Christendom at all Masses celebrated by bishops.

A council held in Constantinople in 692 forbade the use of the image of a lamb to represent our Lord, and insisted that he be represented in human form.3 This is a testimony to the ancient practice of representing Jesus on the cross by a figure of a lamb, placed at the intersection of the two pierces of wood that make up the cross - one of the earliest forms of a crucifix that has come down to us.

Pope St Sergius I (bishop of Rome from 687-701 AD) a Greek-speaking Syrian from Antioch, would not accept the canons of this council because it had been called for the express purpose of flaunting the political power of the Byzantine empire, and of putting Constantinople on an equal footing with Rome. It was this same bishop of Rome, pope St Sergius I, who ordered that at the time of the breaking of the Lord's body just before the Communion at Mass, the 'Agnus Dei' should be sung by priests and people.

There is ample evidence that by the ninth century the prayer was sung by the choir alone.4 And long before the year 1000 the three-fold 'Agnus Dei' was the custom throughout the Catholic Church.5

Dona Nobis Pacem - Grant Us Peace

Pope Innocent III (1160-1216 AD) declared6 that the reason the third petition was changed to 'dona nobis pacem,"grant us peace' was because of the terrible sufferings that the Church had to endure at the time, hundreds of years before, when the wording of the third petition was changed.

When we say this familiar prayer at Mass we would do well to remember Pope Innocent's words, for they put into perspective the distress we feel on the eve of the third millennium, at the opposition to the Church's teaching and authority on the part of so many of our contemporaries.

In some places, during the Middle Ages, the 'Agnus Dei' was also sung while Holy Communion was being distributed and until the recitation of the 'Communion verse'.


A.D. 838. The Danes landed in the port of Southampton with thirty- three ships, with great confidence and pride; but count Ulfward having slain many thousands of them in a pitched battle, compelled them to depart with disgrace. But the same year, not long afterwards, the same pagans landed at Portsmouth, and began to ravage the country. And when the news got abroad, duke Ethelhelm met them with the men of Dorset, and put them to flight; but using his strength inconsiderately, he advanced with his men without sufficient regularity, and so was slain by the enemy.

Now then, since we have come to that great and horrible calamity which, on account of their sins, was inflicted by means of the Danes on the English nation, it may be well to explain briefly to our readers the cause of this disaster, that it may serve as a caution to future ages.

In the primitive church of the Angles religion shone most brightly, so that kings and queens, princes and dukes, counts and barons, and rulers of churches, being all inflamed with the desire of life in heaven, vied with one another, as we have already shown, in seeking a monastic life, a spontaneous banishment, a life of solitude, and left all to follow their Lord. But, in process of time, all virtue decayed so much in them, that no nation appeared equal to them in treachery or fraud. Nor was there anything hated by them except piety, and justice, and honour. Nothing was dear to them except wars, worse even than civil wars, and the spilling of innocent blood. Therefore, Almighty God sent against them pagan nations, most cruel people, like swarms of bees, who spared neither the sex of women nor the age of infants, namely Danes and Norwegians, Goths, Swedes, Vandals, and Frieslanders, who, destroyed this sinful land from sea to sea, and from man to beast. Since, though they were constantly invading England from all quarters, they did not labour to subdue it or to become master of it, but only to ravage and plunder it. And if they were at times defeated, the English gained nothing by that, as a more numerous fleet and army came from some other quarter unexpectedly and suddenly. Forsooth, while the English kings were marking to the eastern side of the kingdom to fight them, before they could reach the hostile battalions, a messenger would hasten up, saying, "0 king, whither are you going? Behold now a countless fleet of barbarians is occupying coast on the southern part of the kingdom, and ravaging the cities and towns, and laying waste with fire and sword every thing that it can meet with." And just in the same way, similar news would come from the east, or west, or north, and despair the natives of all hope and safety. And thus the kings, distracted with bad news and evil messages, went forth with cowed spirits, and entered on a doubtful contest against the invading enemy. And the consequence was, that sometimes the English were victorious, and sometimes the enemy.

- Flores Historiarum, possibly by Matthew of Paris, 1200-1259, the most famous latin chronicler of the thirteenth century.

'Trimmin's7 on the Agnus Dei

Additional petitions were often added to the 'Agnus Dei' in mediaeval times. An ancient Mass book to which Cardinal John Bona (1609- 1674) refers8 contains the following beautiful variations which we have taken the liberty of translating:

Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi,
crimina tollis,
aspera mollis,
Agnus honoris,

Miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi,
vulnera sanas,
ardua planas,
Agnus amoris,

Miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi,
sordida mundas,
cuncta foecundas,
Agnus odoris,

Dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,
who bears our faults,
who comforts our sorrow,
Lamb of Honour,

Have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,
who heals our wounds,
who smooths our paths,
Lamb of love,

Have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,
who washes us clean,
who makes all things green,
Lamb of sweet odour,

Grant us peace.

Wax images of the Agnus Dei

A wax medal bearing the image of the 'Agnus Dei' - the Lamb seated on the ground, looking towards the right, and bearing a cross-shaped standard of victory - is said to have been among the gifts that pope St Gregory the Great (590-604 AD) sent to Theodelinda, queen of the Lombards.

And one was found in the tomb believed to be that of Flavius Clemens, an early Christian martyr, cousin of the emperor Domitian (51- 96 AD), under the famous basilica of San Clemente in Rome, opposite the Colloseum. It seems to have been placed in the tomb in the seventh century when the remains of the martyr were moved.

Some beautiful wax 'Agnus Dei's dating from the eighth and ninth centuries still exist, and one, allegedly belonging to the emperor Charlemagne, is among the prized treasures of Aix-la-Chapelle.

I have in my possession three wax 'Agnus Dei's, one of which certainly dates from this century, bearing on one side the papal Tiara and on the other the image of the lamb. It was issued by Pope Pius XI in 1930. The other two which appear to be much older, have been worn smooth by being handled but upon all three the image of the lamb is clearly visible.

A legend preserved by Robert of Mont St Michel, and recounted by Cardinal Bona9 describes a woodcutter working in a forest who had a vision of our Lady in the year 1183.

The Blessed Virgin gave him a medal with her image on it, and the image of her Son, Jesus, with the words 'Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem' engraved upon it. She ordered the wood-cutter to take the medal to the bishop, and tell him that all who truly desired peace for the Church should have medals like these made, and wear them.

What a beautiful suggestion for the third millennium: modern images of the 'Agnus Dei' to remind us all of the prophetic words of St John the Baptist; and of the sacrifice that our Lord offered for us on the cross; and to fulfil the request of our Lady to that wood-cutter in 1183.

  1. i,29.
  2. Watch later issues of Annals for a discussion of this beautiful hymn.
  3. Canon 82. The council was known as the 'Trullan,' because it was held in a domed room called a 'trullus'.
  4. See Ordines Romani, I, II and III - the ancient Mass books of the Roman Church dating from the sixth century.
  5. See Edmond Martene (1654-1739) De Antiquis Ecclesiae Ritibus, vol.i,iv,9.
  6. de Sacro Altaris Mysterio, 1,4,p.910 in the Migne ed.
  7. Trimmings - a word familiar to lovers of the poetry of Monsignor Hartigan, whose 'Trimmin's on the Rosary' is well known.
  8. de Rebus Liturgicis, ii,16.
  9. op.cit. ii,16.

From "Annals Australasia" August 1998

Portal to all Annals Australasia and Dr Leslie Rumble files


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